What’s in a worship service? (Part 5)

I am somewhat hesitant to write about “what I’d like to have in a worship service,” because I think there is already too much emphasis, in many churches, on shaping worship services to meet people’s preferences. The point of worship is not what I want, or how I feel about the experience, but about God and turning our focus from ourselves to God.

There are, however, certain practices in a worship service can help or hinder our attempts to focus on God. I’m not suggesting trying to go out and change a church’s worship traditions – even those of my own church. (I happen to be the chair of the worship committee, but at this point the committee does little more than make sure we know who’s doing the music, Scripture readings, etc. for each Sunday. And I’m not going to try to use my position to push my own preferences. Though I might try to plant a few seeds if we get talking about possible changes…)

The things I suggest here are a mix of what I learned in classes at college (as a Bible major), what I have seen done in different churches, and what I have heard or read in books on the subject.


One element that seems to be lacking from most worship services I have attended is silence. We tell God we want Him to speak to us, but it’s hard to hear what He might be saying if we don’t stop and listen.

The ways I have seen churches intentionally structure silence into the service are a time of silent prayer at the end of the unison prayer of confession, and a time for meditation at the end of the sermon. I think both are very appropriate, and I appreciate those times to reflect on what God might be trying to tell me.

I admit, though, that as a worship leader I do find it uncomfortable. As a person in the pew, I want the silence and sometimes wish it continued a little longer. But when I’m standing up there at the lectern, the silence makes me feel a pressure to speak again and go on with the service. I doubt most people are really thinking, “Get on with it already,” but it’s hard not to imagine that they are.

Congregational responses

I mentioned in my previous post how much I like it when Scripture readings are concluded with the leader’s statement “the Word of the Lord” and the congregation responds, “Thanks be to God.” Besides being one more way that people participate in the service rather than being passive listeners, it teaches/reinforces the Christian’s appropriate response to the reading of the Word of God.

I have considered the possibility that part of my liking this practice is that it gives me a sense of belonging to a special group that knows the right response. In a church where most people come from a non-liturgical tradition (and in most churches these days, a large part of the congregation was raised in a different tradition) and are not familiar with this practice, there will be few who give the expected response (unless it is printed in the bulletin). But I would be one of them, and I might be tempted to feel proud of it.

The temptation to be proud can accompany any positive practice, but another concern is that rote responses can cover a lack of sincerity or even attention to the words one is saying. No doubt there have been times I have said the words “Thanks be to God” without much of any gratitude in my heart. But the power of words is that they do shape how we think. Whether I feel gratitude on every occasion or not, the phrase “the word of the Lord” prompts the thought of gratitude on my part, simply from having repeated that response so many times.

The same is true of other statements and responses. What better response to the statement “He is risen” than “He is risen indeed”? And how fitting that if someone says to me, “peace be with you” that I immediately respond “and also with you.” I think it unfortunate that so often this “passing of the peace” becomes little more than a time of greeting. Nothing wrong with heartfelt greetings, of course, but the usual “Good morning” lacks the additional depth of mutual sharing of the peace of Christ.

Another way I would use congregational responses is in prayers. Several years ago, we went to the christening of my brother-in-law’s baby, which was held at a Catholic church. The thing I remember most clearly about the service is the time of prayer I think of as the pastoral prayer or prayers of the people, when a great many people’s needs are brought up in prayer. I admitted in my previous post that I struggle to keep my attention focused during this prayer in most churches.

In this Catholic service, however, instead of listening silently for the entire time of the prayer, the congregation participated by saying something along the lines of “Hear our prayer, O Lord” at particular intervals. The priest would list a number of concerns, then we would repeat it; the priest would say more, then we would repeat it again. Once I recognized the cue to say it, I felt that I was joining in the prayer rather than just sitting and listening to someone else pray. (I explained in the previous post that I find it difficult to listen and pray at the same time.)

Worship for all ages

I grew up in a church where the children went to Sunday School during the worship service, and we only spent the first ten or so minutes in the worship service once a month, to get a taste of “big church.” Later I went to fundamentalist churches where all ages, including adults, had Sunday School before church, then the children went to “children’s church” during the worship service.

When I first encountered people who thought it was better to keep children of all ages in the worship service, I thought it was misguided. Won’t children just get bored and resent having to go when they are made to sit quietly for so long? Wouldn’t it be better for them to have a class or “children’s church” service where they learn about God but can move around and talk and have a good time?

Gradually, however, I have come around to thinking that it is best for all ages to worship together. Not only do the children need to see their parents worshiping and learn what it is like (otherwise they’ll find it a difficult adjustment when they finally do “graduate” to adult church), but I think older people have something to learn from the little ones.

There are plenty of ways to include children in worship. Many churches have children (not the littlest ones, of course) act as acolytes to light the candles at the beginning of worship. Most children love music, both congregational singing and in children’s choirs. Our church recently purchased a set of Suzuki handchimes for the children to play for special music.

Children who are good readers can do Scripture readings or lead in prayers or responsive readings. I haven’t seen this done much except at special services (such as youth services or Christmas Eve), but I think it’s a great way to involve them. I don’t know if the church I’ve seen with the most kids (for the size of the church) has so many because they are involved in the service, or if they get involved because they are there and eager to serve, but I see them as a good example of worship for all ages.

