The Most Important Moment of Your Service

There is a decent chance that you and your church are the least prepared for the most important moment of your service. I am not talking about the peak of your sermon. I am not talking about an altar call. And I am certainly not talking about the offering. The most important moment of the service might be the very beginning.

Various sources pinpoint different lengths for the formation of a first impression–from the split second decisions of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink to this Forbes article offering a more generous 7 seconds. Recent research from Princeton and the University of Glasgow sides with Gladwell:

“Scientists have discovered that humans make judgements on someone’s trustworthiness within the first 500 milliseconds of hearing their voice.

Psychologists from universities of Glasgow, Scotland, and Princeton, US, have shown that a simple “Hello” is enough to allow most people to draw conclusions about personality type.” – Dr. Phil McAleer, Voice Neurocognition Lab – School of Psychology, University of Glasgow

It seems crazy to think that someone will make an immediate judgment about your church (and probably form an initial feeling about whether or not they will be coming back) based on the first word spoken in the service. But, if you think about it, we make snap judgments all the time.

The “vibe” we get when encountering new people and places is almost immediate. As the research study points out, one of the first decisions we make about someone is their trustworthiness. This is critical for anyone who has chosen to come to church and open themselves up to community, teaching, and service–whether they are a visitor or a long-time member.

Pastor Andy Stanley has spoken often about how a clean church communicates, “I was expecting you.” This points to the truth that the first words spoken at your service are not even really the first impression. By now they may have had 15 minutes or more of interaction with your grounds, facilities, staff/volunteers, and other people showing up for worship. But the principle can be applied to the beginning of the service as well. Does the start of your service feel like an organized, intentional moment meant to begin something meaningful? Is it slapped together? Is it improvised? Or does the service sort of just fade into existence?

Here are some thoughts about the beginning of services:

  • Make sure your technology works – especially your microphone! I cannot tell you the number of times I have attended or led a service where the first thing that happens is someone speaks into a microphone that is not on. It never fails–someone in the congregation will shout that it isn’t on, half the congregation will turn and look at your soundboard operator, you will check all the buttons/switches/cords, and then there is the ritual tapping or blowing into the mic. It just kills everything. Soundcheck before the service. Check the battery level before going up there (and keep fresh batteries wherever you will be right before you go up!). Make sure the soundboard operator is paying attention.
  • Consider NOT starting with announcements. Theologically speaking, announcements can be an important part of the service as they tell the story of the congregation putting their faith into action. Practically speaking, they are often too long, too boring, and too focused on things that either (a) don’t inspire interest or (b) won’t be remembered 55 minutes later after singing songs and hearing a sermon. This Thursday’s post will be about how to do announcements better, so check back!
  • Who is the first face people will see and the first voice people will hear? It does not necessarily need to be the pastor. In fact, at a couple churches I have visited lately, the pastor wasn’t there at the start of the service because they were finishing up an earlier service in another room. Even if the pastor is there, many contemporary services start with the band. Keep this in mind as you select and train your worship leaders. What they say, how they sound, and what songs they select can all contribute to the first impression.
  • Who is doing the welcome/greeting? Again, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the pastor, but it should be someone with good presence, a welcoming smile, and a clear speaking voice. There are plenty of other places for people to serve the church and even read/speak in a service. Reserve the welcome/greeting for people who give off the right “vibe.”
  • Have a plan for what to say during the welcome/greeting. Let’s be honest, so many of us just wing it. We lead the service week in and week out, and we just assume that we will say the right thing. But then we end up unfocused or on a tangent. And if it is not us doing the welcome, how much do you trust the improv skills and verbal filter of the person you have asked to do it?
  • That plan should include: introducing yourself, expressing gratitude, and verbalizing expectations. Whomever is doing the greeting should make clear who they are and what role they play at the church. They should thank everyone for coming. Finally, in a sentence or two, make clear what you want for the people who have come. For example, “Good morning! My name is Dan Wunderlich, and I am a member here at <Church Name>. Thank you for coming, especially if this is your first time! We are so glad that all of you have chosen to worship with us this morning. Our prayer is that through the service, you would be able to connect with God using both your head and your heart.”
  • Get in the right head, heart, and spirit space. There is nothing that will throw off the beginning of a service more than being distracted. If you are not fully present in the moment, people will be able to tell. If you are shaking hands, answering questions, and dealing with issues all the way up to the moment the service begins, it will be a big shift in gears (even if you are an extrovert). I am usually adamant about starting a service on time, but if you need an extra 30 seconds or a minute to focus, take it. If nothing else, being in the right head, heart, and spirit space will allow you to…
  • Go with it. Some weeks, the battery that looked like it was fully charged will die as you step up to the mic. Some weeks, there will be a tangent or joke too tempting to resist. Some weeks, the worship leader will have been up too late the night before watching a college football game and just won’t have it right at the beginning. The only thing worse than a bad first impression is when that sense of ineptitude or distrust snowballs due to your reaction to things that don’t go as planned. Be loose, be willing to laugh at mistakes, and proceed with confidence.

I want to close by saying that, obviously, the first impression isn’t everything–they can be overcome. And the beginning isn’t the most important element of a service. The presence of God is most important, followed by the community responding to God with worship. But the beginning of a service is a moment that sets the tone, and so it is far too critical to just let happen.

How would you describe the beginning of the service you lead/attend? What works well? What isn’t working so well? How might you go about making it better?

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