Small Churches, Powerful Worship
I have always admired people who could play the guitar, especially pastors. The ability to lead the congregation into an encounter with God by moving seamlessly between Word and music is a very special gift. Certainly we can do that to a degree with organ or piano accompaniment, but I have always felt that a pastor who can both lead music and preach has a sense of intimacy with their congregation that encourages a feeling of vitality in worship. I watch my friends or my students stand up there and lead worship with confidence, playing the familiar strains of “This is the Day” or “Open the Eyes of My Heart” and setting a mood that is undeniably appealing, and I think, “If only I could play the guitar…”
But I can’t…and that is a ship that has long since sailed!
Some congregations are blessed with musical talent. Others are not. In small and rural churches this is a fact of life that we frequently cannot change. We live and minister in a relatively small pool and our options for recruiting specialized talent is limited by the nature of our context and community. I have been blessed over the years with some fantastic organists and pianists, but have never been in a place that had even one reliable, competent guitar player or a group of people who could make up even a basic praise band. But that did not mean that we could not have vibrant worship. Vital rural churches understand that the key to success is in making the most of our available assets, not being held back by our inherent limitations.
I am sure that we would all agree that worship is an essential element of the life of any congregation and is probably the most visible act of ministry that we perform. In many ways the quality of our worship defines who we are as a church, particularly to those who are visitors in our midst. So why is worship vibrant in some congregations and lacking in others? Believe it or not, in spite of my confessions of Fender envy, it has less to do with the type of music or the continuing debate about contemporary vs. traditional styles of worship, than it has to do with other factors that we can control and encourage.
There are certain things about good worship that we should simply assume. For example, worship should honor and praise our Triune God and encourage us to develop a strong and lasting relationship with Jesus as our savior. In worship, scripture is essential, preaching should be faithful to the Word, and music of some kind is an important part of every service. Nearly every church tries to form their worship around these basics. But there are other factors that we find in vital churches that seem to set their worship apart from the rest.
Here are a few common themes that we find in the vibrant worship of vital congregations:
1. Worship is welcoming. This may seem obvious and much has been written about the need to be welcoming, but what I am referring to is far more than whether or not you have greeters at the door or nametags for your members. It is not enough to just say hello to someone who visits your church or to make them comfortable or even to invite them to your fellowship time. Those are all important things. But the key is in the service itself. Our worship service should be developed in such a way that it is welcoming to visitors. That means making the order of worship easy to follow, avoiding too many hidden responses or expectations, and giving even the least experienced among us something to think about when they go home.
2. Preaching is relevant. As we all know, a sermon is more than just an interesting speech or an exegesis paper. A good sermon is based on careful interpretation of scripture, but then that preaching has to apply to real life. It is in the application that our members begin to put the word into action and see meaning for their own lives. One should not have to be a theologian in order to make that connection, so it is our responsibility to make sure that the language we use is clear and understandable. Save those words you learned in seminary, like exegesis and expiation, for your conversations with your pastor friends and use the vernacular of your congregation and community. Remember, the sign of a good sermon is not in others seeing how smart you are, but in how faithful you can help them to be. Everyone should take something home every week.
3. Worship should be memorable. In vital churches, worship is remembered long after the service is over. If you find that your members are talking about the service or your message in the local coffee shop or café several days later you know that you had an impact. I’m not talking about being quirky or goofy in worship, but in drawing interest to our God in ways that others can relate to. People who experience memorable, vibrant worship are often excited to share about it with their friends and neighbors, sometimes even inviting them to come see for themselves. It might be the music, the sermon, or the fellowship afterward, but there is something about vital worship that stays with the participants after they leave the sanctuary.
4. Worship is an attitude. In vital churches, people see worship as much more than a Sunday morning service. It is the attitude that they take with them into everything that they do. Worship impacts the decisions we make, the relationships we share, and even the problems we encounter. In turn, that makes worship our motivation for service in the community. That means that the outreach of our church, no matter what form it takes, is an extension and reflection of our worship, even encouraging our members to feel comfortable sharing about their faith with others who have little understanding of what it means to know Jesus.
5. The Spirit is welcome in worship. We have all been in congregations where we have sat down to worship and then felt less than inspired. When the service becomes an exercise in moving from one item on the agenda to the next, there is little sense of expectation or inspiration and too often the most exciting thing on your mind has to do with your plans for lunch. In vital worship, when the Spirit is welcome there is a sense that God is indeed present and that an encounter with the Almighty is not only possible, but likely. Leaving room for God means leaving room for the unexpected. It means allowing for awe and wonder and not just order. While good planning is an essential part of our preparation for any worship service, allowing for silence and mystery is equally important. Being a good leader is not just knowing what to say, but also knowing when to get out of the way.
Incomplete as it might be, my intent in sharing this list is to get the conversation started. What I want to avoid are excuses, reasons why we can’t make our worship have life and excitement no matter what size our church might be. There are certain things out of our control or that are hard to change, like the resources we have available or the number of members in our church. But these are a few characteristics that we find in the worship of vital churches and whether we have 30 or 300 in attendance they give us a starting point for considering how we might encourage and enhance the worship of our own small and rural churches.