Spiritual vitality and newfound creativity are natural outcomes when God-centered congregational vision finds expression in worship. Over the years, my worship planning with colleagues would wander and weave through holy texts and themes with only an occasional nod toward local projects or plans. Admittedly, this deficit in local focus was often deliberate. Perhaps I was afraid to sully the eternal purposes of God with the pedestrian plans of parish ministry. At times, we neglected the formative potential of vision simply because our structure and content for weekly worship planning was driven by inherited local or denominational design. Lately, however, I have come to understand that when the guiding vision for a congregation has been formed by a structured conversation about God’s calling for a particular place and time, that guiding vision—a God-centered vision—needs to be voiced in the weekly worship narrative of God’s people. After all, since worship is always a local encounter with the God of ages, why would I, or any spiritual leader, choose to exclude a confirmed and articulated path that a congregation has deemed to be of God?
In fact, worship is the most consistent and powerful way a congregation experiences God in its life together. Sometimes these transforming experiences defy easy explanation. Perhaps this is because worship can somehow push our sensibilities with a profound and often inchoate kind of force. However, worship also provides a kind of “sense making” for our life together. It is able to create a patterned framework by which we come to understand what God is doing in our midst.
Maxine Dick, a faithful octogenarian from the congregation I served in Arizona, once described the meaning-making power of worship for our life together. There was one line in a prayer offered when concluding the Lord’s Supper that shaped her experience: You have given yourself to us, Lord, now we give ourselves for others. “In communion,” she said, “I remember the dedication, love, and sharing of those I’ve known through the years in church. Then I think about all of our own doing and teaching and helping. All of those things are reinforced for me in worship. Those are things that we dedicate ourselves and rededicate ourselves to do.”1 For Maxine, worship was an anchor of vision—of dedication, love, and sharing—for the common course we shared by faith day by day.
Although this article is about worship as a vehicle to promote local vision, a cautionary note is useful when treating this subject. While worship gives spiritual voice to local stories, it is nonetheless our holy bond to all peoples of the world who are claimed by God’s eternal embrace. Like faith itself, our worship of God is a gift to be treasured. Yet that gift is not to be claimed as a tool of personal privilege. If a local vision is to be effectively woven into the worship life of a congregation, that vision must reflect rigorous and prayerful discernment such as Gil Rendle and Alice Mann have described in Holy Conversations: Strategic Planning as a Spiritual Practice for Congregations (Alban Institute, 2003) or Roy Oswald offered in Discerning Your Congregation’s Future: A Strategic and Spiritual Approach (Alban Institute, 1996). When vision is faithfully discovered, it is never detached from a wider view of God’s people and purposes.
So, then, if a congregational vision is prayerfully discovered in structured conversation, the worship life of a church can promulgate vision in a number of ways: it can strengthen our sense of identity; it can challenge and change our perspective; and it can help to connect our personal and congregational stories to the larger story of God’s work in the world.
We Love Because God First Loved Us
Since congregational identity plays an important role in developing vision, worship naturally strengthens vision because identity is routinely formed by the weekly content and patterns of worship.
Picture a pastor taking an infant in her arms and speaking the following words with love to the child:
“It was for you that Jesus Christ came into the world;
It was for you that he conquered death;
Yes, for you, little one, you who know nothing of it as yet.
We love because God first loved us.”
One of the great gifts we share in worship is the opportunity to remember who we are and how we are called to live. Worship strengthens our sense of identity and purpose. This spiritual strength is shared through explicit articulation as well as by means of gestured demonstration.
Sometimes our focus on individual experience in worship distracts us from ways that God steadily forms a congregation over time through prayer and praise. My research into the worship life of congregations has consistently discovered ways by which worship builds mutual identity and purpose within a congregation. A number of dynamics reinforce the self-awareness of a congregation through worship.
For instance, common identity grows in proportion to a sense of belonging. This sense grows from the moment a congregant first encounters familiar or friendly faces in the parking lot of a church. Our most basic human connections are created between individuals whose conversations frame the personal daily realities of life. People rarely begin common journeys out of a vacuum with a disembodied set of ideas. Common direction is best cultivated when there is a shared sense of belonging. Cindy Dunn, another member of my Arizona congregation, told me about the way she chose to return the kindness she had received when she had lived through a painful divorce:
There was a lot of bad stuff going on back then. Yet, at church, people were nice to me. People spoke to me and I felt good. So now I usually speak to people on Sunday. If I haven’t seen some person for a while, I usually either touch them or give them a hug. I feel like that’s just part of Sunday morning worship—to be with the ones you love and care about. I do this because I remember [that] many people are just hoping someone will ask them about the events of their life.2
Cindy claimed a vision of the church and her role within it because she knew it was a place where she belonged to others.
