As Christians, we set aside the first day of each week as a day of worship. We gather together as communities to worship God through what we call “church services.” One of the struggles we may encounter is related to doing roughly the same thing in the same way week after week. We may begin to lose sight of the beauty of Christian worship through its sheer weekly repetition. Today I want to offer a few humble suggestions to pastors or others involved in planning services that may serve to add an element of freshness to a service, but without adding elements that are desperate, distracting, or flat-out ridiculous.
Explain the liturgy. Protestant services have generally followed certain patterns (i.e. liturgies) so that there is a flow from the beginning of the service to the end. While this varies according to tradition, a typical one may go something like this: A call to worship leads to an opening song. The singing is followed by a confession of sin which is, in turn, followed by an assurance of pardon and a song of thanksgiving. Scripture is read, a pastoral prayer is offered, then there is more singing. Then comes the sermon which is followed by a prayer, a song of response, and a benediction. Every now and again it may prove helpful to explain in a few sentences why the church’s services are structured as they are and, in that way, to allow people “into” the order in a more conscious way. What may be very obvious to the pastor may be obscure to the congregation. Let them in!
Explain an element of your service. When we worship week after week and follow roughly the same order of service, some things that are deeply meaningful can become merely routine. For that reason there can be benefit in taking the time to explain them and thank God for them. If a pastoral prayer is a part of each week’s service, take a few moments to explain why your church offers a pastoral prayer, what it is usually composed of, and how it differs from other prayers. If a benediction is part of your service each week, briefly explain what a benediction is, why you always include it, and how the congregation ought to receive it. Should they bow their heads and close their eyes for the benediction, or raise their heads and open their eyes? They may be uncertain unless they know what purpose it serves and why it is part of your service!
Explain preaching. Take a few moments to explain what preaching is and why it takes up such a significant portion of the service. Also explain why preaching is different from any other form of communication that may be more familiar to the congregation—teaching, speeches, motivational talks, lectures, and so on. Preaching was once a familiar form of communication but we can no longer assume people understand its uniqueness or understand what a gift it is to us. Tell them why it is so crucial that they listen to the preaching with open Bibles!
Explain singing. As Christians we take singing almost for granted. We know it will be part of every worship service (and, in fact, expect it will be part of just about any gathering—when I speak in non-Christian settings it is always jarring to get up to speak without first having sung!). But what is so familiar to us is increasingly foreign to others. Where else do people sing songs together? So consider explaining why we sing and perhaps how to make the most of singing. Be sure to explain that congregational singing is not meant to be a performance by a few, but a means through which we, as individual Christians, serve one another (as per Colossians 3:16).
Explain a song. It is a great blessing to sing the same songs and, over time, to find they become imprinted into our memories. That database of songs we can call up in a moment of praise or mourning is a great gift! But sometimes it is good to re-familiarize ourselves with our songs, and we can do that either by explaining why we have chosen to sing this song at this point in the service or to explain the story behind the song. So many of the great hymns have inspiring stories behind their creation and it can be a blessing to know this background as we sing them.
There are five simple suggestions that can add an element of freshness to a service, yet without becoming a distraction. At various times we have included each of these to our services at Grace Fellowship Church and have found them both meaningful and effective. Perhaps you can consider adding them, or some like them, to your services.
(Parenthetically, here’s a slightly different suggestion: declare a name amnesty Sunday. We have found it helpful from time to time to declare a “name amnesty Sunday.” When this happens we have every person wear a name tag and we explain that this is a day when everyone is absolved of the guilt or embarrassment of not knowing others—even people who have been part of the same church for a very long time. On this day you can ask anyone their name without carrying the shame of having to admit you’ve forgotten it.)