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Your Worship Service is B-O-R-I-N-G!

This summer we’re revisiting some of the most popular posts from the first half of this year. This one was surprisingly talked about.


There’s a reason your church isn’t more creative.

It’s not just that your pastor and worship arts director aren’t creative or visionary or forward-thinking. I’m sure that’s true in some cases, but most churches are boring because of The Olive Garden Problem.

But First a Story

A friend of mine who preaches for a fairly traditional Church of Christ recently ran headlong into a problem he hadn’t anticipated. For the uninitiated, Church of Christ worship services are typically a cappella and tend to adhere to a fairly predictable form. There’s not a lot appreciation for difference or, quite frankly, room, to explore, change, or interject creative elements into the worship service – even if those elements are historically Christian. For some, worship elements need to be historically Church of Christ (my Baptist friends tell me they have the same issue).

Anyway, my friend’s congregation went through an expensive and lengthy evaluation process and, long story short, “Inspiring Worship” ranked the lowest of all the areas evaluated. He wasn’t devastated, but he was upset. I get that.

The problem is that he’s hamstrung. Locked-in. Cornered.

Due to his particular church’s practices (some borne of belief, others borne of tradition, and still others borne out of a nonsensical allegiance to things that don’t matter), there’s nothing he could change to make his church’s worship better. There is no element of worship his church could add or take away without causing a firestorm. And as you know, upsetting people is the unforgivable sin (sarcasm mine).

That’s the Olive Garden Problem.


Last year The Wall Street Journal printed an article about the popular restaurant chain revealing what executives and chefs at Olive Garden already knew: Olive Garden is not Italian Food. In part, the article recounted this:

“The Olive Garden is at the mercy of the kind of people who eat at Olive Garden, and the chain has no choice but to bend to their wistful, suburban, and tyrannical needs. That means value (a $6.95 unlimited soup, salad, and breadsticks lunch special), overcooked pasta, frosted salad bowls, and avoiding confusing words like “gnocchi.” Time to break it all down:

1) In field tests, diners wouldn’t order gnocchi. That is, “until chefs at the company’s Orlando, Fla., headquarters tried gnocchi in chicken soup, billed as a ‘traditional Italian dumpling.'”

2) Olive Garden HQ knows that their diners have limits: “Capers, with their salty, pickled flavor, are too unexpected for many customers, says a spokeswoman.”

3) And the restaurant chain will do whatever it takes to make customers happy: “At Olive Garden, pasta is served soft, not al dente or slightly firm, the traditional Italian method.”

4) So is it authentic or not? “We don’t use the word authentic,” said the president of Olive Garden. He prefers the term “Italian inspired.”

5) The chain does indeed take “inspiration” from Italy: Chefs at Olive Garden HQ went on a trip to Northern Italy and had “fresh-torn pasta dish with olive oil, garlic and herbs.” Somehow that dish was “reverse-engineered” into “baked pasta romana—a mix of lasagna pasta, rich cheese sauce, spinach and either a beef or chicken topping.” Originally it was chicken with roasted tomato sauce, but diners didn’t find it “cravable.”

6) And the chain pushes the limits of gastronomy: “Earlier this year, a pear and Gorgonzola ravioli with shrimp went too far.” The chain deemed the dish too “culinary forward.”

7) And all Olive Garden wants to do is update the damned dishware, but they can’t. The frosted, “semi-translucent, plastic, flower-shaped salad bowl” that delivers unlimited refills has been in use for decades, and every time Olive Garden tests new bowls, diners revolt. “There is a lot of love for that bowl,” said Dan Kiernan, executive vice president of operations for Olive Garden.”

So What?

Olive Garden makes food for people who want, expect, and enjoy low expectations. They don’t want food they can’t pronounce, not because they don’t like it, but because they can’t pronounce it. If it’s too foreign, too different, their customers don’t want it. What’s more, Olive Garden can’t change anything, regardless of whether those changes would be good for the company or the consumer.

Now what Olive Garden does is Olive Garden’s business. They exist to generate revenue for shareholders and their wisest course of action is to meet that end. But church is different…

Your church exists (especially it’s corporate worship) to Glorify God and edify believers. That can’t happen if both God and the church are bored…even if that boredom is created by willful decisions to remain boring.

What To Do?

Every church member should feel comfortable speaking to their preacher and worship leaders about their theology of worship. What do they believe they are trying to do? And how are they trying to do it? Why do we sing the songs we sing? Why does the sermon take the form it takes?

