Body Building: Worship that develops strong community

Fragmented and alienated, individualistic and competitive. Those are words people use to describe our society. Can they be used to describe our churches as well?

That's how it may appear to many people, especially those outside the Church. And if we're honest, we'll admit that we see it too: our congregations and denominations seem constantly to be fighting within or against each other. Strangers who visit our worship service often go unwelcomed and sometimes even unacknowledged. We have failed in many ways to distinguish ourselves from the individualistic society that surrounds us.

In this Advent season, as we prepare to welcome the Christ Child into our hearts and homes, we should consider how well we welcome others and explore new ways of nurturing and building a genuine and hospitable community in our congregations. It will take more than doing something superficial like appointing "greeters." (In fact that practice often militates against a genuine hospitality on the part of all the members of the parish.) What's needed is a careful and critical overhaul of every aspect of every small group and particular ministry in a parish—including our worship practices.

Dangers to Community in Worship

Too often we perceive community merely in terms of a feeling of coziness with God or an attitude of compatibility with other members of the congregation. To reduce the importance of genuine community on the part of God's people to such emotions or sentiments is terribly destructive. Often the result is the formation of an elitist "in" group or a narcissism that takes the focus off God. In Christian Ethics Today Qune, 1996), Molly T. Marshall writes about the dangers of thinking about the church as a family—for that inhibits our ability to welcome strangers or it causes us to squeeze out people with whom we cannot attain intimacy.

Community in the biblical sense is more deliberate, an act of will. It does not depend upon feelings of affection. In fact, sometimes (perhaps always?) God I seems to put us in a community together with people I whom we don't like so that we learn the real meaning of agape—that intelligent, purposeful love directed toward another's need, which comes first from God and then flows through us to our neighbor. To develop a community that practices biblical principles is very difficult in this technologically efficient society. It takes a lot of work and time, sacrifice and commitment.

Before we consider some practical ways to build community, we must note this obvious, but often overlooked, truth: the Triune God wants our churches to be genuine communities. The night before his crucifixion Jesus prayed that we would all be one, even as he is one with the Father. Furthermore, as the apostle Paul stresses by means of a series of repetitive phrases in 1 Corinthians 12, "one and the same Spirit" gives us all our various gifts, puts us as particular members into the body just as he wills, and makes all those members one body of Christ.

Since we know that God is at work to make us one, we are set free to enjoy the process—knowing that it does not depend upon us. What we do to build community is respond to the grace of a unifying God; who we are as the people of God is an image of the relationship within the Godhead. When we have struggles in our communities, we can have confidence that God is at work to bring to completion the good work he has begun in establishing his Church.

Developing Hospitality

Genuine community in worship is made more possible by some of the mechanical things that we do before the service begins. For the worship to be open to everyone, we must remove any barriers to public, common life. Though many congregations these days use overhead projections, those are often difficult to see—-impossible for those elderly who have cataracts. We want to be sure that there are plenty of songbooks and bulletins or whatever else we use, large-print worship materials for the visually impaired, perhaps a person who signs for the hearing impaired, no impediments to wheelchairs.

More deeply, members of the congregation need to be trained to be hospitable to strangers and to each other. We can each welcome those who sit beside us, make sure they know how to follow our order of service, point them to pages or instructions, and, with specific education, explain to them why we do what we do.

Many contemporary critics of worship maintain that we must jettison the habits of the past and use new materials that are in the idiom of the culture. This notion is dangerous in that Christianity is not simply an intellectual assent to a set of doctrinal propositions, nor is it merely having certain emotional/spiritual experiences. Rather, it is a way of life, a language, a set of habits, an entire culture. If we conform worship too much to the prevailing culture, it is difficult for participants to learn the unique "language" of faith, to be formed by the community and the Word, to be followers of Christ.

I have found, contrarily, that any kind of music or style of worship, including both new and old, can be hospitable

  • if the persons who participate in it welcome the strangers.
  • if the customary rituals do not become empty performance.
  • if the leaders give gentle and invitational explanations of what we do and why.
  • if melodies for singing are clearly played and perhaps led by a cantor.
  • if the notes for singing are available to everyone.
  • if corporate worship is kept open as a "public space" into which every person can enter, rather than becoming the private coziness of individuals in their devotional relationship to God.
The Role of Music

The Christian community, the New Testament emphasizes repeatedly, is a unity of diversity. We capture that best musically when we learn to sing each other's songs, when members of the Body help each other learn why their faith is nurtured and strengthened by particular sets of words and music, when different ones in the community contribute their gifts of playing musical instruments or singing, arranging, and composing.

These contributions, however, must not take the place of everyone in the Body participating in the work of worship. (The word liturgy is from the Greek leitourgia or "work of the people.") Consider some of the following ways in which we can build community by making it possible for each person to join in the singing of the worship service:

  • Memorized liturgical refrains, repeated each week, enable small children to participate in singing them.
  • Children's choirs can teach new songs to the adults.
  • "Youth at Worship" programs enable youngsters to learn about, and then participate in, worship practices.
  • Teen and adult choirs can prepare the hymns for worship in order to lead them from within the congregation.
  • Songs for worship can be taught in a preceding Sunday school hour or played the previous week by organists or instrumentalists during the offering or as preludes/postludes.

Music also helps us gain a sense of the entire Christian community throughout space and time. By singing songs from all epochs of our faith—going all the way back to our roots in Judaica and forward to the angels' songs in heaven recorded in the Revelation—and from other Christian ethnic groups, we learn the global and timeless dimensions of the people of God. One of the best developments of recent years is that the new hymnbooks of most major denominations contain more music from around the world. In my home congregation, located in an inner-city African American neighborhood, we sing a great blend of musical styles each week, including soul music, chorales from the European heritage, songs from South Africa or Taize, and contemporary choruses.

