Episode 92: “Creating Powerful Worship in Small Congregations” featuring Teresa Stewart

Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 92: “Creating Powerful Worship in Small Congregations” featuring Teresa Stewart

Do you want amazing worship on a small church budget? Teresa Stewart, a blogger and creator of the website Paper Bag Cathedrals, shares ways small congregations can enliven their worship.

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Do you want amazing worship on a small church budget? In this episode Teresa Stewart, a blogger and creator of the website Paper Bag Cathedrals, shares ways small congregations can enliven their worship.

Doug Powe: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I am Douglas Powe, the director of the Lewis Center, and your host for this talk. Joining me is Teresa Stewart, blogger and creator of the website Paper Bag Cathedrals, and a blog, Small Church, Big God. Our focus for this podcast is small church worship resources. Teresa, I’m so glad that you’re joining us today.

Teresa Stewart: Oh, I’m thrilled. Thank you. Thank you.

Doug Powe: I’m really excited to talk with you because I truly believe often small churches are an afterthought when it comes to worship, and I’m happy that you’re focusing on resources for small churches. So, can you share how you started developing resources for small churches?

Teresa Stewart: Sure. I think that most small congregation pastors recognize that stuff that develops out of big congregations can’t simply be dragged and dropped into small settings. There just is something that doesn’t work. When I was a student pastor, I was at a small congregation, of course, and started realizing that not everything that I expected to work would work. And even though I had run like heck to get out of a small town that I had grown up in, I fell back in love with the people and the patterns and the practices in my particular small place, and I began writing resources for them and testing things and trying new things to make sure that the words that I was putting in their mouths were their words offered in worship. And then a couple of terrific things happened.

I was invited to teach worship in sacrament in the course of study, and I got a chance to watch pastors over a course of several semesters and years. And during that time, I realized I could kind of predict who was going to have a flourishing congregation. And it wasn’t because they were necessarily the brightest students or had the best resourced church or the best resourced office in their denomination. It was that they were working a little bit differently. They were working off a different script, or intuitively they were doing different things. And then, with the grace of the Great Plains conference, they allowed me to write and teach groups of laity and pastors over a year, three groups over a year, to develop resources and test out. So, I got to see in real time what was working and experiment and see. And what I think is there really is a different set of tools of how worship can and should work in small places, but we’ve not necessarily been teaching them.

Doug Powe: I will pick up on some of those tools, but I want to go back to something you said that I found really fascinating. You talked about being able to sort of predict or tell when a student would sort of flourish when it came to worship. So, I’m just curious. What were the signs that they intuitively know how to do worship in smaller congregations? What were those giveaways to you?

Teresa Stewart: One of them was they were not looking to replicate what excellence looks like in a large place. Instead of trying to Band-Aid over and find fixes and start with the question, “but we need to figure out a way to get a great praise band,” they were starting with a different question, diagnosing, and falling in love with their own communities. They were looking for local gifts and local expressions and how people in their community could get their hands on what the work of the worship was going to be. And they were comfortable with it being unsettled work. They were not expecting to have a locked down script of every five minutes — “I know exactly what’s going to happen.” They were leaving some things up for grabs and intentionally including local and not simply what they thought were excellent resources.

Doug Powe: This is interesting, and you talked about this a couple of times now with many small congregations because they go to workshops and they get, of course, material from whatever their denomination may be to point them towards the congregation that does this very well, and it usually is a larger congregation. So, they try to copy or emulate what that congregation is doing, but that really pushes in the wrong direction because they are not that congregation. So, what you are saying is small congregations, the first step, it sounds like, is they actually have to ask a different question and not simply think about doing worship to try to become something they’re not but really focus on “who we are.” Can you say a little bit more about what it means to focus on who you are?

Teresa Stewart: Absolutely. I think one of the first pieces of that “who you are” is what is the aesthetic out of which you worship? And an aesthetic may sound like a big kind of overwhelming word, but it’s not. I mean, we get this. We are human beings deeply attuned to aesthetic cues all the time. And all we have to do is look back to the COVID changes in television and we know this. For example, the patterns and practices that worked when Colbert was in the Ed Sullivan Theater did not work when he was in his home office. He had to change the timing of jokes, the way he spoke to things, his entire being and presentation because it felt awkward or stilted not in the context of this big theater. And this, you know, was the same thing with Seth Meyers and Jimmy Fallon. There were big aesthetic switches they had to do.

But we don’t even have to go to television to think about that. Doug, you and I know that there are different aesthetic rules, principles for setting our expectations and how we interact and respond, whether we’re going to a potluck birthday party at someone’s house or a formal wedding dinner banquet. We walk in with different roles at the formal dinner wedding banquet. You walk in not expecting to affect the events of that night. You walk in and you are an observer, not a participant. There is an order of things that is set. There are the authorities sitting up at the head table who will orchestrate things.

