Maybe this is too obvious. I apologize if it is. But doing worship well requires organizing the right way. And I think the reason we so often do worship badly is, in part, because we so often organize badly. Let me explain.
In the typical Church of Christ, worship planning goes this way —
* The preacher plans his sermon.
* The song leader picks 6 or so songs, which may or may not connect with the sermon.
* The deacon over worship calls someone and asks him to lead communion.
* The deacon over worship calls someone else and asks him to lead the “main” prayer.
* The deacon over worship calls one last person and asks him to lead the closing prayer.
The deacon’s job is pretty miserable because most people say no. The ones who say yes are often not very good at what they do. Worship deacons usually burn out pretty fast.
Notice that this approach to planning assumes a rigid template that will be the same week to week, with no work to do other than fill in the blanks.
Interestingly enough, Frank Viola has demonstrated in Pagan Christianity that the order of worship we follow is about the same as for 18th Century Reformation Churches, which is about the same as for Medieval Catholic churches, which is about the same as for pagan temple services in pre-Christian Rome. That doesn’t make it wrong (it’s not). It does mean it’s not the only approach that God will smile on.
A better approach would be to appoint a committee (or team) to plan worship. The team would have people who are all passionate about Sunday morning services. And they’d represent a variety of views — especially those with a talent for creativity and those who who have a heart for the relational side of church.
Or, maybe I should put it this way. What kind of people enjoy worship the way we normally do it? To whom does it appeal?
People who enjoy constancy. People with very analytical minds. People who enjoy music from many years ago. People who don’t mind songs led more slowly than the composers intended.
So what kind of people are we leaving out? The creative. Those who see church as more relational than rule based. Those who enjoy contemporary music. People who enjoy music led at the proper pace. People who enjoy music other than four-part harmony.
And in fairness to them, we need to have people on the committee who have these gifts. There’s no conceivable reason that we should always do church in the same way — especially when that way appeals to only a very small percentage of the total population, and an even smaller percentage of the young, unconverted — which is who most of our converts come from.
So put some women and artistic types on the committee. Put on some young people, maybe even some recent converts. And put people on with musical talent.
Now, here’s the important part — ask the committee to brainstorm. Think of as many alternative plans for worship as possible. Try to reach 50. Cull the worse ideas, keep the best, and do something a little different (or a lot different) at least once a month.
Now, I won’t list 50 ideas (I’m just one person), but here are a few warm up ideas to give a sense of what I have in mind —
* Service focused on communion. Sermon first, pointing people toward the communion, songs leading up to communion, communion is the climax. Do contribution early so as to leave communion as the sole focus.
* Service focused on prayer. No sermon. Rather, preacher speaks 2 or 3 minutes introducing topics that require prayer. A different person then leads a prayer on that subject. Several topics are addressed by separate prayer and introduction.
* Service focused on giving. Sermon, communion meditation, songs, and prayer lead up to contribution at the end of the service.
* Service focused on confession. Elders and ministers are stationed around the edge of the auditorium with two or three chairs. After a sermon on confession, members are invited to separately meet with an elder or minister while the remainder of the church sings.
* Service focused on private prayer. Similar set up to above.
* Service focused on prayer. Members sit at tables, prepare a prayer list, and engage in a chain prayer. (Men and women kept separate in churches where this would be an issue.)
* Service focused on thanksgiving. Instead of a sermon, microphones are made available to members to express thanks.
* Service focused on testimonies. Members come forward and tell their stories — or stories are videotaped in advance.
* Sermon is illustrated with songs sung solo.
* Nostalgia Sunday — nothing but very traditional (maybe just Stamps-Baxter) songs, covered dish dinner on the grounds, everything must be homemade, including ice cream. Fasolla singing afterwards.
* A soloist sings during communion, encouraging members in their private meditations.
* The Thursday night before Easter have a congregational seder (Passover meal). Have a messianic Jew or someone who has studied such things explain the original symbolism of each element and then reinterpret in light of Jesus. In future communion services, refer back to the lessons learned and experience shared.
* Have a love feast. Meet Sunday morning for worship without communion. Meet again that night for a covered dish meal combined with communion. That would be about as close to First Century practice as you could get (especially if you invite a Jewish cantor to lead you in responsive singing).
* Have a new convert from a mission field where you support the missionary lead communion via live Internet feed, projected on a big screen.
* Have baptisms early in the service, as planned events. Use them to teach.
* Have parents baptize their own children right in front the congregation during church. Let the member who first brought a new convert to church or who taught them about Jesus do the baptizing. Get away from the Catholic clerical tradition.
Now, I understand that not every church will be comfortable with all these ideas. Some are probably just bad ideas. The point is to have ideas! Think. Use the creativity the Good Lord gave you. Stop just filling in the blanks. (By the way, we’ve done lot of these. Not all. But a bunch.)
And share ideas. If you think of anything that worked well, let me know.