Ways to Worship

The surprising thing about the New Testament is that it gives very few particulars regarding how the early church worshiped. There are important clues, yes. There are key elements, for sure. But the NT is surprisingly light on liturgy. There simply is no simple formula (though churches I’ve been a part of my entire life have followed a very similar one — something like: 2 or 3 songs, communion, offering, sermon, invitation, announcements, closing prayer).

I think this “lack of a liturgy” is intentional, and is an invitation to be creative and culturally relevant in whatever context a church finds itself. So, expressive dance works well in some places, and would be shocking in others. Video is a great communication tool in some parts of the world, but completely inaccessible and unnecessary in others. There are a number of ways to worship, and those who help lead are wise to consider culturally appropriate and creative ways to invite folks into God’s presence.

But the New Testament’s flexibility when it comes to the ways we worship does not mean there isn’t a way to worship. In other words: we can (and should) come up with different styles of worship — but this should not detract from some essential elements that worship should include.

So, when it comes to worship, whether it’s in Louisville or Laos, South Africa or Southampton, Guinea or Guyana, I think it should include these key components.

First is Scripture. When we gather as God’s people, scripture is a vital component. Whether it is sung, spoken, prayed, dramatized, or proclaimed — or, better yet, all of those — it is scripture that most clearly presents the voice and the will of God. Now, I doubt most folks with disagree with this. But what we believe, and what we practice, often don’t seem to be in sync. For example: how often are 80%, 90%, or even more of the words that are spoken and sung and ad-libbed from the stage our words, instead of God’s?

I have been preaching recently at a very small congregation. I’ve enjoyed sharing with them, but, honestly, they don’t really need me. Sure, it’s nice for them to have a preacher each Sunday; and I’m glad they’ve asked me to come. It’s good for them to have someone open the Word. But the simple truth is: they don’t have to have an outside “professional” come in each Sunday. One (or 2 or 3) of them can get up and read some scripture on Sunday, and speak a word or two of encouragement — and they will hear from God (which, apparently, is what happened in the church in Corinth; see 1 Corinthians 14).

A second essential element of worship is response. If God speaks through scripture (and whatever words of encouragement we might add), then His speaking demands a response. And so, in most churches I’ve been in, we invite folks to make a first-time decision to follow Jesus and be baptized.

That’s a good thing. But it’s not the only thing. For the Word of God always demands a response, of every one. Sometimes that response is a first-time decision, but 90% of the people in our churches — a number that is higher in some, lower in others — have already made that decision. So, we shouldn’t just invite the 10% to make a decision; we should invite everyone to respond. Sometimes, that might look like weeping and repentance; other times it might involve arms raised and joyful shouts.

Worship should be a place where confession is included; where repentance is spoken — where prayer isn’t just the words 2 or 3 men pray from the platform. Instead, prayer is the essence of our response. Prayer must be what we invite everyone to speak and to share, to sing and to silently voice.

While I’m on the subject of response: one way the churches I’ve been part of include response is the Lord’s Supper. Communion is an important time to touch and taste the Word of God — and to respond. But in basically every church I’ve been in, communion is almost always a silent, solitary affair. While this is ok, it doesn’t seem to have been the practice of the early church. Again, in the church at Corinth, we see communion as very much a community affair — one where sharing in communion involves looking out for your fellow believers (see 1 Corinthians 11).

Imagine the opportunity we would provide people if we carved out more space for response — through communion, and otherwise. As one example, think about what it would look like to have a worship service where people were invited to go and say “thank you,” or “I’m sorry,” or “Can I pray for you?” — and we then gave worshipers 10 minutes to do just that, during the service, with anyone in the room.

Awkward? For some, sure. Impossible? In some circumstances, yes. But I believe that a core element of worship has to be response — a response that is rarely solitary.

This leads to another element vital to healthy worship: community. Worship as a church must be done as a church. Of course a person can worship God alone on a hike in the woods. But it’s not complete. For worship of God always involves relationship with others. We never worship in isolation, even if we are alone — for worship always changes us; a change that impacts, and involves, others.

It is simply not true, biblical worship if we sneak in the back, talk to no one, and slip out before the final prayer. Sure, some folks need to do that as they figure out the church thing. But for those of us who “get” the church thing — even if just a little bit — then church is simply not about any one of us, but instead is about all of us; coming together to hear from God, and be changed by God to be more like Jesus, empowered and driven by the Spirit of God.