But when you go to someone’s house for a potluck something different happens entirely. As soon as someone walks in the door with a different dish, the party changes and unfolds. It’s unscripted. You’re in the moment. If you showed up at the door and presented each visitor at that potluck with a bulletin and said, “and here’s exactly what’s going to happen tonight. You will be allowed to say the following words and I’m going to orchestrate,” it just wouldn’t work. We know that’s not appropriate. And yet, in many ways, we have been setting the expectations for a large performance aesthetic for small congregations when they’re powerhouse. It’s not just who they are, but it is a powerful set of tools that they have when they invoke a participation aesthetic.

One of the things I like to remind folks is — I call it the happy birthday effect — when you are at someone’s birthday party in the home of a loved one and everybody bursts into song. As they carry out a cake, they sing “Happy Birthday to You.” Afterwards, when you’re driving home, you don’t go, “Oh, man, that was so terrible. We were out of key. The base should have practiced some more. We could have done so much …. You know we should have brought in a professional choir and done some more rehearsals.” You don’t because the participation aesthetic, the way we burst into song together, changes our critical function. We relate to it differently. And this is where some of the real advantages are. Big places have to resort to excellence because they can’t get every worshipper in participation mode and in that kind of birthday effect mode. So, we really do need to think about the immense strengths for formation in small places and small settings with a different set of tools. It’s not just who they are, but what they have available to them because of this particular setting.

Doug Powe: I have to begin by saying the next time we sing “Happy Birthday” someplace I’m going to, when I leave, say, “you know what we really need to think about is somebody should have done a much better job with that alto.” But seriously for a second, I want to pick up — because I really like the example you gave of the potluck versus the formal setting and I think that you’re absolutely correct that if somebody went to a potluck and somebody said, “now this is going to be the program for the night,” people would be giving them really strange looks because that’s just not the sort of setting that you’re in. But by the same token and this is where the question is, I’ve been to potlucks and I’ve been to small congregations where there are still people who are reluctant to participate. So, as you talk about this sort of aesthetic of participation, I think you’re right in naming that as certainly a strength where you can get people involved and that participate. But what do you do when people are reluctant? Because it seems to me that’s where it is different, but there would be a similar challenge in larger congregations. You never get 100 percent of the people to go along with you.

Teresa Stewart: I think we can click into a mindset of saying, okay, that means we’ve got to click through and put a checkmark beside every person that they did participate. And that’s not what I found. What I have found is the more heightened the sense of openness to participation, even if someone doesn’t actually participate, still it invokes that effect so that what we’re really looking at is, in a big setting, it’s going to go on the same whether you are there or not.

The more we can increase this up-for-grabs feeling of “I have the ability of affecting this event for everyone, of creating it.” Now, some people may be more assertive about that than others, but the mere fact that that is there and someone can affect what everyone’s experience has been, that’s when the participation effect kind of kicks in, that this is part of “my being here mattered if it was possible for me to have an effect on this.”

Doug Powe: Thank you, that’s helpful. I want to sort of now start digging deeper into some ideas for small congregations, and I know that you’re creative. So, can you just start off by talking a little bit? I don’t want you to give too much away because I know that you know this is your livelihood. But what are some of the sort of characteristics or tools that small congregations can use that help them to create a worship experience that is going to be more participatory, more local, and to do those things that you’ve alluded to earlier?

Teresa Stewart: I’m going to back up just a little bit and say — here’s where I ground this in theology which is for worship — I believe it is not a dimension of a church’s life. It is the dimension. It’s where we practice ourselves. It’s where we have clarity and manifest the kingdom of God from all the other things that we are doing as the people of God. It is the most real of anything we do. And so, what I think about is how all pieces of church life of community life intersect and run through worship.

So, let’s think about the chancel area where the altar is. One of the easiest places to start and where I see some of the biggest leaps made when people are first introduced to the strengths, is when I talk about hands-on contact and using that chancel area. In the chancel area, we are playing out the good news. It’s happening in the presence of that cross and in the presence of God and, as the people witness and do the work of the liturgy, themselves.

So, one of the ways we can do this is: If there are going to be canned goods put in a pantry that are made available to people in your community, they need to go through worship. Bring them in, stack them in front of the altar. Children’s art projects always go in. They have the chance of offering them as a piece of themselves before God. The altar area can fill up with the signs of expressions of what we bring; and more the of that hands-on contact, the deeper and richer that is.

I remember one Sunday I had crafted worship where people had brought things forward and I always had them set the altar. I would put cloth in the back, and they would come in during the prelude and drape it and move it and set them up. And what I noticed was that while I was preaching, even when I thought I had good words, their eyes were going from me to what their hands had touched, to something close by, and then back and forth. They were creating a conversation between the work of their hands — whether they had placed cans or art or a personal item or something up or they had been the ones who draped the altar cloths — it was a conversation with something else going on. And I can’t tell you the number of times when, a year later, someone would say, “well, you remember, Teresa, when I put this up there,” and for them, the meaning was made real because it was in conversation not about Teresa’s words but about preaching in conversation when the work of their hands had created something new.

