More about worship

How to Lead a Lousy Worship Service

The secret to a truly lousy worship service is excess. It doesn’t matter what you do, it only matters that you do it too long, too short, too hurriedly, too leisurely, too often, too seldom, with too much variety, or with too much sameness.

Have a lot of congregational singing in one block

Congregational singing is an important part of worship, but if you want to ruin the service, run it into the ground. Too many hymns in one stretch can really make the service lousy. Not only does it alienate those who can’t or won’t sing, it exhausts those who can.

When you make people sing long blocks of repetitious music, they hyperventilate, and this causes respiratory alkalosis. The result is euphoria, a narrowing of consciousness, and sometimes a tingling feeling in the extremities. The simple lyrics become hypnotic. You can enhance this effect by having only one bright light in the room, such as the light of an overhead projector projecting the lyrics on a screen, and by making people stand, sway, and clap rhythmically in time to the music. Respiratory alkalosis also impairs analytical faculties, so by combining all these factors, you can make people intellectually and emotionally more pliable. For most people this experience is entirely pleasurable, so they will participate willingly. However, different people hyperventilate at different rates. Severe respiratory alkalosis can result in fainting. Other people progress rapidly through the euphoria, becoming agitated and anxious. The larger the number of people who are “slain in the Spirit” or who are “convicted,” the more easily you can arouse everyone else to passions about issues they would not embrace when they are sober. So if you are starting a cult or you want to foment violence, you may want to make liberal use of long blocks of repetitious music, especially before you deliver your message. (If you are involved in a worship service of this type as a participant, you can remain sober simply by not singing all the songs, or by mouthing the lyrics if you are under group pressure to sing.)

The best way to convert people is to persuade them from the Word of God, and the best way to motivate people to action is with simple, biblical reason.

Another trick for making the service lousy is to have lots of hymns for which the congregation has no sheet music. This is a great way to frustrate people who can read music, especially if the tune is unfamiliar or they don’t know it well. They rely on the printed music to remind them of the tune, and without the music, they are uncertain and can’t sing. You can really mess them up by singing the words to hymn 5 to the tune of hymn 4. For people who can read sheet music, this is like writing a note about one thing while talking about another. Of course, what you can do to really ruin the experience is have the congregation sing an unfamiliar tune with only the words. That guarantees a lot of tentative, awkward singing.

Then you can make them sing from memory, without either the words or the music. Of course, you won’t achieve any degree of lousiness unless you do this to excess. This technique removes the strong singers who could have picked up the tune from the sheet music, leaving the weaker singers with no one to lean on, and the resulting awkwardness makes the congregation seem colorless and bland. And since newcomers can’t possibly know the words or the tune, they feel especially estranged.

Then if all else fails, you can simply have a very limited repertoire of music. As the parents of any teenager can tell you, hearing the same songs over and over again can turn the loveliest music into cacophony. Of course, short service music, such as the Gloria or a doxology, is an exception to this rule. If you repeat them every service, you won’t achieve the slightest degree of lousiness.

If you don’t want to have a lousy service, make sure the congregation has both the words and the music wherever possible. If you are introducing new or difficult music, make sure there is a song leader to teach them. In any service where you introduce new music, make sure you sing familiar music, too. Have a good variety of hymns with meaningful lyrics, and make sure they are singable by ordinary people. Give the congregation a rest between hymns, so they don’t get exhausted, winded, or hoarse.

Let the congregation sit passively for long periods of time

One way to guarantee that no one will hear or remember your sermon is to make sure that they are passive for a long period of time before you preach. For example, if they sit listening to announcements and a long choral production before you begin your sermon, they will be all set for a nice nap. This is a great technique for making an awful sermon less detectable. But if you want the congregation to hear your message, make them stand up and sing or shake each other’s hands, or do some other physical activity right before you preach. They will be more attentive during your sermon and they will absorb more of what you say.

If you let the congregation sit passively for long periods of time, either watching or listening, they will fall out of the role of worshipers and become just an audience. Then the worship service won’t just be lousy, it won’t even be worship.

Another thing you can do to spoil the service is let the congregation stay in one posture too long. People can get fatigued in these positions very quickly, especially if they don’t know how to kneel and ‘kneel’ by sitting on their heels.

If you don’t want a lousy service, make sure that the congregation doesn’t stay in one position too long. After all, we are hybrid creatures, both spirit and flesh, and while we are worshiping in Spirit and in truth, we need to find something to give our bodies to do, so they don’t distract us with restlessness or torpor. Most of the time the congregation will be sitting, but break it up a bit with other postures. Standing is a good posture for singing, for responsive readings, or for reciting the creed. It is also the traditional posture for listening to the gospel reading. If your church has a level floor and kneelers, kneeling is a good posture for prayers, especially penitential prayers, but don’t let them ramble on too long, because fatigue sets in quickly when you are kneeling. Having people come forward for Communion rather than letting them receive it in their seats is also another good way to get them to move around.

