We all feel this as workers in the local church. The big service ends and the next Sunday it feels as if the oxygen levels in the church building are below half of usual. It has a name, this after-event nemesis: The Easter Wall. You have just put on one of the biggest events of the year. Easter–as well as Christmas–draw our largest crowds of people. After we indulge in that huge after-Easter nap, celebrate our team’s best foot forward, and warm from the afterglow of good vibes the normal time of year confronts us like a cinderblock wall at 30 miles per hour. We all have to go through the emotional and physical limitations of putting on our version of Super Bowl each Spring. We don’t regret it, no matter how tired we feel or how deep extra expenditures softened our budgets. The resurrection of our Lord deserves to be celebrated with as much splendor as we can muster. As the Psalmist sings, “Make his praise glorious!” Now that we had a great time, let’s get through the rest of the year.
What happens AFTER Easter? – How to keep worship GREAT between big Sundays!
When the house is less full with new visitors and lapsed worship attendees, we emotionally feel the empty pews screaming at us. “Why am I empty? I should be filled with enthused people–just like Easter!” No matter how loud the singing, those seats without people are hard to drown out. Our fully human ego, our deep heart to minister to people, and the visible opportunity cost of vacant seats hit us. That wall is a real thing, whether ministry veteran or newbie to the game. This is also true whether you have a modest parish or huge congregation. It is cultural and human to respond to the comparison of a large service to “normal time” the rest of the year. We simply do not like the “normal” regardless of how we can spin it!
Overcoming our addiction to event-driven ministry
In our culture, we worship the event. Our history of Revivalism here in America is all about coming forward and finding God at the mountain top. Whether the tents of earlier America or the converted warehouses of the end of the 20th Century, we are bathed in a methodology that drives people to a moment of conversion. Those who study conversion clearly see it more as a process, not an event. The Holy Spirit, of course, drives that process as we are drawn from sinner to the fold. Where we want to live is the mountain top rather than walk with people through the valleys. If all our dollars and energy are spent on crafting this Moses-like experience on Easter as well as any worship service, we surely will be exhausted.
The turnover rate of staff, worship leaders, pastors and movement of people from one church to another should give us enough information about the results of this fatigue. Those who admit they put on events actually may be fine with events as a goal. After all, they have a clear objective–attract people. The problem is this: What you attract people with is what you end up keeping them with. If you constantly drive the already converted to be converted, what are you converting them to? Worship becomes this manufactured mountain top rather than something that will stand the test of the darker times in the valley.
We must question and then overcome our addiction to event-driven ministry–especially, when we think of our 52-weeks-a-year worship. Do we want to walk with people or wow them? In church marketing circles–which is a real thing, by the way–the idea of creating “raving fans” and “branding” trump talks of spiritual formation and growth. Do we see worship on the weekends as part of the spiritual formation process of people, or as an event to attract them to? We should surely employ the tactics of marketing. After all, good marketing is about telling others your story and persuading them of your value, but an event will not be everything a person needs to grow his or her faith. We need Jesus all year long. How do we get past this wall of the Easter event and Sunday events? We think of each event as part of a process. People need relationships, not a programmed experience to sustain them. So do you want to keep people in the faith or impress them with good spiritual vibes? Both take work. Both get certain results. But the goals of each are not the same. What comes first? That is what we need to delineate in all of this.
Define the “win” of worship before, during, and after Easter
Here is a question to help clarify our objective. Where does Easter fit in the life of the disciple? I have been part of ministries that plan around behaviors rather than principals. For instance, people might give more money at the end of the year or refocus their lives at New Years. There is nothing wrong with designing worship and seasons to address these human movements as they are relevant and real. But are we only looking at tying one behavior to the next, or are we forming a person to be more like Jesus? How does worship fit as a primary part of the discipleship process? This will tell us what the objective of our weekend service is. As we define the “win”, we then will uncover the majority of the chaff needed to be burned away.
In chapter two of my book, The Six Hats of the Worship Leader, the visual tool “Pyramid of Execution” walks leaders through the process of building a successful worship service. At the top of the pyramid, the visible ministry that all experience in some way garners most of the conversation. “Why did people not sing that new song?” “It would surely be great to improve our quality of sound on Sundays, did you hear that feedback during the sermon?” “Our room is always too cold for the first service so that we don’t melt the people in the second one.” You can fill in the blanks about what your team talks about. Everyone has an opinion of worship, and they should, because they all were there.
The tension is that all do not see what it takes to put on a worship service, and as you descend to the invisible levels of the pyramid that build your team and services, you finally observe whether there is a foundation or not. That foundation defines your values and your purpose. But we in our busyness would rather spend our leadership meetings discussing the top items rather than bottom ones. Why? It’s because it’s visible and the seen that we all experience. We can dialog about this shared knowledge. It’s harder to discuss values and purpose as they may not be visible without intentionality. If we do not ask and answer the “Why?” about our services, we will forever be in atrophy or conflict, simply responding to what occurs in worship.
