Part one of this series posed the question: “Why do we conduct Saturday church services the way we do?” Several reasons cropped up: tradition, following the biblical model, teaching scripture, and evangelism. These reasons are inherently flawed. So, what can be done to make the worship service more effective? This article will build on part one and share some ideas to act as a catalyst for creativity for local churches.
Redefining Sabbath Sermons
On Sabbath morning, pastors usually restrict the content of their sermons to analyzing an aspect of scripture, looking at the Bible through the lens of a theologian. The question of how to apply the lesson to daily living is met with a few answers: rely more on Jesus, have more faith, engage in more Bible study and prayer. The pastor’s ability to answer the how question is limited to what scripture shares.
Seminars that do address the question of how? in detail are almost always scheduled for times other than Sabbath morning because delving into materials outside of scripture is deemed inappropriate for the worship service even when they are based on biblical principles. And seminars exploring topics such as marriage, finance, mental health parenting, cooking, exercise, depression, anxiety, grief, emotional intelligence, diversity, temperament types, etc., are thought to not be spiritual enough for Sabbath morning.
Relegating an in-depth study of these topics to non-Sabbath hours guarantees a small attendance. My own church announced a seminar on personal finance to be conducted from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Sabbath afternoon. Out of a church attendance of over 600, only 10 people showed up. This gets much worse during the week when people have to hurry home from work, feed the family, and wait for the babysitter to show up. For any church that is committed to discipling, to not explore the how question during the church service keeps the vast majority of the congregation from getting the in-depth, step-by-step information they need to become truly transformed.
Defining what is appropriate for Sabbath morning as the “Bible and the Bible only” is based on several distortions that have their roots in the secular/sacred dichotomy and a dualistic worldview handed down to us from the Greeks. We see this distortion most vividly in the traditional Christian definition of “holistic living.” It teaches that life is made up of five segments: physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual. This listing portrays “spiritual” as limited to one segment of our life. From a biblical perspective, the listing should include spiritual as part of all the other segments. All of them intertwined. Our physical, mental, emotional, and social well being influences our spiritual well being.
The author of the article “Christian spirituality – What is it?” makes the following observation: “Christian spirituality is concerned with all of a person’s life. Rather than separating spiritual, physical, financial, social, and other life components into distinct areas, Christian spirituality is concerned with how all of life connects to our relationship with God.”
Something is “spiritual” if it is based on biblical teachings, which should be the foundation for all aspects of a holistic Christian life. Therefore, speaking about physical well-being can be just as “spiritual” a topic as prayer. The same holds true for talking about mental health, emotional well-being. If taught in harmony with biblical principles, all of these topics are just as spiritual as teaching about the Good Samaritan or the Sermon on the Mount.
As weird as it may seem to our tradition-bound thinking, it is eminently spiritual to present a five week workshop on nutrition during the Sabbath morning worship service. It is also entirely spiritual to present how-to seminars on topics like emotional intelligence, parenting, self-compassion, depression, anxiety, grief recovery, resilience, and happiness. Utilizing well-researched information, the seminars can be presented by the pastor or a Christian professional in the appropriate field during the time reserved for the sermon. Such seminars would all be grounded in scripture. It is past time to make the Sabbath morning worship service more relevant and transformative by addressing not only the what and why questions, but especially how to.
For a church to call itself a disciple-making congregation and continue to use the traditional approach to worship services is as much of an oxymoron as operating a swimming academy without a pool to practice in. Having practical applications to sermon topics is essential for member growth. Educational research is very clear that students must actively process and use information in order for it to impact their lives in any significant way. The academic term for the need to use and apply information is active learning. We might also call it transformative learning. Active learning is defined as “an instructional approach in which students actively participate in the learning process, as opposed to sitting quietly and listening.”
As preferable as it is for the members of the congregation to actively participate in the learning process, it is not a topic that churches typically address. The current inattention to such a vital topic highlights the need for pastors to receive extensive pedagogical training during seminary.
What might active learning look like during church services? How can this concept be applied to a large group of people sitting in pews staring at the backs of people’s heads?
Churches usually frown on people utilizing their smartphones during the worship service, but from an active learning perspective, those same phones can become an ally. Phones are especially helpful in hearing from members who are usually too shy or introverted to speak up.
Olu Brown, a professional certified coach and former pastor of a large church in metropolitan Atlanta, says, “Telling people to turn off their cellphones in worship sounds crazy to technologically progressive people who rely on their devices for just about everything. Instead, they should be invited to use them to engage in worship more deeply.” How might that be done?
Phones can provide invaluable insight into the hearts and lives of the congregants. Earlier this year, a pastor who had been in his church for many years decided to invite the congregation to use their phones to respond to the following: The hard question about my life that I would like God to answer is. . . The replies were all anonymous and were listed on a large screen toward the end of the service. The following Sabbath, the pastor stated to the congregation, “I was floored by your responses. I was not prepared for the honesty and candor that you conveyed. As I reviewed your answers, I was overwhelmed.” The experience was clearly a real eye-opener that took him aback. The following is a small sample of the many replies that were shared:
“How do I know that God loves me?”
“Will I be able to go to heaven?”
“Is God really there?”
“Why does it sometimes feel that you are so far away when I need You the most?”
