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Healing in Worship: Hospitality that welcomes everyone as they are

Though you might associate "heal" with "cure," healing in worship is broader. Whether through prayer, hospitality, communion, or laying on hands, it helps people become more whole.

Unexpectedly homeless in his late 50s, Joe Crosby ended up in a city-run shelter in the basement of Lake View Lutheran Church in Chicago. One wintry day, he got busy with some donated yarn and knitting needles—with no clue that he would become knit into a community through worship.

Elna Siebring went to a conference so she could help heal others’ painful memories. She never could have predicted the healing that followed.

Pastor Mary Halvorson has learned to meet Christ in strangers.

Stories of healing in worship are as different as the people who tell them. But they include common threads of hospitality that any church can offer—prayer, presence, silence, meals, and sharing from the heart.

Genuine welcome

Crosby recalls that Pastor Liala Beukema stopped to chat about knitting. “I’d learned in college as an art major. She knew how but asked for a few pointers.

“On Ash Wednesday, Liala came downstairs at lunch and said we were all welcome to attend. It was cold and drizzly outside, so I went in to get warm. I felt like I was at home—which, I thought to myself, was ridiculous. After all, I had nothing to give back,” Crosby says.

Still, he went back on Sunday. The church secretary urged him to introduce himself in worship and to stay for coffee.

“About six people told me how glad they were to see me. I was like, ‘Wait a minute! You did hear me. I am homeless.’ They didn’t care. They bent over backward to be welcoming. So after that, I never went anywhere else,” he says.

“These people upstairs sort of adopted me. It’s a small congregation, with people from age 3 to a couple in their 80s who met here as children in Sunday school. Everyone does a little something. At Advent, Liala asked me to help decorate the sanctuary. Now I’m the art team of one.

“They elected me to fill a church council vacancy so I could give insight on helping people at the homeless shelter downstairs,” Crosby says.

Meanwhile, he was struggling to overcome depression and find housing. When a hoped-for move fell through due to bureaucratic ineptness, Beukema asked Crosby whether she could share his story in a sermon and pray for him.

“So after the sermon, she asked me to come up front, like we’d planned. Then she said, ‘Now everybody come up and lay hands on Joe and we’ll pray together.’

“It was totally overwhelming. I’d been ready to pack a bag and sleep on a park bench. That prayer gave me hope to go on. I didn’t know the whole church would come up. It felt like getting a whole new family. Those people had no obligation to do that. From then on, I never had any doubt that I belong,” he says.

Praying and sharing stories

Welcoming people new to them has become as natural as breathing to members of Grace University Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. “We are a little church right in the middle of a huge academic and medical complex. Every day of the school year, 7000 people walk past our church,” says Mary Halvorson, co-pastor.

“The hospital has a great chaplaincy staff, but folks from there stop by our church to pray or talk. Our Neo-Gothic building is 100 years old. With the candles, the colorful banners and symbols of the church year, our sanctuary is warm and inviting. It embraces you. This is a place that quiets and calms. You can’t get that in a waiting room,” she says.

Grace University Lutheran’s thoughtful hospitality is tangible. People relax in its healing courtyard garden. Inside the church, they find devotionals, written prayers, note cards, and Kleenex. Church members knit prayer shawls for visitors to take back to the hospital.

“We feel hospitality helps us welcome Christ in strangers. For us, hospitality and being a place of healing are one and the same. It’s a ministry of presence,” Halvorson explains.

Three years ago the church began a monthly healing service called GRACEsprings. People meet for a free meal of locally grown, organic foods. Table hosts ask questions to help conversation flow. There’s an open prayer book where people can write prayer requests, anonymous or not.

“We go upstairs for a prayer service of healing. There’s lots of silence, simple prayer, a fountain of running water. We ask someone to share scripture and a 10-minute story of when grace sprang forth.

“We’ve learned the power of sharing one’s story. There is no us and them. We’re all wounded healers. From nurses and social workers we’ve learned that we’re all in need. When you give and give in hard situations, you need to be replenished,” she says. People are invited to kneel, have hands laid on them, and receive prayer.

As worship leaders read prayer requests, a pianist plays lightly under the words. After each petition, everyone sings the refrain “The Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words to express” (#180 in service music of Evangelical Lutheran Worship; bottom of page 9 here).

“Something about that refrain slows us down. We use it in Sunday worship too. Healing isn’t about cure. It’s about being heard, being held, deepening relationships in community,” Halvorson says.

Eating together

Halvorson explains why GRACEsprings begins with a meal. “Having broken bread together, we are prepared for prayer in a deepened way.”

