How to Avoid Decay in Worship

November 17, 2022

Everything in our world is in a constant state of change and decay.  Things that are new and fresh today are old and worn tomorrow.  We’re reminded of this in the text of the hymn “Abide with Me,” in the line “Change and decay in all around I see.  O Thou who changest not, abide with me.”  If we’re attempting to address or remediate change and decay in a building for example, we could call our efforts “remodeling.”  But a poor attempt at this remediation should be called “remuddling” rather than remodeling.  Just like change and decay, renewal is a part of the human experience.  While our buildings, our health, our organizations, our government need renewal, our worship also needs renewal.


Just recently we heard on the news that an asteroid had been discovered very close to the sun, but it had been blocked from our view because it was within the sun’s glare.  Scientists are suggesting that this previously unknown asteroid could put the earth in danger and be a “planet killer!”  But we’ve also heard from scientists who have suggested that a carefully planned disruption of an asteroid’s trajectory when it was far from our home planet could deflect the potential “planet killer” and send it instead harmlessly into the void of space.  A simple nudge (comparatively speaking) early enough could make an enormous difference farther down the road.  Now, we’re not talking about “worship-killing” asteroids here, but we are attempting to address potential problems to be on the lookout for (so potential “asteroids” in our worship), that are often overlooked.  Doing so will help identify and deflect their trajectory early enough that they don’t drag our worship into full-blown decay.  So here are four areas to consider when on the lookout for change and decay in worship.



Often the main cause of decay in worship is a poor or, often, non-existent theology of worship.  For many the idea that we need a theology of worship may seem a little “ivory tower”-ish.  But most of the time, the problems of decay in worship are tied directly to a problem of worship theology.  We simply don’t spend adequate time thinking through the “what and why” of worship.


Sacred Song Consulting provides a FREE mini course, The Six Core Components of Traditional Worship that will help you begin the process of developing a practical theology of worship.  If you browse to our website,, you’ll find close to the bottom of any page an invitation to sign up for this free mini course.  Once registered you’ll receive an e-mail a day for eight days.  Each of these eight e-mails will contain a 4-minute instructional video discussing a component of worship.  This course is designed to give you the foundation and framework upon which you can build an effective theology of worship.


In general, a starting point for the development of a theology of worship is to understand that worship is FOR GOD, not for us.  Worship is about our giving to God in response to His revelation of Himself to us, not about us getting.  Now, we most certainly DO receive from God in worship—worship is a dialogue between The Creator and His creation—but worship is not designed for us.  It’s designed for God.  It focusses us on God, not on us.  Corporate worship is where we join with others and together offer our praise to God.  A poor or misguided theology of worship will focus the worship on us (e.g., our feelings) or on something else, good or bad (e.g., evangelism or emotions).  Of course, evangelism is VERY important but evangelism is a result of worship not the purpose for worship.  Our feelings are not necessarily bad but abuse of our feelings is “me-focused” and has no place in worship.  A solid theology of worship will help us avoid the problems, the decay, and strengthen our healthy worship.


There are several excellent resources that can help us think through the development of a usable theology of worship:


A Royal “Waste” of Time by Marva Dawn.  This book is now a generation old, but it is as applicable now as it was when it was published in the 1990s.  It is a lengthy book addressing very practical issues of worship theology and practice, but it is not “over your head.”  It addresses some complex issues at a pedestrian level without insulting the readers’ intelligence.  It is the “follow-up” to her previous book (also an excellent work!) Reaching Out without Dumbing Down.  Both of these books help you begin the process of thinking through and developing an effective theology of worship.


A more recent book (published in 2019) on the theology of worship is Reverberating Word by Michael Denham.  This is a more compact resource on the development of a good theology of worship that addresses both the theoretical and practical aspects of worship and its theology.  It is not an “academic tome,” but it does address the source of a worship theology a bit more completely than Marva Dawn’s books without straying far from a useful theology.


John MacArthur’s perennial work Worship: The Ultimate Priority was first published in the 1980s but has been revised and updated several times over the years.  Its most recent edition was published in 2021.  It is similar in many ways to A Royal “Waste” of Time but about a third the length.  It also addresses, like Reverberating Word, some more theoretical issues of a theology of worship without the baggage of refined meaninglessness that often stumps readers of more heady authors.


And finally, an outstanding resource for developing a healthy theology of worship is A Biblical Theology of Worship by Calvin Pincombe.  This is a hard one to find but is well worth the search!  Published in 2010, it addresses weighty issues in common language and introduces complex ideas in easily digestible pieces.  It provides clear exposition of a good theology of worship and thorough scholarship without confusion.  If there was only one book you could have in your library on the theology of worship this is the one you’d want.


