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Worship that Cares for People Pastorally

You may think of pastoral care mainly as personal visits to someone’s hospital room or home. But Howard Vanderwell wrote that the entire worship service has “powerful potential for caring for worshipers’ needs.” His book Caring Worship: Helping Worship Leaders Provide Pastoral Care through the Liturgy explains how.

Howard Vanderwell 2

Howard Vanderwell

Daniel T Moser 2

Daniel T. Moser

The prayer was simple, yet so profound that it started Daniel T. Moser on a journey of exploring how God can use every worship element—not just music or sermons—to pastorally care for worshipers.

“It struck me that giving real attention to brief moments of worship matters.
Things in worship that might not seem important…can be.” 

Daniel T. Moser

“At least 13 years ago, at my first Calvin Symposium on Worship, I attended the opening worship service. Howard Vanderwell gave an opening prayer that was so pastoral and caring. So often prayers before conferences are perfunctory, but this prayer was taken seriously.

“It struck me that giving real attention to brief moments of worship matters. Things in worship that might not seem important…can be,” Moser says. In the summer months, he is director of worship and religious activities at Bay View Association, a Chautauqua in Petoskey, Michigan. From September through May, he serves as pastor of spiritual nurture at Pleasantville United Church of Christ in Chalfont, Pennsylvania.

 Howard Vanderwell was a pastor, seminary professor, worship consultant, and prolific author. His Caring Worship: Helping Worship Leaders Provide Pastoral Care through the Liturgy came out in November 2017, four months before he died.

“Reading Caring Worship guided me and also confirmed what I’ve learned about taking each part of worship seriously. I owe Howard Vanderwell a tremendous debt,” Moser says.

Preparing for prayers and benedictions

Around 800 residents and visitors gather for worship each summer Sunday morning at Bay View Association. “The guest preachers represent a broad spectrum of culture and Christian tradition, so it’s important for our worship team to provide continuity through prayers, benedictions, and other worship elements,” Moser says.

Before worshipers enter the auditorium, they see a table where they can put prayer requests in baskets. Each week, Moser asks ushers to bring the baskets forward. He reminds worshipers that on Monday morning, an intercessory team will gather in the chapel to pray for each request.

“Before the congregational prayer, I ask everyone to take a deep breath, breathing in God’s love and breathing out their own busyness. I got this idea from Howard Vanderwell’s emphasis on taking prayer seriously and finding ways to convey that.

“We get lots of visitors to Bay View, and people often tell me how much they appreciate the prayer time. One woman said that she now makes time to take deep breaths before prayers in her home church,” Moser says.

Every Sunday evening, Bay View has a vespers concert that opens with a hymn. It closes with another hymn, a sung benediction, and brief words from Moser.

“I’ve experienced worship elsewhere that ends with a hurried ‘The Lord watch between me and thee while we’re absent. Amen.’ But Howard Vanderwell wrote about how the closing statement can be a ‘God-sent promise that gives worshipers exactly what their hearts need.’ I listen closely throughout the morning service and evening vespers concert for a common scriptural chord. I frame my sending forth around that. I get more feedback on my benedictions than on my sermons,” Moser says.

Planning God-centered worship

Vanderwell knew when writing Caring Worship that some worship leaders might say their churches don’t follow a liturgy. Others might worry that he was trying to make worship about therapy instead of God. He addressed both concerns.

He suggested understanding liturgy as “everything that happens between the time you arrive and the time you leave.” Not every church follows a denominational worship template or prints an order of service. Yet every worship service contains acts of worship, such as greetings, prayers, songs, and Bible reading. Each element, no matter what a congregation calls it, has the potential to provide weekly caring, healing, and nurture to the people who gather.

Vanderwell understood the fear of making worship too horizontal, too much about us. However, because he defined worship as “first of all a dialogic encounter with God,” he explained that worshipers’ needs matter to God.

“The more God-centered our worship is, the greater is its power to care for us and meet the personal needs we bring with us.…When we experience the astonishment of encountering a God who listens, hears, and answers, even when we have wounded and offended him by our rejection and disobedience, surely we will experience his care and healing,” he wrote.

He explained how a congregation’s worship can offer more pastoral care by making greetings God-centered. This includes opening words from the pastor or worship leader and words that worshipers use to welcome each other.