Celebrating communion functions the same way at Lake View Lutheran. “Most folks here have experienced some kind of alienation, especially from the institutional church. Here, we proclaim the wholeness and inclusiveness of the faith family and kingdom of God. God loves all of us—gay, straight, rich, poor, male, and female.

“We commune every Sunday. It’s a very powerful moment for people who have been estranged from the church and who have felt estranged from God. Grace, grace, grace…that’s what it’s all about,” Liala Beukema says.

Joe Crosby agrees. “I always love the Bible stories about people being healed. It makes life not seem so hopeless. And I love the communion sacrament. It’s open communion. That means it’s for everybody. Everybody is welcome to partake. It feels like sharing a feast.”

Healing Worship for People in Recovery

If you or a loved one have lived with grief, assault, addiction, or mental illness, then you know that healing encompasses so much more than medical treatment.

It also includes rethinking who you are, building new relationships, and celebrating progress and recovery. Worship can heal people in those ways, whether within congregational worship or special healing services.

The healing power of touch

If you visit City Hope Ministries in Grand Rapids, Michigan, you’ll notice two things. The moment you walk in, someone welcomes you, gives you an embrace, and passes you on to someone else.

“The thesis of the book The Five Star Church is that a church ought to function as a five star restaurant. When you walk in, people welcome you as if into their own homes. They take care of you. We want people who come to City Hope to know that we appreciate that God has brought them to our midst,” says Rik Stevenson, senior pastor.

The next thing you notice is that City Hope’s platform has no seats or podium. They’re on the floor. “We create an environment where everyone is equal at the foot of the cross. Everyone who serves—whether they sing, usher, or preach—comes from seats in the congregation,” Stevenson says.

Worship begins with singing. Next everyone stands and holds hands for a community prayer. Sometimes Stevenson asks them to break into groups of two or three and pray for each other.

Then comes Koinonia, which can last up to 20 minutes. “So many people are in hurting situations, especially women coming out of spousal abuse or crack cocaine addiction. Those hugs during Koinonia might be the only hugs they get all week without an agenda,” he says.

In a world divided by income, education, and race, City Hope offers worship where it’s impossible to go through a service without talking to those seated near you.

“If we are a body and the body requires each individual piece to function so that the whole functions properly, then you ought to know the piece of the body sitting next to you. If I sit next to you but never say anything to you, then how can I say I’m a part of you and you’re a part of me?” Stevenson says.

He preaches often on Christian fellowship and God’s love and forgiveness. “As you know from psychological and medical studies, touch is very healing. To be touched is to come closer to each other.

“Another part of healing is the healing of emotions and the idea that ‘I am worth something. I made a lot of mistakes in my life. But the Lord still has his hand on me,’ ” he says.

Building new bonds

Native Canadians, Asians, and Anglo volunteers worship together at Celebrating All Nations Fellowship in East Vancouver, British Columbia. “We have intentionally built up a caring and worshiping community that supports those who are addicted or exposed to addiction, socially and spiritually,” says James Lee, urban missionary pastor for Vancouver Urban Ministries with New Hope in East Vancouver, British Columbia.

Sometimes members give testimonies about becoming free of addiction. “This is a powerful element in encouraging the addicted or youth who are exposed to destructive habits. One person going through counseling used Ephesians 6:12, about struggling against powers and spiritual forces of evil, to fight addiction.

“The addicted need affirmation that God loves them no matter what they do,” Lee says. Worshipers cling to the Romans 8:38-39 promise that nothing can separate them from God’s love.

Some worship services include opportunity for people to share prayer requests or to receive prayer along with laying on of hands.

Lee knows a woman who experienced instant healing. But he says that, besides prayer and scripture, most people also need professional treatment—and fellowship.

“One of the main struggles for the addicted is that they do not have healthy support networks. All their friends usually are addicted, and they often go back to destructive habits even if they desire to be free from addiction. So providing support networks is a crucial element in healing and restoration.

“Often the family members are more affected than those who are addicted. Families need support and prayers,” he says. That’s why Celebrating All Nations Fellowship offers a potluck after worship and a free supper before midweek small groups.

“People going through struggles need to talk. They speak plain language. There’s no mask. Sometimes I’m kind of surprised what they share. But if you have hit rock bottom, you have nothing to lose—no job, no social reputation,” Lee says.

Celebrating together

New Community Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, offers a Friday night Community Recovery service for people who seek healing in worship.

