A few weeks ago Jared Wilson wrote an article titled “3 Things to Be Careful About Saying at the Start of Your Service.” In his article he offered some common service-starting cliches that are “worth weighing in terms of their helpfulness to the congregation’s worship.” They were, “How’s everybody doing this morning?”; “I can’t hear you. I said, How’s everybody doing?”; and “Where is everybody?” I’ve heard all three of these many times and expect you have as well. And I fully agree with Wilson that even if none of them are objectively wrong, they also aren’t particularly helpful. We can do better, and in his article he offers some superior alternatives.
What I’d like to do is consider two related matters: Why do pastors or service leaders use phrases like these? And what are the most beneficial things for pastors or leaders to say at the beginning of a worship service?
Why We Use These Phrases
Why is it that pastors and worship leaders are so prone to blurt out trite phrases like these as they open their services? I’d like to offer a few suggestions.
- Lack of significance. The very beginning and very end of services may seem like the elements that are least significant to our worship. Just watch how many people who seem able to show up on time for school, work, flights, and medical appointments straggle into church 10 or 15 minutes late and you’ll see how lightly many congregants regard the opening moments of our services. But pay attention to the opening and closing elements, and you’ll see that often the pastors and worship leaders treat them with just as little significance.
- Lack of preparation. The leader has not thoughtfully and prayerfully prepared to lead this part of the service, so he just says whatever comes to mind. While every other element is carefully planned (especially the transitions into and out of music—you can’t have dead air!), the opening and closing often seem to be done off-the-cuff.
- Habit/imitation. When the leader doesn’t treat that element of the service with much significance and isn’t well-prepared to lead it, he is likely to blurt out the first thing that comes to mind, and what comes to mind is probably what he’s in the habit of saying or what he has heard others say in the past.
- Discomfort. And then there’s the fact that opening a service can be an uncomfortable thing to do. In many churches that opening word is spoken to a distracted congregation that is moving about, chatting, and just getting settled. It’s no small task to call a room to order. It takes a kind of authority and self-confidence. Discomfort with the task often manifests itself in trite phrases or bad attempts at humor (which I’d say are usually related to that old sin we call “fear of man”).
The fact is, many leaders do not attach great significance to the opening and closing elements of their services and, therefore, do not adequately prepare themselves for what they will say and do not adequately guard themselves against the inevitable discomfort they will feel. The result is words or phrases that may be empty, distracting, or just plain silly.
What Christians Need
As we consider the things we say at the beginning of our services (and whatever else you take from this article, please do consider what you say at the beginning of your services!), we ought to be considering what Christians really need as they gather to worship together. What are the best, the most beneficial, things a pastor or leader can say as he opens the service? What will best serve the people who have gathered?
To know that, we need to think well about the place of corporate worship in the Christian life. In recent years we have heard a lot about how all of life is to be worship, and there is certainly a sense in which that is true. We are to proclaim and display God’s worth at all times and in all situations. But our weekly gatherings represent a special kind of worship. The gathered church has a unique function and a unique responsibility in proclaiming the Word, in dispensing the sacraments (or ordinances, if you prefer), in congregational singing, in pastoral prayer, and in the public use of spiritual gifts.
The opening and closing elements allow us to “bookend” our services. They allow us to proclaim that we are setting apart a time that is different from every other time in the week. Traditionally, this was done by a call to worship and a benediction. A call to worship would call God’s people to set aside their everyday concerns and responsibilities so they could give themselves to a special time of worship. The benediction would then call upon God to bless his people as they headed back into a wearying world. These elements partioned the weekly worship service, distinguishing it from every other moment and experience. They served a key purpose, and I think it’s high time we get back to them. (Kudos to those churches and traditions that never abandoned them in the first place!)
The call to worship is a means of acknowledging that God’s people come to church each week weary, dry, and discouraged. They have labored through another week and need to be reminded of the rest Christ offers their weary souls. They have endured another week of trials, temptations, or persecutions and come thirsty, eager to drink the water of life and to be refreshed by it. They have walked another seven days of their journey as broken, sinful people and need to be reminded of who Christ is and who they are in him. Church is urgent business! Instead of being asked how they are, Christians need to reminded who they are. Instead of being asked where everyone else is, Christians need to be reminded where Christ is.
If we’ve got just 75 or 90 minutes a week to accomplish all that corporate worship can and should accomplish, we can’t afford to waste a minute. There’s another 10,000 minutes before the church gathers again the following Sunday, so why wouldn’t we prepare well so we can make the most of each and every one? The fact is, the opening element of a service can be significant or wasted. It can be a help or a hindrance. Perhaps this is the question that distinguishes one from the other: Are those opening words going to draw attention to the leader or to Christ? Will they elevate people’s eyes to see their Savior, or lower their eyes to see the leader? The way I see it, the first words people hear as they assemble to worship, and the final words they hear as they disassemble to live in this world for another week, should not be vapid. In fact, we could make the argument that they should be the most significant of all.