By Chris Brooks
I have been in a lot of worship services. Chances are, so have you.
I’ve spent the last 16 years of my life either planning, programing, or preaching for some sort of gathering. These gatherings span all the way from youth to college age to twenty-somethings. And if I wasn’t doing these things, I was planning on planning.
But I when I joined a church staff as pastor to university students, I quickly realized that there were a lot things I needed to unlearn, learn, and relearn about large group gatherings.
Here are five myths I had to learn to avoid. I hope you can learn to overcome them too.
Myth #1: Every large group gathering needs to be exceedingly better than the one before it. I naturally strive for powerful, creative, and innovative large group gatherings, but that can easily turn into worshiping worship. I want my disciples to be able to distinguish between creativity and novelty. After a year of running ourselves ragged trying to do something totally different an original each week, we came up with a policy: establish the template before you break it. For us, that meant that over time we developed a liturgy of sorts, a structure to worship that we will tweak here and there every week. Now that we have that established structure, on the nights when we do break our norm our students are freed to try new things because of the trust equity we have built up.
Myth #2: If you focus on discipleship, your large group gathering will suffer. In the last year, we have restructured our ministry in such a way that our large group gathering no longer monopolizes or gets the lion’s share of time and resources. We did this in order to focus on creating a sustainable and repeatable model of discipleship in which all of my team is personally involved. I was well aware that this might hurt our large group numbers. But the crazy thing is it has actually made our large group gatherings better. Why? For starters, we are gathering to celebrate the discipleship and mission that is happening all throughout the week, not looking for a substitute for it.
Myth #3: If its going to be good, you’re the one who has to do it. While it may take some time to establish a culture of preparation, excellence, and innovation for your large group gathering, this does not mean only you can do it. I had to get to a place where I realized that if our large group gathering was ultimately contingent upon the leadership of one or two people (usually the preacher and the worship leader), then something was tragically wrong with my leadership — namely discipleship. I used to think “protecting the stage” or “protecting the mic” conveniently meant that only myself and a very few others could ever share or contribute. Now I try to get as many people involved as possible. I still use discernment and structure to set people up for success. I realize this takes more time than if I just did it myself. But it’s worth it. One of our students’ favorite services (yes, I ask) is when we spend the entire night telling stories of our people, triumphant and tragic alike. Hearing this, I am thrilled and not threatened by the fact that God speaks just fine even without me preaching.
Myth #4: Being cheesy is the worst mistake you could ever make. Avoiding risk and playing it safe all the time is the worst mistake you can make. This goes for worship leaders who aren’t satisfied just singing songs but who want to lead, pastor, and teach students old and new forms and postures of worship. This goes for me as a preacher. I take risks by looking silly, by doing some pretty over-the-top object illustrations, and by making room in the sanctuary for a wide variety of tactile responses to God. I had to stop being paralyzed by fear of failure and become liberated, with the consent of my team, to risk making it memorable. We will try (almost) anything if it brings the text alive in a fresh way. Over the last couple of months, this has included: flying a kite in the room to talk about the Holy Spirit as wind, making it rain money from ceiling (only $100 in ones) for the parable of the treasure hidden in field, actually throwing pearls to a pig to talk about throwing pearls to pigs, doing the imposition of ashes on our Ash Wednesday prayer service (by the way, I serve in a Baptist church), taking communion by having everyone come forward and walk through a 40-foot wide curtain to experience the significance of Jesus ripping the veil in to the Holy of Holies, telling personal stories that include the ones where I don’t look very spiritual, and using cracked eggs to talk about brokenness. And that’s not even the complete list. This leads me to the next myth.
Myth #5: By now this should be easy for you. It’s not! Leading the “assembled” requires an incredible amount of prayer and preparation. This is why I have to diligently protect my personal prayer and devotional life, as well as carve out creative times to stimulate thought and imagination. This is why I highly value collaboration, preparation, and evaluation. This is why half the creative things I described above were ideas I got from someone else and then adapted. Of course don’t be lazy, but please don’t be so prideful that you can’t use someone else’s inspired ideas. (After all, that’s what commentaries are, right?) I love creating and implementing original ideas that I come up with, but in my ministry setting I simply cannot focus all of my energies in that direction. The hardest thing for me is to simply determine a clear and concise direction or purpose for the evening and then center the whole night around that. If we don’t know where we are headed, then how can we expect our flock to follow us? Great spontaneity comes from great preparation.
These are some of the myths I am currently working through in my setting. How about you? Share them in the comments and we’ll talk about them.