Friday, 12 December 2014

Seven Ways to Lift Public Worship

Question: What can our church leadership do positively to improve the quality of the weekly worship?   

TO BEGIN WITH - even if you do not use the term 'worship' to describe your weekly church gathering (some will call it simply a 'meeting', others an 'assembly') - let's recognise that worship of the Lord Almighty is indeed going to happen on the part of numbers of people when they meet together in his Name.   

If we fail in that recognition, then the 'preliminaries' in any service are no more than that; a slightly tiresome exercise to be conducted in perfunctory manner..until 'The Word'. And this will show . Better to ensure that the entire event is polished until it shines - to the glory of God and the building of faith.

This is not an exhaustive presentation on worship in general; the aim, rather, is to put forward some ways of improving the way we do things in our public gatherings: 

1. Pray and prepare well in advance 
Don't skip this bit! After all, when does the widest fellowship of the church get together, but on this regular occasion? It's a shop window - that Christ, the head of the church, can use for his own glory, and furthermore to touch lives around the locality. The congregation may be small, the church building may be cramped and in need of renovation, but if the Holy Spirit has taken over the proceedings, then nothing - not even the dark stained-glass windows and that wheezing organ can stop the mission of Jesus! 

So the church, as a whole, prays ahead for this important get-together. Members consult their church calendar and the preaching programme, to see what is coming up - and whether this is the time to invite a friend along. A little group can collect around the music leader who - with the pastor - plans the hymns. If there is a choir and a music band, why - they too will need to meet for prayer and rehearsals. A briefing letter or email - complete with training tips - goes to those responsible for the intercessions, the public reading of Scripture, the welcome at the door, the stewarding! We are putting on an Event for the Lord, and it is a major happening in local life


On the night before the service , the church's leader - the rector or pastor - does something on behalf of the whole fellowship that is vital; in going alone, quietly and unannounced, to the church building; walking in the darkness around the seating area, clambering into the pulpit, wandering around the gallery.. praying for those who will be occupying those very places the next day - and finally, standing inside the main door of the church, there to pray for the protection of God upon the building, upon all who walk in and out of those doors.. upon all of tomorrow's proceedings. 

The pastor is there to claim the victory over evil, secured by the Cross of Christ, in the lives of those who will come. We are there to pray against any incident, eventuality or element that is alien to the Gospel - that could infiltrate the gathering and deflect the focus and attention away from Christ. This is an arranged meeting between the pastor and the Lord, between the shepherd of the flock and the Chief Shepherd. 

Oh, comes the objection, but I can pray at home. No need to be territorial in my prayers. 
Do you think so? If you are praying at home, a myriad of things can interrupt you; the telephone, a meal, a caller at the door, the reminder of a letter that must be written. No. Better to go in person to the church. Late. That will focus you . No one will interrupt you. You are the shepherd - and what does a shepherd do, but protect the flock. This is all part of the preparation for Sunday. 

2. Follow a trusted framework   

The reason ought to be obvious. The springing of surprises - of outlandish visiting preachers or radical innovations - on a congregation any given week is a disincentive to bring friends along! The suspicion begins to surface, I wonder whatever's coming next! For the same reason, if the convictions of the church are in the historic biblical tradition, it is highly unwise to introduce an element - or speaker - manifestly at odds with those established convictions. Our members are going to be exposed to these other 'spiritualities' in any case. Better - on our own territory - for us leaders to be seen as consistently loyal to our proven foundations, and thereby earning the general trust of our members; the confidence that they are not going to be let down. As confidence builds, so growth results . The aim is for every single service to be of such a kind that no one will feel ashamed to bring their friends along on any given occasion. That is the acid test! 

It is because of the value of a framework, that books of worship were originally devised. Today these have, in many respects, given way to the less cumbersome use of weekly, printed service orders, with the hymns, liturgy and other items laid out for every eye to see. 

A printed order, rather than reliance upon Powerpoint? Perhaps yes (although some do both) - because of the value of seeing, at a glance, the exact format and direction of the service; there is also an advantage in worshippers taking the service sheet away and becoming familiarised with the words of the hymns - old and new - that will be printed on it. I have often noticed that outside visitors, including internationals, are only too eager to take with them the words of a hymn that had fed their souls. 

3. Get those Bibles opened 
In some circles it is highly possible to go right through a Christian service without the Bible being opened once - apart perhaps from the appointed individual who comes to the front for the Scripture reading. 

