This week’s question comes from an experienced pastor who feels worship could use a refresher.

I have been in my current pastorate for more than a decade now (through four full lectionary cycles and part of a fifth, actually – but who’s counting?!), and I am getting tired of how we do things on Sundays. I love the ritual and rhythm of following the same form year in and year out, but I feel like our corporate worship has grown stale. Our congregation has a Worship Committee but their purview has always been the details (greeters, ushers, readers, sound, flowers, and the like) and not the big picture. They are not visionaries nor have they been charged with tending to matters of style – that has been the responsibility of the pastors and the music staff. I am interested in how to work with lay leaders towards comprehensive worship renewal, rather than it being only a responsibility of staff. 

How do you renew your congregation’s worship? I am interested in hearing not only specific worship ideas (new hymnals, new music sources, changes to the order of worship, changes to the physical space, changes to your homiletic approaches) but also in procedure/process – how exactly did you go about beginning that process of change? If you have successfully renewed your congregation’s sense or style of worship, especially if you had been there awhile yourself before doing so (as opposed to making the changes as part of the broader and more natural rhythm of the change that comes with a new pastor), how did you do it?

We have two very helpful answers this week. The first comes from Heidi, otherwise known as revhrod, who blogs at You Don’t Have to Listen, I Just Like to Talk.

I think a lot of the process is dependent upon the personality of your congregation.  In my first parish, I was told “Pastor, we do Setting One,” which meant, don’t you dare try to do Setting Two.This was a congregation that needed to move slowly and found information from the larger church to be helpful when considering changes.  Worship renewal happened with the addition of special services at Holy Week and Advent.  Those services gave me room to plan worship that wasn’t just “Setting One.”  

My third parish was the kind that would try anything at least twice.  They learned six liturgies in a period of ten years.  However those changes were staff driven.  One area that was a joint staff and lay venture was liturgical art. Things were done seasonally and for occasions.  Materials included swaths of fabric, cut paper, greens and flowers and candles.  We created a “live” fountain in our baptismal font.  A mobile above the altar made of crystals for Epiphany. It was an environment where it was okay to say, “What if we tried this…”    

Both of these experiences have things in common.  In other words, here’s what I learned:

  • It’s easier to move the furniture if you can explain how it will enhance the congregation’s worship. Whether it’s moving the altar six inches further from the wall so you can stand behind it or going from a cathedral setting to having worship in the round, if people understand “why” they are more willing to try something new.
  • Education and information is important for creating an appetite for renewal.
  • Practice new music before the worship service begins.  Have strong singers to lead the music. Be well prepared.
  • Don’t take it personally if they don’t like it.
  • Experiment seasonally.  Let folks know that there is a start and an end to the trial run. 
  • Involve lay people not just in the planning but also the set-up.  Find opportunities for them to feel invested.
  • Help them make the connections between the things they see, hear, smell, taste and touch.

Good luck with this important work.  

Next, here are the thoughts of Ruth Everhart, who blogs at Work in Progress (aren’t we all?):

I believe that worship is the heart and soul of the church — our very reason for existence — so this is an important question. The more people you can involve in the process, the better. Perhaps a good opener is to use a tool like SurveyMonkey to ask your people about their experience, and their hopes for the future. Don’t be too serious about it. Engage them with a little whimsy. Would it be possible for folks to go out into the community in teams and “sample” other worship styles and report back? We did this in my church (under 100 in worship) and that was helpful. I preached about worship a number of times. Once I introduced Kierkegaard’s “Theater of Worship” idea and its implications. Another time I preached about John Calvin’s ideas about worship. Also, for a number of months I had Children’s Time that focused on various items used in worship (lectern/pulpit/font/table/organ/offering baskets/candles) in terms of: Why is this part of worship? Could we just get rid of it?

The biggest change we implemented was using visuals in worship, which meant painting over the front wall of the church to be able to project onto that wall. We followed proper protocol by having the Session (our governing board) vote on the decision, but by that point we had buy-in. (Even so it was a shocking change.) Once we had the projector installed, I used it carefully for “a stained glass window of the week.” We never used it for music or words, as we got the clear feedback that people didn’t want that. After we were used to the change, I showed a few YouTube clips in the minutes before church. That was helpful in establishing mood, or theme, or simply a sense of openness. Eventually I tried showing video clips from “The Gospel of John” DVD for the occasional scripture reading. I framed every change as an experiment and said that we might not like some things. I noticed that the presence of even a few young people gave us the excuse that we were trying things on “for them” although in truth it was the adults who most enjoyed the changes.

Let us know how it goes!

Readers, what do you think? If you have successfully changed up worship, we want to hear about it in the comments!

10 thoughts on “Ask the Matriarch: Refreshing Worship

  1. I wonder if it would be possible/helpful to apply for a Calvin Institute Worship Renewal Grant: (They are part of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, but give outside their denomination.) You would have to bring together a committee with congregational members (maybe beginning with your worship committee, but there might be others as well) and they would have to envision a year-long project, write a proposal, and then implement it. If you received the grant, the church would have specific money to be used specifically for changing worship (might also include a worship retreat, etc.) for a year. I’m just thinking it might be a way to jumpstart the process. As part of the grant, they send to members of your team to an opening and closing worship symposium where all the grants of the year are showcased. Again, it might be really interesting for congregational members to see. (We are PC(USA) and we did a grant a few years ago on liturgical art, but keep wondering about doing a second one.)


