More people, leading more worship, more often
“Let every living thing praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!”
(Psalm 150 – Common English Bible)
Chances are that your bulletin, like my bulletin (yes, we use a bulletin) contains words like this: TODAY’S MINISTERS: ALL OF US!! The Priesthood of all believers (and doubters), right?
Chances are also, that in your church, like mine, the perceived worship leaders are the ones serving in formal roles “up front”: the pastor and other staff, the choir and other musicians, worship assistants (about 10 people who rotate throughout the year?), etc. When it comes down to it, the “ministers” leading worship are not ALL of us…but SOME of us…a select some…an identifiable some…a regular some…a priesthood of SOME believers (and doubters).
Which is too bad. Too bad, because being a worship leader, either formally (Scripture reader, worship assistant, usher, acolyte, musicians, preacher) or informally (coffee fellowship host, someone who sings congregational hymns confidently, someone who offers a hymnal to a visitor or shows the new family where the bathroom is, butcher, baker, banner maker, whatever…) is a powerful act, not only of leading worship, but also of Christian education, discipleship and faith formation. Many worshipers, though, in many churches on many Sundays (or other days) don’t see themselves as being worship leaders unless they are serving in formal, visible, identifiable roles “up front.” In my experience this leads to the following:
- Those who have gifts for, or feel called to, lead worship only in informal ways get the message they are not worship leaders but worshipers who just do some stuff from time-to-time. This mitigates the potential that congregational worship services have to help people to grow in their faith and practice as followers of Jesus Christ. Bummer.
- With only a small percentage of perceived worship leaders in a congregation, worship can become something to be merely consumed and all about personal like and dislikes. “Didn’t like that hymn, thought the sermon was OK, times for silence should be shorter.” Those attending worship services can become observers and critics rather than worshipers. Let the worship wars continue.
- Worship does not transform: it becomes about “going to church”; it becomes about clock-watching; it becomes same-y, status quo, and less than inspiring; it becomes the time where personal discipleship comes, if not to die, than to stagnate; it becomes the place where the worship professionals become Christians FOR others, not WITH them; it becomes the place where many just can’t wait to leave or never come at all. Ouch.
So here’s the good news. I believe and I have experienced, that when the back of the bulletin becomes real, when “TODAY’S MINISTERS: ALL OF US!!” becomes incarnate, when more people see themselves as being, not only worshipers, also but worship leaders, exciting things happen. THE worship service becomes MY worship service. Worship gets better, more diverse, more interesting. Discipleship increases, giving flows, relationships deepen, program and mission blossom, and LEADERS DEVELOP. In other words, the seeds of the Kingdom of peace and justice are planted and watered. Let every living thing praise the Lord!
Let’s get practical. Here are some things you, and others who plan worship in your setting, can do right now, this week, with the churches, congregations and challenges you have today, to help more people lead more worship more often.
- BROADEN WORSHIPERS’ UNDERSTANDING OF WHAT IT MEANS TO LEAD WORSHIP – Preachers, Scripture readers, choir members, worship assistants, those “up front” are worship leaders. Check. So are greeters. So are bell ringers. So are those who take it upon themselves to help visitors find the right hymnal or the nursery. So are those who sing “lustily” as John Wesley would say (notice I didn’t say sing like an angel) and encourage those around them to sing a bit more lustily themselves. So are, the children during the children’s message, those making coffee for fellowship hour, those who sewed the paraments, and those who raise up a prayer concern for the refugees. Basically, whoever attends a worship service and whoever helps worship to happen in any way is a worship leader. It’s just that individuals and congregations may define worship leadership much more narrowly than that. From the pulpit, in ministry meetings, in informal conversations, in newsletter articles, and in the ways listed below, communicate that leading worship doesn’t just happen “up front,” but also on the sides, the middle, the back, the nursery, in the basement, outside, and potentially within every moment from the end of one service to the beginning of the next.
