Better church: The why and how of running Sunday meetings

If you’ve been going to Sunday church services for as long as I have, you will no doubt have a list of things that you don’t find very edifying (or to put it in a slightly less edifying way, things that drive you nuts). For example, has something like this ever happened in your church?

The person leading the meeting announces that it is time for the Bible reading. And even though the person doing the reading has been told in advance exactly when the reading will take place, he waits till the announcement is made, and then gets up out of his chair, which is in the middle of a row, two-thirds of the way towards the back of the building, and makes his way ponderously to the front. He arrives at the lectern after what seems like 15 minutes, takes his glasses from his pocket, puts them on, and then announces where the reading is from. No-one hears him though, because the guy on the sound desk hasn’t pushed up the slider to activate that particular microphone—even though he has watched the entire slow-motion tableau unfold to this point. And so the Bible reader looks up at the guy on the sound desk, who thus being startled out of his reverie, pushes up the slider. The reader taps the microphone with his finger a couple of times—toof, toof, toof—smiles a slightly bashful smile, and finally starts his reading with the words I badly need to hear: “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another”.

Or perhaps the thing that gets to you is the lack of apparent logic or flow within your church meetings. The meeting starts with a song, and then a prayer, and then a Bible reading, and then an interview with a visiting missionary, and then a song, and then some announcements, and then a break to say hello to the person next to you, then another song, then the sermon, then some prayers, then another song, and then a closing benediction (in the form of “please stay for morning tea”). And you’re left at the end feeling slightly flat, and wondering whether the pastor has gone back to using RandomChurchServiceGenerator.com.

You no doubt have your own pet peeves. And there is no shortage of things to be peeved about in church meetings: sloppiness, incompetence, paucity of imagination, poor planning, incoherence, lack of awareness of visitors/newcomers… and so the list goes on.

What should we do about this all-too-common lack of quality in our church gatherings?

The first thing we must do is repent for having such a selfish and critical spirit. It is really beyond irony to be spending our Sunday mornings in a funk because the church meeting is not edifying. The whole point of that marvelous passage in 1 Corinthians 14 about the importance of ‘edification’ is that we need to stop focusing on ourselves and start loving other people. My role in church is not to be a critic who assesses the different aspects of the meeting, but a lover who cares more about other people and their growth than my own preferences or needs. My role is to listen to God’s word and respond with a soft and humble heart; to pray that God’s Spirit would be at work in my heart and those around me; and to encourage and build those around me by everything I say and do.

However, if I am the person responsible for organizing and running the meeting, or one of the people who contribute in some way, then the same spirit of love and selflessness should lead me to make my contribution in a way that actually helps and builds up other people. Out of basic kindness and generosity I should do what I can to improve the quality and ‘edification-factor’ of our Sunday gatherings.

But this leads us to another thought: surely it is the power of God’s word and Spirit that makes our meetings ‘better’ or not. So why not simply read the Bible a lot, preach a lot, pray a lot, and then go home? Does it really matter, in the end, how high-quality everything is, or in what order we do things?

And if we say that it does matter, and we devise really clever meetings with lots of bells and whistles and videos and interviews and slick music and who knows what else, are we starting to doubt the power of the Word? Might we get into a situation where we are manipulating people’s affections and emotions in order to make them feel closer to God?

So is there a good reason—a good biblical and theological reason—to bother working hard to make our church meetings ‘better’?

1. Edification and common grace

The apostle Paul points us towards an answer in 1 Corinthians 14. The overall point of the passage is very clear: that when we gather together as a church we should pursue love, and exercise those gifts which most effectively build or ‘edify’ the church. This is the single most important criterion for what we do in church: “Let all things be done for building up” (v. 26).