At the same time, if you’re a church leader stuck in an unyielding system, guess what? It’s your job to fix it. As Craig Groeschel says, “You’re in leadership. Quit complaining and fix it!” And yes, there will be a cost. Some people may leave to find another church home. People leaving is always sad and heartbreaking.

But worse is to face the God of the universe one day and have Him ask you, “I gave you the most powerful, moving, impactful message in history. Why did you treat it like you worked at Olive Garden?”

Tell us. What have been some of your most memorable and engaging moments in worship.

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  • Danny Sims

    funny-sad memory reading your post… the time a senior saint, really a great guy in so many ways, charged me with wanting to make worship “entertainment.” i meant no harm, asking him if he thought boring is better. He emphatically said, “boring is biblical!”

    can i have some more breadsticks?

    • Danny, this post is from my upcoming content at Pepperdine. One of the last points in that section is what I’m calling “The Sacralization of Boredom.” This story hits the nail on the head. I may use it…with permission, of course.

  • Joshua Tucker

    In my experience ministers are often desiring to make things better, even if it means upsetting some people. But elders’ main concern often seem to be ‘keeping the peace.’ Might be relevant to address that dynamic, especially for ministers.

    • Joshua, there may be much truth in what you say. Charles Stanley, of First Baptist Atlanta, has said that one of the reason, in general, elder-led churches don’t grow, is because lay leaders have work-stress and family-stress and when they come to church they want peace. Ministers accept turbulence at church as “work-stress.” They typically don’t go to church looking for peace, they go to church to get something done.

      Anyway, that was his take. You may be on to something.

      • Joshua Tucker.

        I agree. This is a dynamic I have seen often. What ends up happening is that the elders often end up tired and worn out trying to keep the peace and make sure no one leaves, but people end up leaving anyway because there’s no momentum of growth. The truth is, some people will leave if something changes, but other people will also leave if there’s no growth. Personally, I’d rather people leave because we were taking steps of risky faith than because we were too fearful to try anything new. Of course, that’s easier said than done.

        To me, there’s two extremes. One is to put so much emphasis on the worship service that we start to replace it over true discipleship and community. I think that churches can still grow with routine and boring church services, though probably not as well as they would with an engaging, worshipful service. The other extreme is to essentially say that the worship is supposed to be routine, boring, and emotionless, and that somehow this is God’s only authorization for worship. That is direction I’ve seen people go with this argument. “You just want a concert!” seems to be the immediate conclusion to someone making small suggestions like removing announcements. It always seems so exaggerated and based on an irrational fear of change/ emotion.

  • Steevo

    Wow, this post brought a flood of emotions for me. My wife and I left our first love, the CoC, a little over two years ago in part because of the worship service. Your post reminded me of a meeting we attended between the elders and the Worship Committee. We had a meeting of 7-8 couples along with 3 of the 4 elders. The meeting was a good brain storming session that also included time for prayer, hymns, and plenty of laughter. By the end of the meeting we had all agreed upon 4 ideas that we wanted the eldership to consider changing or adopting into our worship services. They agreed to add these items to their next elder’s meeting and to spend time in prayer over them. The meeting closed and most of the people departed. My wife and I, along with the host couple and two of the elders, stayed after the meeting to help clean up. To my amazement, by the time the dishes were dry and the furniture was put back in place, 3 of the 4 ideas had already been struck down by the two remaining elders! It became painfully apparent the purpose behind the meeting was to simply give the illusion of change. My wife and I decided that night to embark on a prayer-filled journey of seeking a new church home.

    The one idea that was approved was to move the Sunday night service from 6:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Whoa……radical!

    The items that didn’t make the cut:

    3. Removing the church pews from the auditorium and replacing with folding chairs to allow for varying seating arrangements and a more intimate setting.

    2. Small groups on Sunday night.

    1. Moving the donut/coffee time from between worship service and Bible class to before worship service.

    See, we were already one of those radical SoCal churches that had worship service first and Bible class afterwards. I guess that was enough progressive thinking for several generations.

    • Steevo, I hate hearing stories like this, but they are terribly common. Our worship service is unlike any other churches in our area. Our people LOVE them, but we also know that they are so disorienting for many CofC people that they’ll opt-out out instinct rather than thoughtfulness (to be frank). Traditionalism run so incredibly deep in churches of all stripes that something MONUMENTAL has to be at risk to initiate change.

      No leadership structure in the world changes UNLESS THEY HAVE TO. This is regardless to industry or business. Right now there are still too many people satisfied with the “old bowl” that all the risk is on the side of change. Yet as churches see less and less young people, and as one generation after another passes away, the small changes you advocated will become the new normal.

