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January 1981 · Vol. 10 No. 1 · pp. 3–9 

Reflections on Contemporary Mennonite Brethren Worship

James N. Pankratz

During the last several years there has been a significant increase in interest in public worship among Christians in North America. It is present among Roman Catholics who continue to work out the implications of Vatican II in their liturgy and church design and who are tremendously influenced by the charismatic movement. It is true among Episcopalians and Anglicans as they become familiar with the revised American prayer book of 1977 and seriously reconsider issues like infant baptism. It is true among Evangelicals who, more than any other Christian group, have used and been influenced by television in developing a “program” approach to worship. It is present among Mennonites who are attracted by the appeal of “programs” as well as by the dynamism of the charismatic movement and who recognize the need to have a caring and disciplined fellowship within which gifts are expressed and burdens are shared.

The reasons for this interest in public worship are many. For many Evangelical churches there has been a great influx of new members during the last two decades. People who have been drawn into local churches have brought with them new expectations and needs. Older patterns of worship are not necessarily meaningful to those who have not been nurtured in the lifestyle of the church.

Another factor has been the plurality of North American lifestyles. Many church members have fellowshipped in groups other than their own, and ideas from one context are often transported to another because they seem attractive or because they “work.” This has frequently led to worship becoming a smorgasbord of elements from various Protestant traditions with little theological coherence. This is vividly reflected in Protestant church architecture.

Another factor in the renewed interest in public worship is the influence of television. As in many other areas of our lives, television has changed our standards and our expectations. Television is not a medium for the meek. It exalts extroverts. Public worship on television {4} is confident and assertive. It makes us expect a high level of projection and authority from preachers, and augments the tendency in our music toward performance. This is reflected in the posture of the performers, in the use of electronic amplification (even in a church of only 100 people), and in the expectation that music sung in this way deserves applause, regardless of its message, whereas choral music generally does not.

How have Mennonite Brethren reacted to this situation? Do they share the contemporary interest in public worship? Do they reflect the current fluidity of traditions and forms which characterized much of North American worship?

To get a clearer understanding of the present situation among Mennonite Brethren, I surveyed about forty congregations in Canada and the United States. The questionnaire which was sent out asked about worship content, form, planning and basic direction. The responses came from rural and urban churches and from large and small congregations in both the United States and Canada. Although the results of the survey can not be used to make precise quantitative claims, they suggest some trends and concerns. The following generalizations focus on Sunday morning public worship. Individual congregations have specific strengths and weaknesses which are not identified here.


It is clear that we are people of the sermon and the song. Respondents overwhelmingly identified the sermon as the central part of worship because it is “the occasion on which God speaks through his messenger to our congregation.” The sense of God speaking through a preacher is very strong among us. The centrality of the sermon is indicated by the time allotted to it in the worship service. The sermon was given one-third to one-half the time in nearly all services.

Music is nearly as important. Most services are liberally sprinkled with music by congregation, choir, and other groups. Music often involves one-third of the service. The importance of music is also indicated by the fact that in most churches the planning for worship includes the pastoral staff and the person responsible for musical leadership. It is assumed that music needs to be integrated into the main thrust of the worship.

Yet despite the centrality of music in our worship, our expectations of it are very modest. Most respondents commented that music helped to set an atmosphere, that it permitted participation, that it provided inspiration. Some regarded it as a means of transition from one worship activity to another. Few regarded it as having any teaching function. It {5} seemed to be valuable for its emotional rather than for its cognitive power. It is more an adjunct than a part of the “message.” Because of this the comments about music related almost totally to style rather than content, to form and function rather than to substance.

Despite the fact that we are a people without a formal liturgy, the basic structure of our services is very similar. The first half of the service is a variation of several items which allow some active congregational participation: singing, prayer, welcome, announcements, offerings, perhaps a Scripture reading, and perhaps a testimony from a member of the congregation. The second half of the service is the sermon, followed by a song and the closing prayer. This form of service suggests, intentionally, that the focus of the worship is the sermon and that other items are preparatory or otherwise necessary for the other activities of the church. This basic order of service is very common among evangelical Protestants.

