Three P's and Church Size in United Methodist Worship

By Taylor Burton-Edwards

worship-planning-three-pIn my role as your Director of Worship Resources at Discipleship Ministries, I receive questions about specific worship practices in The United Methodist Church nearly every day. Among the more frequent questions I receive are about how to handle what I call here "Three P's of United Methodist Worship"-- the prayers, the peace, and PR (announcements). Sometimes I get the impression that folks expect me to tell them the "one right way" or at least the "real United Methodist way" to handle some of these things in their context. But my actual answer is often more like, "It depends."

One of the most important variables on which it depends is current church size and the size the congregation's leaders (lay and clergy) agree they want it to be and become.

So here are may observations and a few rules of thumb about how the ways you handle these three elements in your worship service relate to the size of the congregation.

The Prayers

"Joys and Concerns"
There is a fairly common practice in many of our smaller congregations (average worship attendance less than 50) of establishing an "open mic" time for people to state their "joys and concerns" out loud. This often involves the person standing, saying the name of the person or persons for whom they're asking prayer, and describing the situation of the person(s). It's not uncommon for each of these requests to take 30 seconds to a minute or more. And it's also not uncommon for there to be seven or more people who make such specific requests. At the conclusion of this time, often the pastor will offer a "pastoral prayer" that includes these specific requests by name along with other petitions related to the day, the particular service, and the wider world. Overall, this period of time can typically last 10 minutes or more within the "worship hour." Other elements of worship are adjusted to ensure worship remains within the designated hour.

This practice can and often does work quite well in a group size of roughly 20 to 50. At that size range, everyone likely knows everyone else quite well, and there is an expectation that the congregation is an extended family. Often, in fact, congregations this size are made up of just a few families, some of whom are likely related to others by blood or marriage. Sharing this fully both reflects and helps sustain the extended family-feeling of the gathered congregation. It reinforces the sense of personal mutual support in what Peter Steinke calls the "family church" (under 50) and what Robin Dunbar, describing social organizations more broadly, describes as a "work team" or "good friends" or "extended family."

But get much beyond 50, and the practice may start to become a constraint that could. in combination with other factors, have the effect of reducing the average attendance back to within the 20 to 50 range. This is because beyond 50 people, the dynamics of the group significantly change. None of us has the resources to sustain more than 50 "good friends" -- people we can contact and be in enough conversation with over time to be able to share this kind of information openly. In congregations larger than 50, or congregations that want to "get to the next level," it's not uncommon to find the amount of time spent by each person and the level of detail they share reduced relative to those between 20 and 50. It's also common to see a shift to a different practice begin to take place.

The Written Prayer List
Many congregations larger than 50 but smaller than 150 will have a written prayer list that appears in a bulletin, possibly in newsletters, or on screen. Such churches may also give time for one or two additional names to be taken, either during announcements (in person, out loud) or a larger number to be submitted in writing at the offering or via email or social media platforms. Churches on the smaller end of this scale may say the names of these persons aloud, in unison, at some point during the prayers, whether they are offered as a pastoral prayer or as "prayers of the people" (bidding led by a prayer leader and response by the congregation). Churches that make the successful transition beyond 150 in average attendance tend not to continue the practice of unison praying of these lists, but simply leave them in writing for silent prayer or prayer by individuals or smaller groups during this week. At the same time, they may encourage the practice of leaving a brief time of silence after each petition or within a pastoral prayer for individuals in the congregation simply to name others for whom they are also praying but without additional explanations, usually in a quiet voice, if they wish.

This is because at a group size beyond 150, its is impossible to know one another well enough for the unison saying of these names to register as a meaningful exercise at the group level. Congregations larger than 150 may also have dedicated prayer groups of a much smaller size (under 20) who take the time to pray for each person aloud, and often take additional time to share their own "joys and concerns" as part of their meetings.

For more discussion of how to offer the prayers well in various contexts in The United Methodist Church, and how the prayers are part of our baptismal calling, see Mark Stamm's book, Devoting Ourselves to the Prayers.

The Peace

There are two different ways something called "The Peace" is used in United Methodist congregations, though our official ritual defines only one of those with that term.

In unofficial use, "The Peace" is an act of greeting, typically early on in the service, perhaps shortly after verbal announcements or an opening song, song set, or hymn. Sometimes it's introduced by "Greet your neighbors and those nearby you" or "Let's greet one another and make each other welcome."

