Thursday, February 28, 2013

Reaching the Next Generation Through Experiential Worship

We have been discussing in the last few posts what churches should do with young adults once they finally come to church. You can read those earlier posts here:
What to do when the next generation finally comes to church?
Using technology to reach the next generation
Using technology without losing a sense of the sacred
Using music - part one
Using music - part two
Using music - part three

In today’s post we want to discuss another hallmark of today’s postmodern young adults, which is that they are experience-oriented. They are not as interested in sitting in a classroom hearing about rock climbing as they are in actually climbing a rock wall. They are not as interested in learning about acting theory as they are in actually standing on the stage and performing. They are not as interested in reading about South America as they are in visiting South America, meeting the people, speaking the language, and eating the food. That today’s postmodern young adults prefer to be fully engaged in what they are doing has given rise to extreme sports and other experience-based adventures.

Many churches have struggled to keep young adults attending worship services because they oer little in the way of experiences during typical worship services. While some cutting-edge churches are experimenting with new kinds of worship, being a person that takes the Bible pretty much as it is written, I wonder if perhaps we should consider going back to the ancient ways of the early church instead of seeking some new experience. For example, in the early church, a large group did not sit and just listen to a person speak. They often interacted with the speaker and asked questions. Paul even had to address this in one of his letters to the church of Corinth because the question-and-answer time had gotten out of hand and begun to distract from the point of worship (1 Cor. 14:26-40). But Paul did not discourage the discussion-based lessons. Instead he gave directions for how to make them more eective.

Early worship also utilized the experience of communion much more frequently than many evangelical churches today. They actually passed a loaf of bread around the room on a regular basis, and each person broke o a piece and ate it. That is so dierent from the once-a-quarter prepackaged communion wafers some churches use today. Could we use communion as an experiential way to explain the gospel and holy living on a more regularly basis?

Baptism was a bigger experience in the early church than it often is today. The early church only practiced full-body immersion of adult believers. Full-body immersion of an adult believer is a much more powerful experience than a few drops of water sprinkled on the head of an infant, which is often how baptism is practiced today. Though I do not want to stand in judgment of any particular church’s custom and traditions, perhaps if people made their own choice to be baptized and we used this more experiential method, it might mean more to those being baptized?

In the Bible, the music was experiential. They clapped, they danced, they raised their hands, and they responded to God in worship with their entire bodies. That is so different than many churches today where the audience just sits and listens to the choir, the special music and the preacher.

Prayer was experiential in the early church. Jewish men raised their hands in prayer and rocked back and forth as they called out to God. There is very little prayer left in the modern church, and what prayer is done is often by one person and seems more like filler between two parts of the service than the calling out to God that it is supposed to be.

In the first century of the church, every aspect of worship was experiential. Somehow we have twisted worship into a program where we are spectators rather than being participants in an experience we have with the Creator of the universe. Young adults sense that program-based worship is lacking something significant even when they are unable to articulate what it is. We must return to biblical worship, which has a strong element of experience, if we hope to reach postmodern people. This does not mean we have to embrace some odd neo-modern experiences, we can simply return to more biblical models that are already in scripture. After all, the Word of God is relevant in all time periods to all cultures and all people groups. But we have allowed our own human culture to corrupt our worship. It we can shrug off our culture and return to the Bible, we may be surprised just how well it works to reach the next generation.
Adapted from Dr. Dorsett’s book, Mission Possible: Reaching the Next Generation through the Small Church, published by CrossBooks, a division of Lifeway Christian Resources.


  1. Loved this! Also loved the idea of interacting with a pastor's sermon. In liturgical churches that have weekly communion (Eucharist), the pastor only has about 5 minutes for a homily on the Bible reading, which sounds like what Jesus did in His hometown synagogue too. Today, however, many pastors go on and on and on, but oh! How relevant for the pastor to interact with church members during the sermon time. So, instead of sermonizing in the abstract, as often happens, each person could ask and see how to apply God’s word to their own situations or families and also to their church, community, and, indeed, the whole world. How powerful would that be!

  2. Thanks for your input Mary. So much good stuff to think about.