Paul relayed to the Corinthians his encouragement that “Everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (1 Corinthians 14: 40). He said this after describing the truly chaotic worship going on in one of the house churches. Participants got up and talked whenever they wanted and many of them expressed themselves in strange tongues nobody else could understand.
What’s wrong with that? Paul’s overarching concern was what visitors would think. Would a stranger be convicted of sin and salvation? Would a visitor fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!” (1 Corinthians 14: 25)? He did not object to having several deliver a message or speak in a strange tongue, which he himself also did. But don’t let this be chaos that can overwhelm a visitor. Figure out how to do potentially chaotic worship in a fitting and orderly way. Paul himself thought that tongue-speaking should be done somewhere else than in public worship.
How much damage in congregations has been done by somebody’s interpretation of what is fitting and orderly? Whatever your emphasis would be, don’t make it too hard for the Holy Spirit to empower the participants.
For many traditional mainline congregations, doing things in a “fitting and orderly way” has meant a rigid sequence of activities with every word written out for participants, many of those words repeated Sunday after Sunday, so they are known by rote. This approach is probably the easiest and fastest way to prepare for a worship service, but it is probably also the hardest style of worship for the Spirit to break through and touch hearts.
What kind of worship service would be most welcoming to the Spirit? I suggest it should be engaging, with lots of illustrations and lots of suggested applications the listeners can do. Depending on the educational level of the audience, the message needs to be simplified. Reserve the in-depth explorations of Scriptures for the seminary crowd. When addressing an audience with a mostly grade-school education, keep the words and concepts simple, as you would in a grade-school chapel service. Those with a high school education can process a more challenging message, and it can be even more challenging for those with a college education. Typical suburban churches would have a mix of those with high school education and those who graduated from college. Even there, keep the message as simple and as uncomplicated as possible.
I once witnessed a pastor in a congregation preach an advanced college-level theodicy—justifying how God can love even when bad things happen to his followers. I can’t imagine more than a handful of the audience got meaning out of that sermon, which went way over the heads of everyone else sitting through it.
Why is it important to have the audience be engaged in whatever is going in the worship service? If most are not, it is a waste of their time as well as that of the worship leader. Going through the motions might be a God-pleasing way to show respect, but God would be much more pleased with participants who are actually engaged in worshiping him.
It is a fact that most listeners engage with stories more than with the generalizations in propositional sentences. Where could those stories come from? Certainly from the preacher’s life. Many sources are sitting in the congregation. They can share times when their faith took on more meaning, or they discovered themselves to be living more of a fruit of the Spirit’s work, like becoming more loving or joyful or patient with children.
Testimonies can take a lot of clock time. With video technology, these stories can be recorded on video and edited down to the most relevant parts. With videos, the leader knows how much time the service will be taken in playing this video. With live testimonies, there is always the risk of too much time going into just one part of the whole service.
Why should messages offer practical ways to be applied in the lives of the listeners? Christians have always known they should love their neighbor. Provide the opportunity to do that by arranging a servant event where members can actually go out to homes of the elderly to clean up their yard or garage. Then when you’re pulling weeds in the yard of a widow you’ve never seen before, you will be asking yourself, Why am I pulling her weeds instead my own? Oh, right. That’s what Christians do. Christians help those in need.