A Disciplined Experiment on Changing Worship

Before I went to seminary, I graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry. I was also a teacher for children with autism. The tools and skills I learned from science and teaching, I apply in my everyday life as a pastor. Change is an everyday occurrence in the field of science and education. The whole system is designed around observing change and its effect. However, the opposite is probably true when it comes to church or worship for that matter. As a scientist and teacher, we know that the environment is constantly changing around us and therefore we must adapt and understand what and why the change is happening. As pastors, our go-to mode is to preserve and conserve. When change does happen it is usually met with discomfort and disagreement. I will never forget my first year serving at my current church. A year before, the doxology was taken out of the worship service. The moment my Head of Staff went on sabbatical, I was bombarded with parishioners who were trying to convince me to put it back in the service. Being new to my call and this church, I obliged not knowing the history of what had happened.

Change does not have to be negative nor does it have to incite panic among our parishioners. Change is natural and therefore, inevitable. The challenge is what do we do in the midst of the change that is happening around us. How does our worship and our experience with God interact with the changes in our lives, people’s needs, as well as the community? Many churches are finding the need to change the way they worship – whether it is because of declined attendance, changing demographic, better use of space, or desiring to be more innovative. One of the fears of change in worship is failure. Worship experience is subjective so how does one know if the change is positive. Surely, you will hear from those who do not like it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the change isn’t effective. Vijay Govindarajan, author of “Reverse Innovation” says “Failure is not the real enemy of innovation. The real enemy is prolonged expensive failure.” Let’s face it, for many of our congregations, not changing is more of a threat of failure than just trying something and it not working out.

When change in worship happens for no clear reason or thought, it usually causes unsettled feelings to arise. But what if we took a more disciplined approach similar to a scientist or teacher? My Head of Staff and I agreed to enter into a time of a disciplined experiment where we would make some intentional changes to the way we worship. The thought was we would just try something to get a clearer idea of what needed to actually change. I took the first two months and my Head of Staff would take the next few months. We would then regroup and compare notes to see how the experiment went.

For my two months, I harkened back to my time as a teacher, where I would create an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for each of my students. An IEP assesses the current level a student is performing; sets measurable goals; tracks a student’s progress in meeting those goals; brings in outside support to help the student meet those goals. I created an IEP for my church.

Assessment of current state of worship

For the past few years, I have been slowly moving our worship services to be more family-friendly. This meant creating space in the sanctuary for strollers and toddlers to run around as well as places for kids to read books and color. The extra space also created room for those using walkers and wheelchairs as well. In addition to that, we allowed coffee, juice cups, Goldfish, and snacks in the sanctuary. Providing more space for families with small children also meant more noises. We had to change the way we viewed children in worship, going out of our way to make parents feel comfortable to worship with their children. In the bulletin, it would read “Parents are free to wander when restless,” wanting others to know that it is okay for people to move about the sanctuary.

Even with all these changes, I still struggled with one thing. Once the kids enter 6th grade, they rarely come to church. I’ve tried starting Middle School programs and planning fun events, but these kids are already over-scheduled with sports, volunteering, and other activities. The dilemma was if these kids are only in church regularly from birth to fifth grade, then how will they know what worship is about if they are rarely in worship? Plus, I wasn’t convinced that the mere hour they spent in Sunday School was really teaching them anything. One hour is not enough to build biblical knowledge. We needed to plan worship services that were more intergenerational – not kid-friendly, not even intentionally family-friendly, but truly where all ages, personalities, comfort, and needs had moments to enter into worship. By moving to a more intergenerational format, the adults hopefully will benefit as well. I’ve noticed that I no longer can assume that anyone whether adult or child are familiar with what I would consider common stories of the bible like Jonah and the big fish, Noah and the ark, Jesus feeding the 5000 to name a few.

Set measurable goals

Here were the goals and changes that were made:

The first change was the arrangement of the pews. Because the pews were not bolted down, it gave us an opportunity to try a more circular or rounded seating arrangement. The intent was to provide more space in the middle for creative and interactive worship elements and allow people to see one another.