You’ll find links to these excellent books at the bottom of this blog post.



Another often overlooked area in which decay can rear its ugly head is the heritage of worship in a particular congregation or in a denomination.  If a congregation or a denomination has a heritage of worship that is healthy you are likely to have worship that is healthy.  But on the flip side of that coin is an unhealthy heritage that results in unhealthy worship.  Heritage, good or bad, can be transmitted from one generation to the next.


One way to understand how heritage can be good or bad is to distinguish between the idea of traditionalism and traditionTraditionalism is the bad type of heritage.  Traditionalism is an unproductive habit that can border on idolatry.  Tradition, on the other hand, is the good type of heritage.  Tradition allows us to be healthily connected with those who have gone before us and fall into the ever-growing line of the faithful delivered to us.  When we’re looking at the heritage of worship, we’re really looking at the employment of traditionalism or tradition.  Good heritage—tradition—will guide and inform your worship.  Bad heritage—traditionalism—will ensure ineffectiveness and decay in worship.


There are many “sacred cows” in worship.  No congregation or denomination is immune to traditionalism.  Speaking as a happy evangelical (not a “recovering” evangelical) I can say that most of us, as a part of our heritage, have view worship as an evangelistic event.  We are all about making disciples—converts—and that heritage informs all we do.  We’ve been influenced by the revivalist movements in our heritage.  We are so eager to preach the word to win souls for Christ.  But while evangelism is incredibly important and commanded by Christ in the Great Commission, evangelism isn’t the goal of worship.  Evangelism should be the RESULT of worship, not the goal.  When we rob a congregation of the corporate worship of God by inserting evangelism in the mix as the primary reason for worship, we inhibit both worship and evangelism.  For many evangelicals, evangelism as the central purpose of worship has become a “sacred cow,” an idol, an example of traditionalism.


When I was in seminary a classmate of mine took a part-time church position as a minister of music.  He reported to us a perfect example of “traditionalism” he found in this congregation.  In a worship committee meeting early on in his tenure there he was informed by a member of the committee that the church had a “tradition” on Easter Sunday where the organist would play Irving Berlin’s popular song “Easter Parade” (“In your Easter bonnet with all the frills upon it . . ..”) while the ladies of the church would walk around the sanctuary showing off their Easter dresses.  This “tradition” would have been “relevant” and appropriate in a social gathering in 1933 but clearly isn’t an act of worship!  While to us this “sanctified fashion show” is absurd (but clearly not to some of the members of this church), it is a perfect example of bad heritage—traditionalism.  My classmate put a stop to that practice, at least while he was their minister of music!


But tradition—good heritage—is an enormous benefit for us in worship.  It guides our thinking and informs our decisions by the wisdom of those who delivered the faith to us.  Tradition isn’t a leash but instead is the guardrail that keeps us away from danger.  Good tradition—heritage—would be embraced.  Bad tradition—habit—should be avoided.



Another often overlooked source of decay in worship is leadership.  When we’re mentioning “leadership” here we’re addressing the quality of leadership, not the mere presence of a leader or any particular individual who leads.  We have all, at times, been thrown into leadership roles for which we feel ill prepared, or we volunteer to lead without really having the set of skills necessary for that particular leadership position.  As you can imagine, discussing leadership in worship can get personal quite rapidly!  But our goal here is not to point fingers at leaders but rather to address qualities that embody good leadership.  In most churches in the United States there will be one full-time staff member (the pastor), and either a part-time or volunteer worship leader (minister of music, worship pastor, etc.).  Most of the time these leaders are eager but, if you mix in a poor theology of worship and a poor heritage of worship, you’re going to get poor leaders of worship.


Most of the time theological education in the United States, unfortunately, does an inadequate job of preparing leaders for ministry in the local church, particularly in the area of worship.  Having spent six years in seminary (and lived to tell about it) I can attest to this fact firsthand!  And, unfortunately, it is the pastor who is expected by a congregation to lead worship but is mostly inadequately prepared to do so in the most public area of ministry, the corporate worship of God.  Most theology students complete a seminary education having had only a single course in worship.  If we treated the study of the Bible with the same callousness, we would graduate theology students who took ONE course in the Bible.  I can’t believe anyone who would think that was a good idea.  Is it any wonder then that the worship of the church suffers?  Think then of the volunteer or part-time worship leader who does not have the benefit (limited as it may be) of seminary training in worship.  Many faithful followers of Christ eager to proclaim the Gospel and minister to God’s people find themselves in this situation.