      As I tell people about our church, The Vine, every church will do what we are doing, they just won’t do it for another 20 years.

    • I have had a similar experience with ideas being shot down and all the feelings of rejection. I’ve come to an understanding that churches don’t split over doctrine and people don’t leave over doctrine or changes (either for or against). These things happen because of relationships. I chose not to leave my situation mainly because my wife wouldn’t let me. And that’s were our relationships are. But it’s taken me a while to get over those hurt feelings and start to rebuild the relationships (which is hard enough for me as is). When the attitude is not loving and people don’t feel appreciated and respected, they won’t stay around.

      I won’t speak for you but I wonder if the relationship aspect had been handled differently even with the same ultimate result, whether you would have stayed around. Impossible to know, but I imagine it would have been an even harder decision.

  • I’ve experienced most all of these things (thankfully it’s been a while since I’ve experienced eating at Olive Garden). I am in a similar situation facing resistance at “new” things in worship but I incrementally do what I can to bring meaning and purpose to everything from the moment I start planning all the way through the final “Amen” or song. I have also tried working with the other worship leaders with some success to all work together to improve our planning and purpose. There’s still a long way to go in my mind and I despise the “keep the peace” mentality especially when it seems just a few voices are heard. I do the best I can and constantly try to improve.

    Being “creative” in worship may not be easy or possible in the sense of bringing in art or music that is unfamiliar. But there is so much room for being creative in how things are introduced or gradually changed. I may not be able to do all the things that I want to do or think would be helpful, but I can take the tools that I have to work with and reshape the “normal” into something that is purposefully and meaningfully different. For instance, with a lot of the older songs, I will take just a verse or two or maybe a chorus and put them together in a medley. That way we get the feeling of singing the older songs that some people crave while not turning the worship into a funeral service atmosphere. Mixing the old with the new or singing modern versions of songs like Amazing Grace and Just As I Am can be meaningful for everyone.

    I’d love to be able to play videos without worrying about whether there is an instrumental jingle in the background, but we’re not there yet. Maybe someday.

    Thanks for the thoughts.

    • Thanks, Matthew. I forget that some places won’t even play a video with instruments in the background. Keep pressing on in love for the congregation and devotion to God.

  • mattdabbs

    I have a feeling you are going to get a LOT of comments on this post because it hits a nerve. It points out the tension that we face between doing what is engaging and disturbing those who don’t want to be engaged (some of that group are often big contributors who the leadership don’t want to “lose” as if we really had them to begin with). I am not saying money drives everything but the influence of those types of people can be huge. Let’s just put giving God glory first and let the chips fall where they may.

    One of my favorite books on leadership is called Leadership without Easy Answers by Ronald Heifetz. He taught in Harvard’s business school. He has a term he calls “productive tension” the principle is that if you have no tension people won’t grow or learn. If you have too much tension, people will jump ship. You have to find the productive tension in the middle where people are still on board, engaged and growing. Finding that inflection point takes wisdom. He also has a phrase “identifying the adaptive challenge”. That means that organizations and business change over time. It is easy to get stuck thinking the issues of the past are still the issues of the present and keep hammering away and things that no longer characterize the organization. Instead, you have to find out what the real, pressing challenges really are and start tackling them. It may well be you are trying to fight and struggle with symptoms without ever addressing the underlying problems (often tradition).

    Anyway, a few random thoughts there that your post brought to mind. I am looking forward to reading more of the comments.

    • I sometime worry about fighting old battles, myself. Then I talk to people and am reminded that many of the old battles are still there. They are there precisely because of what you identify – addressing the symtoms rather than the disease. They disease – on all sides – is the reflexive belief that worship exist for me to “get something out of it.”

      That leads to all kinds of dysfunction – some of those I identify in this post, others I am guilty of.

      Matt (and others), I will be covering this at Pepperdine next week, so this is the PREVIEW!

      • Well said (again!) … and you inspired so many insightful, preceptive comments… well done, Sean…

    • And I had no idea this post would get this kind of attention.

      • Any article with “worship” and “change” as prominent themes is sure to receive clicks. 😉

        • mattdabbs

          There are hundreds of articles about those two things that don’t get more than a dozen views. This one has substance. It has a great analogy that hooks you and gives you some insights that stick. The only thing that I think is missing from the article is what some churches are doing in order to more than just shuffle around the same 5 ingredients into a different order. I kind of think our worship is like mexican food (to continue with the food analogy). You take the same five ingredients but just mix them up different ways.

