Part 1: A Plea for a Different Way–The Blog That Will Get Me into Trouble

This is first of a three-part series on the Participation Advantage for small congregations.

Dear Ones,

This may be the blog that gets me into trouble. But it’s also why I do this work.

I recently listened to a video seminar. The topic was crafting worship during these unsettled are-we-home-or-in-person days of COVID. 

It was required watching for lots of pastors. Similar training events have popped up nationwide. Paid for by a variety of denominations. Framed as a whole-Church quest for “reimagined worship,” “hybrid worship,” “both/and worship.” 

This event was thoughtfully designed to reassure and inspire anxious church leaders. With confident expertise, helpful tips, creative problem-solving, emerging best practices. And, of course, it was well done. 

But it broke my heart.

Because the vast majority of the content simply wouldn’t work for the vast majority of congregations–the small ones. The 70% of all congregations with fewer than 95 weekly worshipers. Including a sizable group with fewer than 50. 

Let that sink in. A seminar directed to the whole Church in a time of crisis, transition, and exhaustion. With content that wouldn’t work for most congregations.

How did this happen? 

It’s actually a familiar pattern–one well-intentioned and not rooted in Covid at all. 

Here it is. We have normalized big-congregation practices and expectations. We have made them the ideal, the goal. And we have disregarded small-congregation differences as mostly irrelevant. Or generally unpromising. Or signs of failure.

It’s the kind of thing that can happen when excellent resources get developed in large congregations, for large congregations, and by pastors who have served only . . . large congregations. A particular kind of excellence limits other possibilities.

This is how the limitation showed up in the seminar. The primary challenge was defined as keeping worshipers more deeply engaged. The speaker worried about the experience of passively watching worship. He wanted to increase the sense of connection and participation. He longed for fuller worship–in both homes and sanctuaries. 

The problem? The tools he offered were almost entirely program, production, and performance driven. More camera angles. Split screens for instructions. Staggering start times to allow for different engagement of home and church audiences. Insight for integrating live and prerecorded portions. Better evaluation of group experiences. 

In short, it was the stuff of medium-to-large worship settings. About 30% of all congregations. The seminar presented refinements of things that already work well in these settings. 

The training largely overlooked small congregation differences. Things like budgets, buildings, staffing, resources, demographics, aesthetics. But more importantly, it also overlooked small congregation strengths. Other ways. Deeply forming ways. 

Ways that would not work in big settings, but could work lavishly for those 180,000 small congregations in the United States. Ways that could treat worshipers as co-creators of a local, shared event, not mere observers. Ways that could make clear that each group has enough and is enough for lavish worship. 

Need a glimpse of this other way?

Imagine those small congregations that delivered worship boxes filled with the church’s altar cloths, candles, crosses and other ministry objects. The real, priceless stuff. For real, priceless work. So worshipers at home could join in. And share pictures and stories to add to the connection. 

Imagine the congregation that handed out new worship jobs to everyone. Like taking pictures of their community with “the eyes of Christ.” Recording “satellite liturgists” reading the scripture from a hospital or dorm room. Or inviting artists (children, too, of course) to capture something about the weekly scripture. Circuit riders gathered up all this week-long worship work, passed it around, and ultimately shared in the sanctuary on Sunday. The pastor offered these gifts like a luxurious, slow conversation that included witnesses not physically present. Because as Christians, we know that’s a holy thing. 

Or imagine the congregation that delivered meals on the church china to all the neighbors. Even the ones that didn’t attend. With an invitation to bring the dishes back on a homecoming date not-yet-determined, but greatly-looked-forward-to. Because as Christians, we know that anticipating a feast together is a holy thing, too.

Different ways. Hands-on, locally-gifted, messy, unscripted, lay-driven ways. Rooted in a distinctive set of strengths and a participation advantage.  

Still skeptical? Of course you are. Because our small-setting imaginations have atrophied at the same time our big-setting production successes have become more muscular. 

And so, my trouble-making plea to the whole Church:
Please, it’s time to grow our imaginations again. Beyond the limits of one kind of excellence. It’s time to listen to small congregations. To be led by laity. Experiment. Flail. Learn. Share. In new ways. And ancient ways. For all the people. Even, or especially, in these unsettling times.

As if the kingdom of God depends on it.

Because it just might.

Thanks for your ministry,