October 23, 2019

Is it ever OK to…?

Is it ever OK to be intentionally exclusive in worship? 

I’ve been having this internal argument of late about whether or not it is ever OK to make a worship decision that you know will result in some demographic being left out when it is within your power to be more inclusive? In other words, is it ever OK to be intentionally exclusive in worship?

Think through these scenarios with me:

  1. You know that exposing someone for an hour to sound above 95 decibels causes hearing loss while it only takes 90 seconds at 110 decibels for damage to occur, yet your church wants to ‘feel’ the organ and the decibel level in the center of the congregation often exceeds 110. Some people routinely leave the sanctuary ahead of the postlude which is often loud and parents with infants sit in an overflow room because the organ is so loud. But, the rest of the congregation likes it, so you try to let “out all the stops” at least once a service.

  2. There has been a request to not use lilies on Easter because so many people have adverse reactions to the smell. Despite knowing that those individuals cannot join you for worship on Easter Sunday your church continues to decorate with Easter lilies because you can’t imagine Easter without them and it is a good youth group fundraiser.

  3. You want to appeal to the youth so have introduced lighting that changes with the music often escalating to a pulsating strobe-like effect. You know that this can cause seizures in certain individuals but you are OK with the decision because it caters to your target audience.

  4. It has been pointed out to you that several of your worshipers who are challenged visually (both young and old) have a hard time reading the screens when there is movement behind them or the background isn’t a solid color. You, however, choose to continue the practice because those backgrounds and movement visually support the text and seem more contemporary.

  5. Many recent immigrants are joining your community for whom English is a second language and you are blessed with many children but your worship always includes responsive readings or some type of creedal statement that changes weekly. You know that many in the congregation cannot participate in these portions of the service but this is how your church has worshiped for the last 75 years and you remain committed to such a practice.

I am sure that each of us can come up with many additional examples. While we may want to say “of course we should be inclusive,” the truth is that many of our worship practices exclude some demographic. And though this may all sound too market-driven every church makes these types of decisions. How do you navigate such discussions in your church? Have you ever chosen your church’s identity or target audience as a reason to remain more exclusive? At what point in our desire to be inclusive of everyone do we get in the way of anyone worshiping God with their whole being? Is it OK to bless someone as you send them to attend the church down the road?

Here is another way to ask the question. Is it OK to define who your worship is for and unapologetically focus on that group aiming to do a great job for that demographic knowing that there are other churches that are better at meeting the needs of individuals outside of that demographic or those with unique needs?

Part of me wants to say that these decisions are surface-level decisions that have nothing to do with theology, but I wonder if they don’t have more to say about our theology then we may think.

So how would you answer these questions? Send me an email at I may share some of your answers in a future issue of Reformed Worship.

Rev. Joyce Borger is senior editor of Reformed Worship and a resource development specialist at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.