Ask a ‘missional church planter’ about how they plan to do ‘Sunday worship’ and the response might range from leery to apologetic to an explanation about how it might be a necessary evil. My own journey has reflected some of this.
Having seen churches focus almost entirely on the weekend experience, I found great hope in these words from Jurgen Moltmann in The Spirit of Life:
“Gathering and sending are related to one another like breathing in and breathing out. The important thing is therefore to view life in the everyday world as just as important as the gathering of the congregation in the feast of worship.”
I resonate with this description of the importance for the church’s public life in the ‘everyday world’. But, of course, he describes the necessity of both gathering and sending for a church’s vitality. And so our church, Austin Mustard Seed, is faithful to a weekly liturgy as a gathering of our people. Liturgy serves us well in our desire to be a relational and missionminded congregation. Here are five reasons why:
The word liturgy means ‘the work of the people’ and we say so every Sunday. It is a gathering of a people together for a shared experience, and not a tightly constructed program for an audience to watch.
We have found that a structured liturgy provides the means for many people to participate. On any given Sunday, as many as fifteen different voices might be heard offering spoken words in our liturgy, whether through scripted prayers, announcements, the sermon, or the publicly shared prayers of the people. And for those who don’t offer a spoken word of some kind, hearing so many other voices causes them to feel more engagement as a particpant than an observer.
The particpatory element has a very practical edge as well, as it offers a low barrier of entry to involve new people in the life of our congregation. On only our third week of liturgy, a young couple visited. They were new to Austin and working through a list in their search for a church to call home. As they left that day, they said they’d be back so I invited them to serve Eucharist the following week. They’ve since become core particpants, but it was months after that first visit that they told me inviting them to serve liturgy after only one visit is what caused them to stick with us.
Just coming out of the holidays, I’m reminded how much my kids hold on to traditions — even ones we didn’t try to create. More than once, they reminded us of something we did last year during the holidays that we ‘needed’ to do again. “It’s our tradition!” There is no shortage of tradition building to be found in Scripture as God prescribed the sacred festivals of the Old Testament.
For years, I approached Sundays in ministry with an expectation that we needed to do something fresh, unexpected and creative each week. Now we find that there is great value in coming back over and over to something familiar. To continue Moltmann’s metaphor above, we gather not to have our breath taken away by the unexpected, but to catch our breath amidst the rest of our turmoiled lives.
Each week, our liturgy follows the same order, and even offers some of the same scripted language throughout. The structure itself is not sacred, but it invites all who are present into the sacred moments of our prayers, songs, Scripture readings and Eucharist.
The decision on when a church should go public requires a fair amount of discernment. I’ve talked to many church planters who felt they went public too soon and their church became about the weekend service more than the people who were part of it.
In the case of Austin Mustard Seed, our impulse was to become good listeners and engaged residents of Austin, building connections in the city and with each other before having some kind of public gathering. This was significant for sure, but we waited too long. We didn’t feel ready for a public gathering when we started our liturgy, but we quickly saw the benefit of having a public space for those to come and get acquainted with who we were.
As one friend who’s done recovery work for years told me: “The thing about AA is that it has to be at the same time and place every week. People need to know that community is consistent and available to them.” Shouldn’t a church community offer the same kind of consistency?
As we were trying to determine when to start a public service, I had coffee with my friend Gideon Tsang, the pastor of another church in town that has been a beautiful partner in our journey, offering people and resources. We had a fluid crowd who were connected with us, but had struggled to develop a consistent core that could sustain the launch of a weekly service. Or so I thought.
“Why don’t you just rent out a space and start your liturgy?” Gideon asked.
“Because we don’t have enough people to get it started yet.”
“If I was starting again in a new city, I’d start a weekly liturgy even if I only had 15 people coming.”
I thought he was nuts, but I think he was right. The participatory nature of our liturgy means that it doesn’t feel as awkward with a smaller group of people. And we already knew what our liturgy would look like because we were going to structure it the same way as Gideon’s church Vox Veniae.
So, we ended up starting with about 35 people, most of whom were acquaintances at best, in a stale community center on a grey dreary October morn. But it immediately felt familiar to so many of us who had been participants in the same format at Vox Veniae. And as we work toward starting other neighborhood congregations, we believe it will only get easier to seed them with the same simple and familiar Sunday format, but with the benefit of more established relationships.
And finally, while our liturgy may be familiar to those who gather each week, it is unlike anything else we experience throughout the week. We see it as a meaningful timespace that disrupts our daily realities with a sacred connection.
This faithful pattern of good coffee, song, call and response, prayer alongside each other, Scripture, proclamation, fellowship, and Eucharist serve to orient us each week back to our identity as a people who partner in God’s ongoing work in our world. These repeated patterns of connection with God and congregation craft our identity, community and our selves.
No matter what operating system you favor, you likely recognize the benefit (and sometimes the necessity) of a reboot to clear out caches, cruft and perhaps even digital demons. So we see liturgy as a collective reboot, working through a shared experience that reminds us who we are and how we are meant to be.
Here is a sample of the prayers and order of our liturgy if you want to see how it is structured. The content of the prayers, the songs, and of course the sermon change each week, but the order and the intro to some of the prayers does not.
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