          Presentation is important – people can tell if you just don’t care enough to give the worship service much attention. It shows.

          Relevance – Answer questions people are actually asking.

          Gospel – Make sure you are actually preaching Jesus and not some sort of moral therapeutic deism – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moralistic_therapeutic_deism

          Environment – Our space communicates and what we do with that space and in that space communicates. Environments are everywhere. We live and breath in them. Creating a helpful worship environment can assist in communicating the Gospel and that what we do is important and real.

          Focus on Jesus – That was Paul’s focus and it should be our focus.

          Mission – Provide deeper meaning than just community/social connection. This includes (of course) evangelism and discipling.

          None of those are “how to’s” but they can help us frame up some things that might fit your local context in ways that fit your demographic and their tolerance for change (as noted in my comment above).

          • Great point, Matt. Our services at The Vine would not be foreign to most people, but the way we do them may be.

  • “I gave you the most powerful, moving, impactful message in history. Why did you treat it like you worked at Olive Garden?”

    Frame it that way and it should be grounds for pause for a lot of us…

  • Ha, Ha, Our church just went through that same evaluation with the same result! (Apparently that’s fairly common for CoC’s to not rate highly in inspiring worship.) Thankfully my church leaders are at least willing to explore ways to better connect with the hearts of members. (Not sure though if we’re ready for video’s with music in the background…. vocal percussion anyone?!?!)

  • Keith Nations

    Just a quick thought that I’ve had over the past few years along these lines. Churches I’ve been a part of that keep “moving forward”, don’t have a leadership of mostly business men. Most churches I’ve been with or visited that seem dead, have mostly business men as their leadership. Their focus is on keeping the peace, not rocking the boat, good preaching (within limits), good youth (again, within limits), and yes even money. While moving forward, you will lose “membership”. At one church we called that kind of a cleanse. People will leave if you move forward or not. I’m afraid the focus has been on which of those groups tithe more.

    • Does it all come down to money? Who is giving? I know many people believe that and I wonder if it’s true.

    • Trey

      That’s interesting, Keith. I’m wondering if, by businessmen, you mean men and women who have jobs in the business world. One of the gaping holes I’ve seen in the Churches of Christ I’ve attended are business OWNERS who appreciate better than most the need to be nimble and creative. They have been few and far between. The gift of creating something from nothing–the fundamental gift of entrepreneurship is lacking. Uncreative churches and lentrepreneurs…Chicken or egg?

  • Chris

    Lots of churches (most? all?) are still concerned with retention more than Kingdom growth. It’s how you pay the bills. I get it. While experience of the members is an important consideration, are these members also inviting people to these bread stick buffets? I remember BI (Before Instruments) I would rarely mention where I went. It was a badge of shame to have to walk through the 7 Reasons Why We’re Different Orientation so a guest wouldn’t be put off or confused. Now I have no hesitation to tell folks I go to The Vine on S 31st. It is hard, hard work. People will leave. People resist change. If you are moving toward God is this a church issue or a them issue?

    I have to push back on some ideas but am blessed to work in a church with Kingdom forward thinkers as leaders. Some battles are not worth the fight but some must be efforted and not just served lip service. Some ideas work, some don’t but if you aren’t trying, you’re dying. Shuffling members from one CoC to another is not growth. It just means someone became unhappy somewhere else and you are the next place to try.

    What does your community, the people outside your building walls, need? Probably more God and less placation.

  • I think you’re right on (as usual?), but won’t comment more on that — others are doing a fine job of that. I immediately wanted to answer your closing question in the post: most memorable and engaging moments in worship (and I’m assuming “in church” — not Leadership Camps, etc. 🙂

    I was working for a church plant (that allowed us to do things a bit different than the typical COC mental models). We had communion each week as a meal together around tables with discussion about the morning’s message and the like. That was always good. But the most meaningful…

    We planned a funeral service for Jesus on Good Friday — complete with casket, hearse, etc. It felt odd, but it also really accomplished the goal — we were sad, heartbroken, left wanting that night as we stood out in front of the church building watching the hearse drive away through the neighborhood. I think everyone who attended were surprised at the emotions that came from such a service.

    And they continued through Sunday. We met in an old, A-frame church of Christ building in a poor neighborhood. The auditorium was always dark (that was part of those old plans, you know) — except when the back door was opened because those double doors really let the sun shine in.

