Experiments in Giving Our Congregations Opportunities to Respond

It seems that lots of churches today are dealing with similar problems when it comes to congregational worship.  Our congregations are in danger of becoming more like spectators than actual participants.

There are many reasons cited for this shift.  I read something once that indicated the more professional and slick the service is, the more unworthy the congregation will feel about participating.  What do you think about that?  I don’t actually agree with it.  If you attend a rock concert, there are not many people holding back, no matter whether they can sing or not.

Maybe we are not singing the right songs that connect with our congregations?  We might be singing what we think are all the cool songs, but maybe it’s just not a good fit for our church?

I really believe it all boils down to the church’s worship culture, and it’s the worship leader and the pastor’s responsibility to cultivate and grow that within our churches.

It’s the “how” part that I’m currently struggling with and working on.  How do we engage people and send them off running in pursuit of God during our corporate worship?

Corporate worship doesn’t have to be (nor should it be) all about singing.  To the average congregation member “worship” = “singing”, but not everyone likes to sing and that is OK.  Worship leaders and church leaders should know that singing is only one way to worship God.  Does that concept work in our corporate worship setting?

Louie Giglio defines worship as

“our response, both personal and corporate, to God for who He is, and what He has done; expressed in and by the things we say and the way we live”.

“Response” is the key word here.  I believe that more than trying to get our congregation to sing, we should be working on getting them to respond.  While singing is definitely a big (and awesome) part of this, we need to be thinking of providing alternative opportunities for people to participate in corporate worship.

At Story Church, we often have communion and prayer opportunities in our services when we feel led.  This is a good way to get congregations out of their seats and responding to God.  However it’s great to change things up now and again with the hope of helping people see things in a new light, or reevaluate something they’ve let grow into meaningless ritual.

Last September, Story Church hosted a Creative Worship day.  We provided a range of different activities that people could participate in during the service.  These included singing together, writing poetry, painting, hammering huge nails into a cross, among many others (read the full post here).  This day was kind of an experiment and we had no idea if people would respond.  To my surprise, they embraced the idea fully and it made the day a great success.

Since then, we have been trying to bring elements like those into the service that either complement or reinforce the message.  An example of this recently was when Pastor Jeremy shared from the parable of the unforgiving servant.  When the band got back up after the sermon we played “You Are My King” by Billy Foote. While the music played the congregation lined up to write out cards specifying debts owed to them. There were ink stamps and pads available to allow them to stamp PAID on the card, forgiving those listed for the hurt they had caused them. Powerful. It was such a releasing moment for many, and more meaningful than singing the song alone.

You don’t always need props to give room for response.  One time we placed words on the screen and had each side of the room take turns reaffirming truths over each other.  This was simple, yet powerful and helps people not only understand the message, but retain it for longer.

While not really an in-service response, another effective way of concreting the message in the minds of our congregations is to have them leave with some token to remind them.  I have a little key-chain boxing glove that hangs on my wall at work.  It was from our ‘Fight for your Heart’ series.  In the series we talked about a few issues we need to protect our hearts from – like greed and anger.  I’d probably remember none of the points if I didn’t have that key-chain to remind me.

We are a young church, many of us volunteers with full-time non-church jobs.  Finding the time to dedicate to planning elements like this is difficult, but we’ve started and so can you!  It becomes a lot easier when the message series is planned well ahead.  Identify some creative people in your church and distribute message outlines in advance to get their brains thinking.

Here are some tips to finish off:

  • You don’t need a new element every week
  • You can reuse elements, but don’t become too predictable
    In building these elements, engage some of your congregation who normally have no avenue for their skills – painters/carpenters/crafts
  • Don’t introduce elements for the sake of it.  Make sure it’s related and helps to reinforce the message.
    Take it slowly.  Don’t introduce too much at once
  • Plan early, let the ideas sink in amongst the team and then talk about what elements could be introduced
  • Using music as a background to these times of response usually works better
  • Have a prayer team ready to pray with anyone who needs it.

Have you tried something different to engage congregations creatively in your church? Can you share what worked well and what did not?

This is a guest post by Alastair Vance who leads worship for Story Church. Alastair is a stand-out worship bloggermusician and one of the kindest persons I’ve ever met online. You can follow him on Twitter too @AlastairVance.