For more than three decades I’ve been collecting data in churches, at least informally. I’ve attended churches of all kinds over the course of my life—Mainline, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Roman Catholic, you name it. Beyond that, through my current position, I’ve had the privilege of talking with countless pastors, church board members, worship leaders, and other fine folks about how to improve our worship services. As a result, I’ve come to believe that as good as worship is at many churches, there are at least a dozen things churches can do to make Sunday morning services more effective.
A quick caveat before I share these ideas, though: I offer them not as an expert in church growth or spiritual formation, and not as a rigid formula for worship, but simply as observations from someone trained to diagnose and solve organizational problems. Your church is likely doing some of these things; I think the best churches do almost all of them.
So with that said, how can we build on the fine work of our churches so people are even more likely to meet God and to be transformed through our worship services? Here are twelve ideas:
1. Give the Pastor More Time to Prepare
As a college dean, I manage people who teach. If I required them to do a whole bunch of administrative tasks for my school during the week and then expected them to deliver a brilliant lecture on a different topic every weekend, I (and their students) would be sorely disappointed by their performance in this weekend class. The professors who work for me would be burnt out and frustrated, their students would be under-educated, and my job would be in jeopardy. Worst of all, I suspect that God would be a bit displeased by our ministry of mediocrity.
But think about it: this is precisely what goes on in many churches. Our pastors are overwhelmed with administrative demands during the week that take them away from sermon preparation. Consequently, many of them squeeze in what time they can for prep, sometimes at the expense of their families and their health, to craft their Sunday message. And after they deliver the message, those of us in the pews smile and nod and thank them for a great word as we run out the door. But truth be told, we smiling saints could have learned a whole lot more from the message had the pastor been given another fifteen hours to invest in that message.
Then, the same thing happens the next week. And the next. And on and on it goes for years. Overworked pastors, under-taught Christians. It’s nothing short of scandalous.
Usually this scandal is not the pastor’s fault, but the system’s fault. To teach with excellence, people need lots of time to prepare. They need time to research their material, time to put it in an engaging format, time to make sure the points flow, and time to practice their delivery. And even more basic than that, any Christian who desires to teach well needs regular space for spiritual and professional development. There’s an inextricable link between learning and teaching: when we stop learning, our teaching suffers immeasurably. Or, as professor Howard Hendricks puts it in is book Teaching to Change Lives: “I would rather have my students drink from a running stream than a stagnant pool” (p. 18).
If we want life-changing messages on Sunday, step one may be to change the work system in our churches. Our pastors must be able to off-load many of their current administrative tasks so they can focus on teaching with excellence. Stated differently, we need to rewrite the job description of the pastor so he has space prepare well, to learn well, and to maintain a close and growing relationship with God. What we’ll get in return is more consistent access to the voice of God from the pulpit.
2. Don’t Let the Music Become a Concert
Sermons are critical. Praise music, though, is my favorite part of the service. It’s where I most predictably meet God. But increasingly, what I’m seeing in churches are praise bands singing songs that are inspirational and performed with excellence, but that are…well…“unsingable” by us rank amateurs. They’re popular tunes that are written for a talented lead vocalist, not for people whose range is a mere octave. So we in the pews are relegated to a spectator role, watching the good folks on stage praise God. They do a fantastic job and we acknowledge it by clapping when they’re done—but the applause is more for their fine performance than it is thanks to God.
When such things happen, the worship time has morphed into a concert—a substitute for a worship service.
“Special music” is another example of this. Some exceedingly capable person wows us with an instrument or a song or both, and we’re awestruck by his or her gifts. This continues for at least five minutes and then we offer a rousing ovation. But here again, it’s become a concert. It’s not corporate worship, it’s corporate watching.
One last example that evidences the problem: I’ve always wondered why praise bands play in front of the people rather than behind them or somewhere on the side. Doesn’t their being on stage frame their endeavor as a performance? Beyond that, it’s harder for people to focus on God when distracted by the worship leader’s facial expressions, the lead guitarist’s fancy fingering and the percussionist’s flashy cymbal crashes.
If it’s logistically possible, why not put the worship band behind the congregation—or at least somewhere off the stage—and show inspirational pictures or video or something else on stage that will direct our attention above? I recognize that this suggestion may not sit well with some worship leaders, but frankly, such protests often have their root in pride. Worship teams do such a wonderful job, and we all owe them our gratitude, but we need to have them step away from the spotlight so we can magnify God alone.
3. Avoid Interrupting the Flow of Worship
We’ve all been there. The music is awesome. The congregation’s voices are growing. Eyes are closed. Hands are raised. Fifteen, thirty, sometimes forty-five minutes go by in a flash because people are meeting God through the experience. It all comes to a crescendo with a closing prayer of thanksgiving and some people wiping away tears. The Spirit has been ushered into this place in a mighty way.
…but then abruptly, the Spirit’s asked to sit quietly in the corner for ten minutes so we can take care of some housekeeping.