Have lots of announcements

Many church leaders fall into the trap of thinking that announcements legitimize the church as a vibrant community that is busily carrying out the work of the Kingdom of God. That is why they sit there beaming as the announcements drone on and on. However, the people in the pews don’t see it that way. To them, announcements are overhead. Obviously, not all the announcements are relevant to all the people, and the more announcements there are, the more they have to tune out the ones that are irrelevant. The longer announcement time is, the more bored they get and the more insignificant they feel as they find out how uninvolved and unimportant they really are. Or they may develop the impression, after yawning through fifteen enthusiastic committee reports, that they will never really be loved and accepted in your church unless they surrender every waking moment to it.

Another way to make the service truly lousy is to have a lot of last-minute announcements at the end of the service. True, from time to time, you forget something important and have to mention it before everyone leaves, but in general, when the service is over, it should be over. If you are leading worship, chances are it is the main thing, if not the only thing that you have planned for the day. If you are like me, you might even spend the rest of the day resting up. Hard as it may be to believe, however, the congregation has plans for the rest of the day! Not only do they have plans, they are supposed to have plans, because, among other things, worship is supposed to equip them to live in the world. If the process of getting ready for something completely ruins what you’re getting ready for, what is the point? So it is important for worship to have a clearly defined ending. As soon as the benediction has left your lips, they are free to go. Announcements that come after the service has nominally ended make things very awkward. No one is listening to the announcements, they are listening for a cue to leave. They glance at their watches. They pray that no one else will come up with something to say, and the more the announcements drone on and on, the more they tune out. They begin to feel trapped, and they remember this before they come the next time.

Another way to make a service lousy is to have a lot of people come up from the congregation to make their announcements. Of course, if you do this in moderation your service might not be ruined, so you have to do this to excess. It prolongs the announcements, because you need time for the speakers to extricate themselves from their seats, walk up to the front, perform their own sound checks (“Can everyone hear me?” ), and make the standard disclaimers (“When Pastor Thistletwit asked me to speak, I said I really get nervous in front of groups, but here I am.” ) The mechanics of making the announcement takes more time than the actual announcement itself, so this is a really good way of padding the service or making it go into overtime.

Then there are problems with the speakers. Some are inaudible, some are nervous or overly jocular, and others become glued to the lectern in their stage fright and ramble on until you rescue them and help them back to their seats. Now and then there are the truly exceptional people who make their announcements into amusing and absorbing sermonettes. This is a mixed blessing, because you have a great announcement, but if it is really good it can overshadow the actual worship. If anyone shows an aptitude for public speaking, make them a lay reader or Sunday school teacher, or train them so they can fill the pulpit when you are sick or on vacation, but unless you want a truly lousy worship service, don’t let an announcement hijack the worship.

If you don’t want to have a lousy service, keep the announcements brief and to the point. If anyone needs to rise from the congregation to make an announcement, make sure they are seated up front with a clear path to the lectern and make sure that they know how to be brief. Make sure that worship has a clearly defined ending. If there is a follow-on activity that occurs in the same room, make an intermission so that those who have to leave can do so without guilt and without feeling conspicuous.

Wait for everyone to arrive before you begin the service

One great way to make a worship service lousy is to keep people waiting so long that they begin to wonder when it’s going to start. Every church has its late arrivers, and in some congregations they are Important People. If you delay the service because the congregation hasn’t settled down or some Important Person hasn’t arrived, the congregation will know that you are weak and insecure, and you won’t have the authority you need to lead them effectively.

If you don’t want to have a lousy service, remember that you can’t end on time if you don’t begin on time. If you have a problem with late arrivers, here’s something you might try. Start promptly at the announced time with hymn sing or with announcements, then start the formal worship no more than fifteen minutes later.

Put your watch on the pulpit

Want to measure how lousy the worship service is? Count how many times people look at their watches. Of course, people can simply be curious about the time, so if it only happens a few times, that doesn’t mean anything. If it is a lot, or if the same people repeatedly check their watches, then you know your are verging on achieving your goal of lousiness. You really should get a trophy for lousiness if people start shaking their watches to make sure they are still running, with extra points if they shake battery-operated watches.

So if it is a bad sign that they look at their watches, what sort of signal are you giving them if you look at your watch? So don’t walk up to the pulpit, take off your watch, and conspicuously plop it down. That signals the congregation that you’re the type who is prone to ramble—otherwise you wouldn’t need to time yourself. Even if you don’t put your watch on the pulpit, you can still ruin the moment by glancing at your watch while you are preaching.

If you don’t want to have a lousy service, but you truly need to look at your watch while you are preaching extemporaneously, you might work it into the sermon. For example, if in the course of your sermon you plan to quote the scripture that “no man knows the hour,” you can glance at your watch and say, “except me!” To the congregation it looks like you are driving your point home with a humorous gesture, but you also find out what time it is. This can be very effective.