The survey also indicated a great difference in utilization of Sunday evenings for worship. In some churches Sunday evenings are now rarely used for worship, although occasional services will be held for celebration of the Lord’s Supper and for hearing special reports on projects in which the church has an interest. In other churches Sunday evenings are frequently used for presentation from visiting schools, missionaries and para-church agencies. This time is understood to be a time when the church can be encouraged and informed of the larger work of the kingdom of God. There continue to be churches which use the Sunday evening as a scaled-down version of Sunday morning. Usually the sermon is a little shorter and the singing a little longer. Finally there are those churches which have been greatly influenced by the “body-life” emphasis. These use their Sunday evenings to promote sharing and mutual encouragement through testimonies and prayer.

Altogether, the variation of emphasis on Sunday evening suggests that this is the service in which the particular character of the local congregation is most clearly expressed.


The survey asked church leaders, “If you could arrange the worship activity of your congregation in any way that seemed best, using any amount of time and any appropriate forms of expression, what would you do?” The respondents overwhelmingly identified the need for more time for worship and more congregational participation in worship.

Many churches already have begun to add fifteen minutes to the public worship hour, and the added time is usually given to singing {6} and sharing. Church leaders identified various forms of congregational participation which they hoped to encourage, more sharing, more singing, response to the sermons and more time for prayer were most frequently mentioned. Interestingly, no respondent suggested that one way to increase congregational participation would be to increase the amount of lay involvement in preaching.


Many of our church leaders are placing a great deal of emphasis on restructuring the Sunday morning worship. There are many experiments taking place: placing the sermon at the beginning of the service and having the rest of the service flow as a response to the sermon, having the adult Sunday School hour after the service so that the content of the sermon can be the subject for group discussion, using various media to communicate the message, and changing the physical context of worship to encourage personal interaction. All of these efforts could easily be dismissed as trivial, since they merely deal with the form of worship. Yet we need to remember that worship is embodied in a form, and the form which it takes communicates the content, the Gospel. It does this poorly or it does it well. We are struggling these days to find a form which will accurately and powerfully transmit the Gospel as we understand it.

What we do in worship is significantly affected by the size of the congregation. Large churches which responded to the survey inevitably stressed the need for structure and order in worship. If congregational participation was regarded as a priority, it was structured into the worship very carefully and intentionally. In large churches the congregations usually had special programs and occasions for informal sharing and caring. In contrast, small churches more freely structured the mutual ministry of church members to each other into their Sunday morning worship. They also encouraged the spontaneous expression of Christian experience within the context of the worshipping community. In fact, leaders of small churches often commented that this sharing was one of the most significant means of witnessing to the reality of God in their lives and that visitors were immediately impressed by this aspect of their churches.

One startling reality in Mennonite Brethren worship is our very limited use of Scripture. In many worship services Scripture is used only as a “Call to Worship” and as the text for a sermon. Some churches used at least one additional Scripture reading in the past, but this became so closely identified with the sermon that it was gradually incorporated into the sermon itself.

Not only has our use of Scripture decreased significantly, but our way of using Scripture has changed. We allow it to stand on its own {7} only in the “Call to Worship.” On other occasions we explain its meaning and application. We do not seem to be confident that God’s Word can speak to our congregations without our explanations of what it means. It is surely not a coincidence that when we say that God will speak to us through His messenger, we mean the preacher, not the Scripture.

I am convinced that we need to revive the use of Scripture in our worship. Scripture is able to speak clearly and powerfully on its own. Some of the Protestant “high” church traditions have maintained a much stronger emphasis on Scripture, including at least two Scripture readings during each worship service. In fact their “daily offices” consist almost entirely of Scripture reading.

We may also need to come to some agreement on the particular translation of the Bible which we will use for public worship within our own congregation. We may need to teach people to read Scripture properly, just as we teach them to preach. But if these measures help us to regain our sense of the power of Scripture, they will have been worthwhile.

Just as Scripture has decreased in importance in our worship, so has prayer. Prayer prior to the worship service and during it used to be very important. The pre-service prayer meeting has almost completely disappeared, although some congregations have begun to restore it. A general time of congregtional prayer within the service has mostly disappeared as well. The reasons are pragmatic rather than theological: there is not enough time, one cannot hear what people are saying, some people dominate the time every week. Now prayer is often used as a way of introducing various parts of the program; there is an opening prayer, a prayer before the offering, and perhaps a prayer before the sermon. Prayer has become so functional that we have lost our patience and ability to pray silently. Fortunately we seem to retain our appreciation of prayer in our celebration of the Lord’s Supper. We need to transfer some of that to our weekly public worship and learn to pray corporately.

