Where Twenty or Thirty are Gathered: Creative Worship Ideas for Smaller Congregations
Ever been scheduled to both take the offering and play the offertory during the same service? Found yourself the sole soprano while singing hymns? Been locked out of your worship space because the only two keyholders were both out of town? If so, you probably belong to a smaller congregation.
Smaller congregations —whether they have 15 or 75 worshipers—have some interesting challenges. They also have wonderful strengths and opportunities. First, smaller congregations share a strong sense of community. Everyone knows everyone else. Years of hearing one another’s joys and concerns through prayer and coffee-hour talk build a strong bond between members of the congregation. When regular attenders know each other, they notice visitors—and they can welcome and include them to the extent the visitors feel comfortable.
Second, small congregations tend to run on lay involvement. They don’t have large staffs. In order to keep things running, many members of the congregation need to be involved. Whether that involvement means greeting at the door or leading worship, it feeds the sense of community and gets everyone invested in the future of the church.
Third, smaller congregations are characterized by a sense of authenticity. There’s not much to hide behind when worshiping in a group of 40 as opposed to 400. Emotions are more obvious—both happy and sad. Mistakes are more obvious too. The resulting worship tends to be open and honest. No one expects polished presentations in worship—they know how much is being done by lay people on a shoestring. This is not to say that smaller congregations can’t have excellent services with wonderful music and profound sermons—rather that the goal is not presentation but authenticity.
Fourth, smaller congregations have the luxury of flexibility. There aren’t as many people to persuade when experimenting with something new. In addition, the combined sense of community and authenticity often makes people willing to try new things—not all at once, perhaps, but still willing. As my pastor says, it’s much easier to turn a small speedboat than a huge coal freighter—and then turn it back again if you need to.
Keeping these strengths in mind can help you develop creative worship services that work in the intimate setting of a smaller group. Here are some ideas to use as starting points for developing your own services.
In a small congregation, worshipers can hear one another, which allows for people to pray in their own voices. It’s not always perfect—sometimes two people will begin praying at the same time and sometimes no one will pray aloud. But hearing each other’s thanksgivings and difficulties strengthens the ties between the members of the congregation. Here are some types of prayer you may want to try:
- Bidding prayer. The worship leader or pastor opens the prayer and bids worshipers to pray out loud or silently for each category he or she mentions. These may include thanksgiving, concerns, and other categories determined by the particular service, such as prayers for the persecuted church on All Nations Sunday.
- Joys and concerns. The worship leader solicits joys and concerns from worshipers, while the pastor or another leader writes them down. Then the pastor or other leader offers the prayers of the people, incorporating the items mentioned.
- Encircling prayer. The worship leader gathers everyone into a circle for prayer, perhaps also for the laying on of hands around someone who’s having a particularly difficult time. For example, a member of our congregation brought a family to church who was grieving the loss of their mother. The worship leader invited them to the center aisle and gathered the rest of the congregation around them for laying on of hands while we prayed for them. This can be a powerfully moving time of prayer.
- Prayer journal. Ask someone in your congregation to keep track of prayer requests as they are offered during the prayers of the people. At the end of the year, review some of the requests during a service or ask someone to distribute a synopsis of all the requests so you can see how God has worked in your congregation throughout the year.
- Around the table. Invite worshipers to come forward—all together or in groups, depending on the number of worshipers—to stand in a circle around the communion table. Each worshiper passes the bread and the wine with appropriate words: “The body of Christ, given for you,” or “The blood of Christ, shed for you,” with the receiver responding, “Thanks be to God,” or “Amen.” Passing the bread and wine from one to another emphasizes community as people share the communion meal.
- Read Scripture during communion. If you usually sing hymns while people are coming forward for communion, ask someone to read Scripture in place of one of the hymns. This is particularly appropriate if you don’t have enough people in the congregation to sing while another group is up front. It also allows the accompanist to receive communion if you don’t have another accompanist to step in.
- Bring children into the communion circle. If children are elsewhere during the service, bring them in to join the communion circle with their families to reinforce the sense of community. They can receive a blessing from the pastor as professing members receive the bread and wine around the circle. Bringing children back into the service also allows nursery volunteers or teachers to join the circle to receive communion.
- Introduce the child (or adult) to the congregation. After a baby has been baptized, have your congregation sing a hymn of welcome as the pastor or an elder walks the baby around to introduce this newest member of God’s covenant to the whole congregation.
- Baptismal bowl. Invite grandparents or godparents to hold the baptismal bowl. Having a member of the baby’s inner circle hold the bowl reinforces the sense of community as well as the multigenerational nature of God’s family.
- Baptismal banners. One option for a baptismal banner is to add each child’s name as he or she is baptized, so that the names are dancing across the banner whenever a baptism is held. Or create a banner for each child, which the family can take home as a reminder of this special occasion.
- Ebenezer. This Thanksgiving service (see box) is based on the Ebenezer—a milestone Samuel built to remind God’s people of God’s grace and love (see 1 Sam. 7:12). When worshipers arrive, they receive a brick and an adhesive label on which to write what they are thankful for from the previous year on the label. They attach the label to the brick. During a cycle of alternating hymns and quiet, they will bring the bricks forward to build an Ebenezer. Silent times between the hymns allow worshipers an opportunity to read a Scripture passage that’s meaningful to them or to tell the congregation what they are thankful for.