Sometimes that housekeeping is a set of announcements that we could just as easily read in the weekly bulletin; sometimes it’s walking the kids to their Sunday school classes; sometimes it’s a church member making a pitch for more participation in a budding ministry. Whatever the reason for the hiatus, it completely torpedoes the moment. People’s hearts have been prepared to hear God’s Word and a powerful message. What they get instead are the logistics for the church picnic. Sit down, Spirit. We’ll call you when we need you again.
“Flow” matters in a worship service, so make it a priority. Plan it. Choreograph it. It’s much better to go from singing to the message than to insert non-worship intermissions.
4. Let Visitors Remain Anonymous
This one’s a complete no-brainer, but because of the “we’ve always done it this way” syndrome, churches continue to make this same mistake week after week.
Almost anyone visiting a church for the first time wants to remain anonymous. If they don’t, they’ll tell you afterwards. But believe me, the last thing new folks want is to “stand up so we can show you how much we appreciate you.” Even long-time members don’t want to stand while everyone else looks at them; how much less would a first-time visitor desire this?
Recognizing this problem, one church I attended asked first-time visitors to remain seated while everyone else stood to greet them. Nice try, but since being detected is the problem, this creative tactic didn’t help much.
Seeker-friendly churches let new people hide. Other churches inadvertently embarrass their visitors. Decision makers in these latter churches might do well to become a first-time visitor someplace else for a week and be reminded of how awkward it feels to be singled out.
5. Teach People How Scripture Applies to Daily Life
Last year, I had the great privilege of teaching at a ministry leader’s conference in Brazil. I taught on the topic of “being a faithful leader,” deriving much of my material straight from scripture. I was struck, though, by the number of pastors who commented to me after each talk that they had never heard the Bible used in such a way. “You speak of practical things using spiritual language” was one representative comment. This was a new idea for many of these leaders. To them, the Bible was about eschatology, period. It had little to say regarding day to day living.
That chagrined me as I thought about what their congregations were missing. But this is hardly only a Brazilian phenomenon. The same problem occurs around the world each weekend as pastors neglect the highly practical nature of God’s Word. For instance, when was the last time you heard a solid sermon about how to live your faith in the workplace? Or about principles for raising your kids? Or about how to resolve conflicts in a Biblically-consistent manner? Or about how to be more persuasive? The Bible speaks to all these areas, but many Christians simply don’t know it.
Great pulpit messages are great, in part, because they show how to apply scriptural lessons to our daily life. People are starving for it. If we begin to take practical theology seriously, we’ll be amazed how many people in the pews will begin to take serious notes.
6. Beware of Giving Destinations without Directions
This is a corollary to the previous suggestion. Pastors are remarkably good at identifying targets for us. Love God with all your heart. Listen for God’s voice. Demonstrate joy, peace, patience, kindness, and so on. Live out the Great Commission. Turn the other cheek. Love your neighbor as yourself.
They’re absolutely correct in all these things, of course. We should co-labor with God to pursue such ideals. But I’ve left countless services wondering just how I can make progress. What am I supposed to do? I’ve been treated to 45 minutes of destinations, but zero minutes of directions.
When pastors teach that we should be more patient (or joyful, or forgiving, or whatever), they should also teach how to become more patient (or joyful, or forgiving, or whatever). When instructing us to listen to God, they should also teach how to hear God in the first place. When encouraging believers to evangelize, they should share what works in persuading people to consider the claims of the gospel.
The best pastors recognize this issue and therefore seldom offer a “what to do” without a “how to do it.” They are highly practical in their teaching and continually sensitive to the question that’s on everyone’s mind: “You’re right pastor, but how do I get there?” As a result, their members walk out of each service with an action plan to make real progress that week and beyond.
This is no small issue. It’s futile to give people destinations without directions. It even borders on malpractice, since many people are demoralized by knowing how far they have to go without knowing how to get there. Just as we’d carefully spell out directions from A to B for a lost traveler, we should provide clear road maps for the many travelers making a pit stop in our pews.
7. Challenge People
Some churches go too far in this regard, but I think that’s a small minority. More likely, when you walk into a church today, you’ll find teachers unwilling to require much of their hearers. Perhaps they worry that if they present Christianity as difficult and present God as desiring us to change, people will reject their teaching. People will vote with their feet, or at least with their wallets, right? Not a pretty sight—so we preach cheap grace.
That’s a toxic assumption, and one that poisons many churches. Consider the demographics. Denominations that consistently challenge people to change are expanding, while those preaching low-cost Christianity are shrinking.
So challenge people to change. Challenge them to be introspective, to see themselves against the blazing benchmark of scripture, to become more sanctified, and to go out and change their little corner of the world for God’s kingdom. Show them that they’re on an adventure with God—an adventure that requires both courage and commitment.
That’s what Jesus did. He wasn’t a milquetoast guy, walking on eggshells so he wouldn’t offend people. He told it like it is and then said “go and sin no more.” He told it like it is and said “be perfect, just as your Father in Heaven is perfect.” He told it like it is and said “if they persecuted me, they’ll persecute you too.”
