Building Community in Worship

Dr. Marva Dawn, the speaker at the Annual Meeting, is a theologian and author with Christians Equipped for Ministry, Vancouver WA. This article is taken from A Royal "Waste" of Time and appears by permission.

Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. – 1 Peter 4:10

In our fragmented and alienated, individualistic and competitive society, many people wonder if the Christian Church is any different. Congregations and denominations seem constantly to be fighting within or against each other; strangers who visit a worship service often are not welcomed or even acknowledged by anyone. Sometimes churches designate particular individuals as "greeters" in order to be hospitable, but that practice often militates against a genuine hospitality on the part of all the members of the parish.

In the season of Advent, as we prepare to welcome the Christ Child into our hearts and homes, we would do well to reflect upon the question of how to build genuine and welcoming community in our congregations. The nurturing of the unity of the Body is an important aspect of every small group and particular ministry in a parish, but in this brief space we will limit our focus especially to the building of community by means of our specific worship practices. What elements in the corporate service can contribute to the nurturing of our common life together? How can a sense of the Christian community be established and reinforced while we are meeting together to praise God and grow in faith? How can we display in our gatherings in the "Temple" the "one accord" of the early Christians, whose "singleness of heart" led to having great favour with their neighbours? (These phrases are from the King James Version of Acts 2:46-47.)

Dangers to Community in Worship

We must ask our questions carefully, for too often the concept of community is perceived merely in terms of a feeling of coziness with God or compatibility with other members of the congregation. To reduce the importance of genuine community on the part of God's people to such emotions or sentiments is terribly destructive. Often the result is the formation of an elitist "in" group or a narcissism that takes the focus off God. In Christian Ethics Today (June 1996), Molly T. Marshall wrote about the dangers of thinking about the church as a family — for that can inhibit our ability to welcome strangers or cause us to squeeze out people with whom we cannot attain intimacy.

Similarly, Darrell Guder and his team from the Gospel and Our Culture Network critique contemporary images of community that exhibit what Parker Palmer calls an "ideology of intimacy."1 Such images emphasize:

    sameness, closeness, warmth, and comfort. Difference, distance, conflict, and sacrifice are alien to this approach and therefore are to be avoided at all costs. Modern communities maintain a facade of unity and harmony by eliminating the strange and cultivating the familiar, by suppressing dissimilarity and emphasizing agreement. The traumatic and tragic events of human life are glossed over, ignored, or explained away. Those who are strange — other than we are — are either excluded or quickly made like us.

The results are "homogeneous communities of retreat where persons must be protected from one another as well as from outsiders, and where reality is suppressed and denied due to fear and anxiety."2

Community in the biblical sense is more open to the realities of differences, more openly gracious to all, more deliberate, an act of will. It does not depend upon feelings of affection. In fact, sometimes (perhaps always?) God seems to put us in a community together with people whom we don't like so that we learn the real meaning of agapZ — that intelligent, purposeful love directed toward another's need which comes first from God and then flows through us to our neighbour. To develop a community that practises biblical principles is very difficult in this technologically efficient society. It takes a lot of work and time, sacrifice and commitment.

The Triune God

Before we consider some practical ways to build community, we must note this obvious, but often overlooked, truth: the triune God wants our churches to be genuine communities. The night before his crucifixion Jesus prayed that we would all be one, even as he is one with the Father. Furthermore, as the apostle Paul stresses by means of a series of repetitive phrases in 1 Corinthians 12, "one and the same Spirit" gives us all our various gifts, puts us as particular members into the Body just as he wills, and makes all those members one Body of Christ.

Since we know that God is at work to make us all one, we are set free to enjoy the process — knowing that it does not depend upon us. What we do to build community is a response to the grace of a unifying God; who we are as the people of God is an image of the relationship within the Godhead. When we have struggles in our communities, we can have confidence that God is at work to bring to completion the good work he has begun in establishing his Church.

Developing Hospitality

Genuine community in worship is made more possible by some of the mechanical things that we do before the service begins. In order for the worship to be open to everyone, we must remove any barriers to public, common life. Though many congregations these days use overhead projections, those are often difficult to see — impossible for elderly persons who have cataracts. We want to be sure that there are plenty of songbooks and bulletins or whatever else we use, large-print worship materials for the visually impaired, or partially sighted, perhaps interpreters or earphones for the hearing impaired, no impediment to wheelchairs.

The alternative Christian community must be an inclusive one. Are our churches being formed to be inclusive of the great mix of ages, social classes, races, and gifts among God's people? I belong to a black, inner-city congregation that gives me, a white person, the opportunity to learn from my African-American sisters and brothers; it is a congregation devoted to its neighbourhood, offering room in its building for Scouts, African dance classes, economic development groups, and local black history month celebrations. These services provide enormous opportunities for genuine hospitality to our neighbours.

