Serving Appetizers: Worship Services That Keep Their Promises

As a worship pastor, I am saddened to read polls reporting young people leaving our churches. True, this happens in each generation (remember the Boomer-angs who returned to church in the 1990s?), but how can service planners encourage the continued participation of young people within our churches?

One of the regular ways churches respond is to adopt a more contemporary style of music. But if you know two different teenagers, you recognize the disparity of musical preferences among young adults. And if discovering their preferences seems difficult, actually performing that music in church will seem impossible.

Yet I have been surprised by conversations I’ve had with actual students leaving the church. These students were not leaving the church because of outdated aesthetics; it is not that easy. Many of them leave because of disappointment with their local church; they have unmet expectations. And the saddest part is this: often the church is the one creating the very expectations that it cannot meet. We seem to be teaching our people to expect too much — at least in this current age.

Worship in the “Already” and “Not Yet”

As Christians, we live between the two comings of Jesus Christ. That is, we live in the tension between the “already” and the “not yet” aspects of the kingdom of God. And our worship services must acknowledge this perilous tension.

If we only acknowledge the “already” aspect of the kingdom, then our worship services will become ever-escalating spectacles of excitement, celebrating themes of victory and inevitable success. They will foster an expectation of triumphant growth as the church rules over the world. They will proclaim a victorious life, which their pastors seem to exemplify. Sermons exhort with practical imperatives but leave the descriptions of “how” nebulous. If worshipers had an exciting week, the “already” service affirms their experience. But if their week had more trial than triumph, they leave the service disappointed. And when the leaders are not as perfect as they appear, worshipers (especially the young) leave the church devastated.

Sorrowful, Yet Always Rejoicing

The tragedy of “already-only” services is that they downplay the realities of our still-fallen world — doubt, disappointment, and ongoing sin. One day, the Bible promises, we will see our Savior face-to-face and fully experience him directly. Today, however, is not that day. When our services imply that believers should experience this now, the church is creating expectations that it cannot meet. It is preparing its young people for disappointment.

But the answer is not for our services to exclude the “already” aspect of the kingdom, for acknowledging only the “not yet” aspect of this tension leads to its own set of problems. Those services create a bunker mentality. Christ’s pessimistic people prepare for a siege with lectures/exhortations to endure until Christ’s rescue.

Tasting and Feasting

Living between these polar aspects presents a precarious and disorienting dilemma. Christ is simultaneously the Lion who has conquered and the Lamb who has been slain. Theologian Michael Horton has long wrestled with this tension, and he uses the terms “tasting” and “feasting” to distinguish degrees of kingdom participation. Our services can only represent a sampling (tasting) of God’s kingdom, not the totality (feasting) of the promises.

In his book A Better Way, Horton writes, “While tasting is not the same as feasting face-to-face in our raised and glorified bodies at the Lamb’s wedding reception, it fills us with gratitude and hope.” Indeed, he says, “Heaven will not simply be an eternal version of one of our worship services. (Who would want to go?) Rather, it will be the real thing that our worship services — at their best — can only help us receive as a foretaste” (139).

Our worship services can never be the final feast, and thus our people will not leave our services completely full. May we not promise feasting when tasting should be our expected experience.

And as we eagerly wait, may God bless our efforts to prepare the appetizers.