We Are Members of One Another

Part three on Deepening Your Relationship with God by Worshiping with Other Faiths. What can we learn from how other faiths worship?

Carolyn B Thompson 15 minute read.   Resources
Jesus said, “I am the light of the world; whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” John 8:12 Image: Gary Allman

After one Sunday morning service a pastor said to me, “We’re doing something wrong. We’re not growing. What you’ve seen at other churches and faith traditions could help us.” I said I’d love to talk about ‘The Thing’s I’ve learned, whenever the pastor had time. Over the next few days I couldn’t stop thinking about that request. I’d seen so many things, and before I knew it, the concise answer was there — thank you God, as usual, for providing me an answer before I even asked You.

For me, successful faith communities have the following three key attributes:

  • Dynamic preaching, with the homily/message/sermon including clear to-do’s;
  • Inspiring and interactive music;
  • ‘The Thing’– that ‘something’ — a congregation needs, that is promoted within and outside the community.

My first two articles were very much about what I gained and learned from my experiences worshiping with other faiths. This article is first, a filtering of what I’ve experienced around the question – what makes a faith community successful? And second, it puts words to what I have seen, the actual, specific things faith communities do, that made me feel they were successful. It comes from the many places of worship I’ve visited as an outsider over the past two years.

Needless to say, these are my personal conclusions, and I hope that there is something useful here for everyone to take away. Whether you are: just sitting in the pews, vestry members, worship leaders, clergy, or musicians. I offer these observations in the hope that they can help you strengthen your community by talking about them, making comparisons, and by implementing anything that might be appropriate to your situation.

Dynamic preaching, with the homily/message/sermon including clear to-do’s

The people who preach exhibit massive body and vocal energy. And energy does not equal volume, but it does include changes in volume and pace – like when needing to exhibit calmness or compassion, and pauses for emphasis as well as hand and body movements even facial expressions that illustrate the point:

  • they are incredible storytellers – the stories are told in such detail you can see what they’re talking about unfolding, they use humor and jokes when they fit the message;
  • the wording in every sermon calls us to apply it to our church and us corporately, not just to us as individuals as most of the sermons I’ve previously heard do;
  • they verbally and physically involve the congregation with questions, and wait for answers;
  • they expect people to take away things to do. The churches enable this by giving people a place to write what they’ll do. For example, small cards or a blank page in the bulletin.

I’ve seen many successful styles that caused the congregation’s eyes to be glued on the preacher, including one that was an hour-long sermon – I was shocked when I saw the time, it had just flown by.

Inspiring and Interactive Music

This is not about the genre of music or how skilled the musicians are, though those do inspire us. We each have very different tastes and if it’s not to your liking you likely won’t feel inspired, and then won’t want to interact with the music. 

This is about music in which the words tell a meaningful story about our relationship with God:

  • Music and music leaders who create ways to get everyone singing. Lots and lots of music so it becomes clear to people that it’s a method for worship;
  • A song leader or choir to encourage people to join in, use a pitch that most people can sing;
  • Every so often have the congregation choose hymns;
  • Get many people/and not just instrumentalists and choir members involved in the music;
  • Include people outside the congregation – some churches call it “special music”;
  • make the making of music a priority.

I knew that a place of worship I was attending had inspirational and interactive music when I looked around and saw a clearly expectant look on the faces of the congregation. 

Some Examples

  • Repetition: some churches used a piece of music — other than service music — over and over, seasonally and as interludes in the service. Over time people even began singing during the instrumental interludes.
  • Catering to different tastes: a church with 3 services chose a different styles of music and a different way to produce music for each service. Another with one service designated different Sunday’s for different styles of music: contemporary, spiritual, camp songs, traditional.
  • Spontaneous singing or music: either from the worship leader, priest, or instrumentalist – I’ve seen this during the sermon, when a prayer is requested. Even on birthdays, and it was very moving because it fit exactly with what was being said at that moment.
  • No instruments: without an organist or instruments you can use recordings designed specifically for this situation, or provided you have the necessary licenses and permissions you can make your own from other sources such as YouTube and play it on a phone or a computer. Some faith traditions don’t allow instruments, but oh do they sing — I was at one where we sang eight hymns and the congregation did it in parts!

