Authentic Worshipers

In my previous post I talked about the attitude of the people in worship being just as, if not more important, the worship itself. My friend David asked:

Any ideas on what helps promote authentic worshipers?

That’s a tough question, mostly because we never talk about it. I believe that the way we approach and treat worshipers heavily influences how we worship. Under the influence of the Church Growth movement, most mainline churches have jettisoned the idea of authentic worshipers altogether.  The churches strove for exactly the opposite–build a profile of the population in an area, then craft the product around the consumer and provide it.

Which brings me to idea number one: Worshipers are not consumers. If we treat them like consumers, they will act like consumers. Please visit NotAlwaysRight.com to find out why this is a very bad idea. Consumerism encourages demanding what you want as loudly as you have to in order to get it. Worship is never about what “we” want. Consumer worshipers are not authentic worshipers.

Worshipers are not spectators. The opposite of the above point, in this one, everything is about the leader(s). Unfortunately, most of our church building architecture encourages this thinking by separating the worshipers from the leaders and the table. If you have to put water stops and cheap motels in the aisle on the way to the Communion, it’s hard to view worshipers as anything but spectators watching the show that is, of course, brilliantly executed in your own not-so-humble opinion. Spectators are not authentic worshipers because they aren’t participating. Also, spectators can be nasty–everyone knows one of these types of fans, and I’m sure most people remember at least one of these incidents.

Worshipers need to be leaders, too. Whether this means training a healthy bunch of formal leaders–lectors, assisting ministers, ushers (who need to do more than collect the offering), intercessory pray-ers, Communion assistants, sacristans, greeters (who do more than say “Good morning!”), musicians, crucifers, acolytes, bread bakers, wine pressers, candle-makers (see how long this list can get?)–or intentionally inviting the worshipers to be active contributors to worship, it all comes down to community and shared responsibility. I love going to church (a good thing, considering, you know…), but if I’m stuck in a pew for one hour and fifteen minutes or longer, I better have something to do. It’s not about keeping my attention. With appropriate bathroom breaks, I have been known to sit through an entire marathon of the extended editions of the Lord of the Rings trilogy–that’s eleven hours and twenty-two minutes of epic movie experience.

It’s about making me feel like I have some stake in what goes on. Get me to share the peace. Invite me to bless my neighbor with the sign of the cross. Allow me to be communed by the person next to me and to commune the next person. Leave enough space in the prayers for me to feel comfortable adding my own, and let me know that’s okay. Let me actually touch the table, the bread, the wine cup, the baptismal water–not only is it meaningful, it’s fun. Engage me, make me a part of worship–engaged worshipers are authentic worshipers.

Children are authentic worshipers, too. I get depressed when I hear about the varieties of Children’s Church programs or Sunday School programs that remove children from the worship service, either in part or in whole. How are we ever going to pass our faith to our children if we don’t let them worship?

Children can be remarkably interested in what happens in worship–they want to be a part of it. One of my most tender memories from internship is from a Lenten service we held to pray for the world. We laid a big map of the world out on the chancel and invited the people to come forward, light a candle, and place it on a country, state, or city for which they wanted to pray. We invited the children up first, and I couldn’t believe how many came up and placed a candle–some on places I would never have guessed. Seeing a child holding a candle and looking at the map, confused, I asked if I could help her find what she was looking for. She looked at me and said, “I heard about Haiti, and I wanted to put a candle there, but I can’t find it.” I nearly cried as I helped her place her candle.

Then there were the Thursday evening services I held during the summer for people who could not come to church on the weekends for one reason or another. Each time, I created a different mode of active prayer. Each time, I invited the children up first to try it, and they came up every time, excited to find a new way to pray.

Who cares if they are noisy during the service? Who cares if they don’t sit still and pay attention during the children’s sermon (you don’t pay attention during the “adult” sermon either)? They are part of the faith, too, and need to be treated like they matter–they are even deserving of leadership. And they probably feel closer to the God we worship than we do. Children are authentic worshipers.

Most importantly, preach the Gospel. This goes as much for worshipers as it does for preachers. The Gospel is preached not only on Sunday morning by a person standing up front. It is preached in the way we worship, the way we treat each other, the way we welcome the stranger and, most importantly, in the way we live in the world outside of the church walls–which, unless you are crazy, is where you spend most of your time anyway. That means most of the time, you have to live out the Gospel in a way that doesn’t involve sitting down, listening to someone else talk, doing nothing. Worshipers who hear, preach, and live the Gospel are authentic worshipers. It’s up to us, all of us, to learn what that means.

Finally, and one we Lutherans tend to forget, let the Holy Spirit work. If we try to do it all ourselves, we won’t get very far. The Holy Spirit moves and breathes through the world–live and act like we believe it.

If you have other suggestions for what makes an authentic worshiper, please let me know in the comments below!

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Author: Pastor Ken

Ken Ranos serves as the pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI, a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

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