There are many topics to discuss when addressing leadership in worship, so much so that it could be its own blog post!  But let me make a very broad suggestion that deals with the quality of leadership rather than the specifics of a worship leader.  Corporate worship is a sacred time.  There is nothing casual about an encounter with God in worship.  In general, if a worship leader has developed a solid theology of worship and heritage of worship, a worship leader should lead from a position of dignity, professionalism, and respect of the moment.  This does not mean that a worship leaders should be stiff or “fake formal.”  The church has for over two generations now chased a rabbit trying to make worship more casual, more user friendly, more “seeker sensitive” all the while changing the very nature of worship to a congregation-centered philosophy.  Worship leaders have been chasing after people rather than chasing after an encounter with God.  As we’ve said before, worship is for God, not for us.  Lead the people to corporately, together, offer their common praise to God.  Sacred Song Consulting exists to help worship leaders and congregations in this very way!  If this is an area of struggle for you reach out to us!  We’re here to help!



As a child I loved watching reruns of the hit sitcom I Love Lucy.  There are still episodes that make me howl with laughter!  But one episode, amazingly, seems to illustrate this idea of renewal in worship.  Lucy decided she wanted to write a novel.  The entire episode is built around this attempt at being “discovered.”  At the end of the episode Lucy receives a telegram from the publisher indicating their interest in including her novel not as a stand-alone book but as a chapter in another book.  The chapter was to be titled “Don’t Let This Happen to You.”


All of us could contribute PAGES of text to a chapter with this title.  We’ve all been involved in “worship renewal” of one type or another.  And, as much as we’d hate to admit it, we’ve all participated in or lead misguided attempts at “worship renewal.”  When we don’t have a solid theology of worship, when we have a poor heritage of worship, when we are ill prepared to lead in worship, we can easily walk into the minefield of misguided renewal in worship.


The biggest problem with renewal in worship is that we often don’t know how to evaluate the worship we have let alone understand what its underlying problems may be.  We don’t even know the questions to ask or the direction to go.  This produces some anxiety in worship leaders who often then simply make changes for the sake of making changes rather than analyzing the situation and making strategic remediations.  When we don’t understand what worship is, or what its problems are, our attempts at renewal are akin to simply throwing food on the wall to see what sticks.  When we make change for the sake of change in a vain attempt to “fix” worship we cause decay to accelerate rather than slow.  Often an eager worship leader will attempt to “modernize” worship but will only strip worship of its substance and majesty.  Worship has a unique affect that is not comparable to or compatible with anything in the secular world.  This means that our earnest but misguided attempts at “renewal” are nothing more than imitating style rather than implementing substance.  Style is a divider, not a uniter.  Substance—the content of worship—rises above style.  Determine in your mind what worship is (theology), what the problems in your worship are (theology, heritage, leadership), then implement substantive renewal.


What are your thoughts about areas of worship to investigate to avoid unnecessary decay?  What have been the problems you’ve encountered in your worship and how have you addressed them?  We’ve all got plenty to contribute to the discussion!  Let’s hear from you!  Post your ideas and experiences in the comment section below.  You’ll help us all grow and learn!




Sacred Song Consulting exists solely to help congregations revitalize, refine, and reform traditional worship for contemporary people.  We are a resource for you, a guide to the best practices of traditional worship.  We provide you with tools to plan, prepare, and implement worship.  Nuts and bolts tools, practical tools that help you design effective worship.  We are here to help you!  You are NOT alone in wanting transformative worship.  Reach out to us!  Let us know how we can help!






  1. Cal

    Hi Mark, I found the article thought provoking. Here are a few observations and questions that came to mind as I was reading.

    What would decay in worship look like? If you could give an example or describe what you mean, it would help the reader.

    Are we not designed by God for worship (i.e. loving interrelationship with the Triune God)?

    What does unhealthy worshio look like? What constitutes healthy worship?

    It would help to further define your terms. Traditionalism is an unhealthy refusal to change a particular tradition good or bad. Now if the tradition is good, maybe refusal to change is good! Let them call us traditionalists!

    How are we to judge whether a tradition is good? I would suggest a thorough study of Scripture, the history of theology and the history of the liturgy will reveal good traditions in worship.

    A word about Leadership in Worship. It seems to me that the one who would lead worship and promote renewal must first of all be radically committed to following Jesus. He must learn to think deeply about the greatness and goodness of God. This demands earnest study and intellectually engaged reflection on what the Scriptures and orthodox theological tradition reveal about who God is in all his attributes and majestic perfections. The more the leader knows about the glory of God, the more he will be in a position to help the congregants enter into a deeper, life changing worship of the Lord of heaven and earth. All this done with an attitude of genuine humility.

