By Eddie Pipkin

On my run last Saturday morning, just as the sun was coming up and just as I rounded the corner from my street to the next, there at the end of a driveway, adjacent to the sidewalk, was an unexpected treat.  A free pineapple!  Not just any old pineapple, but obviously a pineapple that the homeowner had lovingly raised in their own garden, presented as an offering to random passersby, displayed with flair, including a handcrafted, exuberant sign.  I laughed out loud with delight!  What a display of joy and optimistic generosity!  My morning was transformed – a morning with which I had begun my routine feeling nothing but a sense of dreary obligation – now I picked up the pace with a smile and a renewed sense of hope for humanity.  And later as I thought back on it, I wondered, how often do we ever surprise anybody who shows up to be part of our ministry?  How often do we bless those souls with moments of unanticipated delight?

Of course, it’s true that one of the reasons many people come to a worship service (particularly a traditional service) is to experience the comfort of routine.  But even people who are attached to their routines can be delighted by an unexpected surprise.  It’s an opportunity to flex our creative muscles, to engage people in ways that help them feel the energy of our space, and to see things from an out-of-the-ordinary point of view.

There are, for instance, many ways we might disrupt or supplement the regular worship routine:

  • Surprise Guest Appearance! Have somebody unexpected show up at worship: a guest speaker, a person who is a blast from the past, an artist, a featured musician.  Highlight them in a performance or a time of sharing or let them take over the message or even the entire worship service.  Don’t ‘announce it in advance.  Let it be a surprise — not only will this delight the people in attendance, but it will make the people who aren’t there want to avoid missing out next time.
  • Break the routine! Flip the script and scramble the normal worship order.  Do things backwards, or mix it up in an interesting way, or draw the order of worship out of hat.  Such reordering makes the worship service feel different in ways that can challenge our assumptions.  It can bring new insight into why we do things the way we do them, help us reconnect with the individual elements of worship, and cause us to experience things that seem rote with a renewed relevance.
  • Take It Outside! If it’s a beautiful day, and if you have a nice place to do it, just announce that you’re moving the whole worship service outside.  Have an outside set-up secretly ready to go, or just have everybody pick up their chairs and follow you out the door.  (Make some provisions for those who may have special needs.)  It’s a great opportunity to talk about how the early church was constantly a church on the move.  It’s a great opportunity to talk about our role in creation care.  It’s a great opportunity to experience your church campus in a fresh way and pique the attention of the people driving by.
  • Lagniappe! Thanks to my Cajun friends for one of the wonderful words in any language.  A lagniappe is just “a little something extra.”  So, send people home from your worship service with a meaningful tchotchke, a souvenir of the morning, or a token of your staff and leadership’s appreciation of their being a part of your ministry.  Handcrafted keepsakes are the most meaningful, but anything from Blow Pops to custom bookmarks can be fun (and can be tied to the theme of the morning or used to reinforce your current vision priority).  Or surprise them with a snow cone truck waiting in the parking lot with free snow cones when the service is over!
  • Hands-On-Activity! Let them make their own keepsake as interactive part of the worship service.   Again, don’t announce this in advance.  Just have everyone make a quick craft together that reinforces the morning message – and by not announcing it in advance, you deny people the chance to avoid such an activity, and they might be surprised by just how much fun they have in spite of themselves.
  • Spiritual Spa Day! It’s like a spa day for the mind and body . . . except it’s a spa day for the spirit!  Have a series of stations that people can rotate through to be refreshed with an immersive prayer experience, a mini concert of awesome praise, a guided meditation in a reflective space, a drama that illustrates a theological truth, and a dramatic presentation of select scripture.  Have people rotate through the stations, like VBS for grown-ups.
  • Sudden Service! Give people an opportunity to serve their fellow humans right in the context of the worship service.  This could take many forms from writing thank-you or sympathy or encouragement cards to assembling thank-you baskets for first responders or shut-ins (with provided supplies), then encouraging people to deliver them.  Feeding programs will set up a meal assembly event on your campus, or you could assemble your own backpacks of food and toiletries for handing out of cars to the homeless.
  • Cancel the Service So We Can Do Service. Here’s an even bolder step.  Sing an opening song, lead an opening prayer which reinforces our call to actively and sacrificially serve our fellow humans, then give a brief challenge to take that message beyond the doors by blessing the people and dismissing them to go do an act of service right then.  (Have some examples of options ready for those who struggle to come up with an idea.)  Encourage people to share what they’re doing on social media and in reporting back to you with their stories.  Make a poster wall of ways people served on Surprise Service Day.
  • Impromptu Prayer Party. The same basic principle as the service day above, but with prayer as the emphasis.  Have breakout areas where people can pray for one another, a healing prayer team, an impromptu neighborhood prayer walk, and rooms where people can learn different prayer techniques.  Make a prayer wall where people can write down and submit their prayers.  Distribute prayer journals and show people how to use them.  Demonstrate online resources for prayer and have a display of books and other prayer resources.

