Leading gatherings

Ephesians 2:8 reminds us that “through Christ we have access to God the Father by one Spirit.” Most simply then, the role of the leader at any gathering is to lead people in their engagement with God the Father, in reliance on God the Son, and moved by the Holy Spirit. This makes it one of the most privileged roles in church life, and one that therefore deserves much thought, prayer and preparation.

What to do
There are only four elements the New Testament (NT) implies are absolutely necessary when the church meets on a Sunday. We meet to glorify God’s name (praise), seek God’s help (prayer), hear God’s word (teaching) and remember God’s salvation (communion). These are the basics. However, there are numerous optional elements that can be creatively woven amongst these in a way that enhances them:

Silence gives fantastic opportunity to ponder God or oneself before him, or to offer private prayers.

Through a call to worship someone reads some verses from a psalm or elsewhere that remind the congregation why God is worthy of our praise.

A doxology is a prayer of praise from the Bible that could begin or end a service or come part way through.

The prayer of invocation is an opening prayer in which God is praised for his character and work, and asked to meet with his people during the meeting, speaking to them and enabling them to respond fittingly. Words from a psalm or doxology could be incorporated and prayed home.

Scripture can be used in numerous ways. From the time of the early church readings have been taken from both testaments, showing the unity of God’s purposes in Christ. But scripture can be used in songs, prayers and other elements too. In our day the Ten Commandments and Beatitudes are particularly helpful in reminding the congregation of God’s will and the sincerity of heart he looks for. They could come before confession or prayers, or instead of a creed.

The confession usually comes in three parts. The congregation recall their sin, ask God’s forgiveness, and the leader assures them with a Bible verse that they are forgiven if truly repentant. A prayer of thanksgiving for the gospel could also follow. The confession could be included in an opening prayer to stress we come only through Christ, at some point pre-sermon to stress obedience is a response to redemption, or post-sermon where its primary application is repentance.

The creed can be an historic statement of faith or one comprised from scripture. It is said or responded to as a way of reaffirming and recalling what is believed. It might come near the beginning of a service to stress the grounds on which God’s people meet, just before prayers to stress the grounds of our access to God, before the sermon to stress we are ready to hear because of all God has done, or after the sermon to affirm our faith in truths we’ve been reminded of.

The Lord’s Prayer has been said weekly in services since the first century, and could be used as an opening or closing prayer, or as a prayer to conclude or structure the intercessions.

Interviews provide opportunity for Christians to glorify God to the congregation for what he has done for them, encourage others by their example, or bring to the church particular needs. These are best planned. But if pre-warned at the beginning of the service, a time in which people could mention anything along these lines could be given on the day. Interviews usually work best some time before the sermon so they don’t distract from its message.

Notices are not a distraction, but a reminder of God’s work through the fellowship. They should come at a point where all who need to hear them are present and where they least disrupt the flow of the meeting.

A time of open response is a period when the congregation are encouraged to speak out pertinent Bible verses, or prayers of praise or intercession that the Holy Spirit might bring to mind. This flows most naturally from a song, interview, Bible reading or sermon. It is possible during this time that someone might speak out in tongues. The leader should ask if anyone has an interpretation, and if not, move on. Alternatively, someone might state God has told them something for the church. We think any prophecy would usually come via some visionary experience. But whatever moves someone to speak, the leader should encourage the congregation to weigh what is said, and ask the elders if they want to comment. As elders our conviction is that God may still grant the supernatural gifts described in the NT, but because their outpouring was a particular way of crediting the apostles as founders of the church, we cannot necessarily expect them to be as prevalent today as they were then.

The prayer of illumination is when a prayer is said before the Bible readings and sermon which thanks God that he has made himself known, affirms the congregation comes in response to his redemption, and asks him to speak and grant them a right response.

The blessing is a final prayer that asks God to grant the essence of what has been considered in the meeting to the congregation as they go. There are many of these in the Bible that could be used.

Other items could include a video that brings home one aspect of the service, a performed song, a poem, a quality drama, a famous set prayer or collect, or something else. Spoken items could be said by the leader, the congregation, or partly by the leader with a congregational response. The confession and prayers could be pre-prepared or extemporaneous. Alternatively, they could be crafted from Bible verses or prayers, or well known historical forms could be used or adapted.

About edification
The Bible gives no fixed order for church services. But what is clear is that any decision about what to include or where should be governed by what will most edify (ie. build up) the particular congregation God has called together (1 Cor 14v1-12). In arranging the various elements above, in love the leader should therefore consider the congregation’s spiritual needs above his own, and consider ways in which its members can be enabled to minister to one-another – provided this would be truly edifying. It is important, however that what is included doesn’t restrict the time given to the key elements of praise, prayer, teaching and communion.

