Sunday Morning at First Church: A Story About Blended Worship

Pastor Stephens pulled into the church parking lot at 8:30 AM. As he unlocked the front door of the sanctuary, he noticed Bill and Lucille’s van parked near the side entrance. After opening the sanctuary doors, he walked to the kitchen where he found Bill and Lucille pouring Welch’s grape juice into tiny communion cups. Although pastor Stephens lobbied for years to use a common cup for the Lord’s Supper, he finally gave up the battle. Concern for germs won out over concern for symbolism. Still, the bigger battle had been won. First Church now celebrated communion twice per month, a fact that made pastor Stephens extremely happy.

After some small talk with Bill and Lucille, pastor Stephens walked to his office. He looked again at the order of worship. He noticed that the church secretary misspelled one of the hymn titles. However, in spite of that minor detail, the worship bulletin looked fine. Pastor Stephens reviewed the service one final time. Under his leadership, First Church now ordered their worship services around five major movements. Their order of worship clearly outlined the five movements:

We Gather to Worship God …
We Listen to the Word of God …
We Respond to the Call of God …
We Celebrate at the Table of God …
We Depart to Serve God ..

As pastor Stephens looked over his sermon notes, he glanced out his office window into the church parking lot. Numerous cars pulled up and people began walking into the church. Pastor Stephens asked himself, as he had many times before, What really brings these people to this place week after week? It always amazed him to him to see people pull into the parking lot Sunday after Sunday and walk into the church.

Pastor Stephens glanced at his watch. Mable, director of the Adult III Sunday School Department, had called earlier that morning. Her arthritis was acting up and she asked pastor Stephens if he would preside at the opening assembly of her department. He happily agreed. Pastor Stephens loved the senior adults at First Church. They had been among his best supporters since beginning this pastorate four years earlier.

After leading the opening assembly for Mable, pastor Stephens met with the lay worship leaders for the morning service. Final details were reviewed and the Lord’s Table was put in order. Worship would begin shortly. Pastor Stephens left the sanctuary, put on his pulpit robe and stole, and met with several church leaders for a brief time of prayer.

We Gather To Worship God

At 10:30 AM, Jane, the church organist, and Mark, a trumpet player, began the prelude. It was listed in the order of worship as “preparation for worship.” As Jane and Mark played a rousing duet of “How Great Thou Art,” nature slides from the Grand Canyon were projected onto a large screen. At the same time, Pastor Stephens, the choir, and other worship leaders gathered in the narthex for the processional. The worship bulletin said, We Gather to Worship God. Lynda, lay worship leader for the day, invited the congregation to stand for the call to worship—the same one the children used during last week’s Vacation Bible School. Lynda began:

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Who are you?
We are the people of God.
Who made you?
God, our Creator, made us.
Where do you live?
We live in God’s good world.
Why are you here?
We are here to worship God.
Then let the worship begin!

As the congregation began singing “All Creatures of our God and King,” the cross bearer, acolytes, choir, and pastor Stephens processed down the center aisle. Upon reaching the platform, pastor Stephens scouted out the congregation. Not a bad crowd, he thought. It could be better, but it’s not bad for summer. After the hymn and opening prayer, Larry, a lay reader, led a responsive reading from Psalm 100. Two contemporary praise choruses followed. Although numerous members disliked praise choruses, the young people loved them and lobbied strongly for their use. Like many churches, First Church struggled to meet the needs and wishes of a diverse congregation. After extensive discussion and numerous debates, the church decided that a blend of historic, traditional, and contemporary worship would work best for them. Although occasional skirmishes still continued, this compromise seemed to work fairly well.

During the choruses, pastor Stephens looked carefully at the congregation. Near the front of the sanctuary, on the right side, sat Donna. Donna recently received a major promotion at First Citizens’ bank. Near the back, with the other teenagers, sat David. Last week David received a large scholarship at a prestigious university. Jeff and Gerri sat on the left, near the front. They just discovered Gerri was pregnant, and they seemed to glow with joy. On the back left pew, all alone, sat Mary. Her divorce finalized last Friday. On the front row, as always, sat Marvin and his wife, Jewell. Marvin was diagnosed with bone cancer a few months earlier, and his prognosis was bleak. Near the middle of the church, on the left side, sat Thelma. Although eight months had passed since Thelma’s husband died, she still struggled deeply with grief. In one of the middle pews on the right side sat Charles, looking tired and strained. Pastor Stephens visited Charles a few days earlier. Charles, one of First Church’s best members, was a deeply committed Christian. Unfortunately, the weak economy finally took its toll and Charles lost his business. “It’s not fair,” Charles protested during his visit with pastor Stephens. “I’ve worked hard. I’ve treated my employees well. I’ve tried to be a good Christian. I’ve prayed for God’s help, but nothing has happened. I feel like God has abandoned me.” Pastor Stephens glanced at Charles several times during the opening songs of the gathering. Charles was not singing.

We Listen To The Word of God

The worship bulletin now said, We Listen to the Word of God. Over the past year, the worship council at First Church worked hard to add variety to the weekly Scripture readings. For example, the drama team often performed brief drama sketches which related to the day’s text and sermon. Since today’s Gospel lesson involved dialogue between biblical characters, the worship council enlisted several people to read the passage in a dialogue style. Keith read the words of Jesus, Bill read the words of Peter, and Pam served as narrator, reading all the non dialogue parts. This dialogical approach, which First Church often used with appropriate texts, seemed to help Scripture come alive for the congregation. At the conclusion of the scripture reading Pam said, “This is the word of God for the people of God.” The congregation enthusiastically responded, “Thanks be to God!” At that point, the choir sang a peppy new arrangement of an old hymn, complete with synthesizer, trumpet, and drums. The congregation joined in on the final stanza. Pastor Stephens stood to preach his sermon. His introduction included a brief video clip from a popular movie. After the media presentation, pastor Stephens continued his sermon, using a narrative, storytelling style of communication.

