leading church services

Church services and the element of surprise

What are some of the most memorable church services you have ever experienced? Matt, our worship pastor, asked all of us that question yesterday during our biweekly creative planning meeting for upcoming Sunday services. It was an instructive question because in stirring up great memories it revealed essential ingredients that make for impacting church services.

As we paused silently to consider the question each of us began to search through our own respective archives of years of doing church. For me it was like pulling out old family albums and paging through them looking for photos that sparked favorite memories from years gone by. In a matter of minutes I came up with a list of over ten very vivid pictures in my mind of services that had a major impact upon me.

These most memorable church services fell into one of four categories. They were times when 1) God’s presence was sudden, unmistakable and so powerful that it overwhelmed everyone simultaneously; 2) I was so convicted by the speaker’s message that I was drawn uncontrollably forward to the altar area to do business with God; 3) A creative or spontaneous element in the service deeply touched me both emotionally and spiritually; 4) Something bizarre happened that was unexpected, unredemptive but unforgettable.

In retrospect, as I think about it now, the one common ingredient that made those church services so memorable was the element of surprise. And in most of the cases the surprise was a function of what happened, being unplanned and spontaneous. Not surprisingly, that is typically how God works. When it comes to the way God does things the maxim “expect the unexpected” is more the rule than the exception. This modus operandi is demonstrated repeatedly throughout both the Old and New Testaments in the way God’s initiated life changing encounters with people. From Abraham to David to Mary to Paul we see God again and again surprising people through His divine intervention.

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My Ideal Church Service

When you meet together, one will sing, another will teach, another will tell some special revelation God has given, one will speak in tongues, and another will interpret what is said. But everything that is done must strengthen all of you. 1 Corinthians14:26 (NLT)

Seasoned church attenders can hold their own with any other Monday morning quarterback when it comes to critiquing how the worship, preaching and other special teams did. People who have attended church for any length of time know what they like and don’t like about church services. The problem is most pastors, like coaches, don’t listen to church talk radio where their loyal fans vent their frustrations and dispense their advice – so things seldom change.

The church services in the traditional, the liturgical and even the evangelical church worlds are basically all the same and have not changed for centuries. They follow a predictable order and format. Corporate participation is limited to the recitation of prescribed song lyrics, scripture texts and/or prayers. Individual expressions are assigned to trained and rehearsed worship leaders, service leaders and pastors, who typically are clergy professionals. Fellowship, before or after the service, and the 7th inning greeting are the only really unscripted parts of the gathering.

The game plan for most church services goes like this. They open with worship, have announcements, take an offering accompanied by special music, preach a message and close with prayer and/or a benediction. Communion and other special elements are inserted typically between worship and the message, as the particular week or season of the year require. Some churches alter that order and the time allotted for each, but basically that is the typical weekend service across America and the world.

As a pastor, veteran of thousands of church services and secret listener to church talk radio I have given much thought to this predicament.

At the crux of the problem are two challenges. First, how do we make room in our services for the unscripted, unpredictable leading of the Holy Spirit? And secondly, how do we make our services more participatory and give greater expression to the priesthood of every believer.

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