September 14, 2018

6 Tips for Introducing Surprise in Worship

Taking a well-tread path is good if you’re avoiding a bad surprise. But it is not good if you’re open to good surprises. This is true for worship planning, too.

Many years ago, my husband Justin planned a surprise party for me. I have never been so surprised in my life; I thought I was going to someone’s house to swim, but all my friends were there shouting “Surprise!” when I walked into the house. I was surprised, not just because it was a surprise party, but because it wasn’t my birthday. It was my half-birthday. “Bring ½ of something! (Not a swimsuit…)” Justin had written in the invitation. I received half a cake, half a paperback novel, the book One Half of Robertson Davies, and a VHS tape half-wrapped. (See, it was many years ago.) This surprise was a community event. Though Justin had planned it, my friends shared responsibility for making it work. It was a fantastic day. There is nothing better than a good surprise.

But on the other side of the coin, I don’t think there’s much worse than a bad surprise. Think about that surprise announcement of a friend’s divorce, a miscarriage, or a cancer diagnosis that seems to come out of the blue. Think of a car accident. These are surprises, they’re bad surprises, and we try to do everything we can to avoid them.

I’ve been wondering lately if sometimes we avoid change or trying new things, because we’re so afraid of bad surprises. “What if it doesn’t work out?” we wonder. And so we comfortably shift back into the path we’ve tread so many times. It’s not a bad path. There are tracks to follow and we know where all the bathrooms are. It’s reliable and trustworthy. But taking this path also means that we’ll be less likely to be surprised. That’s good if you’re avoiding a bad surprise. But it is not good if you’re open to good surprises.

This is true for worship planning, too. My congregation has a fairly set worship form. It’s robust. It’s historic. It’s theologically sound. It includes songs and hymns, prayers of praise and intercession, the preached word, and (once a month), communion. There’s not much room for surprise—good or bad.

Several weeks ago, as I was preparing to preach the last eight verses of the book of James, our preaching material this past summer, I was struck with the pattern of speech that James invites his audience to at the end of the book.

  1. If you’re in trouble, you pray.
  2. If you’re happy, you sing songs of praise.
  3. If you’re sick, you receive anointing and prayer.
  4. If a member of the flock has strayed, you go out and get them.

“I think this could be used as a pattern of worship,” I thought. So we did it. We drove off the path this past Sunday. It was a surprise. And here’s what I learned that I pray will guide you if you’re considering deviating from your usual pattern in worship and want to avoid bad surprises.

1. Invoke the Holy Spirit

We began our service with a focus on the Holy Spirit, praying and singing words of welcome to the Spirit and submission to where the Spirit would lead.

2. Communicate the Change

Early in the service, I communicated that the service would be different. This was both for the sake of guests and for the sake of those who may feel anxious, noting that this wasn’t a permanent change, but it was an appropriate end to our series in James, as we sought to be doers, not merely hearers, of the Word.

3. Relinquish Your Expectations and Be Open to Receive What God Has for You

I invited the congregation to hold their hands up and open in a prayer of relinquishment and expectation. “What expectations for today will you relinquish to God? Are you willing to receive what God has for you today?” I asked. As I prayed, I also relinquished my own expectations that had developed as I had planned.

4. Use Video to Model Authenticity

This service was centered on following James’ direction to name our own troubles, joys, and need for healing and to respond with prayer, praise, and anointing. To encourage a spirit of authenticity and sharing, we filmed three different individuals telling their own stories of trouble, joy, and healing. The stories in these videos named God’s work among us, and provided an opportunity for the congregation to hear testimony.

5. Involve Lay Leaders

Council members and lay leaders participated through the service of anointing and prayer. Several had never prayed for and anointed people in the context of worship and were deeply moved by the opportunity to serve in this way and to pray for people. Inviting more leaders than usual to participate creates greater buy-in from the congregation and leadership and demonstrates unified vision.

6. Recognize It’s a Group Effort

Just like my 27½ birthday party, this service was a group effort. One colleague helped me edit the service. Our youth pastor filmed the videos. The worship leader selected appropriate, moving songs. The congregation responded by sharing their troubles and joys and by participating in the music. We need each other when we deviate from the path and follow the Spirit’s leadership in new ways.

Joy-Elizabeth Lawrence lives with her husband and two children in the western suburbs of Chicago. She serves as the associate pastor for spiritual formation at the Evangelical Covenant Church of Hinsdale, Illinois, where she preaches and leads formation and discipleship programming for children and adults. Joy holds a M.Div. from Calvin Theological Seminary and MCS from Regent College (Vancouver). She’s always on the lookout for new and old ways to tell God’s story as well as wild foods she can feed her family and friends. She has written for many organizations, including Christianity Today International.