You can flash up a Scripture passage on the overhead, and the preacher may even refer to the screen from time to time - but that is not the same as handling the Scriptures personally as the exposition proceeds. The true expositor will love to hear the rustle of turning pages right through the church! That way, the listeners are given the chance to compare Scripture with Scripture and check up , lest the preacher has taken the passage out of context! Furthermore, it gives even first-timers the chance to familiarise themselves at first hand with God's Book, to hold it in their hands - and for some of them to yearn to acquire a copy for themselves. 

Ever taught a Scripture verse during public worship? If you are going to spring a 'surprise' on a congregation, this is one that can be done without embarrassment. Additionally it can be a verse that ties in with the day's theme. I've tended to do it when there is not too much other content within the service.
  • What we'll do then, friends, is state the reference, then the words of the verse, and then the reference again. That way we'll never forget! Off we go - together: "Acts 4:12 - Salvation is found in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. Acts 4: 12 !"
  • Try again, and then we'll do it without the Book. Ready?..
  • Wonderful; now without me, your coach!..
  • Brilliant! One day, in conversation with a friend, that verse will come in useful. Let's test each other after the service, or maybe if we meet during the week!  
"Do you remember Hebrews 7:25?" An American was speaking to me after a meeting in Manhattan , New York . Dutifully I recited the verse - reference and words together. 

"Correct!" he enthused. "I was visiting your church some years ago, when that verse was taught. I'd never heard it done before; I've learnt a few more since then!" 

A fellowship that is recognisably a Bible church.. that's the aim, for it is the Scriptures that are able to make us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. That's the whole point! The Scriptures lead us to Him

4. Make mighty affirmations about the Lord 
What is Christian praise? At heart it does not consist of endlessly singing Hallelujah, nor even of telling the Lord Jesus that he is 'absolutely lovely' - to quote one modern song. In truth, to praise anyone is to list their accomplishments, their deeds. I was talking to my dentist:
"Susan, I'm so grateful for all you've done. I have to tell you that you never cause me pain, and when you put fillings into my teeth, they never come loose."
That is praise. My dentist might have given me an odd look if, instead, she had heard me say, "Susan, Oh, you're wonderful, just wonderful; I cannot do without you. How wonderful you are!" 

When we look, then, at the big sections of praise in the Scriptures, they are full of what the Lord God has done; his mighty deeds, his saving power, his sovereign actions. We can build on this observation by taking note of the hymns that emerged in all great spiritual awakenings . Their centre point invariably features the six great saving actions of God in Jesus Christ - the Birth, the Death, the Resurrection, the Ascension, the Gift of the Spirit and the Return..with that vital overriding emphasis upon the Cross. To make great affirmations about the Lord and his doings is praise indeed: 

Living he loved me, dying he saved me;
Buried he carried my sins all away;
Rising he justified freely for ever;
One day he's coming -Oh glorious day! 

No wonder that hymn, with all its verses, has lasted so well. Get a band behind its music; pull out all the organ stops - and the roof comes off! 

Bands, then? We love them . They can start small - with a single flautist who may turn up in church one day. Then a youngster materialises, complete with trombone. Slowly the ensemble grows, together with a few singers. If there is an organ (and an organist), the sound of that instrument alone can carry the singing of a congregation - and coupled with a piano and a band, the result can be exciting indeed. Never despise the organ ; it 'fills out' what any assortment of other instruments can never quite equal - you have to sing when the organ really opens up! 

Conversely, unless great care is taken over the level of amplification, a song leader can effectively kill congregational singing. If the voice obtrudes too much, the congregation tends to give up, and simply lets the singer get on with what becomes in effect a solo performance. 


Making mighty affirmations about God - that should characterise everything we touch in church. 

We can use the whole historic range of Christian music to this effect. And it is the hymns with substance and content that are going to last and can be passed on to our successors . Such hymns may need a little revising from time to time - but they, more than any other, magnify the Lord and fill out our faith. Their advantage is that if the preaching fails, there is at least some teaching content for people to take away. There is a genuine place for fun choruses designed for six year-olds, but we should avoid what a Times newspaper correspondent called 'wet little hymns'. Many of these do no more than recount all that we are doing! Count, if you will, the number of songs and hymns that begin with the letter 'I'. In the present day song books it is estimated that in recent years they have multiplied by some 300 per cent. These insipid songs have drip-fed their way into the church, and their grand overriding theme tends to be, Aren't we marvellous! As the Baptist preacher, C.H. Spurgeon once warned "If you cannot magnify God, it is probably because you are magnifying yourself."

