Join our mailing list

Connect Community Service and Corporate Worship

The people who pour their hearts into worship aren’t always the same ones who pour themselves into church-based community ministry. But there’s power in following the biblical pattern of connecting outreach and worship.

It’s an all-too-common pattern in churches.

A woman with a green thumb starts a garden with refugees on the church lawn. Someone convinces the deacons to fund a mentoring program that pairs retirees with teens aging out of foster care. A pastor passionate about the arts mobilizes an annual celebration of the arts that pulls in artists and others who’ve never entered a church.

The thriving garden, mentoring, and arts ministries may get mentioned on Mission Sunday or in a small group but basically fly under the congregation’s radar. Then something changes. The gardener burns out. The deacons who care about mentoring end their terms and the new deacons drop it from their budget. The pastor accepts a call to another church. And their outreach fades away, even though the need remains.

“The only way to sustain church-based community ministry is to include it in worship and celebrate it in the life of the church,” says Antoine (Tony) L. Campbell, who built large outreach ministries as an Episcopal priest in South Carolina and Texas.

Campbell and Laura Truax, senior pastor of Chicago’s LaSalle Street Church, say it’s essential to follow the biblical pattern of connecting service and worship. This means including worship in every outreach ministry and including outreach in each congregational worship service so that volunteers see their experiences within God’s overarching story of life with us.

The key to sustainable service

“Sometimes the first way to show the love of God is to feed, clothe, and shelter. But unless you tie in community ministry to the life of worship, it’s not sustainable,” Campbell said at the 2010 Calvin Symposium on Worship. He is now an associate minister of Messiah Missionary Baptist Church and vice president for focused impact at Heart of West Michigan United Way in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Campbell noted how often the Bible connects service (whether giving or receiving a service) and worship. Examples include Abraham and Melchizedek, Jacob building an altar on the spot where God talked with him, and healings by Jesus, Peter, and Paul.

“We see it again and again in Scripture. God blesses God’s people. Then worship happens. Plenty of times people hunger, they struggle, but they also need to hear the word that brings life. When we tie service to worship, we tell people how to live in this world and in the world to come—with the God who loves them and redeems them and cares for them,” he explained.

Plenty of people have noted the power of churches that link service and worship. Lenin broke that link. He made it illegal for the church to do any good works so churches would become irrelevant. In Walking the Small Group Tightrope: Meeting the Challenges Every Group Faces, small group experts Bill Donahue and Russ Robinson explain how small groups can deepen their impact by serving and worshiping together.

Yet the three-year, 32-church Service and Faith project funded by Lilly Endowment found that most churches fail to connect community ministry and worship. Volunteers said that serving people who are poor, ill, hungry, homeless, or behind in school raised new questions about faith and life. But only a fifth of volunteers had a structured opportunity to pray and reflect with peers and leaders.

Principal investigator Diana Garland wrote, “Congregations and church leaders need to understand how to help people serving make the connections back into their faith.” Garland is the dean of the Baylor University School of Social Work and author of Inside Out Families: Living the Faith Together.

Include worship in outreach

Tony Campbell served a South Carolina church that grew its outreach staff from 1 to 40, had a $7 million outreach budget, and built or repaired more than 700 homes, many after Hurricane Hugo. During his time at St. James Episcopal Church in Houston, the outreach ministry repaired about 30 homes a summer.

“We required every outreach ministry to include a Christian education or worship component, whether the ministry was counseling, repairing homes, 12-step, or whatever,” he said.

Returning to the church for corporate worship after each day of working on a house let volunteers process the experience with God and each other. Campbell recalls “an old man, in his 80s, who lived in the woods in a terrible house with plastic windows and no running water.”

At first, youth working on the house felt miffed that the man never treated them to cookies or cold drinks, as other recipients did. A young woman said during worship, “I noticed the old man wasn’t eating anything. That’s why he didn’t feed us or make us Kool-Aid. So I brought him a sandwich and he thanked me profusely.”

Volunteers and homeowners worshiped together as each home was completed. Homeowners received a Bible signed by each volunteer, and Campbell blessed the home with holy water. The old man with no spare food showed his sister all the things the volunteers had done. He started crying and said, “Today I know that my God is not asleep in heaven because today my eyes were opened to what God can do.”

A woman at another blessing service told volunteers, “I used to pray every day that God would send someone to clean my windows…and as God has blessed me, I pray he will bless you.” A young woman in still another worship session spoke of bonding with a homeowner who also had cancer. The young woman said, “I still don’t know if I am going to die or not, but this week taught me how to live.”

Include outreach in worship

Campbell offered four ways to make outreach more visible in worship.

