“Sit Back, Relax and Enjoy the Service” May Be Killing Your Church

L.I.V.E. Scrabble cushions“Sit back, relax and enjoy the service” may be one of the most dangerous sentences ever uttered in church.

It sits on the Bad Idea shelf next to “Let’s erect a building and tell people they have to come here if they want to worship Jesus.”

I expect promises of great customer service in a restaurant, on an airplane, or in a movie theater. But the idea that church is a place where we pay others to do ministry as we sit passively, consuming and passing judgment on the product being offered, may be the greatest single reason for the anemia of the modern, western church.

The church is not a customer service business. We’re a community for life transformation. We do not exist to serve passive consumers, but to equip and activate disciples.

But, like the monkey stubbornly clinging to the apple inside the cage, we’ll never free ourselves to be biblically active communities for life-transformation until church leaders let go of our  please-the-consumer mindset.


Let’s Stop the Bait-and-Switch

It’s bait-and-switch to tell church-goers that we’re here to serve them, only to teach them a few months later, when they attend the membership class that – surprise! – you’re not supposed to be a consumer after all. You’re here to do the work of ministry.

And then we wonder why they don’t step up and help out more often. It would be like going to Starbucks until you achieved Gold Card status, only to get handed, not just a Gold Card, but a green apron, too. On a volunteer basis, no less.

Bait-and-switch doesn’t create passionate, worshipful, loving disciples. It creates angry, confused and resentful religion-shoppers.


Change “Sit and Watch” To “Come and Participate”

Years ago, I realized that this was a problem for our church, so we stopped offering sit-and-watch events as our church’s main front door experience.

Simply put, we don’t waste our time and money on religious stage shows to entice non-believers to come to church any more. Instead, we invite them to spend time with us as we live life together. 

For instance, twice a year we have an event we call Share Day, in which the entire church body divides into work groups after church on Sunday to serve together on various community service projects. On most Share Days, we have participants that have never attended the church before, because we’ve invited them to help out.

When we fill up Christmas bags to bring to needy children in Mexico, we offer empty bags to our unchurched friends, neighbors and preschool families to fill up. And they do!

Even on Christmas Eve, we have a pre-service time when families can get together to make ornaments, decorate cookies and take a Christmas photo together while snacking on goodies and warming up with hot apple cider. Why? This may be the only time a lot of people – especially visiting family members – will visit a church this year, so we give them a chance to interact, not just sit and be talked to.

When community service and/or interactive fellowship is someone’s first experience with a church body, it sets an important precedent. They know right up front that this is what church is all about. It’s where we live life together in service to God and as a blessing to others.


People Want to Worship, Connect and Give

The church was never meant to be a religious stage show..

And, let’s face it, even if it was, Small Churches don’t have the resources to put on as good a show as our big church counterparts. Oh, who are we kidding? Even megachurches can’t compete with the quality of entertainment people can access 24/7 from the phone in their pocket.

But we can be great at worship, community and generosity.

When someone decides to get out of bed on Sunday morning to go to church for the first time – or for the first time in a long time – they’re not doing it because they don’t have other entertainment options. They’re doing it to meet a need they may not even fully realize yet.

They want to connect. With God and with us.

A great, interactive Small Church may be the best place on earth to do that.


So what do you think? Do you have any other ideas for how a church can involve people in more active participation?

We want to hear from you. Yes, you!
Enter your comment right below this post and get in on the conversation.

(L.I.V.E. Scrabble Cushions photo from WickerFurniture • Flickr • Creative Commons)

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12 thoughts on ““Sit Back, Relax and Enjoy the Service” May Be Killing Your Church”

  1. Holy Cow Karl!!! What a great post!! Right on Baby!

    You’ve said it all there Pal. You said, “Sit passively, consuming and passing judgment on the product.” Wow. Is a worship service a product? Can I connect the words “hell” and “no” here? Yeah, probably not. 🙂 A worship service is a time for believers to come before a loving God and share their love with him.

