Dear Teresa: The time for “Joys & Concerns” has taken over worship. It’s become a time of lengthy complaints focused on only a few people and issues. I’m pretty sure that visitors (if we had any) would back out of the building after hearing it. I know something is awkward about its practice in our worship, but I don’t know where to start changing it. — Over Joyed-and-Concerned
Let’s start here. I’m not a big fan of that phrase, “Joys & Concerns.” There’s something about it that doesn’t seem . . . well, quite right theologically. The two words are not parallel. If they are meant to represent what we can bring before God, then the continuum needs to be bigger: Joys & Agonies, perhaps.
There can be a tendency to nice-ify things in worship. Clean them up and make them presentable. And God doesn’t need us to do that. The Psalms are our official book of things we can say to God. And they remind us that there is no emotion so elevated or so ugly that it must hide from the holy. Just reread Psalm 137. It’s not a mere “concern.”
But I suspect you have another challenge beyond nice-ifying. It’s me-ifying. The Joys & Concerns may focus exclusively on a few gathered folks. The insiders. And that’s not how the Gospel works. Not by a long shot.
God is interested in the particular, yes. But God is also always gathering up all of creation in love. Both. Right here. And reaching wider. For every last one. So each joy and each agony shared in worship is not simply its own endpoint. It’s also an invitation to greater compassion and intercession beyond those present. Love, hope and healing for those in this place—and those beyond. Not just the ones I know. All.
So, the challenge for you is to lead the joys and agonies so that they both honor the particular realities of worshipers AND point them beyond themselves. To the mystery of God-with-us.
Here are seven simple practices I’ve seen used well by worship leaders.
1. After someone shares about Nadine’s surgery and complications, say, “We remember her and all those recovering, weary, uncertain.” Then allow for silence or a prayer response, like “Lord, have mercy.”
2. In advance, prepare notes on events of the week—from your community and the world. Highlight a few. Point to those things that might be God’s joys and agonies in the world.
Don’t forget to allow for silence. God does some of the holiest stuff when we quit talking.
3. Change the request. Don’t ask for joys and concerns. Instead, ask where they have seen God in the world. Or where they long to see God at work. Or ask them to imagine seeing the world with the eyes of Christ. Then ask, “What delights or troubles you as you see with Christ’s eyes?”
4. Change the timing. If this part of worship has been hijacked by a few vocal folks, assign a lay leader to gather prayer requests in advance. Or during announcements. Then speak them in worship. But be sure to recognize that things have also gone unspoken. Unknown to us. Known to God. Allow silence to make space for experiences beyond words.
5. Change the ritual. If the conversation disrupts rather than deepens worship—especially for visitors—consider this option. Place candles along the altar railing (or other accessible place). Guide a ritual for people to come forward and light a candle. They can briefly name the prayer (For the Alber’s family after the death of their son/brother. For the safe delivery of baby Emma.) Or light it in silence. Remember, words and sound are not the only ways to worship deeply.
6. Change the format to Prayers of the People. Provide categories for the prayers. Check out UMH 877 for a simple list of categories that include the fullness of God’s interests. Or check out the Book of Common Prayer. Its Prayers of the People has an inspiring breadth of what obligates believers. Maybe choose 2-3 different categories each week. But don’t wing it. It’s easy for pastors to dilute the incarnational good news by simply adding lots of nervous words around it. Try fewer, more meaning-full words.
7. Try hands-on practices. Like art as worship. This is a strength of small settings. Set up a table of art supplies. Lavish ones. With paper on clipboards. Then provide some meditative music. Invite worshipers to draw or paint their prayers. With or without adding written words. Set up small easels around the chancel area for them to display their art-prayer through the rest of worship. Treat this act as an offering.
Don’t give up after one failed week. Try again. Fail boldly. Experiment. Diagnose. And trust that God is big enough for all of this.
Always eager to hear your ideas, examples, challenges. I cherish the conversations.
Thanks for your ministry,
Continue the conversation with me at Teresa@SmallChurch.org