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Downplaying Sunday

Church services can still be attractive when we stop being attractional.
Downplaying Sunday
Image: Sean824 / Getty

I have to confess. I had it in for the Sunday service. Which is a problem, since it was my job to plan it.

As a campus ministry congregation, we've been cautious for some time about the consumerist approach to church. It's easy for campus ministry to feel like an extension of youth group, so we've always felt it's important—while these young adults are still figuring out who they are—to help them get over consumer culture and learn to serve. In the past, as the person responsible for planning Sunday morning services, I was determined not to let our services be one more occasion to sit, consume, and critique.

Post-church conversations about what someone did or didn't "get" out of it made me fume. And I was absolutely sure that worship music would not be a performance. So we ran all the worship music with volunteers, even though we could afford a part-time worship minister, and even though we began to wear out our volunteers. But it meant we could spend that extra money on some worthy cause instead of giving it to what seemed frivolous.

If I'm honest, there was even a little part of me that was proud that we didn't have air conditioning and our people had to sweat out the service. There was some kind of pride that could have voiced itself as: "We're so not the typical attractional, consumerist church that it's actually unpleasant to come and worship with us!"

But we may have overcorrected. And I see other churches doing so too.

Rebalancing Sunday

In rebalancing from attractional to missional, it's good to see churches experimenting—perhaps with no Sunday service, or home church(es), or monthly Sunday services. And it's absolutely vital for us to consider how many dollars and hours we invest in planning for Sunday. It's healthy to raise questions about how service and discipleship suffer when the Sunday experience becomes the centerpiece of our week.

But while many churches are talking about getting away from the focus on Sunday services, we're finding ourselves rediscovering the joy of them.

I don't even remember how or when it happened, but I finally repented of my stoicism. And in the years since, I've remembered that I actually love church. I've been reminded of the unique part that a weekly worship service plays in a community of belief.

Part of the turning point came in interviewing potential part-time worship leaders. I thought that, for eight hours a week, we'd basically get a song leader. But when I met Nate (for those of you who read the byline: we share a last name but are not related), I saw there was hope for more. And I knew he was the one for us when he said, "I'm not a worship pastor. I'm a pastor who pastors through music."

For several years we've been exploring what it means to build a welcoming worship service in a way that doesn't take over our entire week. We're learning how to create Sunday services without sacrificing our service.

Worship … Every Day

Often, a worship leader's role is as a "supporting cast-member" to the preacher, with few pastoral expectations. But if we understand the worship leader first as a pastor (and secondly as an artist), we will begin to understand the importance of worship in a new way.

When a worship leader is understood as worship pastor, then we see the art created, songs sung, confessions read and the Eucharist offered as pastoral acts—not simply tools implemented to tease the fancy of the ever-illusive "seeker"—not only does this change how the congregation experiences the Sunday service, the worship pastor will also begin to see the service as truly being "the work of the people" (the literal definition of liturgy). The design of worship will be influenced greatly by pastoral acts of prayer, Scripture reading, and discipleship and not just by great art or music alone.

In any way that the role of the worship pastor engages the daily life of the church—service and discipleship—the weekly worship service can become an expression of the entire week of the community.

Unique opportunities arise from creating a role for Nate which is half given to planning the service (choosing prayers, readings, songs, instrumentations, musicians) and half given to serving the community (through both a local inner-city mission and our cafe and community space). While at first it seems strange to ask a worship leader not to devote their entire week to microphone cables and rehearsals, both roles inform each other so that the worship pastor, in the broadest way, leads worship every day of the week.

Building as Mission

It can be hard for a church moving away from attractional ministry to justify a worship space (and the attendant upkeep, mortgage, and utility costs), especially when it's only used a few hours a week. After all, there are needs in our world and community that could use the money. This is frequently what motivates "missional" churches to worship in schools or homes.

But we already had a space. So we opened up our building to the community seven days a week. It's helped that we have a cafe already in the building—a natural place to begin. We now have concerts and recitals and dance classes in our sanctuary every week.

I laughed recently when we put in huge fans to cool that space—as I enjoyed the cool, I remembered my former pride in our church members suffering through the heat. But we were happy to spend the money on fans to make our space welcoming and comfortable for our mid-week guests. When your building is used for outreach, spending money on the building is missions spending. It's just an added bonus that we get to benefit from that on Sundays.

Life and Preparation

It's easy to start with a great vision for worship services, and do whatever it takes to realize that … without asking what it will actuallycost us. (We're talking about more than money.) For many of the choices that we make, we've learned to begin with how much time and energy we have to give—including time for our staff to be engaged in the community and to rest and be with family.

While many churches are talking about getting away from the focus on Sunday services, we're rediscovering the joy of them.

Sometimes we feel like children going to a candy store with a handful of change, dumping it on the counter: "How much candy can I get with this?" We look at what time and energy we have and ask, "How much Sunday service can we get with this?"

Of course, there will be crazy weeks. But generally speaking, we ask, "How much music can we get with two hours of song selection and three hours of practice?" "How much sermon can we get with three hours of reading and prayer, and two hours of writing and conversation?" "How much church service can we get after one hour of nap or two hours of family Scrabble or three hours of bike riding?"

As our other associate pastor (Anthony) says: "All of life is preparation."

