At a five course meal, successive elements are placed before you to leisurely enjoy. One platter is set before you. Then, at the precise time, it is pulled away and replaced with the next dish. The meal unfolds like a story: it's introduction, main course, denouement, and ending.
An open buffet is another kind of feast. Various, even eclectic entrees are displayed for you to fill your plate. You can eat whatever you choose, leave what you don't want, and return as often as you like until you are filled to satisfaction.
A pie eating contest is a feast, too. There is one item. You only have a very limited amount of time to eat. But, you are offered more than you could possibly consume.
When we open the Word of God, we are invited to the most amazing spiritual banquet table that was ever prepared. Before us lay the deepest truths, the daintiest delectables, and most fulfilling ideas over presented to man. And, yet, we often find our gatherings confused and disturbing. We don't understand why. We all come together for the same reason (to feast on the goodness of God's Word), we agree on all the fundamentals of doctrine; but, something is off.
Sometimes, we come to the feast, expecting a buffet; but we get a pie eating contest. Sometimes we're waiting to be served succession of courses, but sit with an empty plate, away from the buffet. Sometimes, we arrive anxious to gorge ourselves and some idiot brings us a salad.
It could be that many of our worship experiences are doomed for failure simply because we don't understand the process- and our expectations are conditioned based upon experiences that we didn't even realize came with other options.
It's especially frustrating because we usually don't even know why we're frustrated.
So, there are really three formulas for worship in America today. There are probably more; but usually we can distill their differences down to three main kinds.
There is the five course meal. The congregation sits and expects to be served a succession of courses that build to a climactic event, then denouement. This is really what a traditional church service tends to look like. It has a lot of appeal, particularly to the people who just “want to get fed” but the only items on the menu are the dishes that have been selected by the leadership.
Next, there is a buffet, where there may be a number of different things going on or several opportunities to discuss different ideas. It's all very casual. And, if you are not paying attention to your own needs, you walk away wondering if there was really any point. But, if you want to be actively engaged in the worship, and you want to help steer the direction by your participation, this method has a lot of appeal. This kind of worship is most commonly found in small group Bible studies; but larger congregations have employed a number of creative ways to engage people in their congregations on various levels.
Finally, there is the pie eating contest. This is for people who are looking for something specific and a lot of it. There is no gentle introduction, no variety, just a lot of information for you to take in and, hopefully, digest on your own time. Often, people who crave this kind of environment don't have a lot of patience for the other options. But, people who are comfortable with something a bit less intense feel intimidated or offended. Some church groups employ this method in subject based seminars or conferences; but only small groups of hardcore theological maniacs want a steady diet of it (usually not their families).
One of the advantages of a large congregation that has a number of teaching leaders is that they usually try to employ all of these styles at different times during the week (or, throughout the year). But, even still, if you come into a meeting not knowing what you're looking for, you may be disappointed with what you find.
At the same time, a smaller congregation can't just change who it is or offer things that don't reflect its own identity. The culture of that community is defined, largely, by the way they share in worship.
So, what do we do with this information?
Being able to determine what worship environment you've come to is probably the most important thing. But, it's also important for you to know what kind of worship you are looking for. Many people are finding that their own needs are best met by having a relationship with more than one religious community. Denominational allegiance is giving way to personal (and interpersonal) spiritual development. Religious leaders and teachers are starting to understand that they can't possibly meet all of everyone's need.
So, when you find yourself struggling with something in worship, feel like you've been left out or that something is missing, even though the substance is exactly what you know you need; maybe you should look at the method of worship. When your spouse is agitated by the kind of worship you attend and grumbles about things that don't really make sense, it could be that he or she doesn't understand what his or her own needs are and how to meet them. And when your kids seem to grow tired of sitting through the service, not feeling like it is really meant for them, maybe there are some different options that they need to explore.
But, be encouraged that there is something there for each of us.