One of the greatest challenges for longtime, active church members is to be able to remember what it's like to be new. Over time we become accustomed to all of the routines and rituals of our congregations. We begin to take for granted that everyone else knows how to participate.
But understanding how to fully engage in the worship practices of a new family of faith is not automatic. A person doesn't just get into the parking lot and instantly know which door of the building to enter. The page number of the order of service doesn't automatically appear inside people's brains as soon as they sit down in a pew.
Our church routines and rituals need ongoing explanation and instruction — by worship leaders and church members. It's a matter of hospitality, and it's vital to the health of our families of faith.
Last weekend I was able to visit a congregation in another community. I was there to celebrate a first communion service. It was a joyful day and truly wonderful to be able to be present as a group of 7-year-olds took a new step in their faith journeys.
But from a visitor's perspective, the actual worship experience was frustrating. There were no bulletins provided that outlined the service. No one mentioned on what page number to find the liturgy. I tried and tried — flipping through the pages of the books, searching for the right spot. But eventually, I gave up and used the remainder of the service to pray and admire the architecture. I felt disconnected and disheartened.
An individual's life of faith is the work of the Holy Spirit. We can't force people to come to church or manipulate people into a belief system (and we wouldn't want to). But we can be intentional about creating worship environments where people who attend are empowered to engage in what's happening around them. That's part of our role as followers of Jesus: nurturing congregations focused on authentic participation.
The winds of cultural change are always blowing, and much of that we have no control over. But there are some aspects of worship we very much can control. There are specific, tangible things we can do every week to equip people to participate and engage in the service. This is our responsibility, and it is also our opportunity.
Start small. Label entrances and bathrooms. Pastors and worship leaders: be really intentional and specific in your words of welcome. Throughout the worship service, prompt the gathered congregation with all instructions. And then, eventually, consider including the "why"! Help the people in the pews understand why we do what we do. They deserve to know! And as pastors and worship leaders, we need regular reminders, too.
Worship services aren't supposed to be speakeasies with passwords or fancy clubs with secret handshakes. Jesus did NOT say "Go make disciples of all nations, teaching them very complex liturgies that only a select few are able to follow."
Jesus invited us to be peacemakers rooted in an attitude of hospitality and welcome. Let's do what we can to ensure our worship services are engaging and participatory for all.