Transforming Worship: Communal, Experiential, Formative

“For worship to be as glorious as it should be, for it to lift people out of their mundane cares and fill them with adoration and praise, for it to be the life-changing and life-defining experience it was designed to be, it must be inspired by a vision so great and so glorious that what we call worship will be transformed from a routine gathering into a transcendent meeting with the living God.” – Allen Ross

For the last fifteen years I’ve had the privilege of leading worship for the Transforming Center, a retreat ministry that specializes in spiritual formation for leaders. Participants gather quarterly to experience substantive teaching on themes and practices related to spiritual formation. The Transforming Center represents a growing movement of pastors and leaders who are realigning their church’s priorities around discipleship.

There is an urgent need today for church services that are more spiritually substantive. In recent decades the church has failed to make spiritual formation a priority, and the results have been devastating. The church is to be commended for making outreach and evangelism high priorities, but we have done a poor job of discipling and assimilating new believers into the life of the church. Gregory Jones laments that today’s church leaders and their congregations have been so inadequately formed in their faith that they cannot live the Christian life in all its fullness. Jones further observes that those who join mainline Protestant churches these days are not required to make any changes to the way they live; neither are they given the resources to implement such changes.

The church’s inattentiveness to spiritual formation has too often resulted in nominal Christians who experienced a spiritual awakening when they came to the Lord (and perhaps a certain degree of life change), but they are no longer on the journey toward radical transformation in Christ.

Thou Shall Not Mess with Worship!

I am well aware that any talk about making adjustments to Sunday services makes church leaders nervous. One pastor told me that he was willing to hire a different worship leader and raise thousands of dollars for a new sound system but that he wouldn’t dream of introducing changes to the actual service. “Mess with Sunday morning at your own risk!” he sternly warned, as if brandishing an eleventh commandment. His foreboding admonishment was gleaned from painful experience. I completely understand such apprehension. I’ve seen enough worship wars during my lifetime to heighten my trepidation about tampering with the service. My fears are allayed, however, by the fact that transforming worship has nothing to do with a certain style of music or method of worship. Nor am I promoting a particular genre of musical praise. I’m not saying that music and methodology are not important, but those are peripheral, ephemeral issues, not substantive ones.

Worship styles change, music evolves, but biblical precepts regarding worship do not change with the times. The principles in this book, therefore, apply to all churches—mainline, nondenominational, independent, charismatic, liturgical, spontaneous, traditional, or contemporary. Instead of advancing a new, trend-setting philosophy of worship, I’m appealing to the modern church to return to a biblical vision of gathered worship as a formative spiritual practice.

After learning what the Bible says about worship, some churches might decide to make sweeping changes to their services. In those cases, I trust that leaders will explain the rationale for those changes based on biblical precedence rather than some innovative initiative about church growth or cultural relevancy. However, after reading this book I believe most churches will make significant but more subtle, incremental changes. That’s because the main elements of a transforming worship service are already in place at every church but need to be emphasized or treated not as slots to fill in a worship order but as potentially formative elements. As we shall see, activities that Christians have been doing together since the beginning—things like prayer and Bible reading—were originally designed for the purpose of edification. Approaching these activities as well as the entire service more mindful of spiritual formation will inevitably produce changes. However, those changes will benefit all involved.

Achieving a transforming worship service need not be a painful experience for leaders or laypeople. In the long run, congregation members will discover that a more formative approach to worship enhances their Sunday morning experience.

What is Transforming Worship?

I define “transforming worship” as a communal experience that combines classic spiritual practices with a formative encounter with God in Christ through the Holy Spirit. Notice, first, that it’s communal; it is something we do in the company of others, in partnership with God’s people. It is also experiential; the bulk of the activities are not designed for people to sit back and watch but to join in and participate. Transforming worship draws from traditional Christian disciplines such as prayer, Scripture reading, confession, the Lord’s Supper, and baptism, all of which the church has been practicing since its inception. The assumption here is that every major part of the service, not just the sermon, can be spiritually formative.

At the heart of this entire experience is an encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ. Transforming worship does not seek to evoke a feeling or deliver teaching but to encounter a person. The ultimate goal is for worshipers to encounter the life-altering, character-shaping presence of God. I believe that transforming worship can play a pivotal role in stemming the tide of nominal Christianity. The urgency of the situation demands that our church services take on a more spiritually formative role. In other words, it’s time to mess with the service to bring it in line with its original design as a spiritually formative practice.

Transforming Worship is geared to all those responsible for making Sunday services happen: pastors, worship leaders, volunteers, and lay leaders. I hope this book encourages you, rejuvenates you, and proves helpful as you seek a more formative approach to Sunday services. May the Lord bless you as you continue to faithfully serve those you lead every week in worship.

© 2021. Adapted from Transforming Worship by Rory Noland. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.

New Transforming Resource Transforming Worship: Planning and Leading Sunday Services as If Spiritual Formation Mattered by Rory Noland. Button: Order the book

Close up of photo of wooden church doors and antique door handles. Text reads: And join author, Rory Noland at the next Becoming a Transforming Church retreat. Click to learn more.

Rory Noland

is Director of Heart of the Artist Ministries and has served as worship leader for the Transforming Center. He is the author of: The Heart of the Artist, Thriving as an Artist in the Church, The Worshiping Artist, and Like We're Already There: Worship On Earth As It Is In Heaven. Rory served for twenty years as Music Director at Willow Creek Community Church and is a composer, song writer, and speaker.
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Hi, Rory. I’m so glad to hear about your new book! It could be a great help in finding ways to plant more seeds at my church. As the Associate Pastor I’m not in a position to commit the church to becoming a Transforming Church but I can keep introducing elements that prepare the way. I can’t wait to read your book.

I miss having you lead worship at the TC retreats but I’m so thankful I got to be part of a community while you were still there & that at least we can still worship with some of the music you composed & wrote especially for TC. In that way the Lord continues to bless TC through you. Blessings & gratitude, Maiya (TC9 & 16)

Thank you for such heartwarming words, Maiya. It’s so good to hear from you. I’d love to hear your thoughts about the book after you’ve read it. Thanks again!

Ah, Rory. I often reflect on the gift you brought to my TC experience. Your music carried the learning and experience of the retreats on its back long after I returned home to Louisiana. Still today, I find myself quietly singing your music and it rekindles memories and teaching and more. And now I receive news of your new book with gratitude. What an addition to the TC catalog of resources. I look forward to hearing your insights on transforming worship. My love to you all!

Thank you, Michael, for such kind and encouraging words. Always great to hear from you. May the Lord continue to bless you and your ministry.

I kept wanting to stand up and say, “Exactly! Yes! Please!!!!” Thank you for this clear articulation of something I long for and miss dearly.

You are so welcome, Joahna. Love your passion!

I appreciate this article and look forward to reading the book. “Transforming worship does not seek to evoke a feeling or deliver teaching but to encounter a person. The ultimate goal is for worshipers to encounter the life-altering, character-shaping presence of God.” Amen.

Your insights provoke thought Rory! Moses discovered that being in the presence of God transforms from which he then carried God’s presence. True worship leads us to enjoy God and to carry His presence with us into our daily lives. Transformation everywhere our feet take us! I look forward to absorbing your book.

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