So, use hands-on contact to have people put all kinds of objects, local signs and symbols up on that altar to affect the drama of what we’re playing out with God with us, kingdom of God among us, even right here, even these folks, even our stuff.

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Doug Powe: So, let me try to have you take a step back. I again like the sort of rich example you gave from your own experience, particularly with the cloth and the people putting it on and using their hands. But they didn’t show up at church one day and say, “Hey, let’s use our hands to put this cloth up on the altar.” Right? There was some learning or teaching that helped them to understand how to even drape it or what the theme or the liturgical sort of reason they would be doing this. So, help us to understand what is the process that a pastor or someone who’s helping to lead worship in a small congregation can do to help the individuals, the parishioners, to be able to use their hands to do exactly what you just described.

Teresa Stewart: I think one of the issues that has to be set up is a culture where there is not one right way, and I encourage congregations to change out leadership and participation monthly on these things, so they do see different ways emerging about how something is set up. And I also think that this has something to do with a kind of leadership that I think works particularly well, which is that your job as pastor of a small congregation is not being the expert. It is asking people to what I call wagering leadership or saying, “Well, I wonder how this could work. I wonder what would happen if …” and you diagnose gifts and equip people to do all of these things around you. But they may not be done exactly as you would do them. And that’s okay, too.

One of the things that I saw frequently in the worship workshops is how a pastor would show up for the first worship workshop by himself or herself and then realize, “Oh, I have no way of talking about this stuff because it’s so different.” And then bring laity back to the next one. And they might have a lay member who did all things with excellence. They set it up the right way. They did this the right way, they did that. And what I tried to do is get them to understand that the more hands you can get and the more it is the work of the people and not just the person, the deeper the experience of that participation effect. And so, things do get done differently and you’re looking for someone who might enjoy setting it up and have a different vision for what that looks like or bringing in something or how a child might lead the congregation, reading the scripture differently than someone else might. So, you’re diagnosing and teaching as you go but without a single “we’re on script and it has to be done exactly this way.” It’s messy stuff.

Doug Powe: So, I’m going to play off what you just said, and I think I’m grasping what you’re saying. So, if I were planning a worship experience at my church, ABC congregation, and I say, “this week, we’re going to bring ….” — I’ll use your example of canned goods — what you’re literally saying is basically that the community as a whole would sort of read the scripture and then the people could just feel free to display the canned goods as they see fit. And it would be sort of free flowing from there or would you develop a liturgy ahead of time that would sort of fit with the meaning of the canned goods?

Teresa Stewart: All of these are options. There can be a time signaled for people to bring things forward. What we’re emphasizing is that hands-on contact, as much of that as possible.

But I would also say that this goes to what I think is a great way of doing worship planning for small congregations. And I call it the stone soup method, where you might have the pastor come up with the scripture and a short description of where it’s going and an anchor image or question but then assigns people to say, “How do you want to bring people in for the call to worship? How would you invite this kind of offering? What would you do?” And so, I know in one congregation it’s become kind of a community event to stop by the pastor’s office and see on the whiteboard all the different names that are working on that month with all the different pieces of the worship service, the pieces of that potluck, and what might show up that week.

Doug Powe: Okay, thank you, that’s helpful. So, then it really opens up where it’s not one or two people necessarily having to take the responsibility, but people can come in at different places and parts and use their freedom of expression to help create an experience that truly then is local for them, which again would be very different from sort of a larger congregation in many cases that has a very set formula for how they would do worship.

Teresa Stewart: And in big places, there has to be a lot more structure because a crowd of 2,000 gets really anxious if things feel out of control.

Doug Powe: Yeah.

Teresa Stewart: But when was the last time you went to a fun potluck where everything felt under control? We can enjoy that sense of breathability.

Doug Powe: Yeah, that makes sense. Staying in this vein but shifting a little bit, when you have — and you’ve alluded to it — children in the congregation, it can be challenging to include children in worship. They are often sort of an afterthought or, if not an afterthought, they are that cute little addition that we add so we can say, “Hey, look and see what we did here.” But I get the sense that you don’t think that’s how we should include children in worship. Can you share more about how can we authentically include children in the worship experience?

Teresa Stewart: Well, let’s start with our theology, which is God just has this remarkable ability of showing up among the least likely, least credentialed folks to reveal the kingdom of God among us. And when we diminish children’s roles to, oh, it’s time to do ‘worship light’ or something cute or something developmentally inappropriate (which is using an object lesson — kids’ brains are not wired for object lessons; adults’ are, but theirs are not), we’ve got to get a lot more creative and think through what works for children. But then also, how can they lead us in worship?

