People See, People Do: A Parable by Emily Vermilya

Not long ago, a pastor commented to a friend that his congregation had “lost its zeal in worship.” The friend pressed in and asked him to be specific with his concerns. The pastor did so, mentioning a lack of participation by the congregants in singing, a perceived increase in people’s level of distraction throughout times of prayer, and a general disregard and diminished sense of sacredness in regard to the celebration of the sacraments. He’d spent time trying to figure out the problem. He’d considered the length of the services, the style of music used, the pastoral staff who were leading and their abilities to dynamically guide and direct services—none of these seemed to yield the congregation’s increasing apathy in every aspect of the service, except the sermon. “They are a wonderful congregation to preach to,” he said. “But they are so disengaged in every other aspect of worship.” So in an attempt to gain a fresh perspective, he invited his friend to worship with his congregation and to make her own assessment of the situation. She agreed.

Upon entering the church, the friend was immediately taken by the beauty of the sanctuary. Great care had been put into the construction of such a lovely worship space. Adorned with stained glass tapestries and warm-glowing candles, she was met with a wonderful sense of both God’s transcendence and imminence in this place. Wonderful music filled the room as she took a seat toward the back of the sanctuary, hoping to observe what would happen in this place over the next hour.

As the prelude came to a conclusion, the friend began surveying the congregation, hoping to exchange a glance with her pastor-friend—simply letting him know she had arrived. As the song leader moved to the platform, called the congregation to worship, and invited people to join in singing praises to God, the friend still hadn’t located the pastor. She looked in the front first, thinking that might be a natural place for the pastor to sit. He was not there. She looked behind her, wondering if he was at the door, welcoming late comers. He wasn’t there either. Finally, as the congregation listlessly sang the second stanza of the second song, she noticed her pastor-friend entering the sanctuary from a side door. He looked a bit frazzled, straightening his tie and quickly moving into his usual front row seat.

As the song leader spoke words of encouragement to the congregation to proclaim the great name of Jesus during the final hymn, the woman was surprised to see her pastor-friend sit down, open his Bible in his lap, then sit motionless for the duration of the hymn. He remained that way through the time of pastoral prayer and only moved slightly during the time of offering testimony and praise and that was in an effort to re-tie his shoes! The ushers never even looked at him as they collected the offering (let alone hand him an offering plate). It was as if he was invisible. And, for all practical intents and purposes, might as well have been.

As the Scriptures were being read by the lector, the Pastor began to look forward from his seat. Then, like a rocket shot from a cannon, he stepped onto the platform and preached a dynamic sermon—and the people in the congregation seemed to come to life. Suddenly, with each perfectly planned cadence–with every emphasized word or deliberate motion of his hand, the congregation mirrored his enthusiasm and excitement.

As the sermon came to a conclusion, the song leader returned to the platform, offering excellent words encouraging people to respond through song to the Word of God. As the singing began, the woman couldn’t help but notice her pastor-friend return to his front-row seat, sit down looking exhausted, and place his head in his hands, wiping sweat from his brow as he starred lifelessly at the ground until the song leader had offered the benediction and dismissed people from the service.

This congregation’s problem became obvious to the woman: people see, people do. Despite the wonderful worship environment, despite the capable musicians and team of elders and deacons leading the congregation in prayer and praise, the congregation was simply emulating its senior leader.

After the service was over, it was a difficult conversation for the woman to have with her pastor-friend, to say the least. But in an effort to remain true to what she was asked to do, she offered him the following advice:

  1. When you show up late for the service, you implicitly communicate that only the parts of the worship service you perform matter.
  2. When you heartily participate in actions of worship, it’s catchy. In the same way, when you choose to sit in the front pew while others have been asked to stand; when you choose to rehearse the words of your sermon while others are being asked to sing or pray, it communicates a lack of importance to these other actions of worship. If you don’t value participating in these elements, why should anyone else?
  3. As a pastor, you are called to lead the congregation in worship—not just preaching. While preaching IS an important action of worship, it is not the only action of worship to which we are called.

She gave the pastor example after example of what she had observed that morning. He was shocked by her assessment—perhaps even somewhat skeptical of her evaluation. So she challenged him to be a holistic worship leader to his congregation for three months and then get back to her.

Three months later, the woman revisited this congregation. This time, her pastor-friend didn’t know she was coming. To her great pleasure, the pastor was in his seat before the prelude had even begun. He sang each of the opening songs with great passion and even took a kneeling position during the pastoral prayer. He stood up and shook a young man’s hand after a testimony of praise was offered. He even paused slightly after the lector had completed the Gospel reading, before approaching the platform to preach.

As the woman watched her friend lead, she saw his congregation follow. The church hadn’t been completely transformed—there were still some who seemed disinterested or disengaged with what was happening around them. But by and large, she saw the people of this church following a leader in worship—their pastor!

What would this woman observe of your leadership if she were to walk into your church this Sunday? How are you preparing this week—not only to preach, but also to lead your congregation in the worship of Almighty God?

Emily Vermilya is the Worship Arts Director at College Wesleyan Church

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