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Learning to Worship 24/7

As Sojourn Community Church discovered, continual learning and vertical habits help build a community that understands how all of life can be worship. A feature story on 24/7 worship.

Does this happen to you? The minister says amen and you think to yourself, “What a powerful sermon that was!” But by the time you finish Sunday dinner, you can’t quite remember what passage the pastor preached on or what, exactly, the sermon was about.

Forgetting sermons is uncomfortably common in many congregations. Yet at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky, it seems more common than not to hear comments that begin “Well, now that we’ve hit Romans 14” or “Last week when Daniel preached on gospel freedom.”

Daniel Montgomery and Mike Cosper started Sojourn as a Southern Baptist church plant when they were ages 25 and 19. Montgomery had graduated from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Cosper wasn’t yet in college—and has been so busy with Sojourn that he never enrolled.

So-called “Sojourners” remember and live out sermons in part because the pastors model and have embedded the value of continual learning. Sojourn also used the vertical habits concept to help the congregation develop a common language for linking worship and life.

All on the same page

Scripture-rich worship and weekly bulletins help worshipers focus together on the same Bible texts.

“I came to Sojourn in its infancy, but even during my first visit I was struck by the rich—and pretty lengthy—Christ-centered passages read during the service. We usually do several readings in a service, and I have seen the congregation be consistently encouraged and exhorted in worship through the truth of God's Word,” says Lorie King, a ministry deacon active in worship, music, and women’s ministry.

Each week Sojourners receive a devotional with cover art created by members. It includes sermon notes for the current Sunday and daily devotionals to prepare them for the next sermon.

The preaching pastors give sermons in series, often preaching through an entire book, such as Matthew or Romans, or on a biblical theme, such as “subversive stories of Jesus” (parables).

The 2009 sermon series is B.C. (Before Christ), a year-long journey through the Old Testament. It helps worshipers identify with the ancient children of Israel, telling the story of God’s work in their lives as they travel.

True to its media-savvy context, Sojourn puts sermons online, invites worshipers to blog about sermons, write poems and stories in response to sermons, and read sermon resources. Its family worship guides help parents reinforce at home what children learn in SojournKids.

No pretense necessary

Sojourners tell stories of growing up in Bible Belt churches that focused more on externals than on gospel and grace.

“Many people here have come from traditions where they don’t feel free to clap, raise their hands, or bow. We’ve all become freer with bodily expressions,” says Bobby Gilles, a ministry deacon in charge of Sojourn communications.

Abby Harvey, who leads a community group with her husband, Troy, says she came from “a charismatic background and was always worrying whether I was clapping right or had my hands raised at the right time and the right angle. For me it’s freeing to be able to be quiet and not clap or move.”

In dress, manner, words, and music, Sojourn pastors, musicians, and worship leaders model the congregation’s desire to be authentic. Lorie King says that at root, authenticity means “being honest about the truth: the truth of who we are and the truth of who God is.”

No one is expected to be (or look) perfect. Every service includes confession and assurance, so people clearly understand the difference between human sinfulness and God’s holiness.

“I appreciate the sense of freedom in our community and worship. This lets us get to deeper character issues instead of only talking about issues such as whether one person’s conscience permits Halloween events,”says Katie Vaughn, a college student and worship leader.

Chandi Plummer, a SojournKids worship music leader, adds, “Worship here feels so different in a transformative sense. Sanctification comes, oh, so slowly. But we have the freedom to not try to appear perfect. We are fed by grace continually and trust that God is at work in our lives.”

Learning and serving together

New members classes and weekly community groups strengthen Sojourners’ identities as freed by God’s grace to share that love through word and deed with all they meet.

Troy Harvey says that before he went to new member classes, he would have described worship as “music or when Christians get together to sing. And ‘liturgy.’ I didn’t even know what that word was till I came to Sojourn. I’d never been to a Catholic or Presbyterian church.”

