May 13, 2016

Improv Worship

Here’s what Sunday reality looks like on the ground where I am: increasingly unpredictable.

Our English services -- representing the legacy congregation of our historic parish -- are getting smaller by the year. There are fewer people in the universe of church attenders. The people who do attend are increasingly erratic in their habits. Families with kids balance other Sunday commitments and general exhaustion. Elder members who were once the every-Sunday core now experience health and transportation challenges. Empty nesters do triathlons and travel and visit their grandkids.

Our Spanish services -- representing most of our newer neighborhood members -- are growing. But they too are erratic. People are testing the waters. A handful were regulars at other churches and switched to ours. Some of them are still practicing dual citizenship. Most were not church regulars, and they are still figuring out what a Sunday worship discipline would mean: Every week? Every other? Once a month? Many have irregular work schedules in the 24-7 service economy.

Like most Episcopal churches, our worship traditions were built around predictability. We still do things as if we know, roughly, who’s going to be there on any given Sunday: how many of them there will be, what songs they will know, what time they will arrive, how many of them will stay for coffee hour.

Our challenge is how to loosen up our ways of doing things so that what ends up happening is appropriate to the Sunday at hand. If we believe that every time we’ve got two or three people gathered, Jesus is on board, we need find ways to reflect the joy of that reality, not just bow our heads in shame and pretend that there are more people in the pews. If there are two people in worship when we start, and thirty by mid-service, that is different than starting and finishing with fifty. We may need to gather more informally, and shift modes as the congregation gathers. If there are eighty people, and we had planned to gather the fifteen people we were expecting around the altar for communion, we will need a new plan mid-stream. If people arrive mid-gospel, we can’t preach as if everyone had heard the lessons.

Is Sunday growing more unpredictable in your context? How does that affect worship? Are there things you do that reflect expectations that no longer hold consistently? How flexible are you when things don’t go as expected? 

Related posts to follow: reflections on an improv Holy Week and great liturgy in smaller congregations.

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