You know how when you build a campfire it’s important to keep all the logs grouped together? (I don’t actually know this from firsthand experience since I am not a camper… but it seems to be true based on what I’ve seen on TV…) When campers or firemen or Smokey the Bear wants to extinguish a fire, they make sure to spread the fuel out, to separate the burning logs so that the fire goes out more quickly.
When God established the Church he grew it from a tiny spark that spread into a magnificent fire, transforming lives from every nation! But from that very first day, the enemy has been trying to separate us and divide us so that our fire will be extinguished. God created us each different and unique but we have allowed our differences to become walls that divide us.
“On this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” Matthew 16:18
Worshiping with unity and diversity does not come easy. But it’s definitely worth the effort for that little taste of heaven! So, I thought I’d share some practical tips based on what we’ve learned about doing worship together based on our almost 4 years of experience. These are in no particular order and may or may not be true for every situation… but these principles have worked for us and may be helpful for you as well.
- Unified and diverse worship works best when based on personal relationships. In our situation, the pastors or leaders of each church represented meet together to plan the service. The actually spend about 10 minutes planning and the rest of the time sharing their own personal struggles and praying for one another. The leaders who have built personal relationships with one another tend to work better together and are more committed to making the services happen in spite of the difficulties.
- No egos allowed. Some people are natural speakers and others work better behind the scenes. My husband MC’s each worship service by introducing each church group and helping the program to flow smoothly. But even though he is the one on stage the most, he always includes the other pastors during the prayers or time of response. All the churches have equal time and importance. No one church should dominate or take over the service. The churches even take turns hosting the service each quarter so that no one has more work than they can handle or more credit than they need.
- Focus on unity. Emphasize the things that we all have in common: we all love God, we all want to serve Him, we all have been forgiven. That is why in our services there is no preaching. Yes, you heard that right. An entire church service with NO PREACHING! That is a rule my husband (a preacher) has stood firm on. We want to focus on what unites us, not what divides us. Since our events are made up of churches from a wide variety of denominations, preaching would highlight our differences. Some believe in laying hands & healing, some do not. Some believe in speaking in tongues, some do not. Some believe in eternal security, some do not. Some believe in only using the King James Bible, others use modern translations. Some believe in a verse by verse interpretation of Scripture and others use the Bible to support their topics. Some don’t mind getting political, others avoid it. Some prefer a calm and educational sermon presented in outline form while others prefer lots of sweatin’ & shoutin’. See what I mean? Those are the things that we disagree on. That’s one of the reasons we all attend different churches… But when we get together, we can all agree that God loves us and the world, that Jesus is the only way to heaven, and that the Holy Spirit is the source of our strength. That is a good foundation for worship!
- Celebrate the differences. Don’t expect each church to worship the same way you do. Do your members raise their hands or clap during the music? Great! But don’t expect everyone to do that. Do you feel more comfortable with quiet songs played on piano? That’s fine! But don’t walk out when the band starts beating the drums. In my opinion, the most fun thing about these services is that I get to do things that I wouldn’t normally do at my own church. Honestly, if I were to sway and clap or shout during the singing on most Sundays, I would feel out of place. But surrounded by people who worship in many different ways, I can freely worship from my heart without fear of standing out in the crowd! I love hearing songs I’ve never heard before, worshiping along with instruments I don’t normally use, and lifting my voice in a language that is not familiar (at least I’m hoping to do so soon…there is a Hispanic worship band planning to join us at our next service! How fun!)
- Give a lot of GRACE. Jeff says all the time that maintaining a relationship is more important than being right. What he means by that is that we all have our own opinions of the right way to do things. But sometimes we have to put aside our idea of the “right way” in order to show grace to the people we love. When we love one another and worship together it doesn’t matter if someone is off-key or the music is too loud. If someone starts speaking in tongues or gets “slain in the Spirit” my Baptist buddies get a little nervous, but we give grace because it is more important that we worship together in unity than argue about what we think is the right way to worship. In these services we emphasize that there is something for everyone…but that probably means that there’s also something that you won’t enjoy. But that shouldn’t stop us from worshiping together! “Love covers a multitude of offenses.” 1 Peter 4:8
I sure do wish I had some pictures to post here. But I’m usually so busy worshiping during these services that I don’t even think to take any! So here is a word-picture description of a typical worship celebration:
Every 5th Sunday approximately 200 people cram into a sanctuary that’s not used to holding more than 50 on any a normal Sunday (all of our participating churches are small: averaging 20-80 people each).There are normally 8-12 churches represented. Everyone mixes and mingles as best we can in such a tight space as Jeff puts the order of service together and the different groups give instructions to the sound guys. At 5:00pm Jeff gets everyone settled down and asks the host church pastor to open in prayer. Some churches occasionally arrive late, but we’re learning to be flexible. Jeff introduces the groups as they step up to give their presentations. Each church does 2-3 songs or skits. (See yesterday’s post for a sample of what you might see) Sometimes you sit and watch as God uses their talents for His glory, and other times you get to get up and participate in the singing & clapping. Either way, it’s worshipful and God-focused… and FUN!
Sometime during the evening, we will take up an offering. This should not surprise anyone, because I don’t care what your background is… you can’t have a church service without an offering. Amen? 🙂 Each service our offering goes towards a specific cause. We have given to support disaster relief in Haiti, provide food for one of the participating church’s food banks, to help local families whose homes were destroyed by floods, and to buy supplies to renovate the home of a young man in one of the youth groups who had been in a terrible accident and become paralyzed. The purpose of each offering was something close to the hearts of the pastors and that love trickled down into the hearts of their people. How great to not only worship but also to do ministry together with one another!
After two hours the service comes to a close. Some wish it would keep going and others wish it would stop sooner… that’s where grace comes in. But two hours is the best compromise we’ve been able to do to keep as many people continuing to participate as possible. We always end with a call to respond. Usually it’s a brief presentation of the Gospel with Scripture, a drama, or a personal testimony. Then all the pastors from all the churches move to the front so that if people need to make a spiritual decision, they have plenty of people they can talk to. This not only allows every pastor to minister in the way he knows best, and also presents a wall of unity for all to see. I love it!
According to my daughter, the best part is last. After the service we all gather in the gym or fellowship hall for food! Sometimes it’s a full meal but usually it’s just drinks and desserts. Everyone brings something to share and then sits around getting to know one another outside the service. The first time we did this, Jeff had to remind everyone to mix and mingle… everyone had drifted into what felt comfortable and were only sitting with their own church people! He joked and cajoled until he made everyone get up and sit by someone they didn’t know! It was the funniest thing…but also the best thing!
Unity and diversity does not come naturally. Leading these services is not easy. Each and every church that has been a part of this movement has come under spiritual attack. Some have stopped participating. Others are still hanging on in the midst of their own battles. But this is God’s plan: to show the world a little taste of heaven here on earth. This is the kind of CHURCH that the gates of hell will not prevail against!
PS… Our next Community Worship Celebration is scheduled for April 29. I will try to take some pictures. Please pray that God would continue to strengthen our churches as we worship together!