Part 3: Five Practical Starts for the Participation Advantage

Dear Ones:

In worship, we offer our best gifts back to the Source of all gifts. And small congregations have an especially powerful way of doing this work: Participation. 

Participation is not about keeping worshipers’ attention. Or asking for their intellectual assent. But including their actual bodies, interests, and abilities in worship. Fully. And insisting that all worshipers are liturgical workers

They can co-create worship. Their contributions matter. They matter. And they are enough for lavish worship. The Source says so. 

Now for some practical starts for this kind of participation.

1. List all of the worship work. In detail. Then double the number of weekly workers. And change jobs frequently. It’s easy for the pastor and a sole lay leader to make everything happen. Sometimes they dutifully lump lots of little tasks into one big job. Sometimes the excuse is that one person just does things best. Or more efficiently. Sometimes the excuse is that no one else will volunteer. Because in small congregations, job assignments last until Jesus returns. And no one wants to get stuck.

But this pattern of bigger-jobs-by-fewer-people undermines your superpower.  It turns other worshipers into passive observers. Your goal is smaller-jobs-by-more-people. And this requires breaking down all the lumpy work. So there’s something for all the people. Not just the proven, long-term members. The visitor. The kid next door. Everyone. 

So start a detailed list. And change up responsibilities frequently. Worshipers can welcome, arrange the altar, light candles, lead litanies, read scripture, share dramatic readings, decorate the chancel area, guide children’s worship explorations. And so much more. 

The key is to increase opportunities for contribution–without chasing perfection. Participation is more powerful. Even when it’s messier. Even when it requires more time recruiting and encouraging. Even when it means pouring out permission for tasks to be done differently. 

  • Can you list at least 10 weekly worship jobs?
  • Can you double the workers it takes for these jobs?

2. Get curious. Create a detailed list of gifts and interests outside of worship. From both your congregation and community.  What do folks in your congregation do when they are not sitting in a pew? What about the folks in your community–what are their interests and talents? Ask questions. Take notes. Lots of them. Look to your schools. Check out guilds and clubs and that guy who plays the banjo. 

Find a new abundance right where you are. Because worship gifts are not limited to sitting, standing and singing. 

Then imagine ways to curate worship with this new abundance. Like a museum guide with lots of paintings to choose from to make a point. 

Local gifts can help explore, experience and express the liturgy. Remember how Mariam didn’t wait for a published curriculum. She grabbed a tambourine and a new groove to celebrate what God had done. Local gifts can help us encounter the spirit-filled wonder, joy, lament, nurture, intimacy, beauty, forgiveness, belonging, grace of God-with-us. Here

Need some examples?

  • Maybe Adam, the dramatic neighborhood-wandering middle schooler, could play the role of Paul in a sermon series on his letters.
  • Maybe Sue could set up a table in the chancel area and prepare her yeast rolls during worship
  • Maybe the local quilting guild could set the altar with the beauty of an unfinished work during the prelude. Or Wanda could set up the loom and work throughout the service.
  • Maybe the amateur potter, photographer, painter, dancer could help us offer something lavish to God.
  • Maybe the new piano students around the corner could . . . 
  • Maybe Tracy, back from college, could share the marvel of a science experiment during the children’s worship. Isn’t creation amazing!
  • Maybe the whole congregation could paint, color, draw and doodle what they experience. Then offer it to God as a gift.

You’ll come up with more. Because of that family resemblance to the Creator who loves particular places and peoples.

  • How can our local gifts embody or express the Christian liturgy?

3. Route all ministry stuff through worship. And play out the drama in signs and symbols around the altar. This one is dense in participation possibilities. The chancel area serves as a dramatic theater for the good news. In it, the High Holy quietly meets up with the right here. Through signs, symbols, bodies, and ordinary objects. Their presence together expresses something beyond words. They offer a powerful, visual experience of the incarnation.

So invite worshipers to help play out this drama by placing objects on and around the cross, altar, or table. 

Some Examples?

  • During the prelude, ask worshipers to bring up the tools of their ministries: Bible studies, the church budget ledger, that enormous old pot used for the upcoming chili supper. 
  • For offering, invite children to display their artwork. Stack the canned goods that will eventually go to hungry families. Layout backpacks and hygiene kits for storm ravaged areas.
  • For prayer, invite worshipers to bring forward a sign of gratitude, ache, or hope. 
  • During welcoming, place reminders of those not present in person. Like a place setting for those worshiping at home. Or a candle for the AA group that meets on Thursday nights. Invite prayer and presence for them.

The bottom line is to include and route all life through worship life. 

  • How can we represent the fullness of our lives and ministries before God in the chancel area?

4. Don’t wait for a program. Diagnose work for each one. This is, perhaps, the most powerful way to increase participation. Don’t wait for a one-size-fits-most program. You don’t have to find five or ten people. Start with one. Find one. And prayerfully imagine worship work for just this one. 

The liturgy has work for that kid who can’t sit still. It has work for that man who paces in the back of the room. It has work for the teenage mom that everyone in town is talking about. Find them holy work. Important, you-belong, meaning-making work. Because if God is right, they can handle it. And you need them to see the kingdom of God among you already.

  • Who needs meaningful worship work designed for them?

5. Cultivate a sense of playfulness. Educators and neuroscientists recognize that something special happens with playfulness. It accelerates the growth of new synapses. It lowers stress. It invites creativity. It lights up hopeful anticipation. Just watch the spark when you say to a group of kiddos, “What if we could set up a popcorn stand? I wonder what job you would like?”

So cultivate this spark. Start some play-full “What if” and “I wonder” conversations. 

  • What if all our gifts and interests are truly welcomed offerings in worship? 
  • I wonder how many ways our laity (and even members of our community) could create a worship celebration together?

This is a lot. And it’s just a start. Now we need you to experiment and share the stories with me and each other.

Thank you for your ministry,