To counteract our culture's wariness, members of the congregation need to be trained specifically to be hospitable to strangers (and to each other). Do our worship practices form us to welcome outsiders, to invite newcomers, to tell others about our faith, to care for members of the community who are missing from corporate gatherings?3 We can each welcome those who sit beside us, make sure they know how to follow our order of service, point them to pages or instructions, and, with specific education, explain to them why we do what we do.

Many contemporary critics of worship maintain that building community requires us to jettison the habits of the past and use new materials that are in the idiom of the culture. This notion is dangerous in that Christianity is not simply an intellectual assent to a set of doctrinal propositions, nor is it merely having certain emotional/spiritual experiences. rather, it is a way of life, a language, a set of habits, an entire culture. If we conform worship too much to the prevailing culture, it is difficult for participants to learn the unique "language" of faith, to be formed by the community and the Word to be followers of Christ.

I have found, contrarily, that any kind of music or style of worship, including both new and old, can be hospitable if the persons who participate in it welcome the strangers, if the customary rituals do not become empty performance, if the leaders give gentle and invitational explanations of what we do and why, if melodies for singing are clearly played or perhaps led by a cantor, if the printed music is available to everyone, if corporate worship is kept open as a "public space" into which every person can enter rather than becoming the private coziness of individuals in their devotional relationship to God. Most of the rest of the comments in this article are further extensions of this principle of hospitality for the sake of building genuine community.


The Christian community, as the New Testament emphasizes repeatedly, is a unity of diversity. We capture that best musically when we learn to sing each other's songs, when members of the Body help each other learn why their faith is nurtured and strengthened by particular sets of words and music, when different persons in the community contribute their gifts of playing musical instruments or singing, arranging and composing.

These contributions, however, must not take the place of everyone in the Body participating in the work of worship. Memorized liturgical refrains, repeated each week, enable small children to participate in singing them; children's choirs can teach new songs to the adults; "Children in Worship" programs enable youngsters to learn about, and then participate in, worship practices; teen and adult choirs can practise the hymns for worship in order to lead them from within the congregation; songs for worship can be taught in a preceding Sunday school hour or played the previous week by organists or instrumentalists during the offering or as preludes/postludes — these are just a few of the ways in which we can build community by making it possible for each person to join in the singing of the worship service.

Music is also an important means by which we can gain a sense of the entire Christian community throughout space and time. By singing songs from other Christian ethnic groups and from all epochs of our faith — going all the way back to our roots in Judaica and forward to the angels" songs in heaven recorded in the Revelation — we learn the global and timeless dimensions of the people of God. One of the best developments of recent years is that the new hymnbooks of most major denominations contain more music from around the world. In my home congregation, located in an inner-city African-American neighbourhood, we sing a great blend of musical styles each week, including soul music, chorales from our Lutheran heritage, songs from South African or TaizZ, and contemporary choruses.

We must be careful in choosing new music from our era (as opposed to the music in hymnbooks, which has already for the most part been sorted by history so that the best usually remains). Since we live in an increasingly narcissistic culture, we must guard against new songs that are self-centered, that fail to convey the we-ness (and wee-ness) of the Church. We want to avoid music that focuses only on our personal feelings of happiness, instead of equipping us to be a missional community that reaches out beyond ourselves with the good news of grace in Christ and cares for the world around us with peacemaking and justice building.

Highlighting Gifts of the Community

Already we have considered building community in worship by utilizing the gifts of musicians in the congregation. It seems to me that applause for particular musical contributions should be discouraged because it highlights some gifts more than others and hinders all the members of the Body from knowing that their presence and singing are equally important and that their gifts are also vital for the well-being of the whole.

Our worship needs the offerings of those who make banners, grow flowers, write or perform chancel dramas, choreograph or present liturgical dances, weave vestments or altar cloths, carve furniture, make pottery vessels, or bake bread for the Lord's Supper. Other members of the Body devote their energies and skills to ushering, designing the worship folders, serving at the Lord's Table, reading Scripture lessons, or leading prayers. Correlatively, the art in the worship space can reflect the occupations of community members; for example, a beautiful stained-glass window in a sanctuary in a Pacific Northwest seacoast town centres around Jesus calling the disciples away from their nets and spreads out to picture contemporary fishermen and loggers.