“The idea of a recovery service can be polarized on substance abuse. We see a recovery service as for people who are in deep pain and hurt—whether because of substance abuse, codependency, grieving loss of loved ones, or family of origin issues,” says Mark VanderMeer, New Community associate pastor.

“We come saying, ‘God, I have nothing but you and without you I’m done for.’ It’s a chance to surrender to God all your hurts and health issues,” he says.

Community Recovery draws African Americans, Anglos, and Latinos with a mix of incomes from professional to homeless. People gather for a simple soup supper before Community Recovery worship. After worship they meet in small groups. The evening ends with a dessert café.

“We focus worship on the Christian 12-step program, a biblical program with recovery and restoration themes. We focus on step one in January on through to step twelve in December. We often take drama used in Sunday worship and reframe it to fit recovery lifestyle struggles,” VanderMeer says.

A worship band leads contemporary praise songs and traditional hymns, such as “Just as I Am,” to give people hope and connection with God. During the second song, people line up to get prayed for. Everyone recites the full serenity prayer in unison at each service.

“From time to time, we open up the mike to let people share prayer requests, joys, or clean times. We might ask someone ahead of time to share a short testimony. Sometimes we invite people up to pray, kneel, or give other expression of surrender,” VanderMeer says.

Sharing Stories of Healing in Worship

Testimonies of healing in worship can be surprisingly powerful. Just ask Elna Siebring, now a community networker at All Nations Christian Reformed Church in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and David Kromminga, a former All Nations pastor.

“When your children ask you”

In 1995, while preparing a sermon on Joshua 4:1-7, Kromminga came up with an idea to help people remember these words: ”In the future, when your children ask you, 'What do these stones mean?' tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord” (v.6b, 7a).

He decided to bring a dozen rocks into the sanctuary and invite people to share stories of God’s deliverance.

Siebring volunteered to go out with a friend and collect rocks. “The ground was frozen solid! It took us about three hours to finally find some at a gravel yard,” she recalls.

But prying rocks turned out to be a lot easier than the process that service eventually launched.

David Kromminga, now pastor of Sherman Street Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, says that at the time, he and his wife were “going through a pregnancy where everything went all wrong.”

Siebring remembers that one woman talked about infertility. “She said, ‘Not that the struggle is over.’ But God said to her, “I love you even more than your desire to have a child. That’s how intense my love is for you.’”

Another woman told about being raped. “She’d never felt a sense of healing till she came to All Nations. She said, ‘This is a place where you can begin to heal,’” Siebring says. “All Nations is a place where you can be vulnerable and come as you are.”

Dark night of the soul

While Siebring was an elder, several women confided in her. “I didn’t know anything about assault or abuse so I didn’t know how to help or respond. In 1999, when I heard about a one-week sexual abuse leadership training, I went so I could help others.

“But that training opened up things that I had framed in a totally different way. People said, ‘No, what happened to you was sexual assault.’ My whole world fell apart,” she says.

The intense pressure pushed her into needing psychiatric care. For relief she went to live for 40 days at L’Arche Cape Breton, a community living in solidarity with people who have disabilities.

“I chose 40 days because Jesus went 40 days in the wilderness. I said I didn’t want any phone calls. My church didn’t know if I would ever come back to All Nations…or just run again.

“I did one sketch a day for those 40 days away. I didn’t know what life would look like after those 40 days,” Siebring recalls.

She stayed away from church but decided to attend on Canadian Thanksgiving. Kromminga preached that day on Psalm 30:11, about God turning mourning into dancing, taking off sackcloth and clothing people with joy.

Kromminga says, “My brother, also a pastor, had sent me that verse when we were going through a time of grief after our son died. At the time, I had thought, ‘Mourning into dancing? Yeah, right.’

“It did turn out to be true, that in spite of what happened, God is faithful. But I cast the Thanksgiving Day sermon in first person, because I didn’t want to assume that on anyone.”

He ended the sermon by inviting people to give public testimony. First, though, he had everyone sing “I Worship You, O Lord” (Psalter Hymnal #30).

“My sadness you dispelled”

The words of that song—“I cried to you for help, and you restored my life”—pushed Elna Siebring forward. “I didn’t want to go up but felt compelled by the Spirit. Many people said the same thing that day,” she recalls.

Since then, she’s been able to connect more easily with other people going through dark times. People say, “Oh, Elna’s gone through the same thing. You should talk with her.”

Another time she showed her “40 days” sketchbook to a woman who said, “Oh my goodness, that’s what happened to me when I was a teen.”

Siebring adds, “She felt like it kept her from relationships, like she could never share it with anyone she was dating. So she never had a boyfriend. About a year later, she was married. I asked her about that.