The Thing’– That ‘something’ — a congregation needs, that is promoted within and outside the community

It’s easy to tell what ‘The Thing’ is within a few minutes – it’s on their walls, it’s in their formal mission statement, it’s talked about in each sermon, it’s evident in the types of groups and activities they have, and you’ll hear it in informal conversations ; during coffee hour, in side comments at vestry meetings, while passing the Peace – not that you’re supposed to be socializing while passing the Peace, but …

I realize this sounds like I’m only talking about how a church promotes its mission to its community, but most of the churches where I saw this clearly demonstrated had not done a formal assessment to determine what ‘The Thing’ was.  In the vast majority of the examples I give below ‘The Thing’ was realized organically.

That takes listening/discernment of God’s calling as well as the people’s.

Some Examples

  • Something for Everyone: one church with large number of people worked to provide something for every part of the congregation. They worked to bring in every age, race, and socio-economic class. On Sunday morning there were many activities going on from 8 a.m. – noon. There were an even larger number of activities on weekdays. Their main method of promotion was not planned as such, but they had their building used each day of the week by internal and external groups. Hundreds or more people passed through the doors each week — a church may not be huge but it will likely benefit it to be inviting and accepting.
  • Church Buildings: built for all the local community to use in the fulfillment of the church’s mission. Building that are used virtually every day of the week by by the whole community. Part of a sermon one Sunday was a story with this vision and everyone works toward it. This is a church where one sermon made each part of the mission statement come to life and “our life and work together” is mentioned throughout all the other sermons – even when asking for volunteers the words are “so if you want to be a part of________”, as opposed to “I need three people to do ___________”). They are outward thinking and say they “want to make a country, and a world we want to live in.”
  • Involved Membership: Even if only one member is doing something they talk about it as a church activity. They list things in their newsletter and it’s mentioned during the announcements in the service (some project it on a screen before and after service). It’s in the external community paper and on the church’s up-to-date website. Things like – weekly internal/external community dinners; Easter egg hunt and brunch; haircuts for children of parents who can’t afford it just before the first day of school; community craft shows, seasonal/issue-based help to community members.
  • A Vibrant Church Community: you feel instantly that they care for each other and for you. Things like – very specific prayer requests from the congregation, occasionally, so many that they last as long as the sermon; each section of the Prayers of People read by a different person from their seat; prayer requests read by the congregation from a list in unison; people using the announcement time to ask who needs help after an issue (flood, big storm, etc).

In Conclusion

People have spoken to me about what I’m doing – some think I’m brave, some think it’s a wonderful experience, and others think it’s dangerous for me to participate in “other religions”.   These three, very different reactions are exactly what I’m getting out of this!  My objective in participating in different faith communities is to strengthen my relationship with God, with others, and with myself. 

Jesus said it wasn’t going to be easy to be one of his followers, and that people, (some will say the Devil) will try to sway me away from understanding too much.  But I’m also told that the more I understand the more God will reveal to me.  My personal understanding of God has become so much clearer with the teachings of other faith traditions co-mingled in my being.  I am thankful every day for those who speak the truth.

Reading Resources

One visit or experience of a different faith’s worship is not enough to understand all of a faith’s nuances. Imagine the impression you would get if you were to only visit an Episcopal Church on Maundy Thursday! Here are some of the books I read after visiting faith traditions that were radically different to my Episcopalian upbringing. I’ve also included some others I happened upon that had a large impact on my journey.

The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew and Heart of the Middle East

Written as a fiction, it’s a good explanation of the reason for the Muslim vs Jewish issues.

The Faith Club: A Muslim, A Christian, A Jew

Three women search for understanding.

The Good of Giving Up: Discovering the Freedom of Lent

This put words to why I love being an Episcopalian.

The Life of Mary Baker Eddie

A biography that helped me get the basics of Christian Science.

Learning to Breathe: My Year long Quest to Bring Calm to My Life

Just enough description of Buddhism to get me started.

The Life of Joseph Smith the Prophet

A biography that helped me understand the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Unity: A Quest for Truth

A straightforward description of the ideas behind Unity Church.

God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World

A generic introduction to key religions.

Carolyn B Thompson is a cradle Episcopalian with an unquenchable thirst for more relationship with her beloved Father.

Resources

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Gary Allman

Gary Allman is the Director of Communications at The Diocese of West Missouri

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