I work with kind of 12 different models for how that can happen, but I want to give one to congregations right now because I’ve seen this one work. And it begins to change how you can effect more change with congregations if you start with how they relate to children because they are often more open to that than in any other way. And I would start with a quarterly arts Sunday where the children, during a children’s message or at other time, are given a clipboard and given a whole big table of beautiful, spectacular art supplies to pick from — jars with ribbon and markers of different colors — and it’s very inviting. And they are asked to answer (maybe the prompt is “What does a saint look like to you?” or “Draw a picture of someone who’s taught you what God looks like”) on a clipboard. Now, what will happen is the kids will get this at first. Eventually you’ll have a congregation who wants to be able to do these responses together. Everyone is going to want them, and you can include everyone in these arts Sundays. But the key is then at some point all of those pieces of artwork come forward for blessing and then they become part of this bigger conversation of what you’ve been worshipping with that week. So, it is remarkable how giving someone a variety of art supplies can unleash kind of right-brained engagement when most people expect to sit and process things analytically. And when you’re in a little body, that’s just hard to do.

Doug Powe: That’s actually really interesting. So, it allows for them to sort of draw or however they want to do it anything they would want to and at the same time feel like they are a very active participant in the worship experience that has taken place. And I would imagine what is helpful about it is that, in some ways, they probably are paying attention in ways they would not have been if they had not been asked to do this. So, they’re actually then starting to soak up some of the things that they may ignore otherwise that would be taking place during worship. Very interesting.

Teresa Stewart: So, you can give them a specific response: “here’s your job of what to draw” or you can just say, “draw what you think this sermon feels like.” And what’s interesting is it’s not just kids who do that but adults. It unleashes that as well.

Doug Powe: Yeah, that makes sense. As we get ready to draw to a close, I’m curious. In everything that we said, if you could sort of name your top three wishes for congregations, small congregations, as it relates to worship, what would those top three things be? What do you really wish for them as it relates to worship?

Teresa Stewart: I think the first is a deep appreciation that they will need to do things differently. Our history of Christian worship is about doing things for each context in each time. It isn’t just simply about preserving what was flourishing and large and successful in one time and moving it forward. But I would hope that we could rekindle this desire for indigenous, that the people in my community have gifts that belong in worship, have abilities and words, and worship can be made rich and good and lavish with what they have and who they are, not just with outside resources because we’re quote “just a little church.” So that would be the first one.

The second is: I hope that the Church writ large, the whole Church can be called into a different relationship with small congregations; that we develop resources — we need them to develop resources — not simply for the Church writ large. We’re going to have to pay some attention to what are the aesthetics and strengths of small places because we’ve gotten overwhelmingly muscular with understanding the aesthetics and strengths of big places.

And what’s at stake I believe is that, much as Phyllis Tickle would say, you know, there’s going to be this 500-year rummage sale that we’re in the middle of. The key gift of what we’ve learned from those rummage sales is: When Christianity spreads even further, just when you think that there’s so much challenge, it’s that all of those pieces have started in margins and edges and in small places. And I’d love to see us recognize the value of what is occurring now in margins and small places, in unlikely folks in backwater areas, in places that we’re not thinking about as successful right now. What could we grow and develop in our understanding and manifestation of the Kingdom of God right there with them? Because that’s about as holy a pattern in our scripture as I know.

Doug Powe: Teresa, thank you so much. This has been just wonderful, and I appreciate the work you’re doing because I think that so often we just naturally do try to replicate what we see at larger congregations. And to really focus on helping smaller congregations to authentically live out their worship is critically important and I imagine work that gives you great joy.

Teresa Stewart: Great joy. Thank you so much. Thank you.

Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talks, renowned researcher and sociologist of religion Christian Smith share how parents can pass their faith to their children.

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About Author

Teresa Stewart

Teresa Stewart is a pastor, educator, speaker, and consultant who has worked about 20 years creating worship resources for small churches. She is the creator of the website Paper Bag Cathedrals and blogs at Small Church, Big God, a free, online resource for small congregations.

Rev. Dr. F. Douglas Powe, Jr.

F. Douglas Powe, Jr., is director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and holds the James C. Logan Chair in Evangelism (an E. Stanley Jones Professorship) at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. He is also co-editor with Jessica Anschutz of Healing Fractured Communities (Palmetto, 2024) and coauthor with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Sustaining While Disrupting: The Challenge of Congregational Innovation (Fortress, 2022). His previous books include The Adept Church: Navigating Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Abingdon Press, 2020); Not Safe for Church: Ten Commandments for Reaching New Generations; New Wine, New Wineskins: How African American Congregations Can Reach New Generations; Transforming Evangelism: The Wesleyan Way of Sharing Faith; and Transforming Community: The Wesleyan Way to Missional Congregations.