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Learning Worship through Book Groups

How studying a book or sermons together in a small group knits church members together in worship, fellowship, and discipleship.

Every church worships. Many churches have small groups, some churches have book clubs. Few combine these concepts. However, the experience of two churches in Michigan and Wisconsin reveals book groups as a wonderful model for learning worship.

The action of reading and reflecting together on a book can renew a congregation’s commitment to reading and reflecting together on God’s Word. A well-designed process for exploring a book helps people practice being an interdependent family of God, where each has gifts to offer. Both churches described below experienced the Holy Spirit at work.

Princeton Christian Reformed Church: "Worship is more than…"

Princeton Christian Reformed Church in Kentwood, Michigan, chose the name Living Worship for its year of intergenerational worship renewal. Focusing on the Psalms and “vertical habits” (relational words for worship) gives the whole congregation a common language for talking about what they do in worship.

The project kicked off with an intergenerational Saturday retreat at a nearby camp. Then, about 100 members, from teens through seniors, joined one of 11 fall book groups to go deeper into worship renewal. What they learned is spilling over and benefiting everyone.

Each month pastor Dave Poolman preaches on a vertical habit. For example, the phrase “I’m listening” helps develop the habit of seeking illumination in worship. God speaks through the Word, Spirit, creation, and servants. We listen through our ears, eyes, and hearts. A monthly newsletter includes a calendar of daily Bible readings to help worshipers reflect on the relevant habit.

God's languages

During their third month of study, book group participants gathered for a Sunday evening dinner to share what they were learning about the vertical habits of worship. Before each buffet course, they picked up numbered slips that assigned them to tables, so they could discuss books with different people.

Between bites of chips, veggies, and dips, Paul Bennink shared an “I’m listening” insight from Worship Matters: A Study for Congregations by Jane Rogers Vann. He said, “I now look with a new attitude toward art. Does God care about visual worship elements? Yes! In Exodus 25 and 26, God was very specific in saying what the tabernacle and its furnishings should look like.”

Realizing that God speaks through art gave leaders the freedom to hand out paper and crayons so worshipers could draw their responses to sermons. A few people found that distracting but others said drawing let them “exercise faith at a different level” or “have something to look back on so I remember the sermon” or “see how my daughter feels affirmed in her gift for drawing.”

Reading and talking about art in worship made people wonder about the stained glass, murals, and metal sculptures in their worship space. Their curiosity prompted Carolyn Coke and Neil Baum, who co-led a Worship Matters book group, to research and design a sanctuary art tour, offered after the dinner.

Standing near a kitchen wall decorated with sermon drawings, Mara Koning talked about Shaped by God: Twelve Essentials for Nurturing Faith in Children, Youth, and Adults, edited by Robert J. Keeley. “The book talked about being flexible in applying Bible stories to real life. So one Sunday, the lesson was on the Transfiguration. I said to my 3rd and 4th grade class, ‘Let’s go and see what awesome things God has made.’ It was sunny, breezy, and the leaves were turning color. They really responded. After 20 minutes, I said, ‘Now let’s go inside and hear a story about something even more awesome that God did.’”

Over a tasty beef stew, Nelly Postema commented on Voicing God’s Psalms by Calvin Seerveld. She nodded toward the mural—illustrating the parable of the wise and foolish virgins—above the fellowship hall entrance into the sanctuary. “I would like worship to begin with two or three minutes of total quiet. Silence would help us to bow and be quiet in our souls, to prepare us for reverent worship,” she said.

The Holy Spirit at work

While savoring bite-sized desserts, college student Josh Sweetman and senior citizen Carolyn Coke recalled how much they had enjoyed creating psalm paraphrases at the retreat. “When some of us older people starting throwing out more contemporary language, then the young people in our group started offering suggestions,” Coke said. “It’s really cool to see intergenerational activity,” Sweetman added.

The book groups had been scheduled to meet just six times. But at almost every table, people said they wanted to stay with their group and study a new book. “At Princeton we’ve had the traditional age-related groups, but never small groups. I’d always worried that, since I didn’t go to college, I wouldn’t know what to say in a small group. Some were more at ease speaking up right away, but eventually most of us ended up sharing concerns and praying together. Most of us have known each other for years, but this was more intimate,” Coke said.