It is especially important that we highlight the gifts of the children and teenagers in the community. In one church in upstate New York, the elementary school children play their bells and chant to lead the congregation every Sunday in singing a psalm. In another congregation, entire families do the ushering for the week, so that young children participate with their parents in passing out the bulletins and taking the offering. Other churches feature their children's art work as bulletin covers or use their prayers in the worship service. In my home congregation, the young people serve as greeters, Scripture readers, drama participants, acolytes, ushers, and providers of refreshments for the fellowship hour following worship.

Communal Prayers

One particularly important aspect of worship for building community is the corporate prayers. Many congregations pray through the whole list of members by mentioning a few names and their concerns each Sunday. By praying for the members' ministries and occupations out in the world, we increase the sense that we are gathered in worship to strengthen us all together for our outreach to others when we are dispersed — and by conscious verbalizing of this truth we enable congregation members to continue to support each other's work in daily life.

It is essential that we train members of the congregation to comprehend that prayers are more than the words we speak about others. Prayer also involves placing ourselves into God's hands for the effecting of his answers. Thus, when we pray "Thy will be done," we are seeking God's wisdom for how we can be agents for actuating his will. If we pray in the corporate Body for someone who is ill, for example, then as members all of us look for ways to "put legs on our prayers" by sending cards or taking flowers, preparing meals or doing housework, caring for children or in some way easing the strain, helping to defray medical expenses or offering rides to the doctor. Thus, prayer is the chief way in which the sense of community established and nurtured in the worship service is widened into other aspects of congregational life.

Prayer also can encourage our concern for the larger community of the global Church. Many congregations pray each week for a sister congregation elsewhere in the world, for missionaries of the denomination (especially particular ones supported by the congregation), for churches of other denominations in the neighbourhood, for parishes in areas hit by natural disasters, for persecuted Christians such as the South Sudanese refugees and Palestinians being deprived of their homes near Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

Building Community by Preaching

As the primary educational vehicle of the worship service, the pastor's sermon plays a critical role in building the community. Simple language choices are vital, for the constant use of the plural we to describe faith pulls the congregation away from the individualism so rife in our culture. It is also essential for the pastor continually to emphasize that faith is not something we construct by ourselves for our personal use, but rather a gift, into which we are invited, that has been passed on through the community of believers since Sarah and Abraham. (Saying the historic creeds of the Church with the plural pronoun, we, and looking at each other while we say them also reinforces this sense of communal faith.)

We build community through our preaching, furthermore, by instructing parishioners in the foundational doctrines that form the Church. What we believe about creation, for example, reminds us that all people are created in the image of God and therefore are vitally important for the whole Body. God's commissions to human beings in Genesis 1 command us to care for each other and for the interrelationships of all the earth.

Similarly, the doctrine of incarnation teaches us to embody God's grace for each other in practical, tangible ways. Likewise, our beliefs about spiritual gifts, poured out upon us by God's sending of the Holy Spirit, free our communities to value the diversity of charisma we each possess even as we work for unity in our use of those gifts. Comparable examples could be given of many other doctrines of the Church that lay essential principles for our churches' growth in communal life. Well-rounded preaching (the common lectionary is a great help) will cultivate both virtues and insights from the Scriptures and the Church's teachings that will contribute to strengthening the community.

The sermon also builds community with specific instructions — for being hospitable, for carrying the corporate prayers into daily life, for each adult to participate more in the spiritual nurturing of the congregation's children, for more outreach to the neighbours. Short messages specifically for the youngest children help them to feel a part of the community; sermon illustrations concerning the youth's schools or activities enable them to know that they are valued. To demonstrate how the Scriptures form us, the pastor can include familiar situations from the members' lives and occupations (excluding those that would break confidences or cause embarrassment), and thereby the people learn afresh that worship trains us together in the habits and practices of faith.

God Is the Source; We Are the Agents

My purpose in this article has been merely to begin a conversation in each congregation concerning ways in which our particular worship services can build community. I pray that these ideas stir you to new thinking and creativity — but not to quick-fix techniques or gimmicks. We do not manipulate community; it is God's initiative to make us one. But we can foster community, work to prevent anything from hindering or disrupting it, and celebrate it.

Advent is a good time to focus on the issues, for, as we anticipate the Christ Child's coming, our worship can equip us to be a community to receive him. Then, may this season of the Church year unite us in responding to the Father's gift of the Child with Spirit-empowered and community-supported witness and outreach to the world.


  1. See Parker Palmer's very helpful book, The Company of Strangers: Christians and the Renewal of America's Public Life (New York: Crossroad, 1986), p. 108.
  2. Darrell L. Guder, ed., Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), p. 179.
  3. See the excellent evangelism questionnaire from the St. John Lutheran Church, Northumberland, PA, in Jim Petersen, -Join the Crowd,' The Lutheran, October 1995, p. 40.