Between 60 and 70 percent of Sojourners are in community groups. These geography-based groups meet weekly. Three weeks a month community groups study together, usually the week’s devotional and sermon outline.

“I grew up where discipleship was supposed to happen in classes, everyone listening to one person lecture. In community group, we are all encouraged to participate, learn to serve, and be accountable.

“We go into the sermon in more depth. We learn what’s going on in each other’s lives. We pray together. Sometimes we spend the time having a potluck and fellowship. We often break up into men and women for more accountability. Leaders find ways for shy people to share and for those who always want to talk to listen more,” says Jamie Barnes, a singer-songwriter and worship arts pastoral assistant.

Once a month community groups “serve,” either providing childcare for another community group or in a Seed mercy ministry, such as repairing computers, feeding homeless people, or practicing English skills with refugees.

“It would be very difficult for me to hear the message presented at Sojourn without responding in service. I believe that is a strength of Sojourn—a call to discipleship and service,” says Dale Huff, one of the congregation’s few grandparents.

Vertical Habits: Developing a common liturgical language

In September 2000, Daniel Montgomery and Mike Cosper started Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky. Their ages were 25 and 19. They had a vision but weren’t sure how to get there.

“We knew we wanted community that’s authentic, transformational, and Reformed,” Cosper says. Montgomery adds, “And the idea that worship is a conversation was like the Day One service.”

Sojourn is a Southern Baptist church plant so has no prescribed denominational hymnal or books of order, worship, or prayer. Cosper is a gifted musician who attracts musicians, and right away the young congregation began creating theologically rich songs.

Meanwhile Sojourn leaders read, learned, and networked. “We were on a holy grail for doing church. Is it Dallas Willard…Renovare…house church? About four years ago we had our conversion to realizing that the cross is our doctrinalist core perspective,” Montgomery says.

Cosper continues, “At root, all liturgy is: God’s holy, I’m sinful, Jesus saves me from my sins. The form may change but the essence stays. Each liturgy walks people through that each week.” They used vertical habits, a framework that pairs relational words with worship habits, to begin a congregation-wide conversation about how worship spills over to all of life.

Embed vertical habits in art

Cosper says that attending symposiums and grant events sponsored by Calvin Institute of Christian Worship “expanded our worship world way beyond ‘fast set, slow set, solo, pass the collection…’ ”

Vertical habits gave so-called “Sojourners” the words or categories to understand what it means to say that worship is a conversation between God and the gathered community.

So-called “Sojourners” produced a CD and 15-day devotional booklet, both called Before the Throne, to teach liturgy. The CD has one or two songs for each worship element, beginning with “Come and Sing” as a call to worship and ending with “All Good Gifts” as a benediction.

Worship leader Lorie King wrote up a summary of liturgical elements so Bobby Gilles could explain them to a group of 20 Sojourn songwriters. Michael Winters,Sojourn’s director of visual arts, pulled artists together to illustrate the CD cover, liner notes, and devotional booklet. The musical and visual projects were collaborative to illustrate that the church was created for community and exists as a community.

“When we brought artists together to work on the devotional booklet for Before the Throne, it helped cultivate thought, image, word, and community. It helped put texture on some pieces. No one piece was made exclusively by one person,” says Hayley Abell, who contributes images for devotional covers handed out each week to help worshipers prepare for the next sermon.

The preaching staff did a vertical habits sermon series that linked psalms to vertical habits phrases and worship elements, such as Psalm 51 with “I’m sorry” and confession and Psalm 119 with “I’m listening” and the prayer for illumination before a Bible reading or sermon.

Reinforce in liturgy

Although many people at Sojourn grew up in free church traditions, they loved learning liturgical language. Cosper thinks it’s because, like him, they were “so hungry for something with tradition and a clear understanding of the gospel.”

“I come from a Southern Baptist background with that old time religion feel, where worship is like a variety show. I appreciate the way Sojourn services are designed to flow together with planned stops on the way—welcome, call to worship, confession of sin and on to the benediction—and all tied in with the music itself,” says Paul Butterworth, a seminarian who serves in the connecting ministry.

