Principle Centered Ministry — Guiding Principles for Challenging Times

By Phil Maynard and Eddie Pipkin

We were intrigued by the series of stories that appeared at the end of March and beginning of April that highlighted the experiences of a select group of people who happened to be physically cut off from normal society right at the time when the pandemic shut everything completely down.  There was an actor on a spiritual isolation retreat, thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail, and sailors on a long passage who emerged from their secluded activities into a bizarrely transformed world.  It’s the same effect we ministry professionals could recreate by placing our worship services from March 8th and March 29th side by side.  On the surface, everything changed – everything looked and felt different — even while the core of what mattered remained the same – and in the weeks since, we’ve been tweaking, adjusting, and innovating.  The question moving forward into a new and uncertain future (and the theme of this blog series) is whether what comes next will represent technical change or adaptive change. This week’s guiding principle: Passionate worship is designed for engagement.

Corporate worship is a cornerstone of our life as disciples.  In corporate worship we do these essential things:

  • Experience the presence of God.
  • Respond to the invitation to become a disciple of Jesus.
  • Experience personal transformation.
  • Understand clear next steps in the discipleship journey.
  • Learn how to worship as a lifestyle.
  • Be re-membered with the Body of Christ.

We focus on providing these opportunities through worship that actively engages people, and whatever the context, this only happens by design.  Leonard Sweet long ago defined this focus using the acronym EPIC for worship design.

E:           Experiential

P:           Participatory

I:            Image-driven

C:           Connective

Our pastors, and in many cases our creative worship teams, spend a great deal of energy seeking to create an experience offering the aforementioned opportunities.  We wordsmith messages with great research and storytelling, produce inviting music, pray fervently for the needs of our community and our world, share the Gospel message with our liturgy and in many cases gather at the table together to receive the physical expression of God’s grace in Holy Communion. [Here’s a news story on how churches are making changes to provide the Euchraist.]

As a package, in a traditional physical setting, these elements of worship all work together to fill our need to worship and God’s desire for us to offer our praise and thanksgiving. Prior to the pandemic, we had a routine and a rhythm for design and execution of these worship elements.  Now, we have a new challenge (and with any challenge comes opportunity).

As we translate worship into a virtual setting, how do we continue to epically engage participants in these opportunities?  The good news in this transition to virtual worship is that, to use a phrase from the business world, “Content is King.”  Those wordsmithed messages with amazing insights into God’s love and guidance (sermons) are still powerful connections. Spoken prayers still resonate. Liturgy has the power of tradition and the comfort of familiarity. Most of you have discovered a technical solution to bring people (literally) closer to the content.  Watching worship in an empty space, from a distance, in a traditional presentation feels like it falls a little flat.  It is not very engaging for those participating from their living rooms. So, you’ve moved your cameras forward to capture things from a more intimate perspective. You saw a problem, and you solved it.

The ‘content is king’ idea is fairly doable even in a virtual setting.  What’s missing still for many of us is the connective part – the relational component.

Some worship teams are addressing these issues as a technical problem.  We discussed this in last week’s blog, describing the distinction between technical and adaptive change:

Technical change relates to something we can fix.  (We replicate the old approach as closely as possible by applying technological solutions.)

Adaptive change leads us to new approaches.  (We rethink the entire process itself.)

Investments are being made in cameras (multiple) with zoom capabilities and high-quality recording.  For many churches worship is pre-recorded and edited to provide a variety of camera angles and close-up shots of speakers and musicians.  Sound technicians are using mixers and creating a fuller musical experience.  All this produces an end result of a more polished and produced worship experience.  This is technical change, and for many congregations it is a big step forward.

However, it is still a challenge to produce a worship experience that is really engaging. We reimagine the process by turning our guiding principles into questions and freeing our planning teams to brainstorm creatively.

  • How are we giving people a chance to experience the presence of God? Sure, we’re giving them a program on a screen – and it’s great content – but perhaps we should encourage them to think more deeply about where they are engaging that content. Have they created a worship setting in their home, maybe lit some candles or made a home altar? Are they taking ten minutes to quiet their hearts and seek God’s presence in some way before jumping in on your feed? Brainstorm the possibilities.
  • How are we giving people a chance to respond to the invitation to become a disciple of Jesus? We’ve been diligent about the content, and we are preaching powerful sermons, but do we give them a clear response point, an action they can take to follow up on that message in a tangible way, and are we giving them a way to respond that perhaps others can see or that they can acknowledge to us or our leadership team? Brainstorm the possibilities.

Brainstorm the possibilities for each and every one of those bullet points and each of Leonard Sweet’s bullet points, too.  And here’s the thing: You can certainly glean great ideas from any how-to-do-it-better list, but nobody knows your unique congregation like you do.  Every single context and setting has answers that work well for that unique gathering of people that would fall flat for the congregation around the corner.

There are dozens of articles out there about how to make virtual worship more engaging (and our favorite from that linked article is using home pizza delivery as a prize to motivate the kids to engage in a challenge/contest).  Are these technical solutions or adaptive solutions? Are we doing worship the best we can with the available tools we have right now while we wait for things to revert to “normal”?  Or are we using this as a season to altogether rethink what worship should look like for us all, virtual or in-person?  One intriguing example may be the way that many churches have worked in videos of individuals and families to tell stories, lead liturgy and prayers, read Scripture, and share announcements. It is a good thing to emphasize a diversity of voices, and our churches should be doing more of that anyway.

In a world where smaller gatherings are likely to become the norm either due to limited seating because of social distancing restrictions that we impose or due to the reality that many people (particularly older folks) will self-isolate at home, hesitant to attend larger gatherings, the adaptive questions could include not just how to create a more engaging on-line experience but how to provide worship experiences in smaller settings.

For example, this could be a time when the house church model finds a resurgence.  The role of the church becomes supporting worship and discipleship and service in a distributed model. Andy Otto at the Center of Action and Contemplation, in an article titled How the Pandemic Will Change the Church”, writes:

Perhaps it (the church) will look more like the movement Jesus began, which followed soon with intimate house churches and Eucharist shared around the common table – something some of us are doing on our own because of the quarantine.  Brian McLaren says that the future of Christianity will look less institutional and more decentralized and diverse.

“It will not be anti-institutional because institutions are necessary for human survival, but neither will it be institutional, in the sense that it is preoccupied with its own survival or bringing benefits only to its members.  Rather, it will be trans-institutional, working across institutions, both religious and non-religious seeking the common good of those inside and outside the movement and the institutions it involves.”

(Brian McLaren, “Three Christianities” in “The Future of Christianing” in Oneing Vol.7 No. 2, 2019.)

Already, we see churches moving to create small church gatherings that emulate house church.  Will these be temporary solutions, or will they evolve to be a new form of church-within-a-church? We’re also seeing planning for shorter, multiple worship services on a Sunday which would function as a kind of “house church on campus.” What might these new forms of worship look like?  How might leaders be equipped?  How might the worship be resourced? Share your own ideas, questions, and struggles.