    PS. Am honored you appreciated my little book.

    • Mark Bowdidge


      Thank you for your thought provoking response! I hope I’m able to respond adequately!

      Regarding the question of decay, what I attempted to shed light on was the sources of decay in worship that are often overlooked. The natural state of life is decay. Over time, without acute and deliberate intervention, decay becomes its own driver. This natural state of decay plays out in worship by worship leaders and congregations forgetting the substance of an act of worship while maintaining the form of the act or by being completely ignorant of the substance and simply imitating form without meaning or context. Many of the worship reforms of recent years have ignored substance and replaced it instead with style. I see this as decay rather than renewal. Decay in worship is anything that walks us further away from the Biblical model of worship and places something else (our feelings or emotions, for example) as the ultimate goal of worship. We are most certainly designed by God for worship but we’re also rather rebellious creatures seeking our own desires and pleasures. That is the root cause of decay in worship.

      Unhealthy worship, then, is worship that points the worshiper toward some other object other than God. In some cases this “other object” could be something good, like evangelism. But far more often this “other object” is something less worthy and almost always can be traced back to the elevation of the self as the object of worship. I can’t imagine anyone ever admitting that the self is the object of their worship, but when we look at it from the outside it becomes painfully obvious that while many may be using good words and deeds as acts of worship, those words and deeds are pointing in the wrong direction. That is decay in worship. Tradition is “good” when it points to God and empowers the congregation in the corporate worship of God. Tradition is bad when it distracts.

      When I’m using the phrase “traditional worship” I’m doing so deliberately knowing that the term can mean many things. Perhaps the easiest way to define the phrase as I’m using it is to say the “traditional worship” I’m endorsing is NOT the traditional worship of 1950’s Protestant evangelical worship of the American suburban church. When I’m saying “traditional worship” I’m going back much farther than “mid-century modern.” I’m using “traditional worship” to describe worship as modeled in the Bible, practiced by Christ and his followers, established by the early church, and refined, renewed, and reformed in the succeeding generations. Tradition is not what we worship but it is what informs our worship. Tradition is what guides us in our worship. So in this respect tradition is not a style but rather an outline and guide. Admittedly my choice to adopt the phrase “traditional worship” carries a lot of unwanted and unclaimed baggage. But the other options seemed to be even more problematic. It was a tough choice for sure. No matter what I labeled the work there would be misunderstandings about the definition. I decided to use the phrase “traditional worship” and hope that my work would help define it.

      And your paragraph about leadership in worship is spot on and a perfect introduction to the blog post on avoiding decay in worship. Many well meaning and faithful worship leaders are ill prepared to lead worship. They simply can’t even define it for themselves and thus can’t effectively lead or guide a congregation in worship or to help them understand it. A worship leader must truly worship in order to lead worshipers in worship. If a worship leader doesn’t know what worship is (or, as in the decay definition stated above or in the text of the blog, has a flawed understanding of worship) the worship leader can’t lead worship. A dentist and a mechanic are both skilled professionals but you wouldn’t hire a mechanic to perform a root canal or a dentist to rebuild a transmission even though there are teeth involved in a transmission (or so I’m told). Unfortunately congregations often elevate a leader to a position for which they are unprepared (or even unskilled) because they (the congregation) are equally unfamiliar with worship. It’s the blind leading the blind. This is what Sacred Song Consulting is attempting to mitigate by providing case-specific assistance in refining, revitalizing, and reforming “traditional worship.”

      Thank YOU for sharing your work, A Biblical Theology of Worship with all of us! I’m hoping that you’ll be working on second edition soon!

  2. A Nelson

    You are generous in saying that modern worship has become more about evangelism than adoration. I would assert that a large portion is more concerned with marketing itself under that guise. “Seeker sensitive” translates to increased profit margins. Much of it is wolves pretending to be lambs.

    • Mark Bowdidge

      That can most definitely be an issue. But you have to wonder if it is simply the music industry responding to a most profitable market or is it actually driving the bus. I think it is a little of both. Many churches simply don’t know to look for something with more depth and take the easy way out by selecting what they see as popular. The music industry is only happy to fill that need and, from a business standpoint, they should! So I guess that puts the emphasis on the necessity for discipleship for worship leaders. That’s what we’re attempting to do with Sacred Song Consulting–provide worship leaders with an alternative based on Biblical and historical models. It’s a learning process for sure!


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