One, two, three… I steal a glance at the people with whom I’m about to sing.
One couple* grieving their inability to bear children. Right behind them, a family beams as they bounce a newborn on their shoulder. *Names and stories changed to protect privacy.
Two, two, three… One of the men who helps cut the grass will begin extensive chemotherapy for aggressive cancer this week. Across the aisle, a woman and her husband are praising God that the biopsy came back benign.
Three, two, three… His 8th birthday party was yesterday, complete with candy-stuffed piñata, behind him are my children, who buried their 8-year-old sister two years ago.
Four, two, three… I’ve been defeated so many times in my fight to overcome the inner demons, sin cravings that won’t die, and this week was no exception. Self-condemnation swirls as I fight to concentrate on the music in front of me. Should I even be standing up here? I am a hypocrite for daring to stand before God and everyone and sing. Do they think I’ve got it all right? Some days I don’t want God’s way… I want my way. What was I thinking, volunteering to help this way? They didn’t tell me that worship team is really “Hypocrisy 101.”
No matter how small, any group will look like this — pains and joys from every point on the spectrum of life, from profound suffering to willful selfish choices to unspeakable happiness to sin-slavery.
It is a mistake to assume that everyone is in the same place. Yet, all too often, our worship services do just that – assume that everyone is joyful, contemplative, triumphant, or spiritually mature. Worship leaders insist on ecstatic faces, raised or clapping hands, cheering, singing triumphant songs really loud. (I’ve actually heard leaders scold their congregations for not singing loud enough.) But this excludes those who can’t sing joy and triumph, who are desperate and hurting.
However, despite my last three posts (How You Can Stop Lying In Church, How Happy Songs Hurt, and Without Lament We Lie About God) calling for us to include lament in our worship, it would be a mistake to only lament. Doing so also excludes people from worship — those who are rejoicing. We need three-dimensional worship, a way to worship God together that honors our various places in our spiritual journeys and gives us a way out of hypocrisy and fakery (not that we can keep people from choosing on their own to fake it).
I’ve been privileged to help in song services by playing keyboard and by singing. I’ve also jostled a fussy baby, wrestled a toddler who sees pews as an obstacle course to be challenged, soothed a discontent daughter in a wheelchair, and shushed the bickering of school-aged kids in the pews, all while trying to find just one minute to truly worship. Having been in both places, I have some suggestions for planning and leading services that allow everyone in a group to genuinely worship God, no matter what is happening in their lives.
1. Select a variety of songs, readings, and prayers each time you gather.
- Be careful to include confession, lament, praise, and thanks so that no matter where a person is, they find something that fits. They may not be able to sing every thing that day, but your goal should be to try to find one thing that fits each place on the spectrum.
I like to plan worship services around specific themes. We had lists of songs everyone knew, and with each song the topics it touched on — grace, mercy, praise, prayer, sin, forgiveness, God’s power, God’s love, communion, resurrection, etc. We’d pick a theme for a service and select songs that fit the theme. It kept us from singing the same ten songs over and over, and as a distracted mom in the crowd, made it easier for me to follow.
2. Be what you are and give people permission to be what they are, whether that is rejoicing, grieving, angry, confused, numb, broken, struggling, or anything in between.
- Your congregation needs to hear you specifically, clearly, and repeatedly give them permission to hurt. Don’t hide your own struggles. In an opening prayer, you could confess that your heart is hard and you need God’s help to love and worship him that day. Don’t be shy about sharing guidance for participating when life is a struggle (see #3, in this post). Teach by example and with words how to worship as broken people. Remind them that God accepts us where we are, and that we can bring our praise and our groaning to Him.
What do you think? How do you try to reach everyone, no matter where they are, and bring them into a place where they can worship God?
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