The official (and historical and ecumenical) use of The Peace has a different function. Its purpose is to enact a "horizontal" act of reconciliation and peace among the body immediately following the act of "vertical" reconciliation and pardon from God after a corporate confession of sin. Both of these acts are themselves the needed preparation for acts of Thanksgiving or the celebration of Holy Communion which follow them. The rationale for such acts, in this order, flows from ancient Christian practice and theology, as well as the teaching of Jesus himself. Our acts of thanksgiving, whether with or without the Great Thanksgiving, are our corporate sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to God. In order to be able to offer any such sacrifices "without blemish or spot." we first must be "whole" ourselves-- which is why we must be reconciled to God and neighbor first. The purpose of The Peace is thus both to establish and to strengthen our wholeness as the body of Christ.

Whether as a greeting or a critical part of our preparation to offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving, how we engage these acts may both reflect and indicate to newcomers something about the size of the community we wish to be. For family size and smaller congregations (under 50), it's not uncommon and is at least the unspoken expectation for everyone to greet or offer the peace to everyone else present. This correlates well with the fairly intimate community of the "extended family." Once the congregation is larger than 50, however, this action becomes less relevant and more problematic, especially for newcomers who are unlikely to know much less feel comfortable greeting everyone present. It may be more appropriate in congregations larger than 50 to suggest and model a practice of greeting those around them, and, if this is The Peace in the official sense, to make a special point of going to offer the peace to persons with whom individuals may have some conflict or tension, rather than everyone in the room.

How these actions are introduced also reflects on church size. In extended family size congregations (30-50), the leader may say something like, "Let's all greet one another in the name of Christ" with no further instruction about whom to greet, and the group is likely to have everyone greet everyone, including the pastor greeting and being greeted by everyone. In what Steinke calls "pastoral churches" (50-150), it's not uncommon for the leader (likely the pastor) to say something like "Turn and greet your neighbors this morning" as an instruction that helps to limit the "everyone greets everyone" phenomenon, while the pastor may indeed greet everyone, or at least walk through the congregation and stop at each pew or row of seats to greet all those she or he can. In congregations larger than 150 and up to 500 or so, the leader may use language similar to that of the family size church, but it's understood this refers to those in near proximity. The pastor may still "walk the aisle" but is likely to greet only a few people from front to back. Finally, in congregations larger than 500, it's not uncommon for the pastor to remain "on stage" and greet those who are there, while others greet those nearby them in their seats.

Because The Peace is so tied up with a feeling of community, whether as "generic greeting" or the offering of the "peace of Christ" in the official sense, I sometimes find some pastors and people in larger congregations either lamenting that these actions don't feel or look like they did in smaller communities they remembered, or actually trying to impose "smaller church" ways of enacting the peace on larger communities. This rarely has the desired effect, unless the desired effect is to make people uncomfortable and help make the congregation smaller! Again, as group size goes up, expressions of personal intimacy naturally go down, and so what it takes to express "group feeling" in effective ways also changes.

For more reflections on the function of The Peace and how peace has been embodied in Christian ritual from the time of the early church, see my dissertation, The Teaching of Peace in Early Christian Liturgies.

PR (or Announcements)

When do you place verbal announcements in a worship service, what is included in them, and who leads them?

The answer for the first of these is less dependent on church size.

Let me suggest there are two factors to consider and keep in balance as you make this decision for your context. The first, and let me suggest the more important, is the flow of the service. Regardless of church size, flow matters. Place announcements and offer them in a way that maximizes flow for the part of the service where you place them. The energy at the beginning of the service is about launching the service, so here announcements should "be brief, be bright, and begone!" to keep the energy moving forward. Nearer the middle, after the sermon, the prayers and the peace, the energy may be more "conversational" as you begin to gear up for the offering and other acts of thanksgiving or communion. You still don't want to bog this down-- keep it moving!-- but it needn't be quite so quick a pace as at the beginning. If you place them at the sending, where the energy is about propulsion into the world, think bullet points at most, and preferably no more than 3-5 items.

The second factor is retention. In what part of the service is your particular community, regardless of size, most likely to retain the key information you are taking their time to announce? Let me suggest you don't know if you don't ask! Unless your congregation was started relatively recently, you are likely to have longtime members in your congregation who will remember different pastors trying different practices over time. Ask them what's worked best, and when! As you make your decision, or try out something different, just remember it's always about both retention and flow. Generally speaking the better you handle the placement and performance of announcements to support the flow where you place them, the better what you're announcing may be retained.

What and Who?

What might be included in verbal announcements during worship and who offers them will vary by church size.