“Why are my three children not in the church? What did I do wrong?”
“Am I past the point of no return?”
“What is my purpose here?”
“Why did our childhood have to be the way it was?”
The pastor wondered how there could be so much fear and uncertainty among the congregants after so many years of preaching on these topics. Even though the messages had been carefully researched and presented from the pulpit, many of the members had never really processed and personalized those messages for themselves. Providing an opportunity for members to share what is on their hearts and minds is a key element of active learning. It moves them from being passive listeners to engaging as active participants.
Phones can also be used to minister to one another. Rick Warren writes, “We need to begin thinking about our smartphones as a place where we can serve others.” Smartphones can also be used to tap into the thoughts and ideas of the church members. They might be asked to address a facet of scripture, case study, or questions about life. Why should the pastor be the only one providing answers simply because he or she has been to seminary? We need to draw on the life experiences of the congregation and learn together. Members can be asked to turn in their responses during the week or during the worship service itself. Tapping into the wisdom of the members honors their role as New Testament priests and employs another important element of active learning.
Think-Pair-Share and the Congregation
One of the classic approaches of active learning pedagogy is what is called “Think-Pair-Share.” In terms of the church service, members would be presented with a case study, problem, or question and asked to first think about a response privately. Then, each member would pair up with one to four other people near to them to discuss their perspectives and see what themes might emerge. Each group could be asked to use their phones to post summaries for the rest of the congregation to see and react to. Pairing can help shy people open up. By simply googling “active learning,” you will find ideas for getting people involved. You can then use your creativity to adapt certain ones for use during the church service using smart phone technology where appropriate.
Sharing Personal Stories
Factual information about the Bible is important but not nearly as compelling as hearing how it has impacted the lives of Christ’s followers. Each week, a significant portion of the church service could be dedicated to hearing members share how the scriptures are being lived out in their daily lives, and how the gospel actually works for them. Such personal engagement is at the heart of active learning.
As I sat in church one morning, I looked around during the sermon at all the members silently staring straight forward. I felt sad that there was no place in the service to hear the many stories that resided within their hearts from the previous week. The challenges met, the courage that was called forth, the persistence that overcame obstacles–all of these precious stories would never be heard because everyone sat “reverently” listening to an oft-repeated Bible lesson from the pulpit.
Members can dread “testimony time” if it is made up of people hogging the microphone and droning on about something that happened decades ago. To be effective, that segment needs to be carefully planned and the members need to be taught by the pastor how to make the best use of that time. There are at least three fundamental guidelines: (1) a two minute time limit for each person, (2) one or two designated people need to keep hold of the microphone(s) at all times, and (3) personally invite three to five people ahead of time to lead out in the sharing. It can help get the ball rolling on Sabbath morning and encourage others to share.
What I call “my story time with God,” needs to have focus. To create more focus, this story time can be limited to experiences from the previous week. The stories can also be experiences that illustrate a particular theme such as grief. Another way to create focus in these stories is to lay the foundation on the previous sabbath by exploring a topic and giving out an assignment. This could look like practicing empathy by greeting the store clerk when you go shopping.
Invite members to pray about the assignment themselves as they start each new day and be alert to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. As a reminder and motivator during the week, send out a short YouTube video you discovered that tells the story about the difference a few words of kindness can make.
It is important to ask any member who chooses to share during the following church service how the clerk’s response made them feel. Assignments such as this are not dramatic, but they help immeasurably over time to establish a servant mentality and deepen the members’ understanding of what it means to be a priest to their world. It can become the seed that inspires members to become other-oriented in many spontaneous ways. It can also be helpful to let the members know that they can put their testimony on a brief video with their smartphones or write a short text and send it in to the church ahead of time so no one needs to be left out because they are too shy to share in front of the congregation.
One Friday while my wife and I were going through the checkout in our local supermarket, I told the lady at the register, “Hi Jody, I want you to know that I think you have a very important job.” She looked somewhat startled and then replied, “Why do you think so?” I told her, “If it wasn’t for you, no one would be able to buy anything in this store.” A huge smile came across her face as she continued working.
Over time, the church can develop a culture that follows this pattern where members get used to such assignments and come to look forward to the sharing time during the church service.
In his article “Re-Envisioning the Sunday Sermon,” Ryan Korstange summarizes the necessity of reconsidering what we do during the worship service: “Is it effective to believe that Christian theology can be transmitted as if [the members] were a passive receptacle simply waiting to be filled? Perhaps, if the goal were to produce academic theologians. However, discipleship requires more than just the acquisition of knowledge, it requires life change, and to this end, it is not enough to simply ask parishioners to passively receive theological information, we need to also provide a context for them to actively figure out what significance their experience of God has in their lives.”
The thoughts expressed in this article are clearly a major departure from our current practice. They are built on the conviction that what we are currently doing in the worship service is both inadequate and even harmful from a transformational point of view. Changes in this direction need to be prefaced by personal study by local leaders, careful education of the congregation, implementation using baby steps, and the selection of approaches that fit the particular church’s culture. I would encourage pastors to step out of their comfort zones, expand their vision of what the worship service can become, and give the Spirit a chance to do something spontaneous and new. Church services can be so much more than a sitting lecture. We have been called to create disciples who live out their lives as Jesus’s followers. Let’s bring practical applications to our services.