Planning a service
The Bible can be particularly helpful in deciding a basic structure for a service. Where the theme of the service matches that of a Psalm, the inspired structure of the psalm could be used. Other structures can be gleaned from elsewhere. For example: re-dedication (Jos 24), commissioning (Is 6), repentance (Neh 9), obeying God when reluctant (Ps 95 or Heb 12), thanksgiving for a specific work of God (Neh 8). Most importantly, the logic of salvation-history provides a structure that is suitable for most services: Consider God as Creator & King (Gen 1-2), reflect on sin (Gen 3-4), experience redemption (Gen 5-Ex 18), hear from God’s word (Ex 19-34), respond with obedience (rest of Bible).

Once a structure has been decided upon, the songs, prayers and other elements can be chosen in a way that leads the congregation through each of its stages. But throughout, four emphases are theologically paramount. Any and every service should be:

1) Word-centered: The primary reason God has always assembled his people is to hear him speak (Ex 19, Neh 8-9, Heb 12). So all other elements should be considered in the light of what is to be said from the scriptures, whether in preparation or response. For example, if the sermon emphasizes praise, a set of songs might follow; if needs, then intercessions; if repentance, confession; and if commitment, a song to that effect. It would therefore seem wise for the preacher to decide the basic structure to any gathering.

2) God-focused: The reason for meeting isn’t, however, simply to understanding things. It is to meet with God through his word, as he is worshipped “in Spirit and truth” (Jn 4v24). The leader should therefore be careful to speak and pray in a way that reflects something of the breadth of God’s character, his work throughout scripture, and the distinctive roles of his three persons. In particular, the Bible stresses his greatness and sovereignty (ie. his bigness), his holiness and justice (ie. his goodness), and his grace and compassion (ie. his love).

3) Gospel-shaped: It is only through the gospel that the believer draws close to God (Heb 10v19-25). It should therefore be stressed that we come to worship God only through Christ and by the Spirit (Eph 2v8), and that we readily hear and respond to his word in view of his grace and mercy to us in the gospel, not to merit or deserve his favour (Rom 12v1-2).

4) Scripture-saturated: As part of God’s word, the psalms show his concern that we praise and pray to him using his own words. The Bible’s truths and even words should therefore pervade the songs we sing, the prayers we say, and any other elements we include. Scripture is our resource book.

Seeking balance
A nuanced reading of scripture suggests the importance of maintaining a balance when leading as follows:

1) Relaxed & Reverent: The leader is leading his church family not a civic ceremony. So warmth and informality are important. But his language and manner should also foster an attitude in which the congregation “worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for ‘our God is a consuming fire’” (Heb 12v28-29). In this, the leader should be particularly careful to focus attention on God and not on himself.

2) Structured & Spontaneous: God is not a God of disorder (1 Cor 14v33). He delights in careful structure and planning as seen in his instructions for Israel’s worship, the detail of the psalms and the creation itself. Yet scripture also commends giving time within this for people to praise God, pray, share insights into scripture, or ask questions as the Spirit moves them (1 Cor 14v26-35).

3) Prepared & Perceptive: Again, the psalms show how God-honouring it is to carefully and prayerfully prepare the corporate worship of God. And for the leader to come with a full transcript or bullet points of what he plans to say or pray can give great clarity to the benefit of the congregation. Nevertheless, he will also need to be sensitive as to whether the Spirit is moving him to say something unprepared, or change an item he planned in. This comes with practice.

4) Clear & Concise: What is done in gatherings must be understandable to all, including any who are unchurched (1 Cor 14v9-12). It can be important to use Christian terms. But they need definition. And most items will need a brief word of explanation that also helps the worshipper engage with them. Nevertheless, the leader should be as brief as possible, and certainly not give mini-sermons, so that nothing detracts from the elements of the service themselves.

5) Joyful & Truthful: Joy in Christ and all he gives is a particular mark of the Spirit’s presence (Eph 5v18-20). But this is often a joy amidst hardship as we struggle with sin and suffering. The leader should therefore ensure not only that he encourages joy, but that he is aware of and honest about the burdens people may come with (1 Pet 1v3-9), reflecting the fact that although we have every spiritual blessing, we do not yet experience every spiritual blessing.

6) For Mind & Heart: God calls us to love him with our entire self, and worship “in Spirit and truth” (Jn 4v24). So minds should be stretched as far as is appropriate for the particular congregation. Nevertheless, the leader can speak and pray in a way that leads the congregation to look to the Holy Spirit to enable their response to be one that is sincere and wholehearted, truly cherishing the Father and the Son.

7) Expressing Unity & Diversity: The gathering is a time in which Christian unity and so the power of the gospel is displayed even to the heavenly realms (Eph 3v10). It is not therefore the time for everyone to do as they want, but be drawn together as they unite in singing, praying, listening, standing, sitting etc. Nevertheless, diversity is to be expressed in the involvement of the different members. Yet this diversity is one that is to promote unity, drawing the church together in love for one-another and conformity to the truth of God’s word (Eph 4v11-16).

And finally: In all these things, it is important that the leader is himself, but also that he leads. If the congregation feel they know where they are going and have confidence in the leader taking them there, they will relax and be able to focus.

For a checklist for planning gatherings and access to Bible verses, prayers etc that might prove useful, click here.