  2. I followed a pastor who had convinced the congregation that she had a right to do whatever she wanted with worship. (PCUSA polity lends credence to some aspects of that, although she had taken it to extremes. When I met her at a presby meeting, she warned me to make sure to “always do communion the Presbyterian way, because they’ll want to fiddle with it” and I must have just looked blank.)

    Thus, when I came in and said, “I’d like us to consider X; what do you think?”, that felt like a big improvement to our congregation. Their habit of saying, “Yeah, sure, whatever,” had to be tempered by my holding small groups and asking, “No, really, what do you think?” Eventually they began saying what they thought.

    One of my challenges was being a denominational pastor in a community church setting, in which some people really missed the worship experiences of their youth. We had to carefully analyze what about those experiences was valuable to them and what was portable to our setting, and then we had to craft a covenant of awareness and respect regarding others’ worship needs and desires.

    Then (and this, for me, was the hard part), I started adding in elements long before I subtracted any. That meant I had to be creative in holding the service to an hour. It was messy and required a lot of interpretation. Some weeks, for example, we had both a spoken creed and a sung one side by side, along with an explanation of their shared place in worship. Then I could begin alternating.

    And sometimes I looked out at perplexed faces and had to back up. What we eventually gained, though, was a breadth of meaningful worship practices garnered from different traditions and ages, and more participation from people who, until then, had been mainly observers.

    A note regarding new music: Our musicians agreed to a “hymn sing” for 15 minutes before worship each Sunday before a whole year. That allowed us to introduce new music in a less formal setting, and it also enabled us to sing beloved hymns that rarely found their way into worship. Now we hold fifth-Sunday hymn sings, along with a carol sing on the afternoon of the last Sunday of Advent. We use five songs plus doxology and “special music” during each Sunday service, because singing, much more than liturgy, feels like the work of our people.

    Apologies for the long answer.


  3. I was part of a worship planning group at my internship church. We did four “thematic” services throughout the year. We first had to develop an understanding of worship (we were PCUSA so therefore reformed worship) and the elements of that.

    Our second question was how could worship be “different” and still reformed? Did the Call to worship have to be words? Did the prayers of the people have to be spoken? Did the music have to be “churchy”?

    We used the RCL and looked for themes in one or two…or all of the passages and then tossed around ideas…from the insane to the doable.

    However, in the end it was the pastor and I who did 90% of implementation…the nuts of bolts of how it work work…asking people to help…the writing…and so there were days it would have been quicker and easier just to do it with the two of us. It takes an incredible amount of energy and time.

    I am always looking for small ways to make worship unique. I began using a quartz singing bowl as we begin worship. I greet everyone and if an announcement MUST be made they are done at that point. Sometimes I will offer a short poem to introduce the worship and say, “let us continue to worship God”…and play the bowl. In the bulletin that segment is noted as “A Time for Centering and Silence”.


  4. I was at an Upper Room Spiritual Formation event several years ago and Marcia McFee was one of the speakers. She lead us through some amazing ways to create worship which is deep and sacred. She also did a segment on why some people like certain worship styles and hate others…it is sort of like a Myers-Brigg or Enneagram but with worship styles.

    Here is her website:


  5. As an Episcopalian, we have some constraints that other groups don’t have–we aren’t going to stray too far from the Prayer Book liturgy on a regular basis. But space, music, seasonal themes, and the like are certainly “fair game” at least to me. I know of one church (cathedral church in another diocese on the smallish side) that undertook a very intentional process of trying out different things liturgically. Because they have chairs not pews and an open space, they experimented one summer with arranging the chairs different ways (in a circle, “choir style” with rows facing each other, in a square around a central altar space etc.) They used each format for a month, explained why that format was chosen, and then had groups reflect on their experience worshiping that way. The process seemed to work. I don’t know for sure, but I expect they had a liturgy committee guiding the process along.

    IME experience liturgy or worship committees can really facilitate the process OR they can block it by serving as the “guardians” of the way things have “always been done.” To be successful such groups need to have some interest in and education/training for support. Workshops, books, field trips, etc. I would love to take a group on a field trip just to look at how space might be used, but alas, my congregation is not open to such things now.


  6. I love this question (because I also want some answers. But a couple of times in the last month I have heard a phrase we need to use more in the church: Not fail safe but safe fails. Do we have an environment where it is okay to experiment and have it NOT work?


  7. I knew ‘of’ a colleague who went into a new appointment with lots of energy for liturgical innovation, and persuaded the congregation to agree to a once-a-month “Please just humour the new rector” Sunday. She did a mixture of small innovations and wild ones, but it seemed to work in getting her people to assess seriously what worked well and what didn’t — i think the “safe fail” concept Gord speaks of is applicable here.


  8. The most life-giving innovations in my congregation have all been from older traditions – singing the litany of the saints at All Saints, celebrating other saints’ days during the year with special music and liturgy, singing the psalms from a range of musical sources, anointing people for healing when Communion coincides with a healing story etc.


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