Our regular gatherings should aspire to be rich (Col 3:16)—a rich feeding together on the word of God in song, prayer, praise and preaching. Practically speaking, the person who leads church can have a massive influence, for good or for ill, on the experience. Like an orchestra conductor, a leader can determine the difference between whether the parts come together in a beautiful, edifying whole, or dissolve into a chaotic mess. Here’s what we tell our service leaders to aim for on a Sunday.
New people, taking our websites and church signs literally, get to church on time, and the time between the advertised start time and the actual start time is the awkwardest time of all for them. Don’t reward regulars for being late and don’t hurt the ones you want to love the most. Reward newcomers for believing what our signs say. Start on time—even if hardly anyone is there.
Never start with, “Hey, it’s great to be here today!” or “How about those Dockers!” People come to seek God in his word and encouragement in each other. People are at church because they are broken, lonely, joyful or serious, and are wanting to give and receive in Christ’s name. Whatever else you need to say, begin with God and end with God. And preferably use God’s words about God—a psalm, a prayer, a call to worship, and so on.
Your big job is to make things flow—flow theologically through thanksgiving, repentance, confession and forgiveness, as well as flow practically as we move from songs to announcements to preaching to conclusions. Flow is achieved by deliberateness (on your part) so that we hardly notice what’s holding things together. Your job is not to provide a running commentary, but to make sure everything flows. Sometimes less is best.
Don’t say, “Please talk a seat” when you can say, “While you all take a seat, let me read these words from Psalm 23.” Don’t say, “Please stand as we sing our next song” if you can say instead, “As you stand, let’s declare God’s praises to each other with these words.”
If you are praying for women and children killed in Syria, please say it in a way that indicates that you are actually thinking of real women and children who have been killed in Syria, and that that’s a bad thing. If you are welcoming people, please look like you actually want to meet new people. If you are telling people their sins are forgiven, say it like they have actually been forgiven.
Part of your job is to keep up with a sense of where things are going. If we have just heard a powerful sermon, sung a moving song, or heard from a missionary in a Jordanian refugee camp, make sure that what you say next is sensitive to what just happened. (Note the phrase: ‘is sensitive to’: I don’t mean ‘comment on’. Sometimes silence, prayer or song is a perfectly good way to pick the moment.)
Remember: standing for the creed, sitting or kneeling for confession, and doing something for prayer (stand, sit, kneel) are all part of picking your moment.
Please be at the lectern, ready to speak as soon as possible. In our church, it is tantamount to a capital offence to shuffle from where you are sitting to do your thing while we all sit and watch. Note that after a song, this means coming to the front before the song has ended.
To pray is to ask God for something. We come together to bring our prayers and request to God. Therefore, pray for something. You have not prayed for the Prime Minister until you have prayed “that the Prime Minister will seek and implement just and compassionate legislation for our nation”. Replace the word ‘prayer’ with ‘ask’, and then ask yourself, “Have I asked for something worth asking for?”
Remember: the key to good prayer is to ask for things that accord with God’s character and promises.
As I have already said, we don’t need commentary, we need flow. Trust the songs, prayers, preaching and so on to do their work. We don’t need to know that “That song was very moving” or “That sermon made me think of the time I was cycling in Brazil…” Trust the content of the sermon and help us like a good guide at an art gallery—not by standing in front of the paintings and telling us what they are like, but by standing out of the way that so we can see them for ourselves.
Don’t set a narrow band of emotions and experiences for who is there. Don’t say, “I hope you’ve had a great week!” Maybe this week someone had a miscarriage. Maybe they don’t know if God is even there. Maybe they feel about as dark, broken and guilty as they have ever felt. A qualifying exam for knowing whether you should be at church is not having a good week: it’s being a sinner saved by grace, coming to receive strength from the Lord in the word and in fellowship.
Church doesn’t need to be perfect or even excellent. But our gatherings do serve a vital role in the Christian life, and they are worth doing well. I reckon if we started with these ten tips, most of our gatherings would experience a significant lift. That’s got to be a good thing!