Worship: Should We Be Participants or Spectators?

I walked into the massive building, gleaming with steel and glass and bustling with people. From the brightly-lit entrance room, I walked into the dim auditorium. Neon lights illuminated the stage; fog machines generated a hazy aura. Stage workers scurried across the vast platform, hurriedly prepping for the big event. Suddenly, the house lights dimmed to darkness, the stage lights surged in brightness, and then it started…

It began with a whoosh of percussion and the twang of an electric guitar. The show was on! Most of the crowd stood to their feet in eager expectation. The music crescendoed as the band on the platform rushed into action. Triple screens at the front of the auditorium displayed a closeup of the vocalist’s hands gripping a mic. She started singing, with eyes closed and one hand lifted high.

I was in a megachurch on a Sunday morning. It was my first time to attend this church, so I was not totally sure of what to expect. When the music started, I stood up, since that’s what most of the people around me did. I wasn’t sure whether I should sing or not. The lyrics were displayed on the screen, but I didn’t hear anyone around me singing. I cast some sidelong glances at people’s faces to see if they were singing or not.

Couple to my left: no.

Girl in front of me:  no.

Guy behind me and to the right:  no.

Girl behind me and to the left:  barely singing…or was it just mouthing the words?

So, was this more of a concert than a worship service? I decided that I probably shouldn’t sing. No need to draw attention to myself. So I just stood there trying to feel reverent and look worshipful (even though I felt pretty awkward). The song transitioned into a more well-known worship song, and a few more people started mouthing the words…or singing. (I’m not sure.) It was hard to tell, because the volume on the music was turned up so loud.

I am still not sure whether I was supposed to sing or not in that worship service. Maybe it’s different in each worship service or concerts…or whatever they’re called. I guess it just depends on the church…or venue. But my quandary brings up a question that goes deeper than just whether or not I was supposed to sing or not.

Are We Worship Participants or Spectators?

It brings up a question of worship. In “worship,” are we supposed to be participants or spectators?

The concern addressed in this article is that many churches, regardless of their traditional or contemporary bent, cater towards a spectator mentality in the worship service. If it’s called a worship service, should there not be more worship going on? Sure, the spectator mentality may not be created intentionally, but it is happening, nonetheless.

How Does Spectator Worship Happen?

  • In Contemporary Churches. Often, contemporary churches create a concert atmosphere. From the style of the music to the construction of the building, there is a feel that is remarkably similar to a concert or a theater experience. In theaters and concerts, the audience is not required to participate in any integral way beyond swaying, laughing, or staying awake. Often, it’s the same way in these worship services. The band exhibits their talent and prowess. The people sitting in the theater seats listen.
  • In Traditional Churches. Many traditional services have hymn-singing by the “audience.” Often, however, the experience is one of reading the words or notation on the page, but not engaging in worship. Many traditional services have a choir that sings a song while the attendees listen. Other times, there is “special music” by a soloist or ensemble. The best part, of course, is the “offertory” where a talented musician plays his or her instrument during the passing of the plate and everyone listens to the performance.

Both models have advantages and disadvantages depending on the context. Yet both run the risk of catering to a spectator mentality in worship. And what’s the real problem with spectator worship? I submit that spectator worship is not true worship at all.

Three Problems with Spectator Worship

  1. Spectators tend to be disengaged. Disengaged worship is not true worship at all. When we become disengaged from the very focus of our gathering, and disengaged from the very Person whom we are coming to honor, we might as well not even be present. Showing up physically in worship is no substitute for being mentally absent.
  2. Spectators are prone to a consumerism. It’s pretty common to bemoan the “consumer mindset” in American Christian culture, so I’m not going to belabor that point. It is important, however, to recognize the fact that spectator worship is probably a symptom of the consumer mindset which has crept into our churches, and sadly our “worship.” Think about it. Is worship a consumer commodity? Yikes.
  3. Spectators tend toward an entertainment mentality. Worship is not the same thing entertainment. Unfortunately, the whole approach of much of our “worship services” is nothing more than entertainment with a Christian sheen. Does more fog, brighter spotlights, Bose speakers, and a better distorter mean better worship? Does the finesse of the choir director’s flourishing movements, the skill of the soloist, or the rapidity of the pianist’s arpeggios really constitute a better worship experience? Does it truly bringing more honor and glory to God if you play your violin or bass guitar with more skill than the next guy?

All three of these problems undermine true worship. In effect, then, it seems our whole culturally-constructed modes of worship actually distract from true worship. Can it be that our “worship services” are failing to meet the whole objective for their existence? Can it be that this is happening in your church?

This Sunday in a church near you…

Contemporary:  The worship leader calls for the audience to worship:  “C’mon now! Lift your hands up everybody! Can I hear you shout to the Lord now? Alright, put your hands together on this one! Let me hear it!”

Traditional:  The song leader calls for the audience to worship:  “Let us worship the Lord together. Please turn in your hymnals to hymn number 438. Let’s all stand as we sing. Standing, please, number 438.” 

Perhaps the best first-step to recalibrating our “worship”—becoming participants rather than spectators—is to define what worship really is.

So, what is true worship? Does it really consist of music? Does it really require a band playing worship songs? Does it mean that we raise our hands? Does it mean that we sing? Does worship even require a “worship service?”