Those ideas are tied to worship, but they can be customized to fit varied kinds of ministry (from children’s ministry to youth ministry to adult ministry to small groups to study groups to leadership team gatherings).  And here are other ideas to liven things up with smaller groups:

  • Surprise Party! Throw a surprise party (for the group itself or someone in the group, either to mark a special occasion or anniversary or randomly for no reason whatsoever).  You can get as elaborate as you want with such a party, inviting in special guests, laying on crazy decorations, preparing special treats or lots of food, or you can keep the whole thing simple and just break out some party cupcakes at the end of a regularly scheduled activity.
  • Unexpected outing! Once everyone shows up for your regularly scheduled event, say, “Surprise!  We are heading out on a special excursion.”  This can be as simple as a visit to the park with a picnic and games, or as elaborate as a trip to the zoo or as complex as a scavenger hunt or a surprise barbecue cookout or movie screening or go-kart race .  You know your crew and what will tickle their fancy!  (Note that this option is more logistically complicated if children or youth are involved, but it’s still possible to do with a little due diligence – and a ton of fun if you can pull it off.)
  • Let’s Make a Movie! Announce that you are making a movie, and the folks who have shown up for your event are going to be the cast.  This can be for a purpose, or it can just be for fun.  It can be for sharing, or it can be for internal consumption only.  But have a plan, shoot some scenes from a prepared script, or work freeform in the improv comedy tradition. The revolutionary technology of the smartphone has made all this possible – you might want to supplement the camera in your pocket with an external microphone.  You can even have simple costumes and props to make it more fun.  After you’re done, edit the results into a finished product and decide on a format for sharing it with the participants or the people for whom it was made (a great idea for pastor appreciation or outreach to the shut-ins).
  • Amicable Ambush! Dropping in on someone who’s been missing or stuck at home sick and festooning their yard with happy signs, balloons, or other suitable decorations.  Caroling can happen anytime – it’s not just for Christmas – with songs of love, thanks, celebration, and appreciation.  You can bring a whole party along and surprise someone who’s been feeling blue.

Just to dig into more delightful details with that idea of the amicable ambush, here are some iterations designed to provide a thrill of hospitality to congregants, visitors, and community members:

  • The Thank-You Serenade (complete with gifts). Think about the old-school image of the “singing telegram.”  You can show up at someone’s doorstep with a group of trained crooners (a choir, a praise team, a youth ensemble) and sing a carpella or with a makeshift band, sharing tunes from “For They’re a Jolly Good Person” to old standards like “It Had to Be You” to soft rock classic like Queen’s “You’re My Best Friend” to Randy Newman’s “Thank You for Being a Friend.”  You can serenade a cop or a firehouse or drop in on the local nursing home, not to mention shut-ins from your own congregation or a homeless camp.  It’s great to take along gifts and goodies for distribution as well.
  • The Commendable Cupcakes! Baking, independently or as a group activity, can be one of the tastiest paths to delightful hospitality.  Groups can do cupcake or cookie baking and decorating as a fun social activity, then pivot to delivering them in ways that bring smiles to the recipients and a long-lasting aftertaste of acknowledgement.  This is really one of the most fun and easy ways to organize activities that a group can do.  It can also be a family affair, and it even works with individuals who enjoy baking and want to stretch their hospitality wings.
  • The Dreamy Date Night. Surprise a couple with an unexpected date night.  (This one may require a little more advance planning – when thinking of specific recipients, you will have a good sense of if you can fully surprise them with a date night in the moment or if you need to give them a week or two to anticipate and achieve maximum enjoyment with minimal anxiety.)  Line up babysitters, a nice dinner out, some flowers, maybe even a fun, unusual vehicle to drive for the evening.  Collaborate to do this for an overworked staff member or stellar ministry volunteer or just a couple in your congregation who have been going through a hard time.  Heck, don’t limit it to couples.  You could easily modify this idea to use it with singles who need a special night out with a friend or two.
  • The Crowd Pleasing Car Detailing. Here’s a fun group activity that’s a great way to say thanks or “you’re special.”  Show up at someone’s house with a mobile car detailing operation.  I’ve seen a version of this, as well, in which a group detailed the cars of people attending worship.

You could make it your mission to inspire a whole congregation to get into the spirit of Holy Surprises!   Challenge groups within our congregation to design and implement their own projects of this kind.  It could even be a sort of  friendly competition.  It’s very important, if you do that, to have ways that people can document and share their efforts.   Challenge people to take on their own independent projects in this vein – ways in which they and their families can be a force for good surprises in the community.  Again, sharing the results is inspirational.  By this means, you can create an uplifting vibe that sets your congregation apart as the kind of place that is fun yet focused, doing meaningful work to make people feel loved and appreciated – and doing it with a smile.