How do we know what makes for ‘building’? In 1 Corinthians 14, edification happens when two conditions are met: firstly, when some sort of word from God is spoken (such as prophecy, knowledge or teaching), and secondly, when it is spoken in a way that is intelligible to the hearer. This is why prophecy is superior to tongues (at least, to uninterpreted tongues), because those present can actually understand what is being said. Paul uses some illustrations from different fields of human endeavor to make what is really a very obvious point:

If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. (1 Cor 14:7-9)

Theologically, Paul is drawing on the doctrine of revelation—that God reveals himself to us by his word as we speak it to each other, and that this word is what the Spirit uses to ‘build’ us. But he is also drawing on the doctrine of creation or common grace to make the simple point that if our speaking of God’s word does not respect the realities of living in God’s world, then nothing will be communicated or understood. Just as a bugle will not effectively communicate the call to battle if it has a sock stuffed in it, so a speaker in church will not effectively communicate God’s word if no-one else has a clue what he’s saying.

This is because the people who are gathered together in a church are (in most cases) humans. We are creatures of God living in God’s world. We live in human communities with their languages, customs, and habits. We have no access to each other, to communicate God’s word with each other, except via these realities—as one creature to another.

In 1 Corinthians 14, the key factor is language. However, the principle applies to more than language, because there are all sorts of creational factors that affect how humans hear things and communicate with one another and relate to one another. For example, even if we speak the same language, you still may not hear and understand me if my voice is very soft and there is lots of background noise; or if I use complicated words or ideas that are beyond your educational level; or if I have left all the windows open so that you are freezing cold and can’t concentrate; or if I speak like Fidel Castro for seven solid hours so that you can’t possibly follow my point.

These sorts of factors affect all human interactions everywhere—not just those that take place in church. And we need to respect, to understand and to work with these factors as we run church meetings.

Now I know those of you who are preachers already believe this, because of how you construct your sermons. You don’t just stand up and tell people some random thoughts you had concerning the passage (well, most of you don’t). You craft it. You think about how to engage your listeners’ minds at the beginning; you think about how to use humour at various points to lighten the mood; you think about when to get deadly serious; you use gestures; you vary the pitch, volume, inflection and tone of your voice; you think about the logic that would make the most sense; you think about how to surprise your listeners with a twist they weren’t expecting; you work out how to help them understand with a story or an illustration; you try to speak in a language they will understand.

When you do some or all these things as part of your preparation and delivery of a sermon, are you doubting the power of the Word? No, you are expressing your belief that if you are going to actually communicate the Word to the bunch of humans in front of you, you need to use the gifts of common grace that God has given to us to relate together—clear speech in a language that is understood, humour, logic, story, personality, voice, gesture, and so on.

Now it is very possible to misuse the gifts of common grace to manipulate and fool people, and to generate a response that mimics a true response to God’s word. We can tell stories that tug the heartstrings and use that to generate a response. But the fact that the gifts of common grace can be abused and misused doesn’t mean we don’t use them! In fact, we have to use them, because we have no access to people and their minds apart from as one human relating to others, with all the constraints and gifts that we share. And this is precisely why most preachers work hard on the construction and delivery of their sermons, and not just on the raw ideas.

My question is this: if we believe this about sermons, do we also believe it about church meetings? If the general quality of our church meetings is anything to go by, I would judge that many of us do not.

Many of our church meetings are like sermons where the preacher has run out of time to really work on the packaging—where he has the basic message and ideas, but hasn’t found the time to organize them better, edit out the extraneous stuff, and craft the whole thing so that it works. And so the end result feels thrown together, a bit flat, haphazard or even boring. It lacks the impact and effectiveness it might have had if it had been communicated in a way that accords with the common grace of how humans communicate.

In the rest of this article, I want to encourage those of you who organize and run church meetings to think about doing it better, in much the same way as you might think about writing and delivering better sermons.

To do so, you will need to do two basic things:

  1. Work out the Bible-driven content or message that will be the heart of the meeting
  2. Organize that content in a way that is likely to be effective with the bunch of humans you expect to turn up.

2. The Bible-driven content

In Briefing #397, Phillip Jensen argued that “the distinctively Christian gathering or assembly, that historically has come to be called ‘church’, is made up of those whom God has saved and redeemed in Christ, and who now in repentance and trust gather around him to listen to his word, so that they may persevere and grow in holiness and righteousness” (‘What is church for?’, p. 20).

