By Ellen Nussbaum

Members of Oak Grove Mennonite Church (Smithville) and Sonnenberg Mennonite Church (Kidron), having discovered a common interest in exploring training and resources for leading congregational worship, came together to plan a Worship Resourcing Seminar. It was held on Saturday, May 6, at Sonnenberg Mennonite Church. Sixty-three participants gathered from 16 different Ohio Mennonite congregations. Participants included youth, young adults and adults, pastors and lay leaders, some experienced worship planners and others who wanted to receive practical training, resources and theological teaching in order to better explore and learn about Spirit-filled congregational worship.

Resource person Rachel Miller Jacobs, assistant professor of congregational formation at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, challenged us to think about how Worship is Formation and Formation is Worship.  This one-day seminar also had workshops focusing on the art of worship leading, leading music with song and instruments, letting the Word come alive in scripture reading and drama, and the use of visual art, digital arts, multimedia and technology in worship.

Jacobs helped us consider how worship and Christian formation are related to each other and what difference it makes when we plan and lead worship from a stance of Christian formation.

In the morning session, Jacobs considered three layers in Christian formation: individual, communal and God’s reign (universal). She explored the types of worship habits which help form us.  (See for a list of the worship habits Rachel Miller Jacobs described.)

If the point of worship is to form us to be ambassadors of Christ, then what we as “worship folk” need to orient ourselves toward is what will shape our and others’ thinking, feeling, and acting toward God’s overarching project of reconciling the world to himself.

In the afternoon session, Jacobs helped us consider forming worship that forms. While there are many ways to worship God, she suggested three general movements of worship that are all responses to God’s love and grace.

The first movement is a transforming encounter with the living God. Unless we have encountered God, we haven’t worshiped. Worship planners and leaders need to plan and lead worship that doesn’t put barriers on people encountering God, but encourages, enables, and supports them in that encounter.

The second movement is honest engagement with self and community. This means being present in worship as we truly are, warts and all, individually and corporately.  God wants to meet us as our whole selves — good and bad, body and spirit brought as honestly, transparently, and authentically as we can.

The third movement of worship is lively empowerment for faithful response. Worship is not just for us: for our pleasure, our comfort, our education, or our formation. Worship prepares us for what God is already doing in the world, a pledge of allegiance to God which spills out into all of our relationships (family, work, community), into the ways we spend our time, our money and our effort, and into the ways we worship.

Jacobs emphasized that a balanced biblical and theological diet for congregational worship doesn’t happen without planning.  She suggested three practices for a good worship diet: 1) keep records and review them; 2) let structures, themes and images of worship shape our worship words; 3) use a diverse worship planning group so that planners represent the broadest possible range of our congregations (age, gender, taste, ethnic or cultural identity and Christian maturity).

She encouraged training and mentoring worship leaders of various kinds. Worship is not about perfection or restricting worship planning to the experts.  We need to use our relationship networks, as well as gifts in the congregation, to invite others to join in worship planning and leading.  She also encouraged us to invite children and youth to lead the congregation in worship.  Begin working with them early and help them build the skills they will need to be effective, joyful worship leaders.  This takes time, but what we are really doing is tending to our own spiritual formation as we mentor others.  This kind of focus makes a difference in how we think about our own work and how we think about theirs.

Evaluation of worship planning and leading is also an important element in worship formation.  Asking questions of congregational members, such as what helped you in worship and what hindered you in worship, will help us corporately broaden our capacity to tolerate things that are not our favorites, for the sake of shaping our connections to our brothers and sisters either in the congregation or in the wider church.  We need to join others in worshiping in new or unfamiliar ways as an expression of our love for them and our desire to join in God’s work of reconciliation.

Responses from the seminar participants were very positive about both the input from Rachel Miller Jacobs and the workshops that were presented.  Participants also appreciated the feast of information and having the time and space to think about worship.

This seminar was sponsored by the Sonnenberg and Oak Grove Mennonite churches with a partial grant from the Ohio Conference.