Table hosts compiled comments after the book group dinner. Gaining a bigger view of worship was a common theme: “Living worship is participatory….Worship is about God, not me….Worship is a verb….It’s not only how I think or feel but what I do….Experimenting in worship is good….When hands are lifted, hearts are lifted….I’ve become more aware of how everything connects in worship….Worship is more than music and more than on Sunday….Real worship is in the world, after leaving church.”

Northwest Baptist Church: "Communal co-creation as spiritual practice"

Even in churches that talk about liturgy as “the work of the people,” sermons often feel like the main event. The minister preaches; the gathered people listen, with many thinking, “This is a fantastic sermon!” Yet after church, worshipers often can’t remember the main points, let alone the scripture it was based on. So they don’t apply the sermon to their lives together. Inevitably, some drift away.

Northwest Baptist Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, wanted people to better understand, retain, and apply what they hear and experience in worship. To help achieve this, they developed a sermon-based small group (SBSG) curriculum based on Larry Osborne’s book Sticky Church. Doing so expanded and deepened relationships among preachers, worship planners, and small groups. Now there’s a greater awareness that the Holy Spirit works at many levels to help congregants grow together to be more like Christ.

Worshipers stick to the Bible and each other

“Dr. Osborne’s book Sticky Church and his two-day visit were absolutely pivotal to our launch and continued success with the SBSG model,” says Bonnie Lee, who leads the congregation’s curriculum writing team.

Osborne wrote the book based on his experience of co-pastoring North Coast Evangelical Free Church in Vista, California. He noticed that his church was putting far more time and energy into attracting people than into helping newcomers learn to stick to other Christians and the Bible. In 1985, North Coast began aligning its sermons with its small groups. SBSGs meet weekly to apply the weekend message and to build community. Groups stay together for years. New groups are formed for newcomers. Church membership grew from 150 to 7,000, and SBSG participation still exceeds 80 percent of average adult weekend attendance.

Lee says that at Northwest Baptist, she and three staff members read Sticky Church, and then gave copies to curriculum writers and all small group leaders. They ran a five-week pilot project for small groups that wanted to try the SBSG option. Osborne visited to explain the rationale and talk with leaders about how to improve the process. Northwest Baptist now offers SBSG curriculum for three 10-week sessions per year.

“Our membership is close to 250, and we average 175 to 200 people in worship each week. Since our SBSG launch in 2010, about 100 youth and adults have been involved in one of these small groups. All but one group opted to continue, because that group prefers video-driven studies,” Lee says.

“There’s been a noticeable uptick in attentiveness during the sermon. Many who had not previously taken notes now do. It seems as if they want to be prepared when they get together with their SBSGs,” Lee says.

Open and transparent

The learning is open to everyone. All sermon audios are archived on the church website. Participants know leaders’ intentions, because anyone can access all SBSG discussion guides.

The guides are both printed and uploaded to the church website the Thursday before Sunday morning’s service—but the sermon process starts much earlier. Curriculum team writers work on rotation. Each receives a sermon draft six weeks before “their” SBSG guide goes online. “The pastor recognizes that the Holy Spirit also speaks to SBSG curriculum writers and often revises his sermons in light of what they compose,” Lee says.

Planning so far ahead gives worship leaders time to create worship services that flow and to collaborate on thematic visuals, videos, drama, and music.

Lee reports that Northwest Baptist now has a multiracial, intergenerational worship team that meets weekly with Tom Harrington, senior pastor, to “bring a cohesive message from all messengers during corporate worship.” Bringing more voices into the conversation has inspired the worship team to explore ways to incorporate African American and other ethnic elements into worship.

“Our new emphasis on communal co-creation as a spiritual practice has helped us become more interested in establishing a workable process by which we can invite all members of our church to produce resources for corporate worship,” Lee says.

Learn More

Start a Discussion

Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your staff, council, worship, or education committee meeting. These questions will help your church explore how to use book groups to learn worship together:  

  • Princeton CRC has sanctuary art that many worshipers didn’t notice or understand. Northwest Baptist Church already had small groups. Which unique assets could your congregation build on to deepen worship through book groups?
  • What resources does your church offer to help people understand, retain, and apply sermons to their lives together?
  • How might studying a book together help your church take the next step toward welcoming more input from more people in planning, leading, participating, and giving feedback on sermons and worship?
  • What do you fear or hope would happen if your congregation more fully lived as “the priesthood of all believers” or “members of one body”?

Share Your Wisdom

  • Princeton CRC Living Worship
  • Northwest Baptist Church sermon-based small groups 
  • Vertical Habits