We Respond To The Call Of God

The worship bulletin now said, We Respond to the Call of God. First Church usually provided four opportunities of congregational response. They were listed in the worship bulletin as God’s Call to Faith, God’s Call to Prayer, God’s Call to Stewardship, and God’s Call to Community (the passing of the peace).

After the invitation to discipleship, and a hymn of response, pastor Stephens led the congregation in reciting The Apostles’ Creed. Although they often recited the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed, First Church also used other affirmations of faith, both ancient and contemporary. During the creed, pastor Stephens glanced again at Charles, the businessman who felt abandoned by God. He saw Charles saying, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord…”

A time of congregational prayer was next, followed by the offering. Pastor Stephens hoped today’s offering would be a good one. They were behind budget, and the finance committee was getting nervous. After the offering, the congregation stood to sing the doxology. Finally, the congregation shared in the passing of the peace. Pastor Stephens said to the congregation, “The peace of Christ be with you.” The congregation responded, “And also with you.” At that point people shook hands, hugged, and greeted one another throughout the sanctuary. Although some members resisted it at first, the passing of the peace soon became a vibrant time of love, fellowship, and community at First Church. Visitors seemed especially impressed by the warmth generated during this special time of worship. The passing of the peace ended with the singing of the chorus, “Surely the Presence of the Lord.”

We Celebrate At The Table Of God

The bulletin now said, We Celebrate at the Table of God. Pastor Stephens stood directly behind the Lord’s Supper Table. As the elements were brought forward and placed on the table, the congregation sang the words of the contemporary chorus, “Open our eyes Lord, we want to see Jesus …” Then pastor Stephens and the congregation spoke the ancient opening words from The Great Thanksgiving:

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.

Pastor Stephens continued:

It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to
give thanks to you, Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
And so, with your people on earth and all the company of heaven
we praise your name and join their unending hymn:

At that point the instruments began to play and the congregation began to sing the ancient, holy words:

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth
are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who
comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.

Pastor Stephens continued the Great Thanksgiving prayer, as priests and ministers have done for almost two thousand years in preparation for Communion. As he led the prayer, Pastor Stephens felt deep gratitude for the privilege of leading Holy Communion.

After the Great Thanksgiving, the Lord’s Prayer, and breaking of the bread, pastor Stephens held up the elements and said, “These are the gifts of God for the people of God. Let us partake with glad and generous hearts.” He then invited the congregation to come forward to receive communion. For those who wanted it, an opportunity was also given to receive prayer, anointing with oil, and laying on of hands.

At that point several lay ministers came to the table to assist in the distribution of the elements. As the congregation sang celebrative hymns and choruses, and as people made their way to the Lord’s Table, pastor Stephens asked himself again, Why do these people return to this place week after week? Why do they get up, get dressed, fuss with kids, get into the car, drive to the parking lot, and enter this sanctuary?

As he handed out wafers of bread saying, “The body of Christ, given for you,” pastor Stephens knew why they came. It wasn’t just habit, or feelings of obligation, or guilt. No, it went deeper than that. Pastor Stephens knew one reason they came is because they needed one another. It’s a hard world and people need comrades to survive. But something even more profound than human connection kept them coming. Ultimately, they came to this place because they needed God. They came because they needed to acknowledge that One exists who is greater than themselves. They came to encounter the living Lord, and to be reminded in tangible and concrete ways that they belong to God and that God loved them. Somehow, through that worship, they found the strength to carry on another week. And somehow, through that worship, First Church also found the strength to carry on another week.

We Depart To Serve God

By now all had received the bread and cup of communion. The worship bulletin said, We Depart to Serve God. The congregation stood and prayed together:

Eternal God, we give you thanks for this holy mystery in which
you have given yourself to us. Grant that we may go into the
world in the strength of your Spirit, to give ourselves for others,
in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Pastor Stephens then lifted his right hand and said to the congregation, “Go now to love and serve the Lord. And as you go may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” The congregation then sang a closing song of commitment; the choir and worship leaders recessed out; and the service concluded.

Pastor Stephens stood at the back of the church greeting people while the ushers straightened up the sanctuary. Finally, everyone was gone. Pastor Stephens stood alone in the sanctuary. As usual, he walked to the pulpit to pick up his Bible and sermon notes. But today, for some reason, he paused a moment and looked at the empty sanctuary. And as he looked, he remembered a story he had not thought about in a long time.

The story goes like this. On Monday morning, a custodian arrived at a church to clean and sweep up the sanctuary. However, this week he didn’t find the usual fare—forgotten Bibles, umbrellas, bulletins covered with children’s scribbling, and torn up notes that teenagers wrote during Sunday’s service. No, this week the custodian found very different items indeed.

On a middle pew on the right side of the church laid a discouraged man’s anger toward God. On the back left pew sat a woman’s profound disappointment and her fear of an unknown future. Further down the pew laid a middle-aged father’s sense of failure. Across the aisle the custodian found a young couple’s lukewarm commitment. On the front row he discovered an old man’s fear of death. In the corner, so small you could barely see it, laid a young person’s sins. On other pews he found bitterness, pride, jealousy, fear, and doubt. It was like this all over the sanctuary. The custodian wasn’t sure what to do. Finally, he swept it all up—all the wounds and hurts and fears and sins—and he threw them away.

Still thinking about the story, Pastor Stephens took one more look at the empty sanctuary. As he walked outside to the parking lot he muttered to himself, “This is what it’s all about. This is what it’s really all about.”