Another way a congregation builds its sense of identity is by the repetition of simple phrases and gestures. Often these simple repetitions are the frequent object of criticism from those who claim worship is dry or rote. Yet every time I speak to a child the ancient words of scripture and Huguenot baptismal practice, “We love because God first loved us,” my congregation listens with an intensity rarely displayed at other points in the service. Repeated phrases and actions shape the soul with vision. Words or gestures will be devoid of meaning only when we fail to place the imprint of personal concern into our leadership in worship.
Of course, another way the identity of a congregation grows is by the way a leader judiciously and intentionally incorporates themes of local vision into the proclamation and meta-narratives of worship. A spiritual leader is called to pay attention for the congregation. This means a leader articulates any perception of local purpose and vision in texts or circumstances that are addressed in worship. When a congregation affirms a narrative set of phrases as the outcome of spiritual discernment for vision, worship leaders should be on the hunt for opportunities to voice those phrases throughout the weekly narrative of worship.
Lifting Our Eyes Higher
Vision in the life of a congregation often generates change, so worship becomes a primary means by which we expect God to intrude upon and challenge our routines.
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills. From whence cometh my help? My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.—Psalm 121
A vision from God often comes in surprising ways. When I have listened to my congregation’s dream about God’s future, I routinely discover opportunities I had never imagined before. Sometimes the vision requires the challenge of course correction or adjustment for a congregation. Worship is able to provide a framework of health and well-being in which a divine challenge can be placed.
I should caution that this dynamic of vision in worship needs to be treated with great care. A manipulative or even abusive application of driven purposes by we who offer spiritual direction can injure or weaken future constructive opportunities to cast local vision. There are some helpful preventive measures that I have learned to employ in order to ground my worship leadership in God-centered vision. The most important of these is to remind the congregation of the spiritual discernment process that established its vision. This doesn’t require a dissertation. It can be as simple as a prefatory remark mid-sermon or a reminder such as, “When we prayed our way toward this vision…” Likewise, any printed or posted material that is accessible during worship ought to include some reference to shared vision and the process that developed that vision.
Another preventive for the leader is to cultivate an authentic and relatively non-anxious worship presence. Sometimes leaders can obscure God’s vision when their personality or ego strength is too wrapped up in the successful implementation of vision. I have learned to wrap any “vision speak” or “project talk” in worship with a healthy dose of honest humility. Sincere speech needs to reflect authentic attending to God’s leading, with words such as, “We are trusting that God will guide our ministry …” If preventives such as these are borne in mind, the spiritual vision of a congregation can appropriately challenge a people through worship together. God’s future can surprise us in specific acts of worship, such as prayer, proclamation, and sacrament.
The biblical foundation my current congregation claimed for its vision included the phrase from Luke 5:11, “They left their nets and followed him,” so I began one recent prayer with the words, “Jesus, when you asked us to follow you, did you mean today?”
The act of prayer places our particular projects in direct dialogue with the Divine Author of a grander narrative. Through prayer our ministries are put into the steady and refining presence of God. Prayer allows honest public assessment of a congregation’s sinful confusion or misdirection. It centers our strongest yearnings and hope in the trustworthy hands of God.
This element of worship is perhaps the most practical way our corporate spiritual life connects with the personal spiritual prayers and dreams of each individual congregant. It creates stakeholders in the congregation’s vision. Prayer helps people understand that the challenges they undertake are intimately connected to the heart of God.
I regularly pray for the right words to speak in worship. So, in preparation for Christian worship, I pay careful attention to the way Jesus spoke to the people he met. His speech routinely startled listeners’ imagination into action. The primary means for this challenge was Jesus’s use of parable. Scholar C. H. Dodd wrote that a parable is “a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”3 This is what good proclamation is able to accomplish in the midst of worship—it arrests us and teases us into action. The so-called “crisis theology” of Karl Barth used larger words to describe a practical reality that good preaching affirms in weekly worship: the Word of God is disruptive and creative in its character.
Admittedly, sometimes the overly dramatic can distract us from the workings of God. Yet there is a quality of vision that is almost always disruptive. A vision-inspired sermon can effectively pound upon the spirit to wedge us out of periods and patterns of stagnation.