- MINISTRY OF INVITATION – Make it part of what you, and the team you work with to plan worship does, to develop a ministry of invitation. Don’t just ask the same 10 people every year to read Scripture and lead the call to worship. Ask newcomers, the 90+ year old couple, the cranky one you are kind of afraid of, and that 7th grader who is great at making videos. Look around you as much as possible, observing what gifts people have for leading worship in some way. Having observed, take the next step, by asking potential leaders not, how can we mold your gifts into our standard worship service?, but how can we help you to shape our worship service with your gifts in Christ for the life of the world? Which is too wordy and too churchy so it might be a good idea to write up a short invitation script for your worship team to use that might look something like this: “I’ve noticed you are gifted/confident/comfortable……..(we would all benefit if you led) or (it would be meaningful to my walk with Jesus if you could)…….next Sunday.”
- DEMOCRATIZATION OF PARTICULAR WORSHIP ELEMENTS – In 2014 I attended a worship conference with Tanya Linn Bennett of Drew Theological School. Before her message she called out the Scripture passage, invited us to open our Bibles, and as the Spirit moved, she encouraged us to read the verses, one person at a time, until the passage was done. Not just one professional at the lectern, no weekly list to curate and keep track of, just the Word read by the people. 10 verses, 10 worship leaders. Done and done. Many of our churches already invite the whole congregation to make announcements and offer prayer concerns. Maybe hymns could be selected this way too (if your musicians can site read well enough). Maybe elements like the call to worship, opening prayer, and benediction could be led with those popping-up. It might be as simple as giving people permission and an opportunity: “Who would like to lead us in the Lord’s Prayer this morning?”
- MOVE FURNITURE OR GET RID OF IT – Take some time reflecting alone or with your team about the furniture in your worship space. What message does your 18′ tall pulpit communicate? Does the central location of your communion table combined with your non-visible baptismal font invite or dis-invite greater congregational leadership? What message is your communion rail and choir loft sending? As part of your reflections, try moving furniture around and see what happens: 1) Preach from the floor rather than the pulpit, 2) move the lectern to the bottom of the stairs just in front of the first row of pews, 3) move chairs into different patterns if you don’t have pews, 4) make your baptismal font more visible on a weekly basis, 5) try celebrating communion with the communion table in the center aisle with people gathered around the perimeter of the sanctuary (you know…actually gathering at the table), 6) Change where “up front” is sometimes. Do what you can with the physical objects and physical space of your sanctuary to send this message: all are invited and empowered to lead worship.
- TECHNOLOGY – Project hymn lyrics and announcements so that those who can’t read small print or who have trouble reading at all (e.g. the young) can participate. Get a wireless mic so that worshipers can read Scripture, lead a prayer, etc. from their pew and not have to move (this helps with accessibility as well as stage-fright). Invite people to choose a favorite recorded song that could be played as an offertory or as gathering music. Ask someone to create a video offertory. Use technology to help more people, lead more worship, more often.
- VISUAL ARTS – Banners, paraments, vestments, paintings, sculpture, floral design, altar decorations, temporary displays. All great opportunities for the artists in your congregations to lead worship visually. A great benefit of this is that artwork can be done outside of the service, a real bonus for the shy, introverted types and those who can’t be in worship on a particular Sunday. Use the visual arts as entry points for a wide range of worship leaders.
- HAVE COURAGE – Sometimes bad worship happens. The more people that lead worship the less control there is in worship and the higher the chance that the wheels will fall off of the sanctuary bus. When it goes wrong the pastor, worship team, and other staff get the blame. Yep. Have courage, take risks, take the heat, be willing to take the heat for others who are taking the risk of leading worship.
Last time I checked there is a Sunday this week. I wonder what would happen if more people, led more worship, more often…
Gratitiude and acknowledgement: All the above content comes through conversation, prayer, discernment, and insights from the people of the United Church of Underhill, VT in general, and its Ministry of Inspirational Worship team in particular. I am grateful for their courage, creativity, faithfulness, and willingness to be my teachers, day in and day out.
© Rev. Kevin Goldenbogen, 2016