As I write the latest of several columns exploring the decline of church attendance, I’m reminded of an old joke about a man who often interrupted his pastor’s sermon with a hearty “Amen!”
With each disturbance, the pastor would lose her place. A cantankerous old deacon twice asked the man to curb his enthusiasm, but the guy wouldn’t be contained.
Following a particularly profound point, the man stood to his feet proclaiming, “Amen! Amen!”
The exuberant worshiper apologized. “I’m sorry. I’m just so full of God’s spirit that I can’t help myself.” The disgruntled deacon replied by stabbing his bony finger in the air, “Please just shut up! You didn’t get His spirit here.”
The joke sadly exposes some of the ritualistic dryness reiterated in a 2016 Pew Research poll. Allowed multiple answers, respondents named two reasons they joined a particular congregation:
(1) How visitors are welcomed
(2) The style of the worship service. Unsurprisingly, both factors were of equal importance to preaching.
Again, I’m not a church growth expert, but like you, I’m a pew expert. That’s because in 1991, I shifted my career from pastor to chaplain, causing Becky and me to begin our church search. I’m sure it wouldn’t surprise you to know that we were most attracted to the churches where people spoke to us.
While we heard plenty of great preaching and rousing music, there were places where no one -- I mean not even the guy handing out the programs -- spoke to us. (Note to church members: “Hello” is a nice word that covers a multitude of shortcomings.)
I dare say we chose the church where June, the pastor’s wife, and Matt, the caring deacon, gave us a consistently warm welcome. Both greeted us in simple fashion: “Hello. Welcome to Bell Road. We’re so glad you joined us today.”
At some point, as we became conversant, they asked pleasant questions you’d ask any new neighbor. “What’s your favorite restaurant?” They didn’t pry by asking “What do you do for a living?” Or, “Are you looking for a church?”
And as we left, they offered, “It was great to have you today. We hope to see you again.”
We joined the church not long after our first Sunday because we were properly welcomed.
In addition to appreciating good preaching and a courteous welcome, about three-quarters of the poll respondents resonated with the remainder of this column saying that the style of worship services influenced their decision to join a congregation.
As pew-sitters, we can reimagine worship. We are the worshipers. Or, as I once heard someone say, “People don’t attend church, they are the church.”
It’s time we consider “Alternative Worship” where the leadership is decentralized. It’s actually not that new as it continues to emphasize congregational participation within a multi-sensory experience. It can be hard to define, so allow me to list some examples.
A sermon needn’t always be lecture style. It can be a pastor-led discussion that allows questions and doubt. Or how about a talk-show format similar to The View? Or audience participation as found with Phil Donahue? A former pastor of mine added live polling where congregants texted their questions and answers.
The music in evangelical churches needn’t follow the same rut of a 7/11 service. (This is when seven phrases are sung 11 times.) And liturgical churches needn’t decay into the same ritual drone of the stand-up sit-down.
Churches can still do liturgy, but it might be three people entering under a spotlight reading the Gospel. Or two people might “interrupt” the service with a mock debate from the Bible. Or it could mean a dramatization of the reading.
I think you’re getting the idea. We must think of new ways to communicate the old, old story.
I’m not saying these ideas will increase church attendance by leaps and bounds, but I am saying these ideas might help you create a worship service that will encourage folks to keep coming back.
Let’s face it, our churches won’t be the same after this pandemic. Or at least they shouldn’t be. Let’s reimagine worship.
Readers: I encourage you to search the internet for ideas. See my website for a list of the great resources I found for alternative worship.
Sources for this column