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Learning Worship Together: How worship change happens

Worship change works best when worship and education leaders work together, and studying worship together can lead more people to participate fully in worship. A feature story about worship formation and education in the church.

As Eliot Presbyterian Church discovered, studying worship together can lead to more people participating in worship.

The sermon ends and the organist launches into the sermon hymn. In many congregations, this is where the service begins winding down. But at Eliot Presbyterian Church in Lowell, Massachusetts, the sermon hymn signals a worship practice that people look forward to all week.

As the congregation sings, people move forward to sit in the front pew. Others join them. Two by two, they talk quietly then pray…with eyes open or closed, heads bowed or not, hands folded or clasped or at rest.

Eliot Presbyterian’s evolution of requesting and offering personal prayer during worship reveals the value its people place on faith formation, learning about worship, and trusting the Holy Spirit.

Faith formation in worship

The sermon hymn always has at least four verses. “If there are more people than can be prayed for during the hymn, the congregation continues in prayer and the organist continues playing. Time seems to stand still,” says Lolly Wigall, chair of Christian education.

A previous pastor’s wife started the front pew prayers more than seven years ago. “Members began to request personal prayers on specific issues like loss of jobs, death in the family, sicknesses, and joining the armed forces,” says Osei Bonsu, who drums and sings in Eliot’s African Fellowship Choir.

When Edward C. “Ted” Zaragoza left seminary teaching to become Eliot’s pastor in 2004, he came in knowing how much those prayers mattered. He says, “The service that greeted me had no sense of worship as a dialogue. I added headings in the bulletin to help people learn how to think about worship: Called by God, We Gather; Spoken to by God, We Listen; Blessed by God, We Give Thanks; Sent by God, We Go Out.”

Zaragoza offered small doses of learning, week by week. The order of service tells worshipers where they are in liturgical time, such as “Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time,” followed by a little teaching sentence. One such sentence was “ ‘Eucharista’ from the Greek means ‘Thanksgiving.’ ”

He preached a sermon series based on ten core convictions of Christian worship. Most of all, he modeled what it is to be part of a community that is relational, trusting, and honest. “This reshaping of our membership leads to a willingness to chip in and not simply to ‘be led,’ ” says Scottie Farber, a worship committee member.

Faith formation in congregational life

“Liturgy—the structure, flow, and movement of worship—and the sacraments all matter to me as models to live your life. I don’t act unilaterally, because collaborative, collegial learning among cultures is very gradual,” Zaragoza says.

Some people used to ask others why they went up to request prayer. “Ted taught us that we shouldn’t ask, because the prayers are confidential,” several report.

Last year many Cambodian parents, most of whom grew up Buddhist, confided they didn’t know how to pray. The worship committee planned an intergenerational event. All ages turned out for the Saturday workshop on blessing through prayer. Later, parents and Sunday school teachers received training on how to “hear children into prayer.”

“A common goal here is for everyone to learn how to pray and write a statement of faith. Now, in our extended family, the kids say the prayers. They like it enough to become part of our adult activities,” says Emmy Kisob, an elder who grew up Presbyterian in Cameroon.

Monthly worship committee meetings follow the four-fold worship pattern of gathering, learning, eating, sending. Members gather around a meal. They review past services, help plan future ones, and always learn together—whether from a video on global worship, book, or story from Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.

“We’ve been learning that the prayers, hymns, and sermon should all relate to the Scripture. Everything needs to flow together, so no more music that doesn't fit the mood of Lent,” says Greg Edlund, a church musician and worship committee chair.

Learning by leading

Eliot used to do its front pew prayers at the end of the service. Personal prayers are more often about concerns than joys, so the congregation decided to put them after the sermon and before “Blessed by God, We Give Thanks.” Now worship ends on an upswing.

Originally elders or pastors prayed for people. Zaragoza says that made people think that only a special group could pray. “About a year ago, we started saying, ‘Come forward and a member of the congregation will pray with you,’ ” he says.

He gave two brief trainings and handed out tiny green “cheat sheets” on how to pray with congregation members. “Pray for what they ask for, not what you think they need,” he advised.

Recently Zaragoza began assigning elders and deacons to serve as lay liturgists. Before they lead, he has them practice by standing at the pulpit and getting used to looking out at the pews. Liturgists are in charge from the call to worship through two songs, confession of sin and assurance of forgiveness, passing the peace, prayer for illumination and Old Testament or epistle readings.

Eventually he hopes that members will also do the congregational prayer, composed mainly from prayer request and thanksgiving slips that worshipers put in offering plates.

“Especially for my people (Cambodian,) it is not comfortable to stand in front of a group. Before, I didn’t see the need for anyone besides the pastor to help with the liturgy. Now I am grateful to help lead. Watching someone else be the lay liturgist helps us learn from and know each other better,” elder Sothara Ly says.

Trusting the Holy Spirit’s leading

Worship at Eliot Presbyterian has changed since octogenarian Evie McCartney was a girl. “Pastor Ted has encouraged more participation in worship, and this has brought out new talents never before seen,” says McCartney, an elder and worship committee member.