Last week when I was preparing to give the children’s sermon (and looking up ideas online), I was surprised to come across a discussion where so many people were opposed to even having a children’s sermon. Admittedly, sometimes the leader seems to be making points beyond the children’s understanding. Object lessons, so favored by people giving children’s sermons, often fail in their point completely because children who have not yet developed abstract thinking don’t see the connection that is intended.

And using the children’s sermon as a way to teach the adults something that is hard to say directly to them seems demeaning both to them and the children. The whole point of a children’s sermon is to teach at their level, and show that they matter and they are welcome and an integral part of the congregation.

But how much better, what I’ve heard done in some churches, where the sermon is aimed at all ages. That doesn’t mean that it is “dumbed down,” but that it includes aspects that children will easily pick up as well as material that is more advanced/deeper for the adults. The first few minutes, when the children are less likely to have “tuned out” can contain language and concepts at their level, without any abrupt break between that and the meatier part of the sermon.

I read about one church where the children are given a children’s bulletin, not the sort of picture puzzles that such bulletins usually contain, but a children’s version of the bulletin everyone else uses. They see the prayers and the hymns, and there is a section showing them what to listen and watch for in the sermon. I haven’t seen this done, but I think it sounds great.

At the other end of the age spectrum, older people have special needs that need to be taken into account by worship planners. Standing for hymns can be a problem (most churches deal with this by marking in the bulletin “stand if able”), but so can sitting for an extended period of time. And if people go forward for Communion rather than receiving it in their pews, allowance needs to be made for those who would find this very difficult.

Body, Mind, and Emotions

It’s not just the very young and the very old who can have difficulty sitting for a long time, though. As a teenager I got painful cramps in my neck/shoulder from sitting for too long (in classes at school as well as at church), until I learned to shift my position frequently. Whatever caused that problem apparently went away during my twenties, but I began to find it difficult to sit for any length of time without nodding off. (This has just gotten worse as I age.)

At the churches I went to as a teenager, the body seemed to be seen as something of a nuisance, the source of a variety of temptations and decidedly inferior to the soul/spirit. Bible teachers would assure us that the body was not evil, but the idea of using one’s body in worship evoked ideas of frenzied hand-waving Pentecostals (whose practice of “speaking in tongues” was considered seriously mistaken) or dancing neo-pagans.

A friend of mine in college often remarked how we would sing a well-known song about “lifting up my hands unto Thy name,” all the while keeping our hands stubbornly in our laps or at our sides. I once or twice visited a church with my father where they had kneelers, and once I got over feeling awkward about using them, I wished that the churches I attended did not reject the idea as being too much like the Catholic church.

It is true that Jesus said that the Father seeks those who worship “in spirit and in truth,” but that does not mean that we do not worship with our bodies. I had a Bible professor in college who taught us that our “spirit” is not a part of our being, separate from the body (or from body and soul, depending on one’s theology). Rather, he said, the Bible teaches that the human being is a unity, and that our spirit is our whole being in relationship to God.

So worship involves the whole person, body, mind, and emotions. Ways to use the body in worship include different postures – sitting, standing, or kneeling. It would also include raising one’s hands, a practice that was only associated with charismatic churches when I was younger but now has spread to a lot of other churches. I wouldn’t want to feel obligated to do it, but people should feel free to do it.

Most churches also seem to put more focus on either mind or emotions. The fundamentalist churches I once attended, while emphasizing the importance of knowing the Bible and not being controlled by one’s feelings, nevertheless seemed to put a great deal of emphasis on feelings and had relatively little regard for intellectual pursuits.

Presbyterian churches, on the other hand, often seem more comfortable with addressing the mind than the emotions. My husband likes to say there’s a reason we’re called the “frozen chosen,” though to be honest I’ve never heard anyone but him use that phrase. What would be best is a good balance between the two, though to be honest I have no practical suggestions in that regard.

Tying it all together

One thing we were taught in the class on planning worship for youth was to have a theme for each service. I think it is just as good an idea for all other ages, as a common thread that ties the whole service together serves at least two purposes. It helps focus both mind and emotions during the service, and it helps one remember the content later.

Churches that follow the liturgical calendar have a ready-made theme for many Sundays of the year, and the day’s Gospel reading can provide one for other weeks. This guides the selection of hymns and other music, prayers and readings, as well as the sermon content. It can include banners or other visual reminders of the theme. I have been in a church that sometimes handed out a small reminder of the main idea for each person to take home (e.g. a stone, a tiny mirror).

In the end, though, trying to get the worship service “right” should never become the most important thing. If it is, then it is idolatry and not worship. Today when I was looking on the web to find out what this Vertical Church Tour was that a friend was posting about on facebook, I came across this statement by James MacDonald:

The purpose of the church is doxological not soteriological. The purpose of the church of Jesus Christ is not to reach people, or feed the poor or any of those important ‘by products.’  The purpose of the church is to elevate and honor God’s great Son in the minds and hearts of those who gather in His name. PERIOD.  When that truly happens, all the other good things happen too.  When that focus is neglected nothing that ‘happens’ is lasting or worthwhile.

That sums it all up pretty well.


One Response to What’s in a worship service? (Part 5)

  1. Karen O says:

    These posts have been interesting. Thanks for sharing your experiences & thoughts.

    Last Sunday, my pastor preached along the lines of that James MacDonald quote – that the purpose of all God does, & what should be the purpose in all we do, is to glorify His name.

    I have found myself more & more asking God to be glorified in the situations I pray about & in the lives of the people I pray for, & of course, in my own life & home. Not as a rote addendum to my prayers, but from my heart & desire to truly see God glorified.

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