We must be careful in choosing new music from our era (as opposed to the music in hymnbooks, which has already for the most part been sorted by history so that the best usually remains). Since we live in an increasingly narcissistic culture, we must guard against new songs that are self-centered, that fail to convey the we-ness (and wee-ness) of the church. We want to avoid music that focuses only on our personal feelings of happiness, instead of equipping us to be a missional community that reaches out beyond ourselves with the good news of grace in Christ and cares for the world around us with peacemaking and justice-building.

Highlighting Gifts of the Community

Already we have considered building community in worship by using the gifts of musicians in the congregation. It seems to me that applause for particular musical contributions should be discouraged because it highlights some gifts more than others and hinders all the members of the Body from knowing that their presence and singing are equally important and that their gifts are also vital for the well-being of the whole.

Our worship needs the offerings of those who make banners, grow flowers, write or perform chancel dramas, choreograph or present liturgical dances, weave vestments or altar cloths, carve furniture, make pottery vessels, or bake bread for the Lord's Supper. Other members of the Body devote their energies and skills to ushering, designing the worship folders, serving at the Lord's Table, reading Scripture lessons, or leading the prayers.

Sometimes the art in the worship space can reflect the occupations of community members. For example, a beautiful stained-glass window of a sanctuary in a Pacific Northwest seacoast town centers around Jesus calling the disciples away from their nets and spreads out to include contemporary fishermen and loggers.

It is especially important that we highlight the gifts of the children and teenagers in the community. In one church in upstate New York, the elementary school children play their bells and chant to lead the congregation every Sunday in singing a psalm. In another congregation, entire families do the ushering for the week, so that young children participate with their parents in passing out the bulletins and taking the offering. Other churches feature their children's artwork as bulletin covers or use their prayers in the worship service. In my home congregation, the young people serve as greeters, Scripture readers, drama participants, acolytes, ushers, and providers of refreshments for the fellowship hour following worship.

Communal Prayers

One particularly important aspect of worship for building community is the corporate prayers. Many congregations pray through the list of the members by mentioning a few names and their concerns each Sunday. By praying for the members' ministries and occupations out in the world, we increase the sense that we are gathered in worship to strengthen us all together for our outreach to others when we are dispersed. And by conscious verbalizing of this truth, we enable congregation members to continue to support each other's work in daily life.

It is essential that we train members of the congregation to comprehend that prayers are more than the words we speak about others. Prayer also involves placing ourselves into God's hands for the effecting of his answers. Thus, when we pray "Thy will be done," we are seeking God's wisdom for how we can be agents for actuating his will. If we pray in the corporate Body for someone who is ill, for example, then as members all of us look for ways to "put legs on our prayers" by sending cards or taking flowers, preparing meals or doing housework, caring for the children or in some other ways easing the strain, contributing to medical expenses, or offering rides to the doctor. Thus, prayer is the chief way that the sense of community established and nurtured in the worship service is widened into other aspects of the congregational life.

Prayer also can encourage our concern for the larger community of the global Church. Many congregations pray each week for a sister congregation elsewhere in the world, for missionaries of the denomination (especially particular ones supported by the congregation), for churches of other denominations in the neighborhood, for parishes in areas hit by natural disasters, for Christians being persecuted, such as the South Sudanese refugees and Palestinians being deprived of their homes near Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

Building Community by Preaching

As the primary educational vehicle of the worship service, the pastor's sermon plays a critical role in building the community. Simple language choices are vital, for the constant use of the plural we to describe faith pulls the congregation away from the individualism so rife in our culture. It is also essential for the pastor continually to emphasize that faith is not something we construct by ourselves for our personal use, but rather a gift that has been passed on through the community of believers since Abraham and Sarah and into which we are invited to enter. (Saying the historic creeds of the church with the plural pronoun, we, and looking at each other while we say them also reinforces this sense of communal faith.)

The sermon also builds community with specific instructions—for being hospitable, for carrying the corporate prayers into daily life, for each adult to participate more in the spiritual nurturing of the congregation's children, for more outreach to the neighbors. Short messages specifically for the youngest children help them to feel a part of the community; sermon illustrations concerning the youth's schools or activities enable them to know that they are valued. To demonstrate how the Scriptures form us, the pastor can include familiar situations from the members' lives and occupations (excluding those that would break confidences or cause embarrassment), and thereby the people learn afresh that worship trains us together in the habits and practices of faith.

God Is the Source; We Are the Agents

My purpose here is merely to begin a conversation in each congregation concerning ways that our particular worship services can build community. I pray that these ideas stir you to new thinking and creativity—but not to techniques or gimmicks. We do not manipulate community; it is God's initiative to make us one. But we can foster community, work to prevent anything from hindering or disrupting it, and celebrate it.

Advent is a good time to focus on these issues, for, as we anticipate the Christ Child's coming, our worship can equip us to be a community to receive him. Then, may this season of the Christian year unite us in responding to the Father's gift of the Child with Spirit-empowered and community-supported witness and outreach to the world.

Marva J. Dawn is a theologian, author and teacher with Christians Equipped for Ministry, Vancouver, Washington. She is a member of Martin Luther Memorial Chruch, Portland, Oregon. Her book Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down was reviewed in RW 43.


Reformed Worship 45 © September 1997, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.