Our Sunday worship purpose is either ongoing spiritual formation or event evangelism
If we view Sunday morning as a continuation of Revivalism, we look to see conversions as the primary goal in the service. With the “Seeker Movement” of the 1980s and 1990s, we witnessed programming to create moments. The win came from answering the question: “Did we get that “moment” we hoped for this week?” Or, you might have asked, “Did more people raise their hands in decisions than last year’s Easter Sunday?” Beyond seeker sensitivity, behaviorism is often a part of worship objectives in contemporary worship. “Was our offering higher because of the sermon series on financial stewardship?” Event-driven purpose sees all events, including worship, there as a tool to change a behavior. The evaluation is based upon that goal.
So if you wish to attract, then maybe your worship team should only consist of attractive people. If you want to reach young folks, then your church might use marketing messages to gain that demographic. Some of this actually works. But is it the goal of our Sunday worship? Or is the primary aim of our service to aid in the spiritual formation of people? Often, we see participation and behavioral results from our programming as the objective. There is nothing wrong with selling people on the benefits of the Gospel; that is not the issue. But are we convinced that our techniques in behaviorism actually work longterm to build strong, healthy disciples? That is the question I would hope we answer in the affirmative!
Here is a huge loss for many of us. It is not often that a conversation about the purpose of a Sunday service would even exist! But if you cannot write your purpose on the church wall, it’s not your purpose. You should write “marketing” and “attracting people” on the wall if that is your goal, unclouded by spiritualized lingo. Or you can write something about learning to pray together and being in the presence of Jesus as is biblically promised. The following principal should be a filter in explaining why we do what we do in worship: The items in worship that require faith, rather than rely solely on our actions, are objectives we should cherish in worship. What do we have faith in? To experience the presence of Christ at his table and in our prayers and songs takes faith! We cannot program that or sell it solely as a benefit. We have to “believe” in the promises and then look into ourselves to see why that is happening or not in our church services. Theology should always inform our methodology, not the opposite. Who is God and what does his word promise us?
Programming matters, too, but we surround our plan and order of worship around what we know to be true beyond what our own efforts can accomplish. We may have skill to draw a crowd. However, when we invite people into the mystical presence of Jesus, we are taking a leap of faith. I do not think that seekers would be offended by religious people acting on something they believe in. What seems to be counterproductive is our success in wooing a crowd and then selling that activity as something more than it is. Gaining a crowd is not success. Of course, emptying your church because of bad leadership is another story. Regardless, what we measure must come from what transcends man’s version of success and overselling and under-delivering will alienate further those we wish to reach! It is NOT overselling to invite people to believe in the grace and love of Christ. We do not need to manipulate people to do that. We do that, of course, with great skill and intentionality. That skill and intentionality, however, is not that goal. That is the process.
Pace your worship services and your people throughout the year
As I mentioned in a previous article, tradition can help us there. The tradition of the Church Calendar plans out the year in such a way that, in a three-year process, the Gospels are preached weekly through the Lectionary and themes, beginning with the Incarnation and ending with our life in Christ after the Holy Spirit arrives at Pentecost, are mapped. Events like Christmas, Easter, Lent, and others propel to the next movement. Over time, each season of worship walks with the believer as they walk through their daily lives.
Steadiness requires less sprint and more skill in conquering pace and balance. We need energy to manage an entire year of a process. I am all for having faith, but even Jesus was limited in his body by time and space. This miracle of our God taking on dirt like his creation gives us a clue into how God works. We look to do big things, but we are not willing to think of how much the small things matter. For instance, how do you eat an Elephant? You eat one bite at a time! How do we get through 52 weeks of ministry? We break down each week and pace it out to the rhythm of the humanity God contains himself within. The Apostle Paul says we are a temple of the Holy Spirit! That temple has sleep and care needed as part of maintenance. This is why the Sabbath was given as a command. Our physicality may seem like a limitation, but was Jesus not fully God while housed within the same clay we reside in? Why should we look at our flow of seasons and human confinement as merely an obstacle to overcome? We might actually see God’s power more in that still small voice of being present with people than in the thunder of our sub woofers on Sundays.
One word used in ministry leadership training comes from business, but is sanitized to make it safe for church. A “BHAG” is a big, hairy, audacious goal. The concept is that we need big things to keep us driven and in motion. The Moon Shot of the late 1960s is a good example of a BHAG. There was a challenge to overcome–getting men to the moon and back safely–that contributed to advances discovered in the process of that goal. In ministry, do we have a BHAG? I propose that if our BHAG is not faith in people, but a drive for ambitious achievement, we burn out the church. Yes, we need to build education wings or worship centers. New churches should be planted. But the BHAG already exists! Could it be that we actually think smaller if we make our worship carry goals that it should not? Is not discipling people in a process that can sustain them over time a large goal? It is. However, our culture has an issue with the event addiction, as mentioned earlier.