5. Train the up-front participants 
This must include speaking , the reading of Scripture and the leading of public prayer.  

I have a Christian friend in the acting profession. His work takes him all over the world; so it is not surprising that he has a wide experience of how public worship is being done in a host of different churches. On one thing he is adamant; the standard of public reading from the Bible is unbelievably low. It is not that he is looking for stage performances - just people who can convey the meaning of what they are reading. 

Readers, he says, fail to project their words, fail to 'lift' the words off the page, fail to inject any meaning or emphasis - they are simply reciting words . If we can only get this right , the reading can become an Event. 

The same is true of public prayer. The reason why Thomas Cranmer wrote rather short prayers - or 'collects' as they are called in Anglican Prayer Book terms - must in part have been due to the recognition of a common human inability to stay concentrated in a public prayer that exceeds twenty-five seconds. Thus a number of shorter prayers, one after another, may provide a solution. Cranmer certainly seemed to think so. The art of stepping into the mindset of fellow-worshippers and uttering the prayers that sum up pretty much what they would have wished to say, is an accomplishment that comes with training and experience. 

The prayers are never something to be got through . Too often they are inward-looking, and give the impression of God as little more than a tiny local village chieftan. Public prayer, when it is informed and done imaginatively - with the Holy Spirit's prompting - enables a single church fellowship to be in dynamic contact with a dying world. 

So.. training days at church for the up-front participants?  

And an agreed recognition that - for the most part - only those who display an aptitude for these tasks are going to be used? How to use the microphone? How to avoid falling into the numerous pitfalls that kill worship? If the worship of a church is lack-lustre, dry and lifeless, be sure that it is not the fault of the willing up-front volunteers. It falls to the leadership of the church to see that they are trained.

6. Sharpen up the preaching


William Magee has said that there are three kinds of preachers; the one to whom you cannot listen, the one to whom you can listen, and the one to whom you must listen ( The Preparation of Sermons, Andrew Blackwood, Church Book Room Press, p.120).   

The moment we preachers accepts such an analysis, we are obviously going to examine ourselves , perhaps with the help of true and trusted friends. For if we belong to the first category, and stay there - having reached our ceiling without ever learning or improving - we are actually doing damage to our listeners and to the reputation of God's church. In such a case, the call from a two thousand year parade of Bible preachers may have to be, Please desist! Step down - and get out of the way.  

Henry Ward Beecher wrote, 'A man that cannot boil, and that cannot make anybody else boil; a man that cannot be blown into a flame, and cannot kindle a flame in others, is not fit to preach.'   

If we seem to belong within the second category, the call then must be to aspire to the higher level; that of the preacher who must be heard - every time! This is partly done by shortening the addresses or sermons. The celebrated Scottish preacher James Stewart wrote, "You will soon discover that one of the most important arts you have to learn is the art of omission" ( Heralds of God , p.59). We are there at the front to inspire our listeners, not exhaust them! Most of us are simply not good enough to sustain more than twenty or twenty-five minutes and still hold the attention. The majority of preachers grossly overestimate the listening capacity of a congregation. 

Of course it is in the Bible that the power resides. In its pages we find an inexhaustible resource. Once a church has the reputation of turning the actual pages of the Scriptures, focusing on them and taking its members through them, the word will get around, "Go to that church; at last there seems to be one that has something to say!" 

Preaching is not a warm cosy chat; nor is it a dry discourse more resembling a lecture than an announcement from God. You may even get the passage right in your exposition, and still bore your listeners to sleep. As the playwright Dorothy Sayers remarked, 'His enemies crucified Him. It was left to his disciples to make Him dull.' 

Preaching conferences, chats late into the night, listening to good preaching, listening to ourselves on tape, accepting the criticisms of true and trusted friends..and hard, hard work; there's an agenda for each one of us who is called to stand up and speak for God. 

7. Review the day 
Is 'normal' good enough? We immediately know the answer - Of course not. It's the next day that provides the opportunity to look back on the services of the day before, and to ask questions.

How did we get on? And how can we improve for the next time? What is it about the hymn tune Belmont that so tugs at the heart strings? What went wrong with that third song which we felt was going to be so good? How was the ministry of God's word received? Why was there no penitential element in the service? Were there some who came aside afterwards, for special prayer? Why did it seem to take so long for the congregation to wake up? What would an unchurched visitor have made of our service? Why are we not praying any more for the Head of State? 

This regular monitoring of public church gatherings is something that we owe to our friends. Realise, too, that there's always a next time!
Seven ways to lift public worship. Is that enough as a working plan?