So, you say that nothing in your church ever seems to change? That you’re tired of always doing things the same way? If so, consider inviting in the Holy Spirit! Here are some ideas for how you and others in your congregation, with help from the triune God, can plant seeds for new life.
One: Enhance and enliven your congregation’s worship life.
- Resist the cultural pressure to think of your services as “contemporary” or “traditional.” Instead, for each service simply draw on hymns from a variety of traditions that are geared to the lectionary and are based on texts that are theologically deep and instruct and inspire us in our faith.
- Be creative in the way you present each hymn, always asking: “How can the way I play it best engage the hearts, minds and spirits of those present?” Your “accompanying of last resort” should be to play what’s on the page (although be attentive to those hymns in which you know people will want to sing harmony).
- Always include sung psalmody. The psalm is not a fourth reading but instead constitutes a response to the Old Testament reading and a bridge to the Gospel reading, and invites God to be present with us in every conceivable human situation. Again, be creative. In addition to resources from Augsburg Fortress and other publishers, you can draw from the Calvin Institute’s fine new Psalms for All Seasons (which has its own website through Faith Alive Resources).
- Or best of all, write your own psalm settings. When you use the standard psalm tone-refrain format, try to capture the spirit of the psalm in your refrain, use an appropriate psalm tone in which the verses are sung expressively by cantor or choir, and make sure you shepherd the congregation clearly from tone to refrain and back. For some published resources you may need to add short transitions so things work well.
- Offer liturgical evening prayer services in Advent and Lent, with all Sundays remaining in the same format. Worshippers need consistency in these penitential seasons. For Lent consider having the service followed by soup and bread and then conclude in the fellowship area with compline. You can get it all done in 90 minutes.
- Add services on the actual days of Epiphany, Ascension, and Reformation. Make sure to promote them throughout your synod, district and community. Through these you should be able to attract visitors on a regular basis.
- Include the Easter Vigil as another distinctive mark of your congregation.
- Begin talking it up it in the fall and continue throughout Advent and Lent. In this way the congregation will come to understand its significance as the highlight of the liturgical year, a service which is richer, more dramatic and more theologically significant than Christmas Eve.
- Timing: 10 p.m. – midnight (or 1 a.m., if you can!). Include movement throughout the building. At the conclusion worshipers are invited to a splendid feast consisting of hors d’oeuvres, fruit, vegetables, sandwiches, cheese, pastries, and chocolates. With good advance notice, even families with small children can accommodate this schedule. Make sure, however, to offer expanded child care for the evening.
- If you don’t have it already, establish a rotating worship committee of 4-6 lay members which will meet once a month to participate with staff on decisions concerning the worship life. This need not include specific hymn selection. You could have staggered one- and two-year terms of service so it there is some consistency from group to group.
- Include instrumentalists from the congregation regularly in the worship service, including youth, even if that just means playing along on the melody of a hymn. An experience like this which seems simple to us could be life-changing for a young person.
Two: Revitalize your music program.
- Restore the choir to its authentic role as leader of the church’s song.
- Get out of anthem-performance mode. Instead, encourage the choir to sing hymn stanzas, psalmody, and other liturgical elements, as well as support the vigorous singing of the liturgy and hymns. Anthems of course may be included periodically in a way that enhances the readings or themes of the day.
- Plan regular choir retreats and other bonding activities.
- For handbell or chime choirs, resist the inclusion in worship of performance pieces which are of little interest to non-ringers. Instead, regularly integrate the bells and chimes into hymns and the liturgy. If the organ does not have a zimbelstern, “random ringing” can be very effective to highlight doxological and other special texts. Bells also provide excellent accompaniment for psalm singing.
Three: Expand the role of children in worship.
- Train older children to lead parts of the liturgy (especially the Kyrie). Anyone can do it with good instruction. Just imagine what effect this will have on that young person’s understanding of ministry. Groom those with ability to eventually assume the role of assisting minister.
- Develop a children’s choir program (K-4th grades) which relies on quality music with sound theological texts – to quote Carl Schalk, no “fleecy clouds and little lambs.” It’s perfectly wonderful if they simply sing a hymn right out of the hymnal (improvise your own accompaniment if needed). After all, Martin Luther’s “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word” was written for children!
- Develop a youth choir program (5th-8th grades) which can contribute psalmody and other liturgical elements in the manner of the adult choir. They can function in that role once a month when the adult choir has the Sunday off.
- Recruit youth (5th grade and up) with some musical experience to participate in the bell or chime choir. You’d be surprised at what they can do if given the chance.
- Offer an annual one-day summer music camp to introduce children to the idea of church music, to encourage their participation in worship, and to foster singing and the playing of instruments.
- Appoint a staff liaison to the Sunday School so that the children can regularly be integrated into the worship service in a way that contributes meaningfully to the liturgy or the day’s readings.
Four: Deepen and expand the congregation’s spiritual life.
- Offer two weekly Bible studies – early on weekday morning at a local establishment and mid-evening on a weekday evening in someone’s home. Ideally these would not be led by the pastor.
- Stay away from pre-packaged programs. Instead simply select a passage from the lectionary from the coming Sunday, or another reading of the leader’s choice. Stay focused on scripture.
- Regularly encourage devotional practices and provide materials for use at home, especially those concerning children.
- Coordinate annual Lenten devotionals written by members of the congregation. Invite people to write who are not regular readers or participants in worship. With staff oversight a lay person would be honored to accept this annual task.
- Develop the ministry of altar bread baking.
- Encourage more sustainable practices as a congregation.
- Bulletins: Use as little paper as possible by relying on the pew hymnal and not including the appointed lessons in the bulletin.
- Promote various “green” initiatives throughout the building and congregation, including paper and inkjet cartridge recycling and rainwater collection.
- Encourage one congregation-wide project per year, such as a community garden, church composting or the addition of solar panels to the church building or grounds.
Five: Oversee the communications and branding of the congregation.
- Revitalize the congregational web site to include frequently changing elements and other helpful resources. The webmaster would ideally be a congregation member willing to work at this weekly or on demand. Eventually members will learn to check the site regularly so they can stay in touch with church news. Obviously, it’s also a great tool for recruiting new members.
- Promote a weekly planning meeting for all staff. There can never be too much communication.
- Coordinate social media initiatives (Facebook, Twitter) to ensure consistency of delivery and message.
- Coordinate internal and external publicity. The public should know about your special services or events. With the decline of larger newspapers, community papers are taking up the slack and are increasingly well read. You’d be surprised what gets published if you just send it in. Your special services (Epiphany, Easter Vigil, etc.) are great story possibilities, as is your annual “green” initiative.
- Change the church sign, if you have one, every week. Parodies aside, this is still a great tool for communication. And it’s free!