    We sang a couple of somber songs — continuing the feelings that lingered from the last time we were together in that space. Then, as we were singing, maybe preaching or something — don’t quite recall — Amy bursts through the doors running and yelling “He’s alive! He’s alive! I’ve seen him! He’s alive!” (I’m covered in chills writing about it now). Then she talked about how she saw Jesus working in her own life and in the lives of some of the members gathered around. Then she said, “Corina! Corina

  • Great question, Kraig. I can’t keep up with all the comments, but I wanted to offer something here.

    The truth is I don’t think “inspiring ” rest in the forms – contemporary/traditional/instrumental/a cappella – each of those can be inspiring. The problem arises when I (my church) refuses to ever implement or engage the other forms, like the church someone mentioned that can’t play a video with instrumental music in it. When a community becomes locked-in, there’s little room to do anything new, the inability to engage new forms of worship (even if they are old) stunt inspiration.

    I’ll use taking communion by intinction. It’s been very meaningful for me over the years, but many churches in my tribe wouldn’t be able to do that. Intinction doesn’t take away from the meaning of the Eucharist. In my experience it adds. Just last year, to complete the story, I was handed my communion bread by a man who I felt like hurt my family, had disdain for me, and who I had come to disdain myself. I knew my feelings weren’t what Jesus would want. Then he handed me the Body and said, “The body of Christ broken for you.” In that moment of worship, my heart was able to forgive and move on. I was reconnected with Jesus’ act of self-giving and forgiveness while confronted with someone I needed to forgive. It was powerful, inspiring.

    Now, that couldn’t have happened at a great many places because they have decided there’s only ONE way to take communion. It’s the exclusivity in practices that makes worship lifeless and uncreative. It’s never the dominate form of worship. I’ll be at Pepperdine next week, and I bet the a cappella worship will be incredible.

    So, the short of it is that corporate worship suffers when we refuse ti use all the tools available to us and substitute form with function. Drive down and buy me dinner and we can talk more.

  • And this is the environment we are raising the next generation in. I had a a teen call our music “funeral songs.” Obviously it’s NOT very “inspiring worship.”

  • Good article Sean. Appreciate your work here man.

  • KHamilton

    That’s why a lot of us don’t eat at Olive Garden – boring, bland, and inauthentic. I wonder if that’s why so many people don’t stick around our churches either. Leaders cannot be consumer-driven, and leadership must stand together in that place. Squeaky wheels will squeak and some of our people will leave, but how can we tell people that we worship and live for the “audience of One” when it is so patently obvious that we pander to the masses instead?

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  • It’s rumbling around in my head. Starting out, I’m not sure of it’s full content. So, I will hope this isn’t rambling. But, my basic sense in this matter isn’t whether worship is boring or inspiring. It is what is in the heart of the worshipers. No doubt this is influenced by the ministers/pastors/leaders in churches. So, folks get worked up about concerns of whether the worship leader(s) bring forth a more contemporary, lively worship hour or if it will be a more “comfortable” worship style like mom, dad and grandma grew up with. What about leading our congregations toward transformed hearts and lives that guide all parties toward unity? How about encouraging one another to heed Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 2:14ff…where he pointed out that Christ’s purpose in the cross was to reconcile all to God, and by which the dividing wall of hostility was destroyed? And what about the imperative in Ephesians 4:3…Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit…? Last, but not least, perhaps we could settle some of this by helping prepare our congregants to worship as the Lord himself expected in John 4::23, 24…”in the Spirit and in truth.” Leaders have a responsibility to equip the saints. Saints have responsibility to study and grow as they are being led. Perhaps then open and honest hearts will worship together as the Lord desires, not for our tastes and whims. Our hearts will sing out and others around us will see Spirit-filled worship. I have seen worship videos of different congregations…both traditional and contemporary, where many faces in the crowd looked bored. In contrast, joyous participation by most of those present has been observed in videos of both traditional and contemporary styles. Hearts of the worshipers make the difference it seems. To that end, decisions can then be made that allow for an environment where freedom prevails (yet orderly worship occurs) and elements of the different styles of worship are blended.

  • Michael Van Huis

    The questions pertaining to the theology of worship are indeed necessary, although I’m more concerned with our liturgical language..Our language fails to express the deep groaning in the world. Where is God in the middle of the chaos? Is God there at all? What is God doing when we embrace the reality of yh’s divine absence? Where is the silence in our worship services. Why do we feel the need to even sing at all? I would think God would be just as honored if we came in, sat in the community together, and just remained silent for the next hour.



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  • Jeremy

    I love your blog posts, Sean. Keep up the good writing!

    • Thank you, Jeremy.

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