Part 2: The Participation Advantage–A Small Congregation Superpower

Note: Next week includes 5 practices to jumpstart this advantage.

Dear Ones:

A quick recap. Worship resources can’t simply be dragged and dropped from big settings to small ones. What’s beautiful and right for 200 or 2000 worshipers risks feeling awkward, artificial, or pretentious for 75 worshipers. Like somehow it doesn’t fit. 

Because somehow it doesn’t.

So let’s dig into that somehow.

You already know that small congregations are not miniaturized big ones. The differences are numerous. But there’s one important difference that calls for compassionate attention. It’s one that’s often left unnamed. And yet it creates a nearly-overwhelming hurdle for lavish worship.

But not for small congregations. This is a big-congregation hurdle. 

It’s this. Big congregations are forced to maximize predictability and minimize participation. In order to calm the anxiety of big groups, the possible contribution by any worshiper must be dialed down. Or eliminated. So the event occurs exactly the same way whether or not any particular person is present. And so the event can be repeated effectively at 10 and 12 o’clock.   

But this maximized-predictability-minimized-participation comes with significant costs. Both practical and theological. 

Practically, it strips the tools of robust, embodied participation. Ask any educator or neuroscientist. Participation is a powerhouse of formation. Passive observation is a distant second-choice. To make up for this distance, large congregations have shifted to a certain kind of performance excellence. With experts designing, coordinating, producing, speaking, and leading.

But the theological cost may be even greater. 

Our incarnational good news often speaks clearest by maximizing participation. Especially the participation of folks who aren’t experts. Like that rude roadside beggar. Or that uppity anointing woman. Or the curious kid who ignored the grown-ups-only rule. Jesus’ ministry is chock full of interruption, mess, and unlikely bodies who changed—and were changed by—an unexpected encounter. In holy, unpredictable ways.

But large settings have to tidy up the possibilities of unexpected and unpredictable moments.

There’s also this problem–which requires a short history lesson. In the Middle Ages, we thought of worship like a theater production. The priests were the actors.  God was the prompter, giving them the scripts and cues. And the people were the audience. Simple enough, right?

Then some faithful folks began to imagine a different way—with reformations that eventually became the Reformation. And among the different-way insights was this revision from Soren Kierkegaard. He suggested a revised model for worship. The people are the actors. The up-front leaders are simply prompters. And God is the audience.

The Church now embraces this old-new insight: All the people are participants–worship workers! 

But this creates a curious paradox. In large settings, the roles of the up-front-leader-prompters have become increasingly important and active. While the roles of worshipers have become increasingly minimized and passive. More like an audience.

Has a performance aesthetic redirected our each-one-matters participation theology? 

That’s where you come in. I’m grateful for the work of large congregations in sorting through these challenges. They’ve been faithful and successful. But their way is not the only way.

You have another way. An advantage. The messy maximizing  of hands-on, locally-gifted, unsettled, lay-led, up-for-grabs, co-created worship: participation.

All of the seven distinctive worship strengths of small settings begin with this advantage. 

Learning how to summon this advantage won’t be easy. There’s no single just-try-this trick. It will take months–maybe longer. It will require lay leaders and pastors working together in new ways. It may feel uncomfortable at times. You may stumble. And learn something.

But worship is our primary theology (thank you, Don Saliers). It’s the way we rehearse-into-being our Christian identity. It’s the way we manifest the kingdom among us (thank you, Ron Anderson).

And all of that sounds like the stuff of full-body-contact work. Employing all the hands. Of all the people. 

So stay tuned. Next week we’ll dive into practicing the participation advantage. Then we will begin exploring your distinctive strengths.

For now, share this post with a pastor or lay leader. Meet for coffee, conversation, prayer. Then boldly ask these questions: 

  • Would our worship occur exactly the same way whether or not any particular person is present? 
  • What are the specific ways people can robustly participate? 
  • Can we imagine more?

Please share your stories with me and each other.

Thank you for your ministry,