In the past couple of years I’ve had the fortune of worshiping in close to forty congregations, speaking on my book, Practicing Midrash, or visiting out of town. Several churches have impressed me with their creative approach to worship—using the arts, mixing music genres, adding movement to what is typically an hour of sitting. Unfortunately, I have also been amazed at the number of worship services that are just plain boring.
While sitting in a boring worship service, I keep thinking: What keeps people coming back? In too many cases they don’t. Boring worship tends to be an early warning sign of church decline.
Worship brings a whole congregation together in the same place. In a thriving congregation, the energy of the collected body breaks forth in worship. You hear it in the choir or soloists. You feel it in the passion of deep prayer. You notice it through a campy announcement by a church member that is super excited about a youth trip, or a PRIDE parade.
When worship loses its energy, when it becomes boring, it often can be a sign that the vibrancy of a congregation is waning. To allow boring worship to become habitual threatens a church’s future.
What is a congregation to do? While every church is different, here are eight ideas worth reviewing.
- Restoring vibrancy to worship is too important a job for clergy alone. Churches that seriously work at improving their quality of worship involve lay leaders. Find the most creative and reflective people in your church and involve them with the staff in worship planning. Maybe they meet once a month, or quarter, or maybe some of them drop by the church once a week. Figure out what works for you.
- Make sure at least one innovative staff person has the time to make worship development a weekly priority. It doesn’t have to be the pastor. It could be the part-time children’s director that regularly acts in a community theater. Someone that is a spiritual seeker might be better than someone who has their theology all figured out.
- Plan in advance. Start planning worship for next spring’s Lent in the fall. What’s the big picture you want to convey during those six Sundays? How can you translate the 40-day march to Good Friday in a way that is relevant and life-giving for people of various backgrounds?
- Brainstorm. Give people permission to think outside the box about worship. Encourage outrageous ideas, even terrible ideas. Sometimes laughing about a terrible idea makes a really good idea pop in someone’s head. The collaborative process yields a far bigger harvest than a solitary pastor working alone at a desk.
- Plan movements in worship; do not just fill in slots. Think of Free Church Worship as four movements: 1) Praise to God, 2) Confession of who we are, 3) Intercession with God on behalf of others, 4) Proclamation of Good News and Response to its telling. Rather than refilling the slots from last week’s worship with another set of hymns, a different choral anthem, and so on, take time to ask, “How could we praise God at the beginning of worship that would really embody praise?” or, “How could we help people be honest with themselves so they could truly bring their whole being to God in worship?”
- Be willing to make mistakes. Creative worship planning takes risks. Sometimes ideas flop. It is easier just to do the same old thing. That’s why it becomes a default. But the occasional bad idea can actually be a gift. It communicates that you don’t have to be perfect to be in this church. It encourages others to try something new. Sometimes a “joyful noise” shared by a person of deep faith is a powerful and emotional connection in worship.
- Worship as you are now and want to be, not as you used to be. Nothing is more painful in worship than to listen to a choir of eight people try to sing a classical anthem that was once beautifully sung by a choir of 50 people in the same sanctuary 30 years ago. Translate that last sentence into other aspects of worship.
- Pray. Make worship planning a part of your spiritual discipline. If worship planning is not spiritually meaningful to the people who develop and lead worship, it will probably not be life-giving for the people who sit through it.
Tim Moore is the writer-in-residence and former pastor of Sardis Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C. He also is a current member of the Alliance of Baptists’ Board of Directors.