Listening Sessions - A Summary

In keeping with its stated objective, namely, “to assist and encourage pastors as they strive for excellence in public worship and mission outreach,” the Institute for Worship and Outreach hosted a series of listening sessions in the spring of 2010. Eleven listening sessions were held in ten of the twelve districts of our synod. At each listening session, two members of the Institute for Worship and Outreach were present. One served as the leader of the discussion. The other served as the scribe. A local pastor was asked to invite pastors from his area to participate in the discussion. Among the eleven listening sessions, more than 125 WELS pastors participated.

The purpose of these listening sessions was to seek feedback and gain information from a broad base of our synod’s pastorate regarding key issues relating to worship and outreach. A series of questions was prepared in advance and provided the framework for the discussion. Several questions prompted participants to consider personal and synodical strengths and struggles in the areas of worship and outreach. Other questions asked participants to consider ways in which these two areas of ministry naturally and inevitably intersect. Thirdly, several questions led participants to react to the concept of an institute whose focus is specifically on the intersection of worship and outreach. Each listening session lasted for two to three hours.

Following these listening sessions, the members of the Institute for Worship and Outreach met in Mequon, Wisconsin, on May 19, 2011. The information gathered at these listening sessions was reviewed and discussed. In addition to the general goal of gathering information, a specific goal of the listening sessions was to provide insights to the three members of the Institute who presented essays at the Symposium on Worship and Outreach hosted by Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in September of 2010. As the members of the Institute discussed the information gathered at these listening sessions, they did so with the focus of each of these three essays in mind.

By spending a significant amount of time with a significant number of pastors, a broad base of input was gathered. Pastors expressed a strong recognition that worship and outreach are a natural pair. Public worship is inevitably the place where first contact with the most unchurched will be made. Additionally, as Lutherans, our theology makes public worship a natural partner with our outreach efforts. Public worship is proclamation as much as it is praise, sacramental as much as it is sacrificial. Because a vital aspect of a worship service is God’s service to us through the gospel, public worship serves both the believer and the unbeliever. The gospel that is spoken, read, and sung during public worship benefits all who hear it. Therefore, public worship is a wonderful place for outreach to take place.
Pastors also recognized an increasing awareness that our heritage of specific worship forms serve our outreach efforts very well. A liturgical framework ensures the repetition of the gospel’s saving truths every Sunday as well as a yearly repetition of the saving work of Christ. Careful planning allows pastors to present a service that is unified by a single theme. Printing the order of service results in worship that is easy to follow while still allowing opportunities for variety and adaptation.

While our theology and our heritage provide great opportunities for churches to excel in worship and outreach, pastors recognized that this has not always been the case. At times worship has been allowed to become stale. At times outreach zeal has been lost among pastors and congregations. Therefore, pastors welcomed the idea of a group whose goal it was to assist pastors and congregations with both. Specifically, pastors expressed the desire for resources that every pastor and every congregation can use to improve worship and outreach. Because time, resources, and abilities are often limited, there was a desire for resources that are as simple and easy to use as possible. As an example, resources could take the form of a comprehensive Easter package that includes promotional materials, marketing ideas and schedules, a service and sermon outline, musical suggestions and multimedia files. Pastors could adapt easily as needed.

Finally, pastors recognized that the greatest opportunity for them to excel at worship and outreach at the same time is with the sermon. Our synod enjoys many strengths in the area of preaching. The training is thorough. The truth of the gospel is proclaimed. However, pastors recognized the need to continue to strive for improvement. Members and guests alike will endure a great deal when it comes to public worship if weekly they hear a sermon that proclaims law and gospel in a clear, sincere, applicable way. A pastor accomplishes a great deal, both in terms of feeding the flock and in reaching the lost, with good preaching.

For a group whose goal it is to assist pastors in worship and outreach, this time spent with those pastors was tremendously valuable. It not only assisted the three authors as they prepared their essays, but also provided valuable input for the Institute as a whole as it moves forward with its work.

Rev. Jonathan P. Bauer

Jonathan Bauer serves at Good News Lutheran Church, Mount Horeb, Wisconsin.

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