“She said, ‘Your sharing your story helped me tell someone for the first time. It made me see it wasn’t about me. It was what someone else did. All of a sudden, relationships didn’t seem such a huge thing.’”

Help that heals

Siebring’s healing process taught her a lot.

“I have a dear friend whose medications don’t balance. She’s often in a more manic state. It’s so helpful to have gone through a phase when I needed medication. It’s so helped me know how to be in relationship with her,” she says.

Besides working on staff at All Nations CRC, she also works at a homeless shelter. “Their mental health issues don’t scare me,” she says.

She’s learned how to help someone whose life is falling apart. It’s far more helpful to ask, “How can I help?” instead of say, “This is what you should do.”

Siebring says that you don’t have to know the whole story to show you care. “Once I was curious about what was going on with someone, so I asked another friend about her. She said, ‘Elna, that’s not my story to tell. That’s her story.’ And she was right.”

When people are suffering, they often can’t pray for themselves. It helps to know that others are praying for them.

“At a time when my family was going through a very hard time, someone I didn’t know well told me, ‘You don’t need to tell me what’s going on, but I’m praying for you.’

“When I was away for 40 days, I got two significant pieces of correspondence. One woman wrote, ‘I am lifting you up in prayer into the arms of Jesus.’ Another wrote something like ‘We’re praying for you and looking forward to your re-entering the community.’

”I’d think, ‘I’m in the arms of Jesus. I don’t even have to pray.’ That was huge!” she says.

People going through counseling often find the experience so intense that they have no energy to cook.

“If you know someone who’s in counseling, and they’re in a family, bring them a meal. If they’re single, invite them over. Say, ‘Let me know when your next appointment is. I’ll bring another meal.’

“Every time after my counseling, I went to David and Mary for supper. It was a physical and emotional place to be cared for. I didn’t feel the need to have to talk about counseling” she says.

Learn More

Grace University Lutheran Church used Iona Community healing resources to plan GRACEsprings, such as Iona Abbey Worship Book and Praying for the Dawn. Build on the GraceSprings model by using or adapting their guidelines for being a greeter or table host, inviting people for laying on of hands, and offering hospitality. Here is sample bulletin cover, order of worship, and meditation.

Read more about City Hope Ministries and Celebrating All Nations Fellowship and James Lee’s work with urban youth. Check out New Community’s Community Recovery service, which is customized from the Celebrate Recovery® model developed by Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California.

Want to get musically inspired and help homeless people heal in Halifax? Buy a Shining Lights CD. Get ideas on how to help people leave prostitution.

Learn more about healing in worship at the 2008 Calvin Symposium on Worship. Topics include healing rituals, dealing with disasters, preaching and pastoral care, and others’ pain.

When your whole congregation is in crisis, transition, or conflict, turn to Stilling the Storm: Worship and Congregational Leadership in Difficult Times by Kathleen S. Smith. Church leaders in Blacksburg, Virginia had to plan worship for a community in shock after people 33 died by gunshot at Virginia Tech University. They advise gathering healing resources for worship before you think you need them.

Practicing Our Faith has wonderful ideas for teaching about and including healing in worship.Reformed Worship articles on healing and hospitality include this simple yet profound idea oncreating a healing tree during Lent. Graham Standish tells how to use healing prayer in worship.

Start a book club to learn more about healing:

  • Dwelling Places by Vinita Hampton Wright is a novel about how losing farms traumatizes families and towns.
  • Pearl by Mary Gordon is a novel about how to heal from wounds that loved ones unwittingly inflict on each other.
  • Stories from Below the Poverty Line by George Beukema puts you in the shoes of low-income people.
  • The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen will help you understand how “with his stripes we are healed.”

Browse related stories about communionpeace and justice as hospitality, and worship language.

Start a Discussion

Talk about planning a healing service or incorporating healing elements in worship:

  • When have you found worship especially healing? What was it about that congregation or service that helped you?
  • Describe an experience when you found yourself connecting with someone you had previously thought of as “lesser than” yourself.
  • What are the pros and cons of spontaneously asking for testimonies or prayer requests during worship?
  • Which are the largest subgroups of people in your church or community who need healing? What first steps could you take toward offering worship that would help heal them?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to encourage hospitality and healing in worship?

  • Did you ask nurses, doctors, social workers, or other healthcare providers for ideas on how to help ill people and replenish those who serve them?
  • Have you come up with a way to connect with an often-forgotten set of people in your midst, perhaps older adults and their caretakers, or homeless people, or refugees?