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From Pew Warming to Praise and Worship

Increasing participation in your services

Vinnie Zarletti on August 21, 2018

When Christians gather for corporate worship, they bring certain assumptions with them. They expect music, they expect preaching, and they likely expect announcements and an offering. But do they expect to participate? When the music plays, will they sing along? When the pastor preaches the Word, will they actively listen and respond to the revelation of God? According to Scripture, if the answers to these questions are “no,” corporate worship might not be worship at all.

From a scriptural perspective, every word we’ve translated as “worship” is active. In The Worship Architect, Constance M. Cherry notes that there is simply no such thing as passive worship in the Bible. The Old Testament often talks about worshipers bowing down or prostrating themselves. In the New Testament, worship also means prostration and giving reverence. Worship never refers to people just standing around or sitting and listening.

Biblical worship, then, is active. The English word “liturgy” comes from the Greek word “leitourgia,” translated as “worship” in Romans 12:1. This word literally means “the work of the people” and is always associated with action, service and ministry (Luke 1:23; Hebrews 8:1-2, 9:21). Our liturgies must be active; they must be participatory to qualify as worship.

If biblical worship is always active, that raises a couple of questions. First, are the people we serve participating in worship (and if not, why)? Second, how do we lead so that everyone — or most everyone — participates?

Joining In

So, are the people we serve participating in worship? Yes and no. When I lead “10,000 Reasons” (Matt Redman), people sing. Period. The men sing, the women sing, and the teenagers sing. I once led 350 elementary-age children at an Assemblies of God district event, and they sang no other song with as much passion as when they belted, “Bless the Lord, O my soul!”

Is this song played out? Maybe. Is it old? Some people think so. Is it ideal for children to sing about “that day when my strength is failing?” Questionable. But “10,000 Reasons” begs for participation in a way that not all songs do. In fact, some songs seem to cause people to listen quietly or disengage altogether.

To be clear, corporate worship includes more than music and singing, but I’ll come back to that idea. First, we need to figure out why some songs encourage people to sing and other songs encourage people to stare.

Too often, people aren’t participating. What’s going on? Bluntly, many of our songs are too high, too new and too melodically complex. Don’t get me wrong, I love much of the new worship music, and today there is more available than ever before.

But as wonderful as the new music is, the rate at which we are introducing new songs to our congregations is often too fast. Before people can become familiar with a new song, something even newer has taken its place.

Bluntly, many of our songs are too high, too new and too melodically complex.

When the apostle Paul encouraged the believers in Ephesus (Ephesians 5:19) and Colossae (Colossians 3:16) to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, two-thirds of that list would have been familiar songs, including traditional songs and Scripture itself. New music is important, but it’s a challenge for participation.

A few years back, I had the opportunity to lead worship as an opener for a well-known worship group. Our team prepared a number of original songs from our recently released worship recording. When the event began, we were less than two songs into our set when I called an audible. We left behind our originals and started leading the most familiar and accessible songs we could pull off the cuff.

Some of our musicians were disappointed, but the reaction of the people was immediate. They went from observing to participating with the first familiar tunes. Sometimes, creativity and originality need to take a backseat to familiarity and accessibility.

Familiarity is a friend. There is security in the familiar, and people love to do what they know how to do. Our fear of vain repetition seems to have made us forget that we are creatures of habit. Our entire lives are built on routines and predictable patterns.

More Than Music

Looking beyond the music, some people don’t participate in worship because we don’t invite them to become involved. If we lead our services as if the songs are the only element of worship, there is a good chance the invitations for participation will stop as soon as the music does. People know we want them to sing along because worship leaders ask them to do so. There are also invitations to stand, clap, lift hands, and perhaps even dance. But participation often lasts only as long as the song service.

When we invite people to participate in worship, we are inviting them into a pattern of revelation and response that we see modeled in Scripture as early as Acts 2. In verse 42, Luke tells of the first Christians meeting around the Word and the table for prayer and discipleship (the apostles’ teaching). Interestingly, there is no mention of music in this early description of corporate worship. This is not to say that music is an afterthought in worship, but it reminds us that music is only part of Christian worship.

In addition to making sure our music encourages participation, we must return to a biblical model of corporate worship that includes more than singing. As frequently as we can celebrate Communion, we give our people a chance to respond to God’s invitation and participate in His story.

There are other ways we can involve people in worship as well. When we read Scripture, why not read it together? When we have times of prayer, why not allow for the people to voice their own prayers and pray for those around them? When we preach the Word, why not invite the people to respond, not only at the end of the message but also as each point is being made? We should encourage laughter when something is funny and tears when something is sad. Corporate worship is more than singing together!

Perhaps your church is already offering multiple opportunities for participation in corporate worship, but we should be intentional about keeping the invitations coming. Biblical worship is necessarily participatory, and if we want to encourage our people to get involved and stay involved, we must keep them in mind as we plan our services.

In Evangelicals, Worship and Participation, Alan Rathe writes that a characteristic of Pentecostals is “notably dynamic and vibrant worship participation.” Let that be true in each of our services!

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