Participation Starters in the Real World: Stories from Sandy

Dear Ones:

For some folks, the Worship Participation Starters (1/10/22 blog) sounded . . . well, extreme. Like well-intentioned ideas that would never work in the real world.

At best, it was all so theoretical–that idea of playfulness, the list of local-gifts-treated-like-worship-gifts, the multiplying-of-worship-jobs, and the one-by-one matching up of worship work and worship workers. 

But not to Sandy. 

Sandy knew these things worked. And she emailed me right after that extreme-theoretical post to remind me. To remind us.

She’s been practicing the participation starters in her small, rural congregation for a decade. 

They were what brought her into the church. The pastor had a list with her name on it. With the words “interior decorating” next to it. This pastor gently asked (more than once) for her help in decorating for an upcoming sermon series. Sandy firmly explained (more than once) that she was not really a church person. She didn’t really get worship. End of discussion.

Except a funny thing happened. After even more encouragement, gratitude, and permission, Sandy got to work one week. And one week turned into lots of weeks. About ten hours a week. Imagining. Inviting. Playing. Worshiping. It turns out she was a church person, just not the sit-stand-sing kind pictured in her head.

She began gently asking others (more than once). And started her own list of people-and-their-interests. Now she’s also a devoted, creative, church lay leader. And long after that pastor left, the congregation is still changed by the hands-on, local, unscripted, participation advantage. 

I actually hear that kind of story frequently. A hesitant outsider who becomes a passionate worship host. 

Sandy was eager to give me a round of updates in a phone call. Examples, not theories. So I took six pages of fast notes to share.

One month, the pastor wanted to explore how they were rescued by faith–and called to rescue others in their community. From hopelessness, hunger, fear, loneliness. So Sandy and her team found a kayak in a neighbor’s backyard. They dragged it into the chancel area. The community surrounds a lake, so everyone knows about kayaking–its risks and rescue practices. They used it to imagine the work of Jesus Christ, the great rescuer. And the importance of their own work. With signs and language that everyone recognized. The final week included a life vest under the cross. Alongside the communion elements. The stuff of real life rescues. For their real lives.

Another month, they cut out paving stones from grocery store boxes. The worshipers wrote their burdens on them. Together they lined the path to the communion table with them. And left them behind after a nourishing, gracious communion meal.

Over the course of another month, worshipers were invited to write or draw their responses to these affirmations about God. God is enough. God is good. God is love. And, of course, the final week: God is ______. Left blank. A mystery. Because God is always more than any of our words. Each week more responses were added. They mounted the responses on the wall behind the altar. Where the cross was mounted and held a conversation with all of them. A whisper of incarnational wonder. The high holy and the right here. Together.

In Advent, one service ended with worshipers gathered around tables to decorate cookies. The benediction then sent them into the world to deliver these tasty works of art to local, overworked, overlooked folks. Thanks. This is a little reminder. Your work matters to us. You matter to us.

Know this. Not all of the ideas were Instagram perfect. Not all would work in your setting. And that’s the point. They were needed to work there. For those people. For that place. Because God loves and joins them where they are. As they are. 

God loves and joins your folks, too. So you get to figure out the particulars of participation for your community. You get to start looking for Sandys. Or Carls.

There are some unexpected benefits. Sandy describes them this way. At first some of the long-time members just rolled their eyes. With each expectation of participation, they mumbled, “Whatever!” But now they smile. They won’t go back to merely observing an expert-led worship performance. They want to contribute. Together. They now exclaim, “Whatever!” As in, “Sure!” Whatever glorifies God, whatever invites folks in, whatever brings the kingdom among us. Whatever!

And all of these whatevers have made the church a community hub. Folks from other denominations drop by (or watch on Facebook). Intrigued that the God talk and the real world seem to belong together. Curious that the term “church person” no longer feels like a requirement to walk into the building. So neighbors do. The church has become a gathering place for lots of contributions. Even us. Even here.

The good news insists on living in the real world. And being ready for whatever. 

Thank you for your ministry,