Consider the words regularly shared in the Eucharist: “This is my body, broken, for you” or “Their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.” In my tradition, a sacrament stands in necessary relationship to the Word proclaimed. If preaching articulates something broken that God’s local vision can mend, sacraments can intensify a congregation’s spiritual focus to help them discover a new future God intends. Sacramental activity in worship engages a congregation in gesture and repeated phrases and, through a larger narrative, disrupts daily routine to establish new patterns for life together.
I Love to Tell the Story
Worship life is critical to vision because worship is the structured weekly conversation through which our local story is woven into the fabric of God’s larger narrative.
I love to tell the story, for those who know it best,
Seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest.
And when, in scenes of glory, I sing the new, new song,
’Twill be the old, old story that I have loved so long.4
A God-centered local vision gathers new projects and discovers the way these dreams are carefully woven into a familiar story of God’s saving purposes. Worship leaders are called to stand within a spiritual breach, bridging heaven and earth. In our attempts to fill that intermediary role, we regularly structure holy conversation in the way we arrange the order of worship, select texts, and announce the activity of God in our midst.
In our church, at the close of every infant baptism an elder calls upon a child to bring a Bible to the parents of the newly baptized. The elder tells these parents that we hope their child will come to discover the way in which his or her story is a part of God’s larger story of love for the world. This is an intentional yet unobtrusive reminder that our congregation is a narrative community where our lives are linked through conversation, faith, and experience.
We make choices about patterns for worship in frequency and sequences that transmit the character of our common life and project the vision we prayerfully believe God intends. Indeed it is possible to mangle the holy things we touch and structure if we create disjunctive intrusions of slogans or gimmicks. Yet our calling is to confidently craft the participation of God’s people in the work of the spirit. Thus we kindle vision according to the way we arrange the order of worship.
If you look at my Bible you will see that the edges of the gospel pages are worn more than those of Leviticus or other ancient texts. Yet when my Arizona congregation envisioned a rejuvenation of its worship life and a consequent renovation of our sanctuary, our stewardship consultant told me I needed to turn to 1 Chronicles, chapter 29. I couldn’t find 1 Chronicles in my lectionary resources, but we were in need of David’s challenge to the commanders of hundreds and thousands: “Who, then, will offer willingly, consecrating themselves today to the Lord?”
While preachers must always be on guard against the dangers of eisegesis, perhaps we should recognize the fact that certain occasions demand the voice of particular texts. We recently completed a season preaching through a “vision path” of actions connected to our local vision. The lectionary did not lend itself to this timely focus in our congregation, so I departed from it but disciplined and restricted my text selections to Jesus stories from the gospel of Luke (much in the
way the lectionary follows a particular book for a season). As the season progressed, congregants began to voice the way the vision we had affirmed was becoming more practical and explicit every day.
Perhaps I was beginning to follow the advice of the Rev. James Meeks, who leads the mammoth Salem Baptist Church in urban Chicago. He recently told an assembly of pastors that they needed to “preach the announcements.” Too often the weekly press to add “just one more” announcement in worship crushes both leader and people into a dulled stupor of uninspiring detail. Yet if we are attentive to text, occasion, and structure in worship, the activity of the church can be articulated in a range of enticing and meaningful ways. “Preaching the announcements” requires a spiritual conviction that our ministries are indeed a visual reflection of the call that God holds for our life together. If we are attentive to our people and God’s leading, the work of worship is a spiritual craft that weaves our stories into a larger fabric of faith.
Seeing Worship and Ministry in a New Way
A God-inspired vision for our congregations should freely flow through the worship life that we share. There may be necessary cautions along the way to keep us from petty personal preferences in the great work of leading God’s people in praise. However, a spiritual vision that has been embraced to guide a congregation forward will be most powerfully embodied if it finds expression in the worship of God’s people. Vision in worship builds identity, faithfully challenges, and shapes the narrative of all that God can do. I pray that your congregation will discover the vitality my congregations and I have found in sharing vision through worship.
1. Maxine Dick, interview by author, Phoenix, Arizona, January 14, 1999.
2. Cindy Dunn, interview by author, Phoenix, Arizona, January 18, 1999.
3. Charles Harold Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (New York: Charles Schribner’s Sons, 1961), 5.
4. From the hymn “I Love to Tell the Story,” the lyrics of which are based on Arabella Katherine Hankey’s poem “The Old, Old Story” (1866).