Getting people involved: How to encourage participation in worship.

For a while now, I’ve been working within a paradigm where worship is much more than the parts of the church service where we stand up and sing. That old word, ‘liturgy’ which we tend to think speaks of regimented, stuffy worship actually means, ‘the work of the people.’ It is something we do, make and offer together. If as the worship leader, I end up praying for people, rather than praying with them – then I have found the only surefire way to fail in my task. I want to lead people into worship along with me, not worship while they watch me. I don’t lead worship by example, because this kind of leadership can often be misconstrued as a performance, or make people feel unable to follow my lead because they don’t feel confident or musical enough. Instead, leading worship becomes about making a space where people can sing, and pray, and say words of grace, forgiveness and welcome to one another, all in the name of Jesus. Leading people into that space, and into those actions and words becomes my sacred task.

Some years ago, while I was the minister of a church, I noticed something about the services I was leading. I was treating the congregation as an optional-extra. I would speak a call to worship, then musicians would lead the opening songs. Then I would lead a prayer. At the end of the prayer the congregation got to say, ‘amen’. Lucky them! Then someone shared the readings from the front, and then I gave the message. Then I would lead another prayer, the congregation amened again at the end, before the musicians led the final song, and we all went for morning tea. I realised that if the congregation didn’t say, ‘Amen’ at the end of the prayers, that was the only time I would notice they weren’t there. Apart from all the empty seats of course. But nothing in the service depended on the congregation’s involvement. It certainly wasn’t the work of the people! The musicians carried the songs, I carried the prayers, and we tossed token little bits of participation to the congregation, just to check they were awake! In that moment, I realised I needed to lead worship differently. So for the last few years I have.

A few weeks back I led a regional youth service in Auckland where youth groups from all over the city come together once a month for an evening of community and worship. Our service was built around Mark 1:9-15, the story of Jesus’ baptism, temptation in the desert, and the beginning of his ministry. The participation began the day before with about 40 young people who spent the Saturday with me exploring the passage. We looked at how the baptism of Jesus is about the affirmation of identity. Who Jesus is and who he belongs to, this is how his life (and how our lives) begin. The temptation of Jesus is about the confirmation of identity. Jesus is tempted and tested in the wilderness, and he resists the chance to be someone else, choosing instead to live out of his God-given identity. The beginning of his ministry speaks of the embodying of identity. Jesus announces the kingdom, not just with the words he says, but with who he is. He is the kingdom that is coming near, the kingdom he invites people to be part of. This journey throughout the Saturday was really rich. We all heard God speak in a variety of ways. In the afternoon we started working out how to invite others into this journey through Mark 1. We had used Ignation scene setting to look at each section, where a group of people create the scene and hold a freeze frame while the rest of the group pay attention to what they notice, and the actors pay attention to what the scene feels like from their position. The picture above is the scene of Jesus’ baptism. We decided to do that again on the Sunday evening, inviting members of the youth groups to make the scene and then inviting the rest of the group to share reflections.

Great idea. It had worked well the day before with a smaller group, why shouldn’t it work with a larger? The theory was sound. In reality, not so much. The service was built around the 3 episodes of the story, baptism, temptation, ministry. At the beginning of each, we’d make the scene with people from the congregation. They’d hold the pose while the scripture was read, and then for a bit longer to let us reflect. Then I invited people to respond. What did they see, what did they notice, what caught their attention.

The first time. Nothing. From no one.

The second time, a minister and an old friend (who I suspect were feeling sorry for me) shared.

The third time, a couple more leaders shared.

I was thinking, sheesh, tough crowd! To finish the service we’d created three responsive prayer stations. We wanted to make space for people to express where they felt in the story; a place of affirmation, a place of testing and tempting, or a place of outworking and embodying.

The first station was an enactment of the baptism where people could come up and a few leaders would gather around them, place their hands on their shoulders and say, ‘You are God’s child. God is so very pleased with you.’

The second station involved a piece of art a young woman had been creating throughout the service. It was an image of Jesus in the desert, with Satan whispering in his ear, wild animals standing around and angels keeping watch. We provided felts and invited people to come and colour in the picture as their act of prayer.

The third station was candles which people were invited to come and light, speaking of the way they were sensing God’s invitation to live brightly out of their God-gifted identity.

Because of the underwhelming responses earlier, I steeled myself for the worst. I even prefaced it by saying (to my shame) ‘I don’t mind if no one moves, or if everyone moves, we’re going to hold this space to make room so we can respond to God.’ Then I played a song, and closed my eyes.

Then I heard movement. Lots of it. I opened my eyes just a pinch and saw people moving, lots of people. I don’t know if everyone moved, but I didn’t see anyone sitting still. The stations were flooded with people lining up to engage with them as their act of response to what they felt God was saying to them, and calling them into.

Wow. Didn’t see that coming.

So what had just happened. Initially I thought that the earlier invitations may have primed people to respond, and the later prayer stations gave them a chance. But the scale of the response was so vastly different. It wasn’t until a friend shared this concept with me that I realised what had happened. Its about how we engage with learning experiences. We all reside in the central circle most of the time, our comfort zone. We aren’t learning there, because we aren’t being challenged or confronted by new ideas or possibilities. However, too much challenge or confrontation and we end up in the red ‘panic’ zone. The sweet spot is enough challenge that we are intrigued, but not afraid. That’s where we learn and grow.

I realised my invitation to have people share their reflections in front of 150 others pushed most of them into the panic zone. A few people shared, but they were all leaders, who weren’t as spooked as the young people were by this invitation. Yet, something about the prayer stations worked for just about all of them. It was clearly in their green zone; something that wasn’t usual, but something they were happy to try because it wasn’t too far off out of their experience.

So what do we learn from all this? I have learnt that after a decade of this, I am still going to get it wrong, but that this ‘getting it wrong’ doesn’t need to be terminal. The service didn’t work as I expected, but boy-oh-boy it worked in another way, and better than I could have expected. I ended up having to play my song through twice to give everyone a chance to respond in the way they felt led to. I realised I’d set the bar too high with my initial invitations to participate. Then with the prayer stations, I had give people permission to engage or not engage. Apparently freedom works for people, because most of them used that freedom to participate.

So be encouraged by this tale of my well intentioned bumblings, and the gracious work of God that makes good of it regardless!

AUTHOR: Malcolm Gordon
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