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The Real Secret to Engaging Worship

Create this week’s service—don’t just rehash last week’s!

While there is certainly nothing wrong with following a liturgical model for worship services, the so-called “filling in the blanks” style of worship planning has lost its piquancy (see if you can fit that into your next Scrabble game—ha!) over the past 30 or so years. 

The days when a pastor could call his secretary on Thursday afternoon at 4:30, have her select three hymns, find a good scripture passage, and get it all typed up just before the bulletin publishing deadline, are over. For good or ill, we have become much more sophisticated “consumers” (oops, did I say that?) of worship. When leaders alter the order of the service or its players, they invite engagement. A good pitcher and a good pastor know how to “change it up.”

It’s imperative that we think of every service as an "engagement party," because engagement is the basic ingredient for good communication, and, if we want our congregations to be more attuned, we have to “animate” and encourage them in a variety of ways. 

When we intentionally work toward this important value, our congregations stay more attentive in our worship services. One could ask the question, “Is their attention what we want, or their reflection and reverence?” 

I have always opted for the former, because we can’t predict when, or if people will be reflective—that’s usually a gloriously serendipitous gift of the Holy Spirit. Our role is to provide the opportunities for reflection by careful planning of the moments where that might take place.

Incidentally, a 30-second pause following a prayer does not necessarily constitute a moment for reflection. It generally means poor execution of your plan. In an age of half second video edits, thirty seconds of silence seems like an absolute eternity of nothingness, rather than a chance to reflect on the glory of God. 

Several years ago I visited a small rural church in Iowa while visiting relatives. I loved being out in the middle of a vast section of land, ripe with soy and corn. Now those folks knew how to worship!

The church was a lovely, somewhat dusty, example of “Steeple On Top of Low, Flat Warehouse Rococo” architecture. It wasn’t a pretty sight, but once inside, it was a totally different experience. 

I was overwhelmed by the welcome I received, and it seemed that the 50 or so folks in the sanctuary were totally engaged in preparing for, enjoying, and implementing morning worship. Everyone seemed to have a function. 

I was shocked (being the large church snob that I was/am) that four different people played organ that morning and one of them was only 12! The same kid played drums later in the service. Six different people read Scripture, and there were almost more ushers than people! The preacher changed jackets twice during the sermon to make a point, and he used a live rooster as a prop (no, they didn’t sacrifice the rooster—c’mon).

This service was flat out invigorating from beginning to end. Worship that is an exuberant manifestation of joy, and full of participation should, and usually does, involve everyone at some level. And, you should have heard them sing! Whoa!

I think a lot about that very clever country pastor who bent over backward to give everyone a “piece of the action.” Worship is, after all, a verb, not an appointment at the dentist. 


—Doug Lawrence, internationally recognized speaker, author, and advisor, helps churches assess and improve their skillfulness in creating engaging worship experiences by utilizing his more than 35 years of "deep trench" worship leadership in prominent mainline churches. You may reach him at dlawrenceconsult@mac.com. Or, if you wish, call 1-650-207-8240 for assessment information and scheduling.

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