Smaller congregations (under 50) are more likely both to want and to feel like everyone should know about everything going on, and so all kinds of events, often including events in other churches in the community (especially if it's a small community) would be expected to be part of the announcements. People in congregations this size may both feel and express anger or hurt if anything going on is left out, or if anyone feels left out. Mutual belonging is that important.

For that reason, too, it's quite common in smaller congregations for announcements to be made by either a trusted layperson or the pastor, and to include time for anyone present to make additional verbal announcements that may not have made it onto the list the announcement leader has.

It's important to realize both the extensiveness of the announcements and the number of people who may offer them are typically very important in churches this size. Like the sharing of "joys and concerns" this information is part of what bonds the community together as a community and contributes to the intimacy of their bonds.

In the pastoral size church (50 to 150), as the depth of personal bonds diminish (and they do!), it's often more the pastor who holds the congregation together, and therefore it's the pastor who is most likely to make the announcements, and to make nearly all of them. With only one "talking head" it becomes more important, for the sake of attention, that the announcements be briefer and reflect primarily those items that relate to the whole of the body, or at least to which the whole of the body is invited, which often translates to events at which the pastor is likely to be present. On the smaller end of this spectrum, individual announcements can still work and not seem entirely out of place. But once the congregation approaches 100 or more, "stand up and announce your thing" during this period tends to detract from the feel and the flow of a service needed for a group this size, and should probably occur only when truly needed.

In the program size church (150 to 500) while the pastor may still be the person most likely to make the announcements, what the pastor announces verbally will be further limited. Essentially, verbal announcements are now made on a "need to know" basis. The question is what does this entire congregation of people whose connection is more to the program life of this church than to each other personally truly need to know. This might include major events to which all are invited and perhaps individual program events for smaller groups which to which it makes some sense to draw particular emphasis because of the theme of a service or series or some other compelling interest, such as the activities of a group seeking donations to help others after a natural disaster. To maintain some sense of balance in the announcements across the programmatic life of the church, the pastor may draw attention to specific programs on a rotation basis. But generally speaking, ongoing communication about other program areas is generally best handled not by verbal announcements in worship, but by and among the leaders of those program areas with their more immediate constituents.

Written Announcements

What I've suggested above about the placement, content, and leadership of verbal announcements may apply similarly to written announcements, whether in a printed bulletin, onscreen, via social media, or some combination of the above.

It's quite common for a small congregation to have a thick bulletin or newsletter (or both) that contains details on all sorts of events. Indeed, the written announcements in such settings are likely to take up two to three times more space than the worship order! If these congregations use projection, they're likely to have a fairly long announcement slide set they begin to display up to 10 minutes before worship begins and resume immediately after worship ends. The key to the value of these written announcements, precisely because there are likely to be many of them, is clear and consistent organization. In many smaller churches, people are likely to take the bulletin home and use it throughout the week to keep track of what's happening in the congregation and be part of it in person or through their prayers as they can.

As congregations shift from family size to pastoral size (50 to 150), the written announcements may give a bit more detail than what can be offered in worship, but will generally reflect the same kind of content, with a primary focus on all church events and events in which the pastor or other major leaders will be part of during the coming week or weeks. While the pastor may not draw attention to the regular activities of Sunday School classes, youth groups, mission groups, or others are doing, those activities may still be both listed and to some degree described here. Slide sets may be shorter, giving brief highlights of the theme of the worship service or series, upcoming all-church events and registration information, and contact information for more specific program information. The bulletin is likely to be given to roughly equal parts worship order and announcements, with more of a bias toward the worship order as the church gets larger.

Once the 150 threshold is crossed and the congregation is program size or larger, written announcements take on a different role. While they still call attention to churchwide events, the primary allegiance to the congregation is now through its programmatic life, and church leadership has become more dispersed. Churchwide events might continue to be given some explanation, but a simple calendar listing upcoming events in various program areas with contact information or links to more information may be all that is required. The same is true for announcement slide sets. If the bulletin contains the worship order (some larger churches no longer print a worship order, but drive worship primarily from screens), it is likely to be lengthier than the announcements. Primary communication about program areas is no longer expected (nor should be expected) to happen as part of worship, but rather as program area leaders interact with their constituents through a variety of other means on Sunday or throughout the week.

An Invitation

These reflect my observations as a result of ongoing study of the effects of group size on social organization and after more than eleven years of observing our congregations first hand and through interactions in a wide variety of contexts at worship across our connection in the US and around the world.

What have you found in your observations and experience?

I'd love to hear!

Feel free to share this in the comments, below.