    You gave some great ideas to us as well. Doing life together really is what it’s all about. This post was just in time for our Christmas Eve services! How might some of us change our plans??

  2. Karl, the best church ministry as a pastor I had was in a small church under 100 people. I really relate to idea of participators and community connectors concept. This concept was 1st century after the persecution and dispersion of believers in Jerusalem.
    Merry Christmas!

  3. In other (Jesus’) words, “Come and see.” (John 1:39-41). The Risen Christ is found among the living, active, worshiping church, not the tomb of “sit and watch.” I’ve been preaching this kind of message a lot lately as we have been doing a preaching series on John since January. I was so glad to have a friend recommend your site to me. I missed this post the first time. Thanks for retweeting and for sharing your faith and ministry with us.

    1. I’m glad you found us. Thanks for the kind comment. You’re absolutely right that “come and see” does not mean “sit and watch”, even though we’ve turned it into that in too many cases.

      Keep up the great work with your congregation. We need more Loud Lutherans like you.

  4. In a “seeker sensitive” church I was a part of, those were the exact words pronounced from the stage every service. Through a series of events, I left, and I found a number of people who were from that very church in the much smaller church I eventually had the privilege to pastor. Many of them have the same “serve me” attitude. Thanks, Karl for your post. Spot on diagnosis, particularly about the showing new people up front about a true church being one where disciple making and serving is taken seriously.

    1. Good question, Mark. In addition to using volunteers for the usual tasks of greeting, ushering, etc., we do several things:

      1. We have a fellowship time in the middle of the service, where people are encouraged to get up, grab a coffee, mingle and get to know each other.
      2. We have rotating “service hosts”. These are lay people who are interested in getting better at speaking to a group. They do the announcements and they deliver a 1 – 2 minute message on generosity before we receive the offering. We give them as much or as little help as they need to prepare their mini-message. They are often college students who are preparing for the ministry.
      3. We offer a Worship Workshop. Instead of just auditioning instrumentalists or singers, we offer to train those who have little or no skill, but who want to learn. The goal is to insert them into the Sunday worship teams as fast as possible.
      4. Our facility is very multi-use, so we use a lot of volunteers to help us set up and tear down almost every day of the week.
      5. We offer three different types of ministerial internships for college-age students to learn hands-on ministry.
      6. My sermons are always bible-based, and include a “go and do” aspect. There is often a way for people to respond to the message even before they leave the building.
      7. When people hear of needs in their neighborhood, we will present the needs to the congregation on Sunday and give them a chance to respond. Volunteerism shouldn’t just be inside the church walls.

      There are other things, but that’s a start. On an average Sunday, well over half the attenders are actively volunteering somewhere.

    2. Aaron Lehmann

      At my church (Russian Orthodox), most of the service is a call and response, with a book indicating what the calls and responses are going to be. Interestingly, and I think unintentionally, the calls that the priest/deacon/readers/choir give and the responses that the people reply with are often worded slightly differently in the book than what is said. This forces me, anyway, to both read and listen as I sing the responses. There’s also a lot of stand up, sit down, cross myself, bow to the elements, etc. This, combined with the fact that there’s incense, means I’ve got 3 of my five senses engaged, and I’m actively participating with both my body and mind in most of the service. The only exceptions are communion itself, as I haven’t been catechized yet, and the homily. Fortunately, there are psalms that get sung during communion and our priest is a very good speaker, so that’s less of a problem. I always feel very engaged in the worship in a way I never was at a protestant church. I wish this form of worship was more common, because it’s very immersive.

  5. Great article, Pastor.Church is definitely about Serving.I LOVE corporate worhip, but personally believe we shouldn’t be dependent on a Church service as a point of filling up(eventhough we fill up by loving anyway).
    Thank you for ALWAYS keeping it real, Pastor!-Love that!

  6. Thanks for the response Karl. I did not go to seminary so my understanding of Christ and the church is limited in comparison to clergy. That said, is it possible that we are missing a crucial point as to why it is good for followers of Christ to gather? What would you (or anyone else) say is the primary reason we should meet as followers of Christ?

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