If this definition is correct, then our meetings should basically consist of two very distinctive and important things:

1. Listening to God’s word—we read the Bible, preach the Bible, speak to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, exhort and encourage each other, prophesy to each other, and declare the great deeds and works of God (otherwise known as ‘praise’). But this word of God that we listen to is not a disembodied word. It isn’t written by a hand on a wall, or spoken directly to us by God. We only hear God’s word in our assembly as we speak it to each other from the Bible. This is the great and primary thing we do in church meetings: speak God’s word to each other in a multitude of ways.

2. Responding to God’s word in repentance and faith—we respond to God in prayer or in song, we confess our sins, we take our prayers and supplications to him, we give thanks, we rejoice, and we urge and encourage each other to keep on doing these things. (It is worth noting that singing fits into both categories. It is a wonderful God-given means of proclaiming and listening to God’s word, as well as responding to God’s word.)

These two kinds of things should determine what we do when we gather. And those of us who are Anglicans and have grown up with The Book of Common Prayer should know this, because that’s pretty much all that the BCP is—a whole variety of ways for God’s people to listen to God’s word together and to respond to him in prayer and thanksgiving.

In one sense, then, the Bible-driven content of every church meeting will be the same. It will consist of only these two sorts of things, in some combination. It will be built around the basic gospel idea that God approaches us graciously with his saving word, and that we gratefully respond by his Spirit in repentance and faith.

Even though each meeting will be exactly the same in this sense, each one will of course also be different depending on the particular message of the word of God for that day, and what sort of repentant faithful response it calls for. Most meetings will have their own particular biblical emphasis or theme.

So our question now is: how do we organize and run meetings with this sort of Bible-driven content (general and particular), using the gifts of common grace to speak God’s word and respond to it, given who we are as people? How do we take the sock out of the bugle?

3. Observations of common grace

As I’ve put together church meetings over the years, and thought about what has and hasn’t worked, it seems to me that good meetings are like most exercises in communication—that is, good church meetings:

  • Have conceptual flow
  • Vary the emotional temperature
  • Contain both familiarity and variety
  • Spring from someone’s heart and mind.

GOOD MEETINGS HAVE CONCEPTUAL FLOW

Like sermons or books or articles or speeches, a church meeting should go somewhere. It should make some sort of sense to those participating in it, because that’s the way our brains work. Things have more impact for us when there is a movement of thought, when one thing leads naturally and logically to the next.

This was one of the strengths of some of the classic liturgies of Reformed Christianity, such as the Morning Prayer service from The Book of Common Prayer. It has three main movements:

  • Movement 1 starts with a scriptural call to repentance, and an exhortation, followed by confession of sins, a declaration of forgiveness and a response. We are preparing to listen to God’s word.
  • Movement 2 exhorts us to listen obediently (via Ps 95), and then moves into the first Bible reading, a responsive hymn, the second Bible reading, and a second responsive hymn.
  • Movement 3 focuses on the response of faith, with the recitation of the creed, various prayers and the thanksgiving.

Now this is not a divinely inspired movement of thought, or the only way to do it. But it does make sense. It makes gospel sense, because the flow of the service takes us repentantly to God to listen to his word and then calls on us to respond joyfully with faith.
Do your meetings have any conceptual flow to them like this? Or are they more like a TV chat show: “And now we have… and now we have… and now we have”. (Mind you, good TV chat shows also have their own logic, but that is a point to pursue another time.)

We don’t have to have the same conceptual flow every time. There are a range of ways to structure a meeting to achieve the basic goal (which is to speak God’s word to each other and respond). For example, we could focus more on God’s word in the first half of the meeting, and then spend the latter part of the meeting exploring the response. Or we could have hearing God’s word as the climax of the gathering—after spending some time preparing for it—followed by response. Or we could have multiple cycles of hearing and responding.

How we do it will depend to a significant extent on the particular theme or Bible passage that we have chosen to focus on. But in whatever way we do it, we must think about the conceptual flow of the meeting. What is the reason for this next component—how does it fit into the whole? How does it relate to what is before it, and to what comes after? Does it make sense? Does it take the congregation somewhere? (I could say quite a bit here about ‘announcements’ and their tendency to break up the conceptual flow, but more on this below!)

GOOD MEETINGS VARY THE EMOTIONAL TEMPERATURE

Humans are emotional and affectional creatures.

The way we organize things, and the way we conduct ourselves and each part of the meeting, will have an emotional effect on those present. It will tend to evoke lightness of spirit, or joy, or sober reflection, or excitement, or boredom, or anger, or thankfulness, and so on. It’s not as if we have a choice about this. Our meetings will have a constantly varying emotional temperature, whether we like it or not. So we should be aware of the emotional temperature, and seek to work it in with the conceptual flow.

Does this sound potentially manipulative? Of course it does. But we will affect and manipulate people’s emotions by how we run our meetings. We can either do so haphazardly, unintentionally and unhelpfully, or we can be sensitive to the effects of what we’re doing.

Preachers do this in sermons all the time, and rightly so. They don’t speak with the same emotional register all the way through. They have light and shade; moments of humour as well as sadness; moments of great earnestness when they’re really laying it on the line. If the sermon has the same emotional register all the way through, it’s not only boring and ineffective, it’s inauthentic. The listener begins to think: “Is this guy a normal person? Doesn’t he have a sense of humour? Or isn’t he capable of being serious?”

It’s the same with meetings. If they have the same emotional temperature throughout they just doesn’t work for most people—especially when the emotional or affectional tone is jarringly out of sync with the content; when we speak of the most profound realities in the universe in a light-hearted, flippant or matter-of-fact way.

This is one of the things we struggle with in my part of the world (it seems to me). We aren’t too sure how to do seriousness and gravitas. Sometimes the whole meeting is conducted with a breezy informal chattiness—which is great to have as we welcome people and make them feel at home. But if this becomes our only emotional tone, it communicates that none of this affects us, that none of it is serious or important or worth being passionate or joyous or repentant about. The gospel is a matter of heaven and hell, of misery at my sin and joy in forgiveness. If this is never reflected in our manner of speech, then what are we communicating?

We need light and shade. We need a dash of humour, but we also need times of quietness, seriousness and celebration.

There are other crimes we can commit against the emotional logic or effectiveness of a meeting. The schoolboy error is to put on a rip-roaring, emotion-pumping song just before the sermon. So we get everyone hyped up and excited emotionally, just in time to sit quietly for 30 minutes and concentrate. In most cases, the emotional temperature you’re after just before the sermon is one of quietness, as people prepare to listen to God’s word with humble hearts.

Mind you, it is just as much a crime to start the meeting with all 17 verses of ‘The God of Abraham Praise’ played in slow time. Or to follow a time of deep and personal prayer with ‘the announcements’.

Announcements can be a problem. If you insert ten minutes of announcements and ads for upcoming events right in the middle of your meeting, you’ve pretty much destroyed whatever conceptual flow you had running, and taken the emotional temperature of the room down to that feeling you get when the ads come on about 20 minutes from the end of the movie. All of a sudden the congregation is taken out of listening to God and responding to him, and into the men’s breakfast next Saturday morning, the working bee, the house party, and whatever else you’re trying to drum up enthusiasm for. (Ditto for long interviews with people that are really thinly disguised advertisements to try to get the congregation to sign up for things.)

The best place for announcements, if we must have them, is usually at the very beginning or very end of the meeting.

GOOD MEETINGS NEED BOTH FAMILIARITY AND VARIETY

In cricket, good spin bowlers usually have a devastating, wicket-taking delivery in their arsenal. Shane Warne had the ‘flipper’, a delivery that would hit the pitch and then shoot through quicker and lower than the batsman was expecting. The effectiveness of Warney’s flipper lay in the fact that he kept it in reserve. He would throw it in every now and then when the batsman wasn’t expecting it. If you bowl six flippers in a row, they lose their effect. But if you throw one in every now and then, it keeps the batsmen very watchful and interested.

