C. S. Lewis on Worship Innovations

Every minister and most church members have experienced one tension in worship. The tension is between member preferences. Some members want changes and innovations in worship; others enjoy the current worship and are opposed to any changes.

In many churches and among younger Christians (remember: I work with college students), the default position is that innovation and change is a must. Many ministries operate out of an assumption that if anything stays the same for a couple of years, people will not be engaged.

Churches should not make the opposite mistake, though, and think that change is bad. We should aim to make our church practices relevant to the culture around us.

But relevant does not mean trendy.

We must realize that change and innovation is not always a positive. And this is where some comments by C. S. Lewis have been helpful for me.

Cross and Candles
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In the first chapter of Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, C. S. Lewis discusses why he thinks worship innovations are ill-advised. His comments, I think, should be viewed as warnings rather than rules, but we should think about what he has to say.

(Lewis’s comments refer to whether the Anglican Church should update its liturgy and prayer book, so he is talking about “high-church” worship rather than “low-church” worship style. His points, however, apply to all worship styles.)

Changing the Worship Style

On ministers’ desire to change the church’s worship style, he says:

It looks as if they [Anglican clergy] believed people can be lured to go to church by incessant brightenings, lightenings, lengthenings, abridgements, simplications, and complications of the service. (4)

Lewis does not explain why he thinks it is wrong or unwise to change the service to attract people to it. I wish he would have said more on this point, because people often justify a change in worship by claiming it will attract more people. Lewis might think that these changes do not in fact attract people. But he might also think that, even if the changes do attract people, it is wrong to change things for that reason.

The Entertainment Motive

On the entertainment motive:

Novelty, simply as such, can have only an entertainment value. And they [the laity] don’t go to church to be entertained. They go to use the service, or, if you prefer, to enact it. (4)

On the Effect of Newness in Worship

On what novelty tends to do to the worshipper’s attention and focus:

It fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about worship is a different thing from worshipping….A still worse thing may happen. Novelty may fix our attention not even on the service but on the celebrant [that is, the priest]….There is really some excuse for the man who said, “I wish they’d remember that the charge to Peter was Feed my sheep; not Try experiments on my rats, or even, Teach my performing dogs new tricks.” (5)

Of course, I don’t think that Lewis’ comments should lead us to fear change. Mere novelty should not be introduced into worship for the love of change, but mere traditions should not be enshrined in worship for the fear of change.

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