Our gatherings: participatory and accessible

I’ve been posting a few thoughts on how we put together our Sunday gatherings in The Crowded House in Sheffield. This final post look at how we try to be both participatory and accessible. These might seem compatible principles, but in fact they can constitute a hard balance to strike.

Participatory and accessible

Worship is not a performance from the front, but a community act in which we all participate. We do not want the congregation merely to be passive observers. We want to encourage one another to give ourselves in worship.

We also want people of different ages, gender, social class and ethnicity to find our meetings accessible without feeling uncomfortable. We especially want unbelievers to feel welcome and be able to observe what we are doing.

These two principles of participation and accessibility can often be in conflict. Being urged to participate can make some people feel uncomfortable. We believe this can normally be avoided if participation is led from the front and the meeting is not focused on specific groups.

Participation takes the form of singing, liturgical prayers and open prayer. The leader may also attempt to give expression to people’s response to God’s word. And people are invited to talk or pray with others after the meeting. But we do not have times when people are encouraged to do things like pray with the person next to them because this may make unbelievers uncomfortable. When we have a time of open prayer we ask two or three people to lead the whole congregation so it is clear to visitors that they are not be required to pray. In other words, we include contributions from the congregation, but avoid small groups so that every contribution is experienced by everyone.

We also do not focus our gathering on specific groups. For example, we want children to feel part of everything that happens. But if we pitch things at a child’s level then it sounds patronizing to adults. So we avoid slots that are child-specific as these communicate that this is for children and not for adults, and that other parts of the meeting are for adults and not for children. We want children to feel part of everything that happens, but we also want middle-aged men to feel part of everything that happens. So avoid anything that will be cringy for adults like action songs. We want to be child-friendly without being child-focused. Many churches have fewer men than women. One reason is that men often find public worship off-putting. Whether we like it or not, worship geared at men will not put women off, but worship geared at women or children will put men off.

In the same way, we do not normally aim our activities at the gathering directly at unbelievers. Instead we invite them to observe Christians enjoying God and hearing from him. We do want to ensure our activities are accessible to unbelievers so from time to time we briefly explain what we are doing and why.

We try to watch our language and idioms so that people for whom English is not their first language can follow as much as possible. We also want to avoid in-jokes that visitors or new-comers will not get.

This commitment to congregational participation also shapes our music. We want our music to facilitate congregational worship rather than be a performance that replaces congregational worship. Our aim is music which is not so bad that it draws attention to itself and not so good that it draws attention to itself. Instead we want music to lift the hearts of the congregation in worship in which the attention is on Christ.

These aims sometimes exist in tension and we are realistic enough to accept that we will not always hit a perfect balance.

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