Long-time members say Eliot has always been anchored by Scripture and Presbyterian polity. But the congregation has become more flexible since the early 1980s, when a former pastor began sponsoring Cambodian refugees. Africans began arriving in the 1990s. The congregation is now a third Cambodian, a third African, and a third “everything else.”

The flexibility born from welcoming new cultures has opened Eliot in other ways. “Any number of people go forward to pray with those who need prayer. No one is assigned. They just go up as the Spirit moves,” Lolly Wigall notes.

Gordon Halm, who grew up Anglican in Ghana, says that participating in the prayer time is all about faith. “When a call of this nature is made, it can be very hard. Here people get off their seat. I find that very special.”
Zaragoza at times interrupts the “normal” flow of worship for a special prayer. People seriously ill or traumatized by immigration roundups have been anointed with oil or received laying on of hands.

“I remind people that we are not in control of the service. The Holy Spirit is,” he says.

Integrating Worship and Church Education

Worship change works best when worship and education leaders work together. Pastor Edward C. “Ted” Zaragoza already knew that when he came to Eliot Presbyterian Church in Lowell, Massachusetts. After all, his doctorate is in liturgy and anthropology and he’d taught parish ministry and church history at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, and Phillips Theological Seminary in Enid, Oklahoma.

Eliot had for decades scheduled Christian education (Sunday school) before morning worship. About two years after he arrived, Zaragoza suggested reversing that order.

“The idea didn’t go anywhere,” Zaragoza recalls. And since his pastoral leadership style is relational rather than top-down, he didn’t push it.

When Sunday school attendance dropped, Eliot’s session (elders) took note. They spent about three or four months talking in session and in Christian education committee. They also talked with congregation members about flipping the education and worship schedules.

They soon discovered why busy parents were having such a hard time getting themselves and their children to church in time for classes. Some work overnight shifts on Saturday, then come to Sunday morning worship before going home to sleep. Most have outside commitments to other community organizations.

“If we’re going to do worship, Christian education, and small group fellowship (which is what some education groups become), then we have to make Sunday the day of our common life together,” Zaragoza explains.

In fall 2008, the church moved worship time to 15 minutes earlier, followed by Sunday school for all ages.

“It was the genius of Christian education folks that serving hearty snacks in classrooms gets kids and adults to go right from worship to class. Members on fixed incomes are eating better because they can worship, go to Sunday school, and eat,” Zaragoza says.

Attendance increased for all ages. In fact, nearly half the adults present for worship also stayed for Sunday school. Many class topics help them understand worship better.

Pastor Thysan Sam, the second Cambodian to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church USA, leads a Khmer Bible study each Sunday at Eliot. Using their native language to studying the Scripture text helps older Cambodians get more out of the sermon.

Other adult Sunday school options include worship conversations with Zaragoza, Presbyterian theology, how to sing in worship, Buddhism and Christianity, Christian values, and Nooma DVDs.

Learn More

Studying worship together helped multicultural Eliot Presbyterian Church develop a oneness in Christ. “There are dynamics that crop up when you have cultural diversity. We know we have a cost to pay. But we don’t come here to amplify our differences. We come here to amplify our commonality,” says Jonathan Karanja, who grew up Presbyterian in Kenya.

Pastor Thysan Sam, the second Cambodian to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church USA, leads a Khmer Bible study each Sunday at Eliot. Using their native language to study the Scripture text for the sermon helps older Cambodians understand worship better.

Intrigued by the idea of pastors as friends rather than as servant leaders? Then read No Longer Servants but Friends: A Theology of Ordained Ministry by Edward C. Zaragoza. Find out why he says the popular pastoral model of servant leadership is more grounded in corporate or social work paradigms than in Christ’s identity.

You can read this fascinating history of Eliot Presbyterian Church for free and online.

Browse related stories on faith formation, Sunday morning worship absence, and Trinitarian worship.

Start a Discussion

Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your staff, council, worship, or church education meeting. These questions will get people talking:

  • Which worship practices in your congregation do you find most helpful or spiritually nourishing?
  • How did these worship practices begin or change? What, if anything, did they replace?
  • What positive or negative connotations does the term worship change have for you?
  • What are the main ways your congregation learns about the purpose and practices of worship? What first steps might you take to do more worship learning together?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to talk about worship change—past, present, or future? Please write to us so we can identify trends and share your great ideas. Whether you do these or any other things, we’d love to learn what works for you:

  • Which methods (online or print survey, small group discussion guides, seminar series, congregational meal and breakout groups, etc.) have worked best for your congregation to identify its most helpful worship practices? What did you do with that information?
  • If you have begun to involve more congregation members in planning or leading worship, did anything work especially well (or not)? Will you tell us which part of worship you focused on first and which people you recruited to get more involved?

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This story was originally posted on January 23, 2009. External links were operative at the time the story was posted, but may have expired since then.

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    This article was first published by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship,