Why Worship Shouldn't Feel Like Family

Guess which fish the visitor is likely to feel like.

A favorite question of judicatory leaders to local church members is: What is the most important thing to you about your church?” Can you guess the most typical answer given? Some variation of “We’re like a family here.” The answer can be given by churches of all sizes, but most often by smaller churches.

What does it mean, though, for a church to be like a family? Families are, by their very nature, concerned primarily about the individual family members and their unity as a family. People typically mean intimacy, affirmation, and stability. We all want to meet these needs through our communities of faith, but when that family theme is applied to the public worship experience, decline can’t be far behind.

When local churches begin to worship together like a family, a newcomer is often treated like a stranger eavesdropping on supper. No matter how much we try to treat the newcomer as an invited guest, they are left out by the history, private stories, shortcut reminders of the past, and a degree of intimacy that would be invasive to a newcomer. To a stranger, the history, private stories, and shortcuts accentuate their ‘not belonging.’ When we pair this with the inward focus of family worship, where the needs of the family members take precedence over the needs of the outside world, then most visitors will be onlookers, not at all caught up in the Spirit as we had hoped.

Public, corporate worship is outwardly directed: First toward God, and then to the world outside our doors: a world broken, hurting, and desperately in need of healing. It is a world that needs Christ, and public worship is one primary way we offer Christ today. The needs of the individual member matter, but they do not take precedence over the mission and the purpose of the church.

Practices to Avoid

This shift from family style worship to corporate, public worship enables a church to center its focus and practice on a different plane, and it is this broader plane that also reaches the stranger as well as the cradle roll member. More new people attend a church’s regular worship service than any other single church activity. It’s worth making sure that your worship is designed with them in mind, too. Avoid these practices that are typical in ‘family style’ worship services:

1. Passing the microphone around at prayer time for prayer concerns.

The person sharing the concern usually assumes a background knowledge of the matter, or worse, rehearses the whole history with each update. This practice cannot help but exclude newcomers as well as focus the church on the individual.

Much better is for the one leading the prayers of the people to enumerate categories of situations. For example, “We pray for those who are ill (Becky, Bill, and Anna’s grandchildren), for those without work (John, Martha, and all those in our city); for those who are struggling with grief and loss (Bobby on the loss of his wife, Mary on the loss of her coworker); for those who are depressed or troubled . . .” etc. After each item, observe a brief silence or names can be softly spoken. It is also effectively done through the completion of prayer cards by the congregation as they come into the service. These cards are given to the worship leader, who can call out names, without all the history.

2. Passing of the Peace or greeting one another.

In family worship, this becomes a time to touch base with other ‘family’ members. If visitors are greeted, it is usually perfunctory. While lengthier conversations surround the newcomer, they are left standing alone until someone blessedly calls the group back together. I have experienced this again and again as a district superintendent, and I am probably greeted more often than most visitors.

The only way this can effectively be done without excluding new people is to narrow the focus: “Please turn to the persons on either side of you, introduce yourselves if you don't know each other, so you can greet one another by name.” Or, devise a different question each Sunday that is relevant to the day's sermon or worship theme. Ask each participant to turn to one neighbor, and let each of them answer the question given. For example, on Easter: “Turn to your neighbor and share whether or not you have ever been to an Easter parade, and what it was like.”

The question must not be too personal or no one will answer it. For example, if you're preaching on forgiveness, a bad question is, “What do you need to be forgiven of?” Way too personal. Try this instead: “When was the last time you hand wrote a letter?” Then mention letter writing in the sermon as an example of how we can request or extend forgiveness to others.

3. In-house business is taken care of as part of worship, usually masquerading as announcements.

Communication is a big issue in every church (as it is in families), and most every congregation struggles with it. More people are at worship than any other event of the church, so we feel free to treat the worshipers as a captive audience to feed them the information we want them to have. For visitors, this is very boring. While we go on and on, they are simply looking at their watches, and wondering when you will start worship.

Do announcements before worship starts; if no one is there, assume it means they don't want to hear them. (If you keep up the practice, more people will actually be on time!) Print announcements in the bulletin or run them on a screen. Announcements are not a substitute for more direct notification about upcoming events by email or phone, and the personal invitation to others to participate (including new people) is way more effective than any announcement could ever be.

4. Persons leading worship are untrained and/or not gifted for the task they are given.

I was taught to cook at twelve years old, and was allowed to “practice” on my family. Everyone accepted that I was young, and not very accomplished yet at cooking. On the nights I really flubbed, we could just make tuna sandwiches. I needed the practice, and that was how I learned. However, I was never asked to cook for company, just family.

I’m suggesting that we have this much regard for the music and liturgy of the church. Instead, too many churches have worship leadership that is ineffective and even hard to sit through for the uninitiated. For example, Joy is given a solo because she's having a hard time right now and needs some attention or affirmation. She isn't very good, but the whole church family knows what she's been through and doesn't mind. Or a child is asked to read who is so hesitant or soft spoken that he can’t be heard beyond the first row.

The reading of Scripture and the leading of worship are too important to give to any volunteer untrained or ungifted at public reading. A church doesn’t need master singers or musicians to lead in the worship of God. But being an outward-focused church means we don’t use worship to honor each other. We honor God with our worship, and want to reach others with the good news, so we offer up the best quality in whatever we do.

5. The use of family shorthand and church talk in bulletins, preaching, and liturgy.

Take a close look at the geographical and calendar shorthand all churches use: “Our Bible study will be held in Jones Hall” (where’s that?); “Meet after church in the narthex/vestibule/nave” (what’s that?). “Don’t miss the fellowship lunch on Pentecost” (when is that?).

And then there are the church words: Omniscient, prodigal, ransomed, incarnate deity, carnal natures, Ancient of Days, laud and glory, light inaccessible, bounteous goodness, bulwark, mortal ills, unutterable, righteousness, manifold, prostrate, begotten, hallowed, intinction, remembrance, blessed, worthily magnify, gospel, consecrate, homage, vanquish . . . I love words. I could go on and on.

Church people (family) know these words; those who did not grow up in the church do not. Neither do those who have a 6th grade reading level or less (our children, for example!) So the people we really want to attract are mostly lost as we sing, pray, read, and preach. If you use a word not commonly known, explain what it is. If you’re not sure whether people know it or not, ask your average fifth grader.

Growing the Family of Faith

Take a long look at your service of worship. How do visitors experience it? Look at it from the point of view of a 15 year old, or someone new to our country, or someone who has never stepped foot in a church before. Look at it through the eyes of one struggling with addiction, going through a divorce, or facing depression.

The needs for intimacy, affirmation, and stability are vital to our emotional health. It’s natural for members to look to their church to meet those needs, and the church is a wonderful place to develop close friendships and support networks. That is why small group ministries, Bible study classes, and interest-based activities are so important. In these smaller settings designed for community and discipleship, family-style relationships are formed and deepened.

But family worship? Leave it at home.

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