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Teaching the laity to preach and to pray

A description of Chris O'Reilly and Peter Bush's experience training lay leaders to pray and preach.

Chris O'Reilly and Peter Bush

Published in the Presbyterian Record June 2002. Used by permission

At the heart of this story stands a simple equation: Small rural congregations + Trained lay worship leaders = Meaningful worship.

With this truth in mind, we [Chris O'Reilly and Peter Bush] applied for a Worship Renewal Grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. These grants are funded by the Lilly Endowment Inc. Much to our shock and joy, we were given $9,000 US toward our dream of training worship planners and leaders in rural congregations.

Undergirding every aspect of the project were four fundamental principles. First, we have a radical commitment to the Reformed doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Second, we share a passion for developing healthy and vital rural congregations. This includes supporting the emergence of new models of ministry that will allow these congregations to have long-term futures. Third, healthy church leadership is team leadership. That is the reason we invited teams, not individuals, to participate in this project and why we worked as a team in directing the project. Fourth, human beings are most themselves, most the people we were meant to be, when we worship the Triune God.

With these principles firmly in mind, we invited six rural Presbyterian congregations (it grew to eight) in southwestern Ontario to send teams of three to five laypeople to two weekend training events held at Camp Shalom (a retreat centre south of Cambridge, Ontario). Each congregational team included the minister of the charge. If the congregation was without a settled minister, as was the case with four of the congregations, a coach was assigned to the team. The word coach was intentionally chosen—indicating support and guidance, not leadership and actually doing the work.

The congregations invited to be part of the project were: Belmont, North Yarmouth, Appin, Alvinston, Ratho, Monkton, Chatsworth and Dornoch. There were also teams from the congregations the authors serve: Watford, Thedford and Mitchell. All of these congregations are in communities of less than 4,000 people—most in communities of less than 1,000 people. All but one of the 11 congregations involved in the project have a local operations budget of less than $60,000. Participants in the teams ranged from teenagers through to people in their 60s. Sessions made wise choices in the teams they sent. (Elders know who in their congregations have gifts from God to be good worship leaders.)

The first training weekend, held in April 2001, began with a clear affirmation of our commitment to the Reformed doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. The Holy Spirit has given to the people of God—some who are laypeople and some who are clergy—the gifts needed to lead the people in worshipping the Triune God. On the Saturday morning, there were three presentations: "Why do we worship?" (the theology and meaning of worship), "Why do we do what we do when we do it in worship?" (the structure of worship), and "Being creative within that structure of worship." Stephen Farris (Knox College), Karen Horst (Knox Church, Stratford) and David Sherbino (Tyndale Seminary) were the resource people doing the set presentations and being available when the teams got down to the heart of the weekends—planning worship services. One of the significant discussions that grew out of these presentations was the difference between performance and leading worship.

The Saturday afternoon and, in fact, most of the rest of the weekend was given over to the participants working together in their team groups to plan three worship services that they would lead in their home congregations. There was also a panel of four laypeople who had been involved in planning and leading worship prior to coming to the weekend. It was important for the newly formed planning teams to hear from laypeople who were actively involved in planning and leading worship. The words of laypeople carried more weight than did the voices of the clergy present. All the clergy were impressed at how hard the teams were prepared to work.

Each team was given a box of worship resources to assist in their planning and to take home as a beginning to their congregation's worship library. These included books of prayers, outlines of services for various points in the Church Year, articles on worship from a variety of sources, copies of the new Book of Praise and Book of Psalms, and a one-volume Bible commentary.

We ended the first weekend following the lunch on Sunday by offering each congregational team a scriptural blessing and praying specifically for each team as it returned to its community. Over the next five months, the teams led at least three worship services in their own congregations, told the story of the weekend to their sessions (and anyone else they could find) and lived out the vision of the project.

The teams returned to Camp Shalom at the end of September 2001. They were pumped. The weekend followed a similar pattern. There were three content presentations: "Writing prayers, doing transitions, making the structure flow," "Worship with and by children and young people" and "Contemporary worship." Again, the teams had time to plan three worship services they would lead in their home congregations over the next four months.

At the second weekend, there were two panel discussions. One panel grew out of the refrain that was heard a number of times: the teams wanted help in thinking through how to prepare and write sermons. So the panel consisted of five clergy asked to look at the same passage of Scripture and begin to explore out loud how they would preach the text. The second panel was a bear-pit in which participants had the opportunity to ask any questions they wished.

On Sunday, we concluded the event with worship and gave each team a Scripture passage that would be theirs and a Christ candle to remind them they were Christ's people. We also prayed a prayer of blessing for each team. The teams returned again to their home congregations, excited about what God was calling them to do.

Each team developed its own style based on the spiritual gifts of the personalities present. Some teams brought the sermon as well as leading worship on the Sunday for which they were planning. One team led worship at a presbytery meeting and was encouraged by the support and affirmation it received from members of presbytery. Team members noted their own growth as they led more worship services, and their comfort in leading has increased. They have a growing confidence that God's Spirit has given them the gifts to plan and to lead worship.

A number of the teams are talking about wanting to broaden the experience of planning and leading worship to involve others. And some congregations have plans afoot to develop additional teams. The team members' desire and willingness to share their opportunity to lead, their experience and their expertise is a powerful example of what it means to share the ministry with others.

We are thankful for the experience and the enthusiasm of the participants. God was certainly at work among all who attended these events and in the members of the congregations involved. We believe that renewal—in individuals, in congregations and in the denomination—begins with worship, as people "glorify God and enjoy Him forever."

Individuals, sessions or congregations who want to know about this project are invited to contact Chris O'Reilly (519-243-3862 or or Peter Bush (519-348-9080 or for more information or to learn how a similar project could be done in your area.

Chris O'Reilly is minister of Knox Church, Thedford, and St. Andrew's Church, Watford, ON, and Peter Bush is minister of Knox Church, Mitchell, ON.

For further reflection and discussion
1. Read 1 Peter 2:9-10. Peter calls ordinary Christians "a royal priesthood." What do priests do? In what ways do laypeople in your congregation act as priests?
2. Reflect on the closing sentence of the above article: "We believe that renewal—in individuals, in congregations and in the denomination—begins with worship." Do you agree or disagree? In what ways have you seen worship to be the spark-plug for renewal?
3. How could you encourage more laypeople to become involved in the planning and leading of worship in your congregation? What major challenges would you face in trying to encourage that development?
4. One of the participants in the project commented, "I have done things I didn't dream I could do." Where might God be calling you, from out of your comfort zone, to do things for him that you didn't dream you could do?

David R. Ray, Wonderful Worship in Smaller Churches (Pilgrim Press, 2000).

Packages given to worship teams
-The Book of Praise (1997)
-The Book of Psalms (The Presbyterian Church in Canada)
-The Book of Common Worship
-45 Ways to Involve Children in Worship by Dorothy Henderson
(The above were provided by the generosity of the national church offices.)

-A Wee Worship Book by Wild Goose Worship Group (GIA Publications)
-Now, Concerning the Offering by Hilbert J. Berger (Discipleship Resources, 1994)
-Asking for Wonder: Resources for Creative Worship by Elaine M. Ward
-Prayers for the Seasons of God's People (worship aid for The Revised Common Lectionary, 3 volumes) by B. David Hostetter (Abingdon, 1998)
-Liturgy as Life-Journey by William Oden (Acton House, 1976)
-New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition (IVP, 1994)
-A Child Shall Lead: Children in Worship edited by John D. Witvliet (Choristers Guild and the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, 1999)
-A binder of worship articles
-2-year subscription to Reformed Worship