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Worship in New Churches: Developing a faith vocabulary

New churches attract more newcomers than established congregations do--which means they must go out of their way to help people understand what they're doing during worship. These lessons in how to talk with and about God during worship can benefit any church. A feature story exploring worship in new churches and how to develop a faith vocabulary.

If you think of worship as a dialogue between God and God's gathered people, then you can see why people new to church might need help to decode the dialogue.

This is especially important in new churches, where up to 80 percent of people have no other worshiping community-so have little or no language for talking with or listening to God.

"We can't assume that people 'know the ropes,' " says Derek Zeyl, a pastor at River Rock Church, which began in Folsom, California, in 2001. "A lot of church-damaged or typical California disconnected/disenfranchised folks come through our doors. They're looking for a community, a safe place to belong and to be known, with a story that makes sense."

Of course, even in mature congregations, which get most of their new members as transfers from other congregations, worshipers want to make sense of their lives. The practices that help new churches transform visitors into Christ followers can also revive seasoned worshipers who've been standing, sitting, singing, and reciting on autopilot.

Good hosts explain what's happening

Zeyl says it's simply good hospitality to clearly explain each part of the liturgy during worship, such as kneeling to confess or pray a lament, coming forward to give an offering, holding out your hands to receive a blessing.

"It reinforces who is talking, who is responding, and why. It reminds worshipers that they are not their own but belong to God and his story-a story much bigger than themselves," Zeyl says.

River Rock Church took the hospitable explanations a step further during an eight-week series on essential relationship phrases. One Sunday the worship team explained that they'd focus that day on saying "I love you, God." They sang praise songs, prayed ancient praise psalms, lifted their hands as a biblical response of praise, preached on praise, and responded in praise.

Because River Rock is in a prosperous community bright with new cars, houses, and parks, Zeyl says people don't often see brokenness so aren't always aware of sin in their lives. For the children's message on the "I'm sorry, God" Sunday, Char Dillender, an elementary school teacher, carried in a dozen paper bags of rotten fruit, chicken carcasses, and other disgusting trash.

She explained to the kids that when they hit a sibling or say mean things to a friend, then "that stinky rotten garbage grows in our hearts."

Dillender asked the kids to take the trash out to the dumpster. When they marched back in, proud of ridding the sanctuary of its stench, she explained that when we tell God we're sorry, Jesus takes out the trash from our hearts. He dumps it and forgives us.

The next week worship leaders bridged from the previous week's confession focus to explaining that saying "Help, God; I need you" is also a way to worship. After people prayed psalms of lament and sang songs of need, they heard in the children's sermon that baptism and the Lord's Supper help us remember that God forgives and loves us.

"At that moment I baptized Margaret, an 80-year-old ex-Mormon, who gave a wonderful testimony of how she'd been saying 'I need you' all her life...but not to God. All the kids laid hands on her as we prayed, thanking God for his answer of grace in Margaret's life. After the sermon, we celebrated the Lord's Supper," Zeyl says.

Memorable messages are worth repeating

In Edmonton, Alberta, The River Community Church did a similar series called "Vertical Habits." Like many new churches, The River, which began in 2002, meets in a school, in part because many people feel more comfortable in schools than in sanctuaries.

According to Karen Wilk, pastor of community life and discipleship, people of many ages and backgrounds-including those new to the area, people with no church background or negative church memories, Muslims, and Buddhists-check out The River because they seek a relaxed, personal place to connect.

The Vertical Habits series gave people the vocabulary to connect with God and each other in worship. It used multisensory and multigenerational participation to make messages memorable and reinforced the messages with suggestions for at-home follow up.

"People still bring up the service we did on listening to God," Wilk says. She began by reading a "letter from God" about how much God wants to talk with us. While she read, however, band members started whispering to each other. Some of the coffee drinkers banged their cups and spoons so much that a ten-year-old asked his mom to quiet down. People started coughing.

"The noise got more and more till I was drowned out. At first the interruptions annoyed people. Eventually they caught on and got the point!" she says. That day's drama, sermon, Bible readings, and music all focused on how God talks with us through the Bible and many other ways, yet we often tune out the message.

Because even a good message can be left behind when someone leaves the worship service, The River staff posted Vertical Habits sermons, children's messages, and family discussion suggestions online.

Pastor Bruce Gritter says that simply asking families to eat together once a week and discuss that week's habit helped families communicate better. "Very few families actually eat meals together. They usually eat in front of the television. But this gave them an easy way to apply what was being taught on Sunday morning," he says.