Likewise with our gatherings: many things in our church meetings will be similar from week to week, and this is good. There are only so many ways you can listen to God’s word and respond to it together. And we do like a certain degree of familiarity. But we also like variety. We also need to keep throwing in flippers—things that are different or unexpected. It’s a good rule of thumb to aim for one ‘flipper’ each week.

Here are three simple ideas for ‘flippers’. I’m sure you can come up with many more:

The life interview: Interviews of different kinds have become quite common in church meetings, but they are often rambling and poorly prepared. If an interview is going to communicate something of God’s word rather than just interesting stories or unfocused waffle, we need to put in a bit of preparation (as any decent interviewer in any other context does). What is the point of the interview? What is its trajectory? What are the key things you are hoping will come out? How do these connect with the main biblical theme of the day?

The interview can easily become a gap filler, and without preparation and thought it often drains both conceptual and emotional momentum from the meeting. But if we take time to choose a topic for the interview that connects with the biblical theme of the morning, to prepare with the interview subject, and to ask real questions, interviews can be as varied as the people you have available to interview.

Post-sermon ‘prophecy’: Here’s an idea that I have seen tried a few times, and which worked extremely well. The preacher picks a mature, thoughtful person from the congregation and shares with them (say on Thursday or Friday) the burden of what is going to be preached on Sunday. Then you ask the person to prepare a short response: a reflection on how this message digs down into their lives, what it means day-to-day, what it will require them to change, what implications it has. And then you invite them up for a few minutes after the sermon to share their encouragement and exhortation with the congregation. I’m not sure whether this is exactly what 1 Corinthians labels as ‘prophecy’ (who is?), but it’s one of the closest things I’ve seen.

Sing a song: Quite a few of the songs we try to sing congregationally actually work better as solos. So get someone to sing it really well, and then talk about the message of the song. Use it as another way of speaking the Word to one another.

GOOD MEETINGS SPRING FROM THE PERSONALITY AND MIND OF A LEADER

Just as we don’t preach the same kind of sermon because we are all individuals, so meeting leaders will do things differently and make it work differently, depending on their personalities, their sense of humour, the way they get serious about things, their style of communicating.

The meeting leader is crucial to the whole process, because as humans we don’t relate to an order of service but to a person who is leading us through whatever is going to happen next. The meeting leader is not only vital in planning and preparing the conceptual and emotional flow, and in thinking creatively about the content of the meeting, but also in actually delivering it and leading it. He is the glue that holds it together, the engine oil that keeps the parts moving.

This is why, in the end, a return to set liturgy would not raise the standard of our meetings any more than reading out a centrally-approved sermon would raise the standard of our preaching. A set pattern of words achieves a degree of minimum-standard quality control; it will ensure uniformity. But it will also achieve mediocrity. We can share templates and patterns with each other, but each meeting needs to be worked out according to not only the particular message and emphasis for the day, but also according to the kind of congregation you have.

Ideally each meeting should be planned and led by someone—by one person who thinks it through and has the authority to make it all happen. Very often church meetings are designed by a loose committee. Someone chooses the music, someone else lines up the pray-ers, someone else (possibly the preacher) chooses the Bible readings, someone else puts together the announcements. And then the components are slapped together quickly, and off we go. And we wonder why our meetings can often be mundane and even boring.

If you’re going to make a start by improving just one thing about your Sunday meetings, improve your meeting leaders. Give them the training, the time, the resources and the authority to pull it together and make it work. Sundays will work better when someone is devoting real time to thinking it through, preparing it, and making it happen.

There is, of course, so much more to be said, and so many more good ideas to be shared. For some suggested church meeting templates, check out my So what does the gathering look like? series (part one, two, three, four and five).

Perhaps the best way to conclude is with a benediction:

And now may your microphones always be on when you step up to them; may your PowerPoint stand faultless, blameless and in sync; and may your musicians not jam after the meeting at such a volume that no-one can hear themselves think. Amen.

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