Earlier this summer, for the second year in a row, I had the privilege of serving as the Worship Faculty for Local Pastor Licensing School of the Rockies, a 10-day “boot camp” for new pastors in this region of The United Methodist Church (and a few from other parts of the U.S.!). Talking with folks entering their first year of officially pastoring a church, or in some cases, figuring out where in ministry God’s call is leading them, sharing my passion for worship and some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way, is a great source of joy for me.
As I did last year, I asked students to each write down their top three questions relating to worship, so that I could speak specifically to their needs and interests during the course of my presentations. However, with 19 students this year, we ran even shorter on time than usual, and I only made it through about 6-7 of the questions. But they are GREAT questions, and I thought it might be helpful to other folks out there for me to share my responses to some of them here on our blog. So without further ado, here we go:
Dear Rev. Kerry,
As a new pastor, how can I best get to know my context? My congregation says, “Do it however you want,” but then they are unhappy when I do something different or new, not the way they’re used to.
Still Finding My Footing
Dear Still Finding,
First, I want to commend you on your impulse to get to know your congregational context. All of our formal theological training and convictions about the “right” way to do worship will only get us so far in providing spiritual leadership and pastoral care if we don’t take the time to understand the people with whom we are sent to serve.
As we discussed in class, U.S. society today has diversified into a complex pattern of “lifestyle segments” – 71 different people groups, to be exact, broken out not just by age/generation, ethnicity, and income level, but by psychosocial values and behaviors that fall into distinct combinations and patterns. No longer does one size of worship – or even two – fit the spiritual needs and longings of all people. Pastors have to take on the mindset of a missionary in that they must study the culture where they serve, in order to determine the most effective way to bless people there.
You can begin learning about the folks in your area by using the mapping tools at MissionInsite.com, which can produce demographic reports for your community, and, if you upload the addresses of your church members, can compare the people groups present in your congregation with the rest of the neighborhood. Those reports can then direct you to the most relevant lifestyle segment profiles in the Mission Impact Guide by Thomas Bandy. (All United Methodist churches – and I believe a majority of other mainline Protestant denominations – have access to this great resource, so contact your conference/judicatory office to get login information.)
And the book Worship Ways for the People within Your Reach, by Bandy and Lucinda Holmes, can provide more detail in how to craft worship that deeply blesses those who attend, based on the most pressing spiritual questions or needs in their lives.
But the most important way to get to know your congregation will be through personal, pastoral conversations, whether one-on-one or in group settings. And that takes time. Maybe your church is having some get-to-know-the-new-pastor events where you can bring it up, or you can just weave it in to other conversations as it seems appropriate.
Most church people don’t think about worship in the same terms that we learn in seminary (or Licensing School!), so you may want to start by asking people for their stories: ask about a memorable experience of worship, what they get out of worship, what they miss when they have to be absent, what worship means to them, how they experience God, what they are listening for in a sermon, what their favorite hymn is, and so on.
As you have more of these conversations, you may start to notice some patterns: people valuing the sense of community expressed through prayer time or fellowship hour; a desire for specific and concrete guidance on how to live a good life or an expectation of learning some new insight about the Bible in the sermon; a sense of connection to the transcendent. These will help you discern whether your congregation is primarily used to Care-Giving, Coaching, Educational, or Inspirational Worship (see Worship Ways to learn more).
Once you know more clearly what you’re starting with, you can begin to explore what changes are most needed, either to do worship better as it is, or to bless a wider range of people in the congregation or community.
Introducing change and overcoming objections is a topic for another day – one that I’ll try to speak to soon! Meanwhile, I wish you all the best as you seek to bless people in your context with the good news of Jesus Christ, led by the Holy Spirit and leading God’s people to co-create God’s realm on earth.
Grace and peace,