Forming Faith Blog

Exclusive or Inclusive Worship?

The month of June is crazy for me with a conference (InterGenerate 2023) and a long-overdue family trip. So, for the next month (except the week of June 5th with a practical ministry post on self-care by our own Elaine Seekon), I will be reusing a series I originally wrote in 2021 called “Insiders and Outsiders.” The theme of inclusion and exclusion is as relevant now as it was then.

Our corporate worship services are the events that visitors are most likely to attend as their first introduction to your congregation (maybe the Church as a whole). Does your service exclude newbies, even unintentionally?

An image of empty church pews with an altar in the background.
Insiders, Outsiders, and Worship

This is the final post in my series on Insiders and Outsiders (about exclusion in church). The most regular, the most attended faith formation event your congregation has is corporate worship. That’s what many people think of when they think of “church.” The phrase “Going to church” means more than just traveling to the church building. It means that you are traveling to a corporate worship service. This is the event that visitors are most likely to engage with the church. Even outreach events often have worship attendance as their goal. All of this means that it is in worship where people can encounter barriers that mark them as “outsiders.” The worship service is a key place for a congregation to be inclusive (expansive).

How Accessible Is Your Worship?

To work toward inclusivity in your worship service, the first question to ask is: how accessible is your worship? We often think of physical disability when we hear the word “accessible,” as well we should. Our worship spaces need to be designed (or adapted) to allow people with mobility and other limitations to easily access the space. However, here I am specifically looking at general accessibility for people who might be considered “outsiders” or do not have an easy time participating in worship.

How easily can someone—who is not familiar with Christian worship—join in and learn to worship God through your worship service? [This is assuming that the person would have sufficient interest and courage in trying new things in the first place; you can’t give these to anyone.]

NOT about Traditional vs. Contemporary

I want to get this misunderstanding out of the way first. I am not arguing on behalf of either the traditional or contemporary worship camps. Both can be inaccessible or accessible. You will have to continue this argument without me.

Newbies: Children, Youth, and Visitors

Our target audience here is visitors, specifically visitors from outside your worship tradition. I doubt that anyone has gone about designing a worship service that consciously excludes outsiders. Instead, it’s much more common to design a worship service around insiders, which might have the same effect.

Along with visitors, I would also add children and (sometimes) youth to this list of “newbies” who can feel excluded. Worship services are often designed only with adults in mind. The fact that there can be a “children’s sermon” and perhaps a special “youth-led worship service” makes it clear that the rest of the service is not for them. The good news is that a service that can engage children and youth (without talking down to them) is welcoming to visitors, and vice versa.

Educational Connection

As my readership includes many non-pastor, non-worship leader folks, you might be wondering what this has to do with you. If you work with children and/or youth, I think you can do two important things:

  1. Advocate: If your experience with your groups or classes tells you that they—as an age group—are often lost, uninterested, or otherwise unengaged in worship (hopefully not actively unwelcome), then you can urge your pastoral and worship leaders to consider how to engage your group. I assume you are in your position because you care deeply for the faith formation of your students. The corporate worship service is a prime place of faith formation and should be for all ages.
  2. Educate: This is likely in your job description in one way or another. Whether it’s through a formal class, a fun group, or service projects, your goal is to teach about God and faith. Again, since corporate worship is an important faith formation experience, you can use some of your time teaching the whats, whys, and hows of your worship. [Leaders for elementary-aged students can check out our Spirit & Truth: Teaching Kids the Heart of Worship curricula.]
Expansive Worship

I do not have the space here to explore the “hows.” You can see some of that in a previous blog series on Expansive Worship. What I will say as a teaser is that worship that can engage visitors, children, and youth is intergenerational worship in one form or another. 

In the peace of Christ,

Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

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