- Scapegoat service. This service of repentance and renewal is appropriate at the beginning of the year or as part of Lent. Ask worshipers to write particular sins on a slip of paper. After the confession and reconciliation, during a time of silence or quiet instrumental music, invite them to come forward and burn that slip of paper. The paper disappearing into ash symbolizes how Christ causes our sins to vanish. For added symbolism, use the baptism bowl to catch the ashes. In this service the silence is used for personal reflection.
- Maundy Thursday. Incorporate footwashing (or handwashing) into the Maundy Thursday service before communion. Ask one person, perhaps the pastor, to wash worshipers’ hands or feet and another person to be available with a towel to dry.
- Seder. Hold a Seder service sometime during Holy Week in addition to the other services. (See RW 54 for a Haggadah that can be used for a teaching Seder.) A Seder always incorporates a meal as part of the service, so ask everyone to bring a dish to pass for a potluck supper.
- Flowering of the cross. For Easter Sunday, make a cross of chicken wire nailed to 2 x 4s. (See RW 58, p. 18.) Ask worshipers to bring flowers to the Easter Sunday service (make sure to bring extra flowers for visitors). After the confession and reconciliation part of the service, sing several Easter hymns (especially ones that people know the words to). Invite worshipers to come forward to insert their flowers into the chicken wire cross. The flowers symbolize the new life we receive in Christ through his death on the cross. They turn a symbol of pain and suffering into something beautiful.
- Relocating services. Worshiping in small groups eliminates the need for amplification and makes it possible to worship in locations other than your usual worship space. For example, my church holds adult baptisms at a beach on Lake Michigan (this works better in August than in April). After the baptism we celebrate communion together. Everyone brings a blanket or a towel to sit on (and usually a picnic lunch for afterward). A card table functions as the communion table during the service and as the coffee table afterward. You might also plan to have a worship service outside before your annual church picnic.
- Greeting time. Allow enough time for everyone to move around. Have the pastor or worship leader come forward into the congregation—everyone will continue greeting each other until the leader goes back to the pulpit or the accompanist starts playing. In one church I visited, everyone moves into the center aisle and walks down the length of the church. In this way, everyone greets everyone. An extended greeting time can be a great way to make visitors feel welcome too.
- Passing the peace. At the end of the service, during the closing hymn, the pastor passes the peace to the end person in each row as he or she exits the sanctuary. Those people then pass it to the next person in the row and on down the row.
- Benediction and parting hymn. Invite everyone to stand in a circle around the front of the church or around the sanctuary for the benediction and parting hymn. This is particularly effective after communion services, after everyone has shared a meal around Christ’s table. At the end of the hymn, worshipers may pass the peace around the circle.
Smaller congregations have many opportunities for creative, meaningful worship in ways that may be ineffective or impossible in a larger congregation. These suggestions are only a starting point. Build on the strengths, flexibility, and community of your small congregation and enjoy wonderful worship!
Have the worship leader instruct the congregation as follows:
Think of a specific area in which you have experienced the grace, love, and the providence of God. Write it on a label, attach the label to a brick, and add your brick to the growing tower. The intent is to remember God’s past grace when life darkens.
There will be three opportunities to come forward. When you come forward you may speak, read a passage of Scripture, or simply add your brick to the Ebenezer.
Song: “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” PsH 486
(St. 2 of the original reads: “Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by thy help I’m come; and I hope, by thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.”)
Building Our Ebenezer
Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Jeshanah, and named it Ebenezer; for he said, “Thus far the Lord has helped us” (1 Sam. 7:12).
Song: “Let All Things Now Living” PsH 453
Song: “For the Beauty of the Earth” PsH 432 (st. 1, all; st. 2, women; st. 3, men; st. 4, all)
Song: “Lift Up Your Hearts unto the Lord” PsH 309 (st. 1, 5).
Lay Leadership and Participation
- Lay worship leaders. Develop lay worship leaders who, either singly or in groups, plan and lead worship. In some congregations, two or three leaders work together on a special service, or two or three plan a liturgical framework for use throughout a particular season such as Lent or Advent. In other congregations, worship planners work in groups on each service or take turns planning services. Developing lay worship leaders, whether individually or as teams, gets more people involved in creating worship and removes some of the pressure from the pastor.
- Scripture readers and prayers. Cultivate members of your congregation to read Scripture during the service. Using different voices keeps Scripture readings fresh and involves more people. Some people are better at reading in front of a group than others, so you may want to try new people out with a short passage the first time to see how they do. Consider giving readers a short training session or a copy of the brochure So You’ve Been Asked To Read Scripture (Faith Alive Christian Resources, 1-800-333-8300, www.FaithAliveResources.org). Also consider inviting members of the congregation to offer the prayers of the people. Using Scripture readers and prayers from the congregation can also be a good way to see who might be a good candidate for worship leader.
- Scripture reading as readers’ theater. Ask members of the congregation to take the parts of the characters in a Bible passage to help bring a story to life. For example, if your gospel lesson is John 9:1-34, someone could read the part of Jesus, another the Pharisees, and another the blind man who was healed. Photocopy the passage for as many readers as you need and highlight each part. Then hand out the copies to people as they come in Sunday morning. Because no amplification is needed, readers don’t have to come forward—they can read from their pews.