Pastors or worship leaders often open worship by saying that everyone is welcome. But consider how much more it means when they use God’s words, such as the way Paul often opened his epistles. “Grace, mercy, and peace to you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Worship might also open with a prayer that “makes clear that we all come before God with various needs, and we ask God to come and meet us with his grace and mercy.”

Vanderwell also suggested replacing the contemporary “greeting time” with the rich tradition of passing the peace. The first, he wrote, is primarily a “polite social custom” with hardly “any spiritual significance.” The second can make clear that “as worshipers we are brothers and sisters together, reconciled members of a community founded on God’s unconditional acceptance and forgiveness.” Just as God’s greeting assures us that he welcomes our presence, our passing the peace expresses “who we are and what we are meant to be for each other.”

Second Christian Reformed Church in Fremont, Michigan, is gradually replacing its greeting time with the passing of the peace. Pastor Doug MacLeod quoted from Caring Worship in the church’s July 2018 newsletter. The shepherding elders began reading and discussing the book for 15 minutes at the start of each monthly meeting.

“Each week now, I verbally invite the congregation to greet one another with the peace of Christ or in the name of Christ. Those of us who appreciate the value of that worship distinction steadfastly greet others with ‘the Lord be with you’ or ‘the peace of Christ be to you’ or something like that. Many simply continue with the innocuous ‘good morning,’ and we graciously accept that. Our passive influence and educational approach seems to be making some difference without pressure,” MacLeod says.

Making room for all

Moser also appreciates how Vanderwell made room for others in worship. Designing Worship Together, by Vanderwell and Norma de Waal Malefyt, lays out field-tested strategies for involving clergy, lay leaders, and volunteers in planning, leading, and evaluating worship.

“When I started at Bay View in 2011, it took awhile for the worship committee to realize that I really wanted them to be involved in planning and leading worship. They’d originally described themselves as ‘serving strictly in an advisory capacity,’” Moser says.

Now the Bay View worship team helps Moser plan worship. They also do the call to worship, read scripture, receive the offering, and more. “We draw a lot from The Worship Sourcebook to craft services that flow together. People practice their parts ahead of time. Some churches see everything that happens before the sermon as just a lead-up to the sermon. But when you start talking about how every part of the service is important, then everyone starts to take each part more seriously. Worship becomes a celebration,” he says.

Another “making room” theme in Caring Worship concerns people with disabilities. Vanderwell used Dan Vander Plaats’ five-stage journey of disability attitudes to help churches plan worship that sees everyone as people first, valuable because we’re all created in God’s image.

Back home at Pleasantville UCC in Pennsylvania, Moser offered a three-session class about disability from a biblical, historical, and church perspective. Participants began by reading and discussing A Story Unfinished: 99 Days with Eliot by Matt Mooney, who, with his wife, Ginny, created 99 Balloons, a nonprofit that works to build inclusive communities.


Gather a group to read and discuss these three books:

Use The Worship Sourcebook to craft services that flow together. It explains each element of a worship service and has a collection of calls to worship, prayers of confession, and other spoken prayers and litanies. offers worship elements (prayers, litanies, acclamations) paired with each hymn in the Lift Up Your Hearts (LUYH) hymnal. Go to a song page, such as for “All People That on Earth Do Dwell.” Click on the Worship Elements tab, then scroll down.

You can access those resources even if you choose songs from another source—as long as LUYH has the same song. Here’s how. Say you plan to sing “Ten Thousand Reasons” by Jonas Myrin and Matt Redman. From that song page, scroll down to Instances, which tells you which hymnals include that song. If you see Lift Up Your Hearts in the list, then click on it. From the song page, click on the Worship Elements tab, then scroll down.


Feel free to print and distribute this story at your staff, board, or worship meeting. These questions will help people start talking about how to pay more attention to each element of worship, thus providing more pastoral care through worship:

  • In what ways do your services provide pastoral care?
  • What words do you use to explain the pattern or sequence of worship in your context?
  • Which acts of worship do you typically include or omit? From a pastoral care perspective, what do you gain or lose by omitting certain worship elements?
  • What first steps could you take to make a specific element more meaningful?