No more children’s sermons. Because kids should be able to participate in worship with their family, there is no need for a children’s sermon. Prayers, music, and scripture would be designed in a way for parents to sit with their children in worship so that they can teach them and the kids can observe those around them on how to worship. Sunday School for K-fifth grade, which usually met at the same time as our worship service, was also changed. Instead of being apart from the whole service, they had the option of participating in an age-appropriate lesson during the sermon time and then return for the remainder of the service.

The worship service was simplified to four parts: Gather (Call to Worship, Song, Confession & Assurance, and Passing the Peace), Engage (Scripture, Sermon, Song) Respond (Prayers of the People, Choir Anthem, Collection of Offering & Announcements), and Depart (Song, Benediction). I kept structure of the service the same, but had flexibility within the four parts to do something creative.

I implemented interactive elements throughout worship. Because this was new to people, we spent time to use these elements as teachable moments. To increase the participation of singing, we sang simple songs and often sang them a capella, teaching them each part of the song. To give opportunity for people to engage in the Word and prayer, we sometimes set up interactive prayer stations during the “Prayers of the People” time for people. You can check out my blog for more information and ideas about interactive prayer stations: http://www.theresaecho.com/interactive-prayer-stations. To engage all ages in the reading of scripture, we used more storytelling and call and response litanies. Here is a breakdown on some ideas that happened the nine Sundays of my disciplined experiment:

  • For the first Sunday, nothing to new was introduced since the structure, seating arrangement, and changes to Sunday School were new. The most noticeable change was the selection of songs sung and the more engaging way our choir director led and taught the songs.
  • Because the second Sunday was close to the remembrance of 9/11, we had interactive prayer stations set up around the theme of love and peace. All kids stayed in worship. I worked with the choir director to adapt a sermon and weave in parts of the musical, Rent’s, Season of Love.
  • For the next two Sundays, we continued to live into the new structure of the service. I weaved in songs and prayer together for the Call to Worship and the reading of Scripture.
  • On the fifth Sunday, there was a baptism. During the sermon time, the K-fifth graders had a lesson on baptism. They decorated a baptism box to give to the baby, filled it with baptism symbols, and wrote a promise to the baby. “I promise to pray for you and show you where the good cookies are at coffee hour.” During the baptism, parishioners were invited to add their own promises to the box, which was then given to the parents.
  • The next month was “Hunger Awareness Month.” The first Sunday was World Communion Sunday. During the sermon time, the K-fifth graders had a lesson on World Communion and prepared the bread for the Table. Using food coloring in milk, they “painted” symbols of peace on slices of white bread. The bread was then toasted to prevent it from getting soggy. It was great to see people sharing colorful bread that the kids prepared.
  • The seventh Sunday, we had interactive prayer stations set up again, this time focusing on issues of hunger and the story of Jesus feeding the 5000. Worshippers learned about our food pantry, UNICEF, and the food bank.
  • The eighth Sunday, the K-fifth graders learned about the Heifer Project, where they prepared for the following Sunday’s bake sale by making signs. During the week, parents and the kids were instructed to bake together, where they could share what they learned about the Heifer Project. The following Sunday, the kids hosted a bake sale and raised money to buy animals for a village.

Use resources

These changes didn’t happen all at once or even over night. We grew into it as the needs changed. We grew into it as we adjusted to the different ways of being community. In some ways, the pastors and staff needed time and still needs time to grow into it as we learn new ways of pastoring, teaching, and serving this particular church community. We also didn’t do it alone. Because we are a small church, we didn’t have a worship committee, but we collaborated in other ways. I worked closely with the choir director to choose songs and set the right tone. Global and Taize music were great resources for simple songs to teach and sing. Social media like Facebook and Twitter are also useful ways to share ideas. Pinterest can spark ideas for interactive prayer stations. To create short lessons for K-fifth graders that followed the lectionary, Union Theological Seminary, http://www.storypath.wordpress.com, matches children’s literature with lectionary texts.

The important thing to remember when doing a disciplined experiment is to try, edit, change, keep, and modify. It doesn’t have to be grand. Start with figuring out what to let go of before adding anything new. And remember change can open up possibilities that you didn’t even realize were possible.

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