Worship is one of the first experiences of a congregation that newcomers might have, and it therefore becomes an opportunity for the church to introduce itself to outsiders. When potential members or other visitors encounter a congregation in worship, they get a feel for who the congregation is, how adherents relate to one another, what some of the church programs are, and thus what it stands for. In repeated worship experiences, the contours of the congregation and its vocation become clearer and clearer.

How does congregational worship articulate a church’s calling? Vocational interpretation arises out of the public nature of worship. Worship is a corporate, public activity, open not only to members of the congregation but also to newcomers and guests. On Sunday morning leaders stand on the boundary between the church and the world, welcome all who choose to attend, and give explicit religious meaning to the work of the congregation. Whether they intend to or not, leaders inevitably send signals in worship about how a congregation views and ministers to the world. In worship, leaders help those present understand what the gospel says and what its implications are for congregational life and mission, as they interpret the Scriptures for their particular place and time, announce opportunities for volunteer service and participation, and welcome newcomers to this assembly.

The Congregation and Its Vocation
Congregations are like human beings. No two are alike, and no two express their faith in exactly the same way. Like any individual Christian, each congregation can be said to have its own vocation. That is, God calls each congregation to live faithfully in a particular time and place, within the constraints of its capacities and perceptions of itself and the world.

Congregational vocations take shape through the interactions of a church with the world around it. Every congregation is involved with the world, whether it wants to be or not, because the boundaries between the congregation and the world are porous. As ethicist H. Richard Niebuhr pointed out more than fifty years ago, even church bodies that think of themselves as living in opposition to the world are unsuccessful at separating themselves completely. Whether the congregation and its world are trying to avoid each other, change each other, or live in a different configuration, there is always movement between the two.1 For good or ill, the world has an impact on the congregation, and the congregation affects its world.2 Consequently, one of the challenges that falls to clergy and lay leaders is to interpret for current or potential members, other institutions, and strangers how a church relates to its world—its vocation.3 The interplay of four factors shapes vocational understanding and practice:

  1. People: How a congregation understands its members and the people around them is central to its vocation. Are its members thought of as family members, strangers who gather weekly, an assortment of smaller groups, a holy remnant, or something else? How does the congregation experience the people around it—as neighbors, strangers, allies, enemies, or some combination of these or other categories?
  2. Context: Also important to vocation is how a congregation understands and interprets the world around it. Is the world dangerous or inimical to the church? Is it a benign influence on religious life? Does it support religious life? A church’s world includes its cultural, economic, and political contexts, and the congregation’s perception of how its context limits its work or opens it to new avenues of mission and service.
  3. Theological Orientation: Every congregation articulates how God calls it to relate to others and to minister in its world. This interpretation makes explicit the sometimes taken-for-granted theological assumptions that churches make when they consider people and contexts, and helps the congregation see how it is called to follow God as an institution set in a particular place and time.
  4. Action: Every congregation ministers through everyday activities that help it bear witness to its faith. These actions are the fourth factor that reflects and shapes a church’s vocation.

None of these factors stands alone in a congregation’s experience, of course. They inform each other, and it is the interweaving of these self-understandings, contextual interpretation, theological perspective, and action that create the fabric of a church’s vocation.

1. H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper and Row, 1951).
2. Jackson W. Carroll, “The Congregation as Chameleon: How the Present Interprets the Past” in Congregations: Their Power to Form and Transform, edited by C. Ellis Nelson, 43–69 (Atlanta: John Knox, 1988).
3. Ibid.

Adapted from Worship Frames: How We Shape and Interpret Our Experience of God, copyright © 2008 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2008, the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. We encourage you to share Alban Weekly articles with your congregation. We gladly allow permission to reprint articles from the Alban Weekly for one-time use by congregations and their leaders when the material is offered free of charge. All we ask is that you write to us at alban@div.duke.edu and let us know how Alban Weekly is making an impact in your congregation. If you would like to use any other Alban material, or if your intended use of Alban Weekly does not fall within this scope, please submit our reprint permission request form.



AL367_SMWorship Frames: How We Shape and Interpret Our Experience of God  by Deborah J. Kapp

In worship we encounter God’s gracious presence and come face to face with the frailty, goodness, and potential of our humanity. We are comforted, corrected, forgiven, healed, challenged, and sometimes even disturbed by the divine and one another. The mysterious and uncontrollable work of the Spirit is at the heart of all genuine worship. Yet worshipers and leaders work hard to worship. In Worship Frames, Deborah Kapp explores how the sociological concept of frames can help us better understand the social and human dynamics of worship. By understanding our frames, she contends, we can learn how to reframe worship to give fuller and richer expression to our faith.


AL327_SMThe Work of the People: What We Do in Worship and Why  by Marlea Gilbert, Christopher Grundy, Eric T. Myers, and Stephanie Perdew

Despite its centrality to church life, worship is too often taken for granted as something a congregation experiences rather than collectively creates. This book simply and clearly explains the structure of worship, the actions and words we use in liturgy, the environment in which it all happens—in other words, what we are doing and why. It will guide congregations in worshiping in a way that encourages participants