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On Worship in Difficult Times

Worship planning during a crisis, transition, or conflict may be more stressful than usual, but thoughtfully planned services can relieve stress and help keep the church focused on its mission. In fact, worship during a difficult circumstance may itself provide an important opportunity for learning and healing in the congregation. Those who are involved in planning worship should ask some of the following questions as they plan during a difficult time.

Q In what ways will this difficulty make it hard for us to worship?

A First, certain parts of the liturgy may feel awkward during a difficult time. For example, some congregations may find it difficult to sing praise to God in the face of tragedy. Others may find the service of confession and assurance awkward because of an underlying conflict. Still others may experience tension during the administration of the Lord’s Supper, which offers time for reflection and penitence as well as communal sharing of a meal.

Second, congregations that have already been experiencing some conflict over worship issues may find those tensions heightened during a difficult time. Members who are upset about the difficulty may focus their frustration on worship issues. Someone who normally wouldn’t complain about songs he doesn’t like, for instance, may be prompted to speak out against them out of his heightened anxiety related to the difficulty.

Finally, some church members may find it very difficult to worship during a troublesome time. They may be struggling so severely with questions—about God and God’s providence, or about what the church ought to be instead of what it is—that their desire and ability to worship are stagnant for a time. Church leaders must tend to these people with sensitive pastoral care.

Q How can worship help us remember who we are and explore where we are and where we should be going?

A In difficult times we need to remember that worship is first of all about God, not about us. In times of conflict and crisis we tend to focus on ourselves, but we need to remember our place in this world and God’s providential care of all things. Worship can give us some emotional distance from the crisis or the conflict by allowing us to focus beyond ourselves on the bigger family of God and the narrative of Scripture.

Difficult times enable us to hear in new ways the biblical themes of redemptive history, the promise of forgiveness through the cross, and our hope in the second coming and the restoration of the new heaven and the new earth. Furthermore, as we hear the biblical stories again, we may understand our own history better. If we think about the parts of the biblical narrative that resonate best with us now, we may find enlightenment for our present situation. Knowing that the world and the church are in God’s hands assures us that we will not be in distress forever.

Q How can we address in worship the reality of our struggle in appropriate, honest ways and stay in tune with the healing process without rushing it?

A Naming the struggle rather than ignoring it may be good for the health of the congregation, for lowering its level of anxiety, and for ultimately bringing reconciliation. Out of concern for visitors, this must be done with great care. Leaders should realize that the way in which they handle a difficult situation speaks volumes to people considering joining the church. There may be situations in which the difficulty either cannot or should not be named, but in these cases leaders can still provide comfort and assurance through prayers, songs, and messages chosen with that particular context in mind. The congregation will make connections at various levels of awareness, and pastoral themes will likely address other broken places in people’s lives. The healing impact of the worship service may be even greater with this approach.

In congregations experiencing conflict, times of confession must be honest but not forced. People shouldn’t be required to say words they don’t feel or believe. We need to offer space by what we say and how we say it. By the same token, we must spur one another on to love and good deeds and challenge people to seek reconciliation.

The normal themes of the church year may “sound” different in a difficult time. That’s because the emotional “acoustics” in the church have changed because of the difficult situation. For instance, the longing and waiting of Advent feel different during a crisis. Congregations may need help in recognizing why they have a hard time singing Christmas carols—or perhaps why they want to sing only carols and avoid the feelings evoked by Advent hymns.

A special focus on confession, reconciliation, and healing might be planned for a separate service on a weeknight, so that people can choose whether to participate. The timing of such a service or any special focus on these issues should be carefully planned. Congregations tend to forgive too soon, and then, thinking they have dealt with the issue, lose their openness to continuing to learn through the process. Forgiveness is rarely a one-time event.

Q How can regular habits of worship provide comfort and stability in a transitional time?

A Even in churches that prefer a flexible liturgy, comfort and stability in a difficult time can come from using the same words, prayers, and songs from week to week. When it seems like everything else is in flux, we need calm in worship and we need the assurance of a God who keeps his promises and who will work all things together for our good.

If the difficult time includes the absence of a regular pastor, a congregation may want to choose a handful of people who are able to lead worship well, and allow them to take turns as liturgists. Even though the guest preacher may change every week, the congregation will find comfort in familiar liturgists they can trust. Calling an interim pastor to lead for an extended period of time may be an even better option.

Forming a worship planning team that is organically connected with the elders during the transitional time is crucial for the health of the congregation and its worship life. Worship planners can make more appropriate choices if they are aware of the dynamics of the transition.

Q How do we keep the congregation informed during a difficult time?

A When congregational leaders are dealing with a major issue (replacing a pastor, mediating a conflict, planning a new facility, and so on) they should give the congregation as much information as possible. Regular updates, even if they don’t contain a lot of new information, will keep the congregation informed and inspire confidence in the leaders. Especially when there is an interruption in staff, congregations should be assured that careful plans are being made. Printing a schedule of upcoming worship themes and guest preachers can be very helpful in this regard.

Q How do we pray during difficult times?

A Using the prayers of Scripture may be especially appropriate during a difficult time when words are hard to find. This will also help to connect people with the biblical narrative in new ways. Worship leaders should model praying with confidence while acknowledging the ambiguity of the situation. It may help to offer historical prayers that recite the community’s history. Leaders should be sure to pray for the whole congregation, including those who may have been hurt by the crisis, transition, or conflict; those who must lead the church through the difficult time; and those who are absent and unable to deal with the situation.

Q How can the sacraments be observed in meaningful ways during a difficult time?

A The vows that a congregation makes in baptism will remind the people not only of what is really important in the church but also of what holds them together. A baptismal service should remind us all of our baptism and what it means to be part of God’s family. Do not delay the administration of baptism because of the difficult time; the congregation will be comforted and encouraged by this community-affirming event.

Likewise, some churches tend to hold off communion in a crisis rather than using it as a moment of healing. The celebration of the Lord’s Supper can be a re-membering of what has been dismembered in the conflicted community. It can serve to pull the community together in Christ. The Lord’s Supper can also be an important time for confession and reconciliation. Preparation for communion can be an intentional time of reconciliation for congregations that have experienced conflict or are hurting from a crisis.