The Art of Starting Worship: Part 1 of 4

The gigantic graphic on the front page isn't subtle. It says we will begin weekly worship on December 4 at 10:00 AM. 701 Whaley will remain our worship space and the structure of the service won't change dramatically, but apart from the 1 hour of worship, the decision to begin meeting weekly will transform Downtown Church significantly. No, I'm not going to start a radio show and we won't start a vacation Bible school. But the changes that occur because we are meeting weekly will be noticeable in other, less obvious ways. Since the milestone is important enough to commission an oversized graphic on the front page of the website, it seemed right to tell our stakeholders how and why we decided that December 4 was a good time to start. To be sure, you might not be interested at all. I shouldn't assume that a discussion about starting worship is worth your time. But for all my church nerds, the insider perspective I'll offer over the next 3-4 posts will satisfy the deepest longings of your heart. And satisfying deep longings, a cliche that doesn't make sense since I haven't met anyone with "shallow longings" yet, is why we're here.

Before I get into the nitty gritty details, I should answer the most basic question: What's the big deal? The deal is big because once you start weekly worship, you can't stop. There is a big difference between thinking about having children and actually having them. Besides the fact that you will go broke if you follow through with the latter, the former allows some wiggle room for adjusting your timeline.

Starting a new church works exactly the same way. Churches are like making babies but they are also like starting restaurants. All things being equal, including the quality of the food, cleanliness of the kitchen, availability of the parking, and chocolate chip cookies on the desert menu, I'd rather eat at a restaurant that's 75% full on a Friday night than one that's nearly empty. The food might be perfect and the chocolate chip cookie delightful, but if the restaurant is missing people I'm going to wonder what's wrong and I'm likely not coming back. So, the big deal is having confidence that you have enough people committed to the church as their primary place of worship to meet the most subjective test of all - credibility.

If you've ever visited a church (or restaurant) that "feels" empty, you know what I'm talking about. The tricky thing is that the threshold of credibility doesn't have a universal conversion. 20 people in a church out in Hopkins with seating for 40 singing Kumbaya backed by a melody queued from a tape deck is credible because it fits the context. 20 people in downtown Columbia, in the Grand Hall at 701 Whaley, singing Kumbaya from the same tape isn't credible. If you happened to wander into Downtown Church in this instance, I'd forgive you for not coming back. And if we ever sing Kumbaya from a tape deck, I'm not coming back either.

Thankfully, we've never fallen below threshold for our context. But even if we wanted to start weekly worship the month after our first preview service, we couldn't. We had people coming but we didn't have a fixed location,  musician, worship identity, regular greeters, a set-up team, necessary equipment, and we didn't know what we were doing. Additionally, the pressure of writing a sermon each week and planning worship would severely constrict my time to follow up with guests and cultivate new relationships with people in the community. And a church, I've learned, is more than a good idea. It actually necessitates the presence of real people. And these real people, I've learned, won't know to come unless another real person (often me) invites them.

In the next post, I'll discuss each of the five non-negotiables that we determined were essential to have in place before we started. In no particular order they are: a big enough core group, location, musician, yummy treats, and children's offerings that were safe and clean.

I'll conclude the series with two more posts: an embarrassingly honest account of how the decision was made (spoiler alert: I'm a good enough writer to fake like knew what I was doing) and an explanation of why we chose December 4th as opposed to some other date.