Every Sunday a pastor explains a bit about why Sojourn includes a certain worship element and how to practice it in daily life. For example, by confessing sins each week, people may grow more willing to say “I’m sorry” when they mess up in families or at work.

Sojourners pass the peace instead of simply meet and greet during worship. “I like the giving of the peace because it reminds us that we were enemies of Christ but have been made right with him—so we can be at peace with everyone around us,” says Laura Beth O’Nan, who sings in one of Sojourn’s worship bands.

“During worship we’ll say, ‘This needs to be a part of your life. Because we have been given Christ’s peace, we can show hospitality.’ Everything feeds into the next movement and becomes a way of life,” says Jamie Barnes, a singer-songwriter and worship arts pastoral assistant.

Move from liturgy to life

Sojourn members are remarkably consistent in their goal of understanding worship as “living together 24/7,” not just a Sunday meeting. Many talk about worship being “real” and refer to the congregation as “the family.” Their sense of “gospel freedom” leads them to explore how faith affects all of life.

“Having young children to raise with a healthy idea of worship helps me reflect on how to find ways to thank God and bring Scripture into our day together,” says Mandy Groce, who leads a community group with her husband, Simon.

Simon adds, “Worship is everything we do. I’m an engineer. I worship God that he creates math. When I change a poopy diaper, I praise God that their digestive systems are working.”

When Matt Galyan moved to Louisville for college, he first went to an upper income church where, he says, “I wasn’t their target market. My passion is social justice. I’d always heard the good news as only ministering to get people to repent and believe. Sojourn sees people not just as spiritual but as whole people.

“Through Seed, it gathers food for a pantry and partnered with a neighborhood association to have a sock hop. Sojourn is in the city, for the city, willing to do things as menial as street cleanup.”

Learn More

• Get ideas from how Sojourn Community Church uses the internet to build community among members and provide thought leadership in the larger Christian world. Daily devotionals prepare worshipers for the next sermon. SojournKids provides resources for family worship. The church’s urban renewal initiative isSeed.

• Through Sojourn Music, the church has produced scores of songs and will release its seventh CD, Over the Grave: Hymns of Isaac Watts, on Good Friday 2009. Each week Bobby Gilles posts the worship set list and explains how each song was used in worship. He posted a four-part series on developing a church songwriting group.

• Sojourn has an art gallery, The 930 Art Center, and a visual arts ministry, Sojourn Visual Arts. At the church’s weekly Thursday Open Studio, visual artists come in and work on their own art, using the church’s equipment and sharing ideas with each other. Sometimes they learn or practice a skill together, such as portraiture or block printing. The church rents space to artists, photographers, and documentary film makers.

• With Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Sojourn started The Open Source Book to create “useful plain-language resources for worship.” Sojourn also gets and shares ministry ideas through the Acts 29 Network.

• Books that pastors Daniel Montgomery and Mike Cosper recommend include Worship Seeking Understanding and The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship, both by John D. Witvliet; A More Profound Alleluia, edited by Leanne Van Dyk, about baptism, communion, and liturgy; and Art for God’s Sake by Philip Graham Ryken.

• Read Reformed Worship stories on vertical habits.

• Browse related stories on church size dynamicsembodied preaching, the prayer for illumination, and vertical habits.

Start a Discussion

Talk about continual learning and a common worship language:

  • What helps does your church provide so members can prepare for, understand, and reflect on the sermon?

  • Which elements of worship do your services always include? Which elements do your services sometimes or never include? What are the reasons for your choices?

  • What are the clearest connections between your worship services and how worshipers live their lives? How might you make these connections more clear to more people?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to talk about developing a common worship language?

  • Did you create a vertical habits series that is especially multisensory or interactive? If so, will you share your materials with us?

  • If you conducted a congregation-wide conversation about worship in your church, which methods did you use? Which main metaphor for worship did you settle on and why?