Family Programming

While we do have children's programming during one of our services, we also welcome children into the main services. We've created packets with quiet games, crayons, and coloring pages to give families who bring their kids. Of course, it encourages families to worship together. But, for the sake of keeping Sunday simple, it also helps reduce some of the headaches associated with fully staffing a children's ministry for both services. We used to change the packs every week to coordinate with that Sunday's theme. Now they may get updated every other week for the sake of time and energy. (Nobody noticed.)

The Work of the People

In The Worship Architect, Constance Cherry shapes worship after the narrative of the encounter the disciples have with Jesus on the road to Emmaus. As Jesus welcomed the disciples, we welcome worshipers with music, readings, words of welcome. Then, as Jesus opened up the Word to them as they walked, our music and preaching express the Word. As Jesus broke bread with them, we lead worshipers to the Table, remembering that it was in this act that the disciple's eyes were opened and they actually saw Christ for who he is. Then, as the disciples went out to tell others about what just happened to them, we send our worshipers. So our weekly liturgy is based on this framework of Welcome, Word, Table, and Sending.

Of course we can tweak it from week to week, but generally we're not taking a lot of time creating something from scratch. The worship pastor knows where his bit plugs in, the preacher knows where their bit plugs in, the person doing prayer/announcements/doxology knows where their bit plugs in. We get together as staff for one hour a week to talk about the service and be sure we're all on the same page (and that usually involves going over several week's services at a time). Then we each go our separate way to create our part to plug in on Sunday. Not only does having a familiar liturgy create a reassuring pattern for worshipers ("Today we're going to do things a little differently" isn't as welcome on Sundays as we'd like to think), it saves us a lot of time and energy that we can invest in discipling or serving throughout the week.

Congregational Engagement

We make choices to incorporate the congregation so that Sunday services aren't confused with a performance. We understand that some churches want to create a safe place for the unchurched to come and be anonymous. That's not what we're going for.

The seeker-sensitive move has made us think more about the opportunity for evangelism in our services, and evangelism can take place there, but we don't shape our Sunday services with evangelism as the goal. When Sunday Gatherings are created with a "seeker-sensitive" approach, we often try to implement art for a target audience rather than letting the art simply be an outflow of the community gathered. A seeker-sensitive approach nudges us to impress any guests who may show up and not simply for worship to be an action of the people (liturgy again). Instead, we shape our Sunday Worship as a re-telling of the acts of God through the person of Christ, inviting worshipers into the weekly re-enactment of the story they're part of.

Our lighting does not highlight the stage or allow the congregation to sit in the dark. Responsive readings get the congregation engaged, and a capella singing means the congregation has the opportunity to hear itself.

All these subtly remove the pressure from the staff to perform. Which means our preparation also involves preparing people for their part in worship, not only preparing ourselves.


In the past, it wasn't unusual to spend a good chunk of our week making a five-minute video that was intended to set up the question of the sermon. At the end of that week, I would often question the hours devoted to something that was mildly entertaining but wasn't even the point of the service.

So now, in the time that we do devote to preparation for Sundays, we invest a lot of energy in the things that matter—praying over the song selections, thinking about how the flow of service supports the message we're communicating, reading the Scriptures with open hearts, writing helpful reflection questions for people to ponder at home—which means that there is real quality where it matters most: in the substance of our message and in our willingness to be shaped by it ourselves. This sometimes naturally flows into creative ideas. But it may mean there's less attention given to the surface level stuff—sermon series logos or gimmicky handouts or stage decoration for its own sake.


While I had (and still have) an issue with performance, beauty, in whatever way we express it through the Sunday service—the poetry of the preacher's words, the timeless rhythms of congregational readings, the way music resonates with our spirits, the rich metaphors of communion—belongs at church. It gives us a glimpse, even if an incomplete one, of God's beauty and otherness.

Even in the act of singing together we are communicating the truth, in ways deeper than words, that we are One, that we follow the same Lord together, and that together (with each other and with Him) we create something that is greater than anything we could make alone.

While we invite musicians or preachers at various levels of expertise, we work toward a kind of excellence. Our excellence does not desire to impress but to communicate well, through chord progressions and pauses, metaphors and facial expressions. The best art doesn't just tell, it transports. We don't have to be perfect or performers to do that. We certainly shape our craft but understand that good art flows from the expression of a present, human soul. So we work to be human and present as artists. The art of the gathering should reflect the personality of the church and should re-tell the story of Christ in such a way that it's not so polished to be no longer human and not so flippant to be no longer reverent.

In all of this, we are motivated by how we talk and think about Sunday. We don't talk about it as the point of our community. It's not the focus of our week, but neither is it nothing. It's not disconnected from our weekly acts of service or spiritual growth; it has a special place in the life of our community. It's a weekly retelling of the story we're a part of, because the world loves to tell us other stories—that we're alone or that what we're doing is pointless.

So Sunday morning is a weekly reminder of why we do what we do all week long. It's a time to celebrate the service and growth that's going on in our lives, homes, neighborhoods, and workplaces. And it's a time to be encouraged for the service and growth in the week to come.

Mandy Smith serves as lead pastor at University Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Nathan Smith serves as a pastor at University Christian Church where he oversees the liturgy along with community engagement, which includes care for the poor and the church's relationship with their non-profit, fair-trade coffee shop, Rohs Street Cafe.

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