So, dance, or not. Raise your hands, or not. Clap, or don’t. Use instruments, or just a keyboard, or none at all. Meet in a building, or under a bamboo tree. Wear blue jeans or Brooks Brothers. But don’t miss what is essential to worship itself: the Word of God, which calls for a response to God, from all who gather as the people of God.

What I’ve Learned as a Church Visitor

Since I transitioned from full-time ministry to speaking and sharing on a part-time basis, I’ve had the opportunity to visit a number of churches. I have been in a church of over a thousand; I’ve been with congregations numbering in the hundreds; and I’ve been in a church that had less than twenty. I’ve been in a church that had all men up front leading worship, and I’ve been in a church that had all women leading music. I’ve been in low church, a high church, and a church where I, as a white guy, was in the minority.

I’ve been in a church where we shared communion together — but nobody told me that before I took it. Oops. I’ve been in a large church where it took weeks to try to get connected to a small group. I’ve been in a small church where we went to a small group on our first Sunday. I’ve been to a church that on the 25th had its Christmas eve service listed on the church sign — the 25th of February, that is. I’ve visited a church who had 2 memorial benches right by the front door — one celebrating a dearly departed saint; the other advertising where you could get yours, too.

I share all of these things not to make light of what any one church is doing, but hopefully to shed light on the many ways church is done. And on what a visitor can learn in just 90 minutes on a Sunday. In all of these churches, and more, it truly has been a privilege to worship and experience the many varieties of what church is — and can be.

As I reflect on my experiences, here are some of the things that jump out to me: Number one: Almost all churches have greeters and/or a greeting time. In fact, I can only think of one church I’ve been to that didn’t have greeters at the door, or a greeting time. (This church was small enough everybody had the opportunity to say hi to everyone else, anyway.) Even so, I have discovered that most people in most churches don’t go out of their way to say hi to someone new. In fact, sometimes folks will go out of their way not to say hi.

I remember one church I visited; I was walking down the center aisle to my seat. A few guys were talking as I passed; one of them was standing in the aisle. He made a point of getting out of my way, but didn’t say anything — even though he surely had to know I was the new guy. I say this not to pick on him, or anyone else like him; I say it as a reminder: Having greeters or a greeting time may make your church a “friendly church.” But to be a “welcoming church,” your church has to have some people who are willing and able to engage those who are new. By this, I mean: people who are ready to open their lives and make room for someone new. It is simply not enough to have greeters welcome people and point them to the kids ministry or the bathroom; your church has to have people whose lives are not so full of church people and church stuff that they aren’t able or willing to make space for people trying to find their place in your church.

Now, of course, this has to be done appropriately and in the right time; some folks initially do want to slip in and slip out. But if a church is going to help people transition from visitors to members to full partners in the church’s mission, it’s going to take more than a “Hi, we’re glad you’re here.”

Number two: Most Bible-believing churches don’t use much Bible in their worship. Many churches say they are a New Testament church, which is truly a wonderful thing. But some of those same churches seem only to use scripture during the sermon time. In a day and age where our people are getting all kinds of indoctrination from the world — seemingly 24/7 — how can we not share with them more than just a few verses of truth in what may be the only hour all week many of them give any sustained attention to God’s truth? Calling your church a New Testament church is a great thing; one of the first, and simplest ways to put that into practice, is by making sure scripture is a central part of worship each week.

Which leads me one more observation: We’ve got to be careful not to make Sunday worship the equivalent of a pep rally. Sometimes, we exchange an encounter with the Living God with an effort to make sure the congregation “feels good” about being at church. Sometimes we trade life-changing submission to God for life-tweaking God-ideas that we simply add on to our already confused lives. My point isn’t that Sunday isn’t a time to feel something; nor is it an excuse to be boring or predictable. Instead, it’s a reminder that worship is first and foremost a bringing of our lives, collectively, before the Creator & Redeemer of the Universe. And sometimes, that may not “feel good.”

Sometimes, we may not feel like dancing; sometimes, in fact, we ought to fall on our faces and mourn. In fact, celebrating God’s goodness and grace are cheapened when we don’t face the hard reality that life sometimes sucks. And we often have more questions than we have answers. And on any given Sunday, there may be quite a few people who show up uncertain where God is in their lives, or if He even is, at all. Recognizing this isn’t an act of faithlessness; instead, I believe it’s a first step of faith. And for some people in your Sunday service, it may be they only step they can take right now.

