NOTE: FREE ADVENT RESOURCES AVAILABLE FOR DOWNLOAD ON NOVEMBER 8.
Dear Teresa: On Sunday mornings, my congregation is chatty. There’s a natural enthusiasm as each person arrives. After a greeting, I lead them in a call to worship—usually one of the readings suggested by my denomination. The enthusiasm in their voices plummets. The readings often feel awkward, stilted, and artificial somehow. Is there a better way to call each other into God’s presence?
—Looking for a Better Way
Yes! And it unleashes one of your small setting advantages: worshiping with conversation.
Here’s how it works. In place of the typical reading or call-and-response script, craft a question for genuine conversation. Responses are shared aloud by all. And together they call everyone into God’s presence.
Questions and conversations are profoundly-powerful, deeply-forming worship tools—and generally unavailable in big settings.
They invite someone’s own words, so they resist feeling artificial.
They offer focus, but in a way that heightens that spirit-sense of something-is-up-for-grabs. They turn passive observers into active participants—even co-creators of the event. And they deepen connection by allowing the kind of vulnerable sharing that relationships require.
Perhaps this is why God is in the conversation business. Over and over again in scripture God opts for a genuine exchange. For questions over pronouncements. Divinity seeks that kind of vulnerable sharing that grows relationships. See if you remember any of these Holy Conversation Starters:
Who told you that you were naked? (Genesis 3:11)
Where is your brother, Abel? (Genesis 4:9)
Mary, why are you crying? (John 21:13)
What do you want me to do for you? (Luke 18:41)
Who do you say that I am? (Luke 9:20; Matt 16:15; Mark 8:29)
Do you have anything to eat? (Luke 24:41)
Questions and conversations—calls and responses—have a unique ability to start something. To connect us. To grasp and change us. So they belong in worship.
But they also require some crafting.
To help, here are some examples. And to be clear, they are still calls to worship. But to highlight a change in practice, you might introduce them as Holy Conversation Starters. Conversation that calls us into the presence of the holy.
EXAMPLES OF HOLY CONVERSATION STARTERS
1. For Exodus 17:1-7 (theme: Grumbles in the Dry Season)
Opening Question: When have you received something unearned and deeply needed? How did it change you?
Closing Reflection: May we listen for God’s grace together.
2. For Matthew 13:31-32 (theme: Mustard Seed Moments)
Opening Question: Where have you seen God at work in something small this week?
Closing Reflection: Invite each worshipers to place a mustard seed (handed out before worship) in a clear glass bowl around the altar. In silent thanks.
3. For Genesis 18:1-8 (Stranger Stories)
Opening Question: When have you experienced extravagant hospitality? When have you seen someone running to your care? How did it affect you?
Closing Reflection: And God said, “You must treat foreigners with the same loving care—remember you were once foreigners in Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:19 MSG)
4. Genesis 25-37: Jacob’s Story (Just Anybody)
Opening Question: Have you ever felt like the last person God would ever want to hire? Share a word or phrase that describes how you felt.
Closing Reflection: Remember the good news: “It isn’t that we ourselves are qualified to claim that anything came from us. No, our qualification is from God.” (2 Corinthians 3:4-5 CEB) You’re hired.
5. Book of Jonah (Just Anybody)
Opening Question: Jonah’s desire for judgment is not the final word. God’s mercy is. Where do you hear a call to mercy?
Closing Reflection: “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” (Psalm 145:8 NRSV)
6. Matthew 11:28-30 (Come Away)
Opening Question: Remember a time when you have struggled or been worked to the bone. How did it feel? Or how does it feel?
Reflection: “Jesus said, ‘Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest.’”
Opening Question: Who are those in our community struggling or being worked to the bone? How do they feel?
Closing Reflection: We are the eyes and hands of Jesus. Join his compassion in responding, “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest.”
Now onto the crafting part of worshiping with conversation. Start here to create your own. Then keep experimenting, adjusting, and sharing your stories with other small congregations.
CRAFTING TIPS FOR HOLY CONVERSATION STARTERS
1. First, identify a couple of important themes in worship.
2. Then prayerfully imagine worshipers’ feelings, longings, or resistance. Where is the good news challenging, nudging or nurturing them? How does this theme speak to your entire community?
3. Draft something. Just a sentence or two. Something that goes to the heart of one of these questions. Imagine you want a loved one to share something precious and important on the topic. How would you start a conversation?
4. Analyze it. The question should require some reflection before responding. But not a yes-or-no answer. And not a dissertation. Finding this middle ground takes practice. So practice on someone.
5. Simplify it. Craft it with as few words as possible. Don’t wing it. Plan it. Rambling, awkward questions produce similar responses. The same goes for simple, thoughtful ones.
6. Write it down. In your worship leader notes or the bulletin.
7. After the welcoming or other gathering practices, ask the question. And request a minute of silent reflection before answering. The silence gives introverts a more meaningful chance to participate. You can gesture when it’s time to answer. Or just ask the question again.
8. Not enough sharing? Provide notecards and pens for worshipers to write a brief response before sharing.
9. Too much sharing? Recraft your question to call for a phrase or word rather than a story. Remember that these bigger questions make for great conversation around the table at your next potluck.
10. Pastors should not try to control or address each response. Just gather them up. Let the people work. Even if it’s untidy or occasionally uncomfortable. God’s good with that.
11. End with a scripture or ritual action for the congregation (see number 2, above). Don’t dilute what has been shared by adding too many words.
12. Don’t give up after a week or two. Change takes time. Conversations are messy. Silence takes practice. Relationships take trust. Let the God who asks questions lead you.
If you would like a list of all the Holy Conversation Starters from ten of the worship series workshops, just email me. I’ll send a PDF with more examples and tips.
Let me know what you’re learning. I cherish the conversations.
Thanks for your ministry,
Continue the conversation with me at Teresa@SmallChurch.org