If you have difficulty timing your sermons, there are other alternatives. First, practice delivering sermons to a clock. If that fails, you can always buy an inexpensive, battery-operated wall clock and mount it where only you can see it as you face the congregation. Public rooms often have clocks over the exits, so it will fit right in. If that isn’t possible for some reason, you can always put your watch on the pulpit before the service begins, so that the congregation doesn’t see you doing it. Then your time checks are just your little secret—so long as you wait until after the benediction to retrieve your watch.

Don’t plan the service

Okay, so you had a busy week with a contentious board meeting on Thursday, a funeral on Friday, and a wedding on Saturday and you didn’t get around to preparing or practicing the sermon. You decide, as you resign yourself to the fact you are not prepared, that you will let the Holy Spirit have His way with you. The problem is that the Holy Spirit is no dummy and He may decide to forestall any bad habits by letting you wing it on your own. In any event, your congregation won’t be fooled

The same Holy Spirit from whom you seek inspiration is also in control of your schedule. So if you find yourself speaking off the cuff too often, maybe He’s jammed up your schedule to discipline you into developing better time-management skills. Maybe He doesn’t like having you use Him as a cop-out from your responsibilities.

If you don’t want to have a lousy service, begin your sermon preparation earlier in the week and practice your delivery.

Change the order of worship frequently

Life is hectic and everything is changing fast. You know that top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art computer you bought last week? It has been discontinued because it fell off the bottom of the product line. So if you want to make worship really lousy, reproduce the uncertainties and changes of everyday life in the worship service. Keep them guessing with a new order of worship each week.

If you don’t want to have a lousy service, you’ll realize that people come to church to get in touch with the Eternal Unchanging God, not the transient ever-changing world. Make sure there is a consistent, sensible structure to the service each week.

Need some help? Here are some tips for the Service of the Word

Have a long, slow, dignified Eucharist

A great way to make a service lousy is to bore everyone to tears with an overly long drawn-out Eucharist. You get the added bonus of causing your congregation to become disaffected with the holiest and most important part of worship.

Yes, the Eucharist is supposed to be the high point of worship, and it is a serious and solemn occasion. But if you don’t want to have a lousy service, you have to remember that for an individual worshiper, most of the time during the Eucharist is spent waiting. Of course, they are supposed to be praying quietly, but face it, there is a point beyond which people stop meditating on God and start meditating on the conveniences of modern plumbing!

Therefore, don’t misuse the distribution of the elements as a time for personal counseling or extended, personalized prayer. Administer the bread saying simply, “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven,” and the wine saying, “The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation,” or something else that is appropriate but brief. The best way to speed things up without making them seem rushed is to increase the number of people taking Communion at the same time by increasing the number of servers. You can’t do a congregation of 500 all by yourself without making everyone wish they were home watching football. If you don’t have the Eucharist every Sunday, don’t let the fact that it is a special Sunday seduce you into making this service all dragged out.

If you are trying to get your congregation to have a Eucharistic service every Sunday, it doesn’t help your cause if it makes the service too long and boring.

So if you don’t want a lousy service, don’t drag out the Eucharist. Expedite it, without rushing it. People can only be serious, contemplative, and prayerful for so long, and eventually even the most talented organist will run out of selections.

Communion, by the way, can be exactly the same every Sunday. It’s best not to get too creative with the holiest part of the service.

Need some help? Here are some tips for the Service of Communion and even a Communion liturgy.

At the Eucharist, play Beat the Clock

Another way you can have a lousy worship service is to rush the Eucharist. This will make the congregation think that you really would rather not do it, or that you don’t have any respect for it, or that it is a mere formality, or that you have lost control of the service. None of these choices is good. So if you have the misfortune of having a service go into overtime, my condolences, but don’t take up the slack during the Eucharist. Rushing people through as if they are on an ever-accelerating assembly line really makes a mockery of the occasion. The Eucharist is the only time during the service where each person worships by doing something and the only time that they each get personal attention, so don’t take away their quality time with the Lord.

If you have a service that goes out of control, try not to rush the Eucharist. Afterwards, meet with all the worship leaders and assistants and figure out what went wrong and how you can avoid it next time.

Need some help? Here are some tips for the Service of Communion.

Cram lots of special events into one service

You can really make worship lousy by cramming too many things into it. For example, in a single service, you could receive new members, recognize the Sunday School leaders, christen or baptize new babies, consecrate new lay leaders, acknowledge your scout troops, and—huff, puff—have a lengthy report from a group that just returned from a project. If you also include an elaborate Eucharist and move directly into a congregational meeting afterwards, you can make everyone feel trapped! Or if you get it all done in an hour, you get the same effect as you do by having too many announcements. In any event, having too many special events in one service puts things over the top. It is like eating salad dressing without the salad, or whipped cream without the pie.

It’s wonderful that your church is so vibrant, but no one is impressed by anything that happens while they are in bladder distress. So if you don’t want a lousy worship service, spread the special events out and keep worship a reasonable length.