First, be intentional to get specific stories from various ministries to use in church worship. Preachers can change or omit names to respect privacy in retelling stories. In guest sermons and speeches, he often shares the story of a church member who volunteers as a Schools of Hope tutor in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The child told her tutor, “Tomorrow is going to be the best day of my life.” The tutor, picturing best-day scenarios from her own life, asked why. The child replied, “Because tomorrow my mom will come out of prison.” The tutor and student live only six miles apart, but worlds apart in terms of opportunity and achievement. “Your zip code should not determine your ability to be successful in life,” Campbell tells worshipers.

Second, name specific ministries in the prayers of the people, Eucharistic prayer of thanksgiving, and prayer before sending or dismissal. Name them as well during the announcements. “Many churches have a tradition during announcements of calling people up for birthdays and anniversaries to say a prayer or blessing over them. Why not do that with ministry? Every Sunday, call people forward from a particular ministry. Tell a little something about them. Include the Altar Guild…everybody,” he said.

Finally, make sure the closing song in each worship service focuses on Christian service.

Becoming the stories we tell

At the same symposium where Campbell spoke, LaSalle Street Church colleagues Laura Truax and Oreon Trickey gave a workshop on living as an urban church for the sake of the world. Their church is between Chicago’s Gold Coast and Cabrini Green. A typical worship service includes professors, homeless people, and millionaires.

As LaSalle people begin to build relationships, they realize that a “nauseatingly pungent” person may also be a gifted cartoonist or that a business leader may also battle addiction. Going deeper, they bump against systemic problems that are difficult to escape or change—realities that often discourage, frustrate, or enrage those who do community ministry.

“Knowledge of the holy is what protects you from being an angry activist. In worship we try to develop a lover’s heart. Our prayers include the big world out there. We say with integrity and in the shadow of the cross, this world is really broken,” Truax said.

Together in the shadow of the cross, worshipers experience, as Henri Nouwen put it, “our human sameness.” Truax shared Nouwen’s metaphor of hospitality as mission, as creating a space where someone can feel generally welcome and safe as they are. Safe together in God’s welcome, we begin to locate ourselves in God’s unfolding story. “We become the stories we tell,” Truax said.

In her symposium sermon, Truax preached on Pharaoh’s nameless daughter finding baby Moses in a basket. “Where are we in that story?” she asked. Some international symposium attendees face what the Hebrew slaves did. Many of us would like to see ourselves as Moses, the deliverer. Truax observed, however, that most symposium worshipers are like “the nameless woman, Pharaoh’s daughter, who had enough freedom and resources to act, give—or walk away.”

She asked worshipers to think about baskets or moments in their lives. She recounted speaking impatiently to a grocery clerk. “I didn’t even look at her face when I said that. But my son did,” Truax admitted.

“God is weaving all our little seemingly random moments in the ….big story of the kingdom of God being played out now. So go ahead. Act. Love. Trust. Live. You’re never too old, too young, or too insignificant to play a part in God’s stories. God treats our choices and moments with a lot more respect than we do—because he knows how much they matter,” Truax said.

Learn More

Read books that Tony Campbell, Oreon Trickey, and Laura Truax recommend:

  • The Active Life by Parker Palmer
  • Engaging God’s World by Cornelius Plantinga
  • Ethics by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  • Multicultural Ministry: Finding Your Church’s Unique Rhythm by David A. Anderson
  • No Perfect People Allowed by John Burke

Read Diana Garland’s latest book, Inside Out Families: Living the Faith Together. It’s based in part on the Service and Faith project, for which Garland was the principal investigator. Reading the book will your congregation minister through families more than minister to families.

In Christian schools where older students tutor younger students during the school, Tony Campbell suggests gathering the tutors for prayer before they pair up with “their” students. He suggests adapting material from The Book of Occasional Services to plan short worship times with volunteers.The Book of Common Prayer also has resources for occasional services, such as lectionary readings (pp. 22-24), contemporary collects (pp. 251-261), traditional collects (pp. 199-210), lectionary readings (pp. 22-24),

The Reformed Worship issue on Justice and Worship (#68) offers tremendous resources to help you plan worship that integrates your congregation’s community ministries. You’ll find ideas on calls to worship, litanies, prayers, songs, confessions, sermons, communion, the sending, and more.

Check out Iona Community’s Wee Worship BookPracticing Our Faith worship resources on hospitality and testimony; Christian Reformed Church in North America ideas on connecting outreach or disability in worship; and links from Volunteers in Service.

Join online discussions about diaconal ministry or sharing faith stories with kids.

Use ideas from Reformed Worship on how stories form faith and “Sending Forth” litanies for commissioning people before they go and after mission trips.

Browse related stories on bringing pain to God, desiring the kingdom, parables, and worship words.

Start a Discussion

  • What in this story surprises you? What do you disagree with and why?
  • If reading about Israel and Palestine makes you angry or fearful, what Bible passage, song or prayer helps you? How might these emotions help you pray differently for people in the Holy Land?
  • Which international needs does your church most often pray about? Which issues do you ignore—and why?