If you haven't seen "Sunday's Coming," the "movie trailer" for contemporary worship, then do so now. The producers of this video come from a large contemporary church. They're poking fun at themselves and it's obviously a spoof, but if you analyze the worship elements they're depicting, we can actually learn some powerful lessons about communication.
There's a lot of psychology and technology behind the ebb and flow of a powerful contemporary service. When it is God-centered and done well, participants often experience worship as a genuinely compelling encounter that positively affects their lives.
1. A powerful act of entrance grabs attention and makes connections
"Opening song, lights and big drums" does exactly what it should do: It catches people's attention. People come to worship with all sorts of distracting feelings. A compelling entrance, using light, sound and familiar music, focuses worshippers on the service.
Religion basically means relinking. It's about connecting people to one another and to something bigger than themselves. Moving our bodies in synchrony with other people or with the rhythm of song, drumbeats or lights generate both connection and transcendence.
2. Create a continuous sense of focus and flow
A strong entrance can start the flow that helps worshippers to maintain focus throughout the service. Flow and focus are both easy to lose or break, so careful design, planning and execution will help to retain them.
Moving from a powerful entrance to a bumbling welcome or a boring list of announcements can almost instantly drain energy from the worshipping community. Poorly timed slides can easily disconnect people from worship. That's why it is important to learn a few PowerPoint timing techniques to help ensure that messages or lyrics are displayed at the precise moment they are needed. Be sure to know all the reasons churches don't use projection in worship, so you can anticipate and overcome the barriers.
You can also study different worship trends that use theology, ambience and music style to connect with the congregation. Use these techniques in both "contemporary" and "traditional" worship to maintain flow and focus.
Get to know your congregation. You may want to do a survey asking congregants what types of worship elements would help them stay focused. Here's a worship survey example from a midsize church you can use as a template to design your own questionnaire.
After the emotional high the entrance generates, we need to recover a bit. Keep people engaged with an act that will generate similar passionate feelings, though at lower intensity.
That is why "Sunday's Coming" shows the congregation sitting right after "opening song, lights and big drums" and, without pause, "The Welcome Guy" appears. He carries the same coolness as the preceding music. He is upbeat, exudes nonthreatening energy and invites everyone. He retains the vibe of energetic singing that allows everyone to segue smoothly into "The Song Everyone Knows."
4. Transitions are key
Transitions keep everything moving, but you don't want to see or feel them. It's like catching the next trapeze in the air. No one notices when you have good timing, but if you're off, it's really bad!
Rehearse transitions. Practice using your God-given gifts to lead powerful, engaging worship. The more technology you use, the more transitions you must rehearse with more people.
One easy way to organize segues in your service is to create a worship service flowchart. There are also several great worship-planning programs as well as mobile apps that help design flowcharts, transpose chords, connect to song databases and help you schedule, notify and manage musicians.
5. End powerfully
We need as much or more energy at the end of worship than at the beginning. The last act gathers all we have done, seen, heard and experienced, and hard-wires it to our brain. It sends us out, renewed by God's grace.
What makes for a powerful act of sending? Here's a short list:
- "Yes, Lord, Yes," first: The words of such a song sum up the new or old ways of living that people are promising to carry with them. "Yes, Lord, Yes!" I will live this way now! Thank you! Singing to "strings that will make you cry" heightens the emotional investment and commitment to live what you are singing.
- Worshippers leave physically and emotionally energized. "Strings that will make you cry" may sound like emotional drain but it's actually energizing. This God-breathed energy enables us to act differently and better than we did before we came. This energy won't always look the same. It can be active and ecstatic at the end of a vibrantly celebrative service, or it can be still and contemplative, such as the silence in a Taizé service or at the end of the service on Good Friday.
- Worshippers act on their encounter with God all week long. Contemporary worship can be a catchy technique to get folks in the door, an attempt to be cool or the real deal. The proof shows in what happens in and through people's lives because they participated in worship.
- Give a good call to action — right now. We are more likely to act on something we've experienced when we have the support of others. Sending everyone off to fend for themselves after worship is no good. An inviting coffee hour or another gathering after worship provides a venue for folks to connect with your church's other ministries or with a small group. Next steps could be joining an online Bible study to keep connected during the week or donating your loose change to help UMCOR assist disaster survivors.
The problem with 'Sunday's Coming'
It's obviously a spoof, but it's making fun of something that's very real. Sometimes worship focuses completely on individuals and is an example of emotional and cognitive manipulation instead of being the work of the people offering themselves fully to God.
Where are the cross or any other Christian symbols? Is there a physical Bible anywhere in the room? What about any references to God or Jesus? In this video and in all too many cases where this kind of model is used, many, if not all of those, are entirely absent.
It's easy for some worship leaders to have the wrong motivations, but most want to energize people with God's love. If done with a pure heart, the rituals described in "Sunday's Coming" can be used for God's glory. Big or small, your church can incorporate the following powerful worship elements without losing its traditional worship style.
Watching "Sunday's Coming" can spark discussion among your congregants. Gather a group to watch the clip, and see how they respond. Bring your worship planning team together for an afternoon or evening, provide food and beverages, view the video and consider the discussion questions below. Start talking about ways to help your worshipping community experience true "growtivation," growth motivated by a desire to live as "one with Christ, one with each other and one in ministry to all the world."
BONUS: Questions for small groups
- What elements of contemporary worship does your church use? (Leave a comment below.)
- How do the "opening acts" intentionally catch worshippers' attention?
- How does the entrance generate emotional connection among worshippers and with God?
- How do you pay attention to flow as you plan worship? How do you plan and lead to make transitions invisible?
- Where and how do you build time to rehearse transitions?
- How does the sending help people affirm that they will live what they have encountered?
- How does worship energize people to act on the commitment to God they have made?
- What follows the sending to make it more likely worshippers will carry the commitments they have made in worship beyond their cars?
— Based on an article written by the Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards, director of worship resources at United Methodist Discipleship Ministries. Read more articles on worship at UMCdiscipleship.org/worship.