Things are different at Pastor Diana’s church. They use a traditional liturgy, but they have taught the meaning of the words in various educational opportunities. The worship assistant jobs are divided up and given out to whoever wants them, whatever their age. At one service, an older gentleman works with a third-grade girl to give the call to worship. Some of the music is traditional, but the musicians take time to teach it to everyone. A mixed group of kids, youth, and adults pantomime the Bible passage as a lector reads it. For her sermon, Pastor Diana has the ushers (one older couple and one family of a very excited kindergartner) pass out small oranges to everyone and then asks everyone to open them up while she speaks about the sweet scent of our worship to God. She then instructs worshippers to talk in partners about how one aspect of the Bible passage connects to something in their lives. She has a tough time getting them to stop talking. The service ends with some of the preschoolers standing next to the pastor and yelling out “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord” (or mostly that).
This is one comprehensive example of what I call “engaging worship.” It is fictional, but I created it as a compilation of characteristics I have seen or heard of in real worship services. Engaging worship is:
- Easy for a newcomer to fit in.
- A rich, multisensory experience.
- Many people of different ages participating.
- A relationship building experience.
An important thing to note here is that this example is messy and “unprofessional.” We can have a discussion sometimes about a “professional” worship service, but engaging worship also does not need to be this messy.
Worship as Faith Formation
I argue that a congregation’s worship service is the primary faith formation experience a congregation has. When I say “faith formation” I mean “any act, relationship, or experience that nurtures a relationship of trust with God and shapes the way we see and interact with God’s world.” So, why do I say that worship is a faith formation experience? Well, I see that the intent of any worship service is to nurture a relationship of trust with God, and shape the way we see God, ourselves, and the world.
Yes, it does appear that worship fits my definition of a faith formation experience. And, as the weekly event that draws the most people on the most regular basis, this makes it the largest, and arguably the most important faith formation experiences in our congregations.
Characteristics of Engaging Worship
Engaging worship will look different in different contexts, so I can’t just give you a “engaging worship in 12 easy steps.” But, regardless of the context, it does share several overlapping characteristics.
- Welcoming: The entire context of worship is designed to make everyone feel welcome, regardless of age, experience, or any other characteristic.
- Engaging: Worship is designed to engage people with their senses and with a diversity of learning styles.
- Participatory: Worship is designed so that everyone can fully participate, in a manner that they feel comfortable doing.
- Relational: Worship is designed to facilitate building relationships. This means that worshippers need to have opportunities to interact.
It’s important to remember that these four characteristics overlap. People feel welcome when they are engaged, invited to participate, and have relationships with others in the congregation. People are easier to engage when they feel welcome and can participate. They are more likely to participate in experiences where they are engaged, feel welcome, and have authentic relationships. They will feel more comfortable building relationships when they feel welcome, are engaged, and work together.
If you have read this blog even semi-regularly, you may have noticed that I have a passion for cross+generational (intergenerational) ministry. Engaging worship is, at its core, cross+generational worship. This does not mean that engaging worship is children’s worship. It is worship for all ages. You will find that it’s not difficult to figure out how to include all ages as you are working to make worship more welcoming, engaging, participatory, and relational.
As you probably know, congregation members often resist change. Here are some specific, practical points to consider:
- Don’t do this by yourself! The more people you can include in the process, the better! Get leaders on board, both official leaders, and the unofficial power players in the congregation.
- Spend a lot of time explaining why change is good, necessary, and important. Start a conversation with those who don’t want to change and find out their reasons. Work to address these concerns.
- Examine your current worship service on who is engaged or not engaged in each worship element. Refer to a list of generations, senses, and learning styles.
- Pay attention to your context. How does your congregation do things? What are the specific strengths and weaknesses of your congregation?
- Create a plan and take baby steps! Figure out how to adapt the current service to be more welcoming, engaging, participatory, and relational. Think of the long term.
- Take advantage of a natural change point like Lent, Advent, or the summer for an “experiment” with a specific end date. You can always do an encore performance.
- Listen, and keep listening. What are people saying, and what’s going on beneath the surface? Acknowledge everyone’s feelings.
- Build on successes, even small ones. Find what’s working and who is excited about it. Build on that.
- This is not about forcing your worship service into a specific mold. Engaging worship is an idea, a goal. There are many ways to get there and each congregation’s engaging worship service will be unique.
An Engaging Sermon
Our free activity this week is from our Spirit & Truth: Teaching Kids the Heart of Worship curriculum, which teaches the meaning of worship, liturgy, and the church year for PK-6th grade students. This activity is designed for an elementary-aged classroom setting but can be used in a cross+generational setting, classroom or worship service without much adaptation. “(Children’s) Sermon Planning” engages participants in creating a short, fun presentation of a Bible story that can be used in worship, as a children’s sermon, storytelling time, or even part of a regular sermon. The result is a welcoming, engaging, participatory, and relational worship component!
-Gregory Rawn (Publisher)
2018-2019 (NL Year 1) faith formation materials are now available for purchase. Download Fall and Winter lessons right away! You can download the 2018-2019 Planning Tool and Scope & Sequence to start your planning for the next program year!
For more great ideas on how to engage participants of all ages in the story of God’s love, check out our Living the Word series for elementary students, youth, adults, and intergenerational settings!