What is Authentic Worship?

I am working on seeing how a 21st century, mainline, traditional congregation can receive new life by looking at the words of the ancient church.  I keep seeing, and hearing about, people who have left the mainline church for the big megachurches but who then come back because they want more tradition, more liturgy in worship.  One of the things I keep coming back to is developing a sense of authenticity in worship.  Like many of you I have heard about the importance of authenticity for postmoderns, as well as for others.  Folks in the pews (and in the pulpit) want to know what is ‘real,’ they want to know that what we are doing and who we are is genuine.  But that can be a slippery concept.  How do you define authentic worship?  What determines it?  What does/can it look like?


  1. Nice post Tom, the question of authenticity in worship is very important. I believe the crux of authenticity is in the definition of the particular context. In our particular congregation we have two seemingly different contexts, so authenticity is different in each service. For our earlier service, casualty, lack of formality, good (loud) music that may be playing on the Christian airwaves, and messages that are responsive and open to congregational interaction are important elements in its authenticity. In our second service, the people truly feel that worshiping God takes place for them in the acts of liturgy, hymns of old (and a few newer), good (not as loud) music, sermons delivered with conviction and challenge that come from scholarship and study, as well as moments of quiet and reflection.

    While I have noticed different churches implementing styles of worship such as Jazz vespers, Taize, meditative and reflective, or whatever. Some seemingly are doing so to try to “attract” others. I think that when this happens “authenticity” is thrown out the window for the goal of church growth. Again, to be authentic means that worship comes straight out of the context. Fortunately, for the future of the church this means that worship is going to look much more diverse and and rich rather than the cookie cutter mentality of many mega church programs.

    I’ll quit this post now and look forward to read what my more eloquent and intelligent colleagues will write.

  2. Just thinking out loud…

    If worship is an encounter with the living God, and that God is about a Radical Grace that brings hope and healing to situations that have been robbed by “death” (interpret as you will), then an authentic worship experience is one that offers persons a experience of hope and healing.

    That’s the easy part. The hard part is figuring out what paper to wrap that gift of God in. Although to an extent, it doesn’t matter. I had folks tell us that they “don’t like traditional worship” but they like our traditional worship.

    Let us know when you’ve got it figured out. 😉

  3. I’ve often wondered what people hear in their hearts when they say or hear “authentic”. The old line “its not what you say, but what they hear”. Does authentic mean “don’t be a salesman – peddleing something” or does it mean “don’t tell me God loves me if you don’t” or “Am I safe here – even if they know that I . . .” and conversley “Will people care enough to stop me from . . .”

    I think the authenticity people seek is all of the above and is not defined by style, thats just the polite reason given for staying or leaving – to Landon’s comments above about liking a specific church’s traditional worship, but not traditional worship in general.

  4. At least one thing that it seems to me that people are looking for when it comes to “authenticity” is an end (or at least a reduction?) to some of the scandals that have become so prevalent in the news: Pastor-such-and-such molested member-so-and-so. Father-whats-his-name arrested for something-or-other. We all know the tale. In short, people want to see church leaders’ lives match up with Christian teachings.

    But that doesn’t entirely explain the trend to more traditional or historically-based liturgical practices. I think that also comes from a sense that the previous generation had abandoned such practices, and the result was a group of young people found themselves anchorless, looking for “something” to hold on to. Many have found “anchors” in places, other than the church, to be sure. But for those who have come back to the church, it perhaps makes sense that they would return to something that has an “anchor” to practices that have been around for many, many generations.

    I don’t know the extent to which these are true, but it’s an impression that I have. I’d certainly be interested to see what others say.

  5. In both contemporary and traditional worship settings, I think “authentic” has a lot to do with whether we are doing things in our services because they are meaningful and draw us to God, or just because we have always done them. We get into patterns and ruts in both kinds of services. It’s easier to find a pattern we like and stick to it, isn’t it? And when we shift around too much, people complain. But I’ve heard from someone on Andy Stanley’s staff that they intentionally keep things changing so that the one thing that doesn’t change is God and that helps keep him the focus. I like that in theory, but I wonder how it works in practice?

    So often in my llife it’s not so much the outcome that matters, but rather the act of responding, of being obedient to the words I read in my quiet time or worship (or elsewhere) or the promptings of the Holy Spirit in prayer. Maybe that’s true for how we worship, too? Maybe it’s more about seeking God in word and prayer and making the effort to respond? Or to make space for others to respond?

    I wonder if this is so hard to quantify because so much of this IS the work of the Spirit? Only God truly knows what is in each person’s heart, so we fix are eyes on the unseen, and lean not on our own understanding. There have been enough times where we felt prompted to prepare a song, for instance, that didn’t seem like it would fit the plan we had made, only to find that things went somewhere we didn’t expect and the misfit song was exactly what was needed.

    I’m not sure what exactly I’m saying here. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this and I don’t think I have any firm answers yet. My experience with old-style worship is more limited, but it seems like the difference between stale liturgy and meaningful liturgy is not so easy to pin down. Maybe it has more to do with the spirit in which it is offered?

  6. Authentic worship requires authentic worshipers, and that’s all. Melissa, you’re right that it matters what’s in the heart of the worshiper; traditional worship exists because it is both expresses what was in the hearts of those who devised it, and it also speaks to those same hearts. Same for contemporary worship, avant grade worship, quaker meetings, catholic mass, cowboy services, blues worship, and so on, ad infinitum. What speaks to and for these people in this time and place in their relationship with God? That’s authentic worship. There’s no liturgy, style, hymnody or psalter that makes some worship more authentic than others; it’s all about the hearts of those doing the worshiping.

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