  • If you are a leader in your church, you would serve your church well by discovering what worship is. Search the Scriptures for answers, not what other churches are doing. Try to pry your cultural fixations away from biblical truth about worship. Then, boldly and gently make the necessary corrections in your local church.
  • If you are not a leader, and have slipped into spectator mode in your church, you can still worship God regardless of what’s going on around you. Rather than react in frustration to the perceived lack of worship, you can engage in worship personally. You are free to worship God.

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  • I think you have some excellent points here. This is a subject I have written about and am deeply concerned. As you suggest, it is not a problem left only to the contemporary churches but mainline churches too.

    God must be the object of our worship. He seeks true worshipers (John 4) and we cannot worship him by proxy. I pray for more church leaders who will study, teach, preach and write on this subject. We need a grand revival of Biblical worship!

  • Earl

    We’ve said in our church several times (I don’t think it’s original with us) that how we think of worship can be mixed up.

    Perhaps in part because of the stage or chancel, we think of the pastor and song leaders as the performers, the congregation as the audience, and the tech people as the stage hands.

    But it’s the pastors and song leaders (and tech people) who are the stage hands. The congregation is the performer. The audience is God.

    Note that in those metaphors, only one involves God at all.

  • Ralph Pimentel

    Good articular, I would like very much if you can point me in the right direction on some books to do some more research on worship. I to will pray that the church of God would come back to the heart of worship and love Him for who He is.

    • admin

      Thanks for the comment, Ralph. Probably the best approach is to do a Bible study on the topic. Something as simple as a concordance and examining all the contexts of “worship” would be beneficial.

      Here are some books that we have found to be helpful. They range from scholarly treatments (E.g. Carson, Frame, Burroughs) to down-to-earth devotional books (e.g., Redman). For a comprehensive and readable treatment, start with Worship Matters.

      1. Worship Matters, Bob Kauflin.
      2. The Unquenchable Worshipper and Facedown, Matt Redman
      3. Whatever Happened to Worship?: A Call to True Worship, A. W. Tozer
      4. Real Worship: Playground, Battleground, or Holy Ground?, Warren Wiersbe
      5. Gospel Fear and Gospel Worship, Jeremiah Burroughs
      6. Worship: Adoration and Action, D.A. Carson
      7. Worship in Spirit and in Truth, John Frame
      8. Unceasing Worship: Biblical Perspective on Worship and the Arts, Harold Best.
      8. For All God’s Worth: True Worship and the Calling of the Church, N.T. Wright

  • Wayne A Heins

    The marketing and advertising of these types of churches call this a “Worship Experience” yet that is really an oxymoron expression in practice because they do not “experience” worship they watch it.

    Jesus called the 12 and those that came after them to be disciples not watchers. The Israelites were called out of bondage to live with worship always in the center of their camp. The watchers of their day were the heathen nations who saw them as peculiar. We would be better off if we were not popular and contemporary as much as we would be peculiar in a relationship where we each gave worth-ship to our God.

  • Barbara B

    I really needed this. As a song/worship leader
    I get discouraged that most of the small congregation prefer to only be spectators. They seem to want me to do it all. I’ve read the scriptures, materials, practiced, prayed, tried to focus up-ward more than outward. For some the music is not loud enough, for others the music is too loud. For some it’s not fast enough, for others it’s too fast. Some want to try new hymns, others want to stick to the same old few over and over and over again. Most of them won’t clap
    or raise their hands or even make eye contact! One Sunday I told them they could remain seated while we sang ‘Stand Up for Jesus’, and they all stood!
    I sometimes feel alone with the pastor and his wife as being the only ones who are at church everytime the doors are open.
    You wrote a great article. Timely for me.
    I will check into these books. What do they think worship is about? It’s almost like a slap in God’s face isn’t it?

  • Great article. I thoroughly enjoyed the read and the thoughts it provokes. Lately I find church attendance to be stifling and am concerned at my attitude. Worship has simply become form and ritual which is disturbing to say the least. I am glad to see this problem at least acknowledged. Any chance of a further article which offers some solution?

  • Nathaniel Rodriguez

    The “worship” that we are seeing is the result of “I” being the center of worship and not God. Nowadays converts “accept” Jesus and then expect God to do the repenting of what He planned to do to us…instead of repenting,(a breaking of our soul), and asking for God to accept us. The Gospel has been turned around and we expect to see the proper response. John the baptist and Jesus preached the Gospel of repentance but now it’s an offensive word.

  • Amor Aguelo

    We are expected to worship the Lord with all our hearts, with all our thoughts,with all our strength and with all our souls. God is seeking for worshipers who will worship Him in spirit and in truth. Thus, we must worship the Lord not just observe other believers worshiping the Lord.

  • Jessica

    This is an excellent article. When I was growing up in the 90’s our church displayed different forms of worship from just celebrating and exalting the name of the Lord without music, singing worship songs, and even sining songs from the heart. I do find that now churches rarely bring in this form of worship.

    I pray that in my local area that churches begin to rise up and celebrate and exalt the name of the Lord through heart-felt and spirit led worship, instead of a kind of worship that is for “entertaining” people. Let’s start entertaining the Lord through our personal worship, and stop the attempts of pleasing man.

  • graciano a. budoy jr

    your article is really an eye opener to all the church goers and worship leaders,but my question after reading this is, what is biblical type of worship for our churches today?

    • admin

      That’s the million-dollar question. What does true biblical worship look like? Obvious as it sounds, we’ve got to go back to the Bible. My suggestion is to engage an intense study of “worship” in the Bible. I believe this is a great starting point, not only for defining true worship, but also in making the necessary adjustments.