The call of God is both exciting and exacting. Indeed, churches that boldly speak the truth in love are growing, but more importantly, they’re growing real disciples.
8. Shorten the Sermon—and Focus It
Want to know the fastest way to depress a pastor? Have him ask people on Sunday night what points he made on Sunday morning. If you want to totally demoralize him, though, have him ask the question on Tuesday.
The sad reality is that in an era of information overload, we no longer remember the vast majority of what we hear—even the same day. We might remember the pastor’s tie and perhaps one of his jokes or stories, but the essential lessons are essentially gone.
Short of selling people a CD of the message and hoping they’ll listen again, what’s a pastor to do? How ‘bout this: leverage the principle that “less can be more.” Shorten the sermon. Make it 15 to 20 minutes. Twenty-five tops. A lot can be said in that time. I just read through the Sermon on the Mount—aloud and slowly—as part of my research for this article. It took fewer than twelve minutes.
“But I’ll have to cut out so much!” some will object. Exactly right. Nothing personal, but most of the time, that will be a good thing, not a bad thing from a pedagogical perspective. Rather than presenting three points or three steps, focus on one. Just one. And punch it repeatedly in the time allotted. Show it visually. Use humor to make the point. And especially, tell stories that illustrate it. That was Jesus’ approach to teaching—He told stories because people remember stories.
Pastors, consider this counsel from a speaker who’s learned this lesson the hard way. If you want people to remember what you teach, focus your message on one point and say it three times in an engaging way. Then sit down.
9. Eliminate the Prayer Speeches
…and consider praying the Lord’s Prayer once in awhile, as well. When Jesus taught how we should pray, He modeled a prayer that goes from zero to done in under 30 seconds. By contrast, lots our pulpit prayers are five to ten minutes long. Many prayers in our small groups and our Sunday schools are similar in length. Sometimes even our table prayers compel us to re-warm the gravy afterward.
One wonders whether we’re making the same mistake that some in Jesus’ day made—the mistake that caused Him to say: “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words” (Matthew 6:7-8).
Talking to God is a good thing, and we all need to do more of it, but we’d do well to remember that, as Jesus said: “your Father knows what you need before you ask Him” (Matthew 6:8). Perhaps the better way in our worship services is for the pastor to pray briefly and earnestly, and then allow the rest of us to pray or meditate in silence for a time.
10. Separate Out the Kids
Out of the mouths of babes…come a remarkable number of distractions for their beleaguered parents, as well as for those around them in the pews. Have pity on these huddled masses. If you really want people transformed by worship, help them to remain focused by providing a place for their kids during the worship service.
Of course, many churches already do this, but I’ve attended some that still adhere to the convoluted position that kids need to develop the habit of sitting through services. Never mind that they don’t understand the concepts presented or the passages of scripture; being there is “good for them.”
That’s pure folly. In fact, it’s anti-discipleship. Holding kids hostage in an adult worship service is counter-productive and certainly not what Jesus would do. Instead, He’d provide a separate place for them so that their parents could worship properly, and so that the kids could be taught in age-appropriate ways.
11. Serve the Coffee and Donuts before the Service
Maybe some bagels, too. The better the spread, the more people will show up to partake and to fellowship. As an added benefit, they’ll be on time for worship, too.
Perhaps most importantly, though, their worship experience might be enhanced. Let’s face it, people don’t get as much out of their worship time when they’re distracted by hunger or fatigue. So some churches have sought a remedy by offering the caffeine and carbs on the front end of worship. Seems to makes sense.
Not convinced? Maybe your church is in a position to experiment with this. If you have a break between services, offer the food and beverages between the services only, and see whether you discern any differences between the first and second service.
I know, I know: it’s an uncontrolled experiment and you can’t know conclusively whether the timing of the food has any effect. But try the experiment anyway and see what you can learn. If nothing else, at least you’ll have less set up and clean up time!
12. Ask the Congregation How to Improve the Worship Service
When the most successful organizations in the world want to improve their products or services, they survey their customers. Many churches have benefited from doing the same.
I do understand that some people bristle at the thought of applying management tools to the church, but these are neutral tools, created by God to help us steward His organizations. So why not use them for His purposes? That’s how Saddleback started and prospered. Rick Warren and his team went door to door surveying people in the community about their feelings toward church and why they didn’t attend. Then, based on those data, they created something that taught the gospel in more engaging ways. Now they’re teaching tens of thousands every week.
So one last tip: if you want ideas for improving your worship services, consider asking the consumers of your worship services what they like and don’t like; what ideas they have for improvement; what would help them meet God more consistently in that place. You don’t need to adopt an idea just because you solicit one, but remember the words of God’s wisdom book: “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisors they succeed” (Proverbs 15:22).
You have a congregation full of “advisors” ready and even eager to provide “counsel.” Have the humility to tap into their ideas and you’ll probably net at least another dozen ways to improve your worship service.
Michael Zigarelli, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Management at Charleston Southern University and the editor of the Christianity9to5.org