Our pastors and volunteers all work very hard on these events. Planning rest and seasonal shifts is a good idea. Working to delegate is also important. Why do we value staff people who are rock stars rather than staff leaders who can build a team to do the work? We may be getting in the way of ministry by hoarding it. Practically speaking, anytime you create a single point of failure, you will see the 100-year flood the next rain. This is why the community is our value as a people of God. We are not individuals who come and worship as a group of individuals. We are mystically and spiritually intertwined as the stronger cords are. So, even how we send our people out should be with the mind that they are connected, even when apart.
Shedding myopic vision for dreaming
The last point to make here is that the long view always wins. Instead of BHAGs, we should have BHADs–big, hairy, audacious dreams! Dreams are bigger than the goals that get us there. The Moon Shot would be misunderstood, in my opinion, if we saw the goal as the success. The dream was to see America do the impossible because we have faith in our way of life and the people of our country. So President Kennedy should not be applauded as making a BHAG. He was a visionary. There is a difference. And, like I said, the long game is what should play–even in our weekly events of worship.
What does the general do when the war is fought and won? What if it’s not about simply fighting a war, but about protecting the innocent. There is a difference. The execution might be the same in the case of war, but the vision is a longer game than simply winning conflicts. The longer game is played to see every inning put scores in our column. The process then serves that vision of a free world and families who are safe. To love war to win it makes no sense. But to passionately fight for something motivates beyond the battle ground. In the same way, worship services might be the battles, with our big services being huge campaigns. We still must function and win during the off season as well. A longer view helps us do that.
What is a dream for worship? If we can be motivated by seeing the cycles of life in our people, we might be able to envision how, over time, what we do each week succeeds. The idea of our efforts seeing knee-jerk responses to calls to action can be moderated by a commitment to entrench the habits of prayer and reading the Word in our congregation. We may be able to see that what we are serving is not our product. The dream really is simply a vision with the eyes of faith. We then ask a question like this: “What might the presence of Christ inspire people to?” We can look to the fruits of the Spirit. You see, the fruits are visible representation of what is actually growing the fruit. We don’t yell at people and tell them to grow peaches. We plant and water peach trees. In worship, we need to dream about how to plant people as the trees they are meant to be, watering them and seeing the long process from sapling to producing fruit.
The process is small if you see the tree moment by moment. With our microwaved attention span, our ministry might seem to be standing. As worship as a ministry performs our task, we help mark the time just as rings in a tree tell the story of its past seasons. Are roots deepening through what we do? Are there more and more trees being planted, taking the time to enjoy the soil we prepare for them? There is nothing longer term than farming a tree rather than annual crops. And reforestation is possible–given time. Are we willing to look at worship as taking the time to show results? If Jesus is the meal, we should have no worries about how well our church is being fed.
Some pointers to keep worship great all year long
I hope that you are encouraged about releasing the pressure of instant results and have less reason to panic at the fluctuations of the seasons. Just to be clear, we do put on 52 or more events a year. We program these. We plan them with care. We freely have tools and skills we should employ to move people in a direction. However, what we see as primary is what matters most. Does our method define ministry or our purpose? Here is a list to help you get started in the direction.
Recruit two classes of volunteers. There are what I call project based and ongoing ministry servants and leaders. There will be times the troops need refreshment. The huge project of Easter, for instance, requires a few extra hands. These roles can be set well ahead of time and recruited. People who for various reasons cannot serve weekly or even once a month still can be in significant roles. This relieves the regular troops.
Develop an off-season project team. Once you create the culture of project-based participation, it might make sense to create a summer team to give the ongoing servants some Sabbath. The best way to develop leaders is to let them lead. This allows smaller bites to be chewed and digested instead of overwhelming a volunteer. Also, trial and error are how many discover their gifts. These projects allow for that.
Budget something special halfway between Easter and Christmas. Your lowest day may be near the July 4 holiday. Why not create a special Sunday or event to spice up the summer. This could be a worship concert, having a guest musician in services, or training event. The point is to force some balance away from the largest services in the year. Balance requires choices like these.
Teach on worship at a Bible study or when appropriate during worship services. The most public and exposed thing we do in ministry is worship on Sundays, and it often is the least discussed. We assume people share the values. I love it when a pastor weaves bits of teaching to explain to both the old guard and newcomer what is going on in the services. Where did baptism come from? Why do we sing? What is prayer?
I hope these thoughts will encourage your services to be great every week of the year! What ideas or concerns can we discuss together? Comment below.