Church leaders and many church members expressed great concern for our lack of preparation for corporate worship. We have no program structures, like the older pre-service prayer meetings, to help prepare us and most of us lack the discipline to prepare ourselves. Some churches are able, through tradition, liturgy, or architecture, to stimulate a focus on God within the church. Some churches have prayer books which provide guidance for their members in the days preceding public worship and which focus worship during the service itself. Though some of our members discipline themselves, we have no such systematic resources to help them prepare for worship. And we actually allow little time for such preparation with our tight scheduling of Sunday morning activities. {8}

Much could be done. Some evangelical churches are experiencing tremendous renewal in their worship as they recognize the enrichment that comes when all members prepare for the corporate worship. In some congregations all of those involved in public ministry, including the choir, are included in a time of intensive Bible study and prayer as they prepare for their ministry. The congregation can be prepared as well. One section of the bulletin could include Scripture, hymns, poems, prayers, and a summary of some of the major concerns in the life of the church. Time could be allotted for reading and prayer before each service, and the importance of preparation could be taught.

If this were done, members of the congregation could begin to think of themselves much more as the participants in worship than as the spectators at a program. Surely this would be consistent with the biblical teaching of the nature of the Church gathered together in the name of Christ.

This has implications for how worship is planned within a congregation. Responses to the survey indicated that in most of our congregations worship is planned by salaried church staff and one or two representatives from the music leadership. Some churches have begun to use worship committees made up of pastoral staff, music leadership, and some lay members of the congregation.

If the worship committee functions essentially as an expanded program planning committee, it seems to have little advantage over a smaller group composed only of church staff. However, if the worship committee understands its function more as discernment of the needs and gifts of the congregation, then it can contribute significantly to the life of the church. It can suggest long range needs of the congregation which can be met through corporate worship, and it can help to identify those within the congregation who can help to minister to those needs. The detailed planning for worship should probably remain the responsibility of a few, but the sense of direction should be shared as widely as possible.

The assumption behind this is that the congregation is being led in worship. The congregation is not an audience before whom worship is being performed. In many of our churches the language of “audience” is replacing the language of “congregation.” We have been critical of such developments in Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity, and we should be critical of such developments within our own church. It is true that congregations need leadership in worship. But those who lead in worship too often become the major actors rather than the prompters of the drama. In worship we are all the actors and God is the audience. We are bringing our needs and our praise to Him.

Our churches reflect considerable diversity and some confusion on {9} this issue. In most churches where there are about one hundred members there is still much lay involvement in providing leadership for worship. As churches grow there is substantially less involvement, even though the potential resources for it have obviously grown. There may be considerable lay involvement in other areas of the church, but public worship becomes more and more the domain of church staff. Most church members become the audience in this central activity of the church.

All of these problems are exacerbated by the growing demands placed on the Sunday morning public worship of our churches. This worship time is increasingly becoming the only time when the whole congregation is gathered together. There is, therefore, great pressure to make it as attractive, challenging, helpful, and informative as possible. The congregation needs to be inspired, convicted, committed, encouraged and taught. There needs to be enough substance to sustain the congregation for a week, for most of them will only return to the church the following Sunday.

Many congregations have recognized that this pattern of church participation places impossible expectations on one hour of church activity, and they have tried to supplement the public worship with a wide range of programs of study, sharing and nurture. Such programs can be very helpful for the lives of Christians and for the corporate life of the congregation. But they do not diminish the need for corporate worship practised in a way that brings honour to God.

Our worship is authenticated by our obedience, not by its attractiveness, just as our commitment to the first commandment, to love God, is demonstrated by our obedience to the second, to love our neighbour. Both Old and New Testaments remind us that our worship involves being living sacrifices. Although these reflections have focused on the corporate worship of the church gathered together on Sunday morning, they must be understood within the larger context of a believer’s church of obedient servants of God who honour Him as much when they are active in their profession as when they sing to Him in their local church.

Dr. James N. Pankratz is Academic Dean at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College, Winnipeg, Manitoba, and teaches a course in Christian worship.

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