I once read a book by a psychiatrist who recommended to his counselees that they go to church frequently. The benefit he described is learning patience that could break them out of their self-centeredness at least for that hour in church. Apparently, in his experience (perhaps in a Catholic mass) Sunday worship is very tedious and very boring. Learning to endure through those 45 minutes is a good discipline.
Indeed, many Christian parents make children come with them to church to teach them self-control. Little wonder that so many kids drop out of a worshiping community when they become adults. They have had mostly negatives experiences in a worship service.
What’s the best way to keep believers in a worshipping community? Make sure that Sunday time together serves up personal experiences that satisfy a felt need. Work motivation is all about helping people satisfy a felt need through work activity. Anyone who doesn’t get such satisfaction is bound to be a poor employee.
Here is an overview of the basic components of a Protestant worship service: singing, reading Scriptures, the sermon, the prayers and the ending. Sometimes the Lord’s Supper is added.
Singing can be very rewarding for participants who know the song and have pleasant associations with it, especially when the melodies are reinforced by skillful accompaniment. Said differently, singing is not going to provide many satisfactions when the song is new, the melody is difficult, and the accompaniment is bad.
Most contemporary services I have participated in have about fifteen minutes of singing at the beginning, which usually means three songs. I have been in other services where the opening songs go on for about forty minutes, and I find myself getting more and more invested in what the songs are about. One explanation for why forty minutes of singing is good is that it takes twenty minutes to move from left-side dominance of the brain to more right-brain engagement and then twenty minutes later back again. One side of the brain develops rational insights, the other is the seat of emotional experiences. Engaging both halves of the brain brings a deeper personal investment in the singing. Call that full-brain worship. It can bring deep satisfaction.
It makes sense in one section of the service to read three selections from the Bible (an Old Testament selection, an Epistle and the Gospel for the day). While that rationally makes sense, that is a lot of Scripture for the average listener to absorb. I think frequently that I should ask those leaving the service if they can remember any of the lessons. I suspect most can’t.
In the sermon itself, the first question to ask is whether most of the listeners were engaged. If not, that was a poor sermon regardless of the content. Did it give listeners insights that they can apply to their daily life? If not, why would a listener come back and sit through additional ineffective sermons? I think in most traditional churches the sermon is something to be endured without practical payoff.
My middle-grade son once asked the pastor of our church why the prayers in the service were so long. The pastor gave him a detailed explanation of what a good corporate prayer ought to have. He did not appreciate what Matt was really trying to tell him: Please shorten the prayers in the service; they’re really boring.
Entertainers know that you have to leave the audience wanting to come back. Doesn’t that make sense for worship services, too? Try to have a rousing ending. You might object that worship is not entertainment, and I agree. It is a way to serve God. So be sure and end the service in a way that will make them return next week to serve God again. They are more likely to do that when they have experienced an hour that brought them deep satisfaction.
What happens after the service is over? My Lutheran experience is that families and friends cluster together and engage in small talk, the kind that goes on in other social settings. I really crave God talk with others, talk that also inquires about what God is doing in the lives of friends and family. We Lutherans have not learned how to do that. I suspect this is also true in other traditional mainline churches.
Do you want to motivate more people to come to the Sunday service? Help them have experiences they find to be personally satisfying. Let that be the goal for all parts of a Sunday service.