And when we recognize the full spectrum of faith that is present each Sunday, I believe this is a vital first step in bringing our whole selves to God in worship. For some — maybe most — this might look like celebrating; but not for all. And even those who are ready for an all-out pep rally, for it to be more than a “Sunday experience,” it will have first gone through some painful honesty, some confession, some raw trust, some truth from scripture that reminds us we are not alone — not in our sin, or our struggles, or our suffering. So: it’s a great thing to celebrate as a church when we gather; but let’s make sure we don’t exchange true biblical joy for a manufactured momentary “experience.”

Because, at the end of the day, you can tell a lot about a church by how they worship. In my next post, I’ll share more specifically what I think that worship can look like.

I’m New Here

Let’s say you have someone over for dinner, and when they arrive, the following happens:

  • Your driveway is full, and there’s no good place for them to park.
  • Your porch light is out.
  • They knock, but no one answers. They peek in, and call out a tentative, Hello…?
  • Dad, who is on the couch, barely looks up from the TV, and yells: Honey, your company is here!
  • There aren’t enough chairs for the table.
  • You have a family favorite for dinner, but it’s a dish your guests have never had before. They’re not sure if they should eat it with their hands, or with a fork. Not wanting to ask, they have to watch you closely to see how you eat it.
  • During the meal, your family talks mostly to each other — largely overlooking your guests.
  • When dinner is complete, a couple of your family head to the basement to watch the game. You start on the dishes. Two of your kids pull out their phones and immediately share private laughs over snapchat posts.

Crazy? Sure. Unlikely to happen? Probably. But what if something similar is happening at churches every Sunday, all across America?

Think of it this way. Just about every church has a get-together every Sunday. We call it worship. And for the churches in my tradition, we have a meal at the center of that gathering: The Lord’s Supper.

How many visitors/guests come each Sunday to churches all across this nation, only to experience some real-life version of what I just mentioned? How many church visitors have found at least one of these to be true?

  • Parking is difficult.
  • They’re not sure where they go, or their kids.
  • They’re not greeted and helped when the arrive.
  • When they enter the sanctuary/auditorium, people have already filled the seats along the aisle, so they have to climb over somebody in order to get to an available seat — or they have to walk down to the only open places, which are all down front.
  • They don’t know the language or the traditions, and it’s not explained. (Just one example: Who takes communion? And how? When the trays or passed? Or when you’re ready? Or all together? Or up front?)
  • They feel like outsiders, because everyone else is happily talking to other people — and they all seem to know each other really well.
  • So, when the service is over, church people find other church people to talk with, make plans with, and eat lunch with.

Now, just like the illustration of having guests over for dinner, the picture I painted is exaggerated. Rare is the church who would do all of those things. But rare is the church who does none of those things.

For the simple truth is: the more comfortable we get on Sundays, the less likely we are to see what has grown familiar to us. And the more familiar we are with “doing church,” the more likely we are to forget how awkward and difficult it can be to “do church” when someone is brand new.

To this end, I am excited to be able to offer a service that helps churches see themselves through the lens of a visitor. I am calling it The Paraklesis Project, after the New Testament word that means “encouragement.” My goal is to encourage and assist churches of all sizes to consider how they can be a more welcoming place for people of all backgrounds, ages, and church experiences.

I recently offered this to a church in Indiana, and was able to visit them on a Sunday and help them assess what they do and why they do it. Since no one there knew me, I was able to go in just like any visitor might. Not being sure where to go or what to do, I experienced “Sunday church” as a newcomer. I then met with the leadership to share what I had experienced, and this conversation led to some deeper dialogue about the purpose and direction of the church, and the strengths and opportunities they face. I followed up that visit by preaching the next Sunday, using some of the insights I had gathered to encourage the church to continue to be family, while taking that love and openness to others — not just on Sundays, but everyday.

If you know of a church that would benefit from this ministry where I “go and visit,” and then “come and share,” send them a link to this blog. Or send them my name and email (gulpinggrace(at)gmail(dot)com). I’d love to talk with them about crafting a personalized plan to help them evaluate how they approach Sundays — but more importantly, how they approach people who need to see, and experience, Jesus’ love.