Learning how to pray changes people

 "Especially in a new church, it's easy to get wrapped up in logistics, like setting up and taking down, or your numbers of visitors and new members," says Ann Berends, who till recently was director of in-house ministry at Midtown Fellowship, which began in 2002 in downtown Nashville, Tennessee.

Berends says focusing on prayer has helped people examine their relationships to God and has kept Midtown leaders' "eyes on the truth."

Midtown Fellowship is in a neighborhood of grassroots artists who have a hunger for or interest in God but not in the organized church. Pastor Randy Draughon estimates that on a typical Sunday, about half the 600 people at worship are committed to Christ and the rest have some level of interest or faith but aren't sure what to do with it.

"Understanding prayer means having a relationship with God. But many people see God as a clockmaker who sits back and lets the world tick.or a Santa Claus.or a cruel dictator. Learning about prayer helped us unpack our images of God, ourselves, and the world around us," Berends says.

Midtown hosted a weekend retreat on prayer, followed the next month by a midweek prayer service. About half the church belongs to bi-weekly fellowship groups, and those groups discussed sermons on the Lord's Prayer, God's healing work through prayer, and prayer's power to change us into ambassadors of God's kingdom. Artists graced worship services with music, poetry, drama, and dances they created about prayer.

The result? People felt comfortable to ask more questions about prayer. "Even long-time Christ followers have insecurities about prayer," Berends says.

Using agricultural images-tilling, planting, cultivating, seasons-helped Midtowners realize that prayer is as much waiting on and listening to God as it is talking to God. Worship services now include a couple minutes of silence both during the time of confession and after the sermon.

"Most of us need someone to tell us to sit down and be quiet. People appreciate those times of silence, especially because the worship leader will say something like, 'We want to give you time to reflect on what you've heard, what difference it might make, and, if you're a person who prays, to pray about it,'" Berends says.

All the talk about prayer has lead to more praying, with people who wander in from the street during the week-and especially among the 40 or so people most involved in planning and leading worship.

Berends says they always included Bible study and prayer in their meetings but now devote more time to both. They specifically ask God to help them design worship that will draw people to the Father. They ask God to be present and fill them with the Spirit as they plan. When tensions surface, they stop the meeting and pray aloud.

"It's amazing how an issue comes up, everyone says what they want to say-with many very different ideas-and yet, through the mystery of prayer, we reach a conclusion that everyone agrees on," Berends says.

Learn More

This essay by Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian (PCA) in New York City, explains how to create an evangelistic worship service that non-Christians can understand.

Greg DeMey, a music pastor at newly planted Lakeside Chapel in Ludington, Michigan, says that good questions to ask in planning worship and music in new churches include "How is God desiring to shape us through this week's Bible texts?", "Will this help people to pray?", and "How might we help people (re)connect their lives to the life of Jesus?" Related stories on choosing music for worship cover hymn writing, choral anthems, and contemporary worship music.

Consider proposing one of these titles for a church book club or buying one of these books, reviewing it for your church newsletter, and donating it to your church library:

Check out these denominational resources for new churches: Disciples of Christ (Christian Church), Evangelical Free Church of America, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, FriendsNazareneSouthern BaptistUnited Methodist,Uniting Church in Australia, as well as this mega gateway page on church planting.

Attend upcoming church planting conventions, such as Mosaic (November 16-18, 2005) in Toronto or one of several sponsored by the Church Multiplication Training Center.

Start a Discussion

  • What, if any, faith or church background do most of your visitors or new members come from? How familiar are they (or your long-time members) with what you do in worship and why you do it?
  • How important a role does prayer play in your worship services, church meetings, and worship planning?
  • If your church has been around for more than ten years, do you ever feel a bit envious of newer churches-because you think they have more freedom in worship? What else would you like to try? What obstacles do you see?
  • What do you think of the belief that planting a new church is one of the best ways to revive an established church? In what ways might your worship change if your congregation put a higher priority in planting another church?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you've found to help worshipers and visitors understand your worship services? 

  • Did you write a curriculum, perhaps with drama sketches or visuals, to help your congregation understand the basic elements of relationship with God?
  • Have you surveyed congregation members (especially youth) or invited outside observers to help you identify which church language or worship elements are hard for visitors to understand?
  • Did you find a good way to involve children and youth in worship that is more multisensory? Will you share the results with us?