In one of the churches I served, I thought I would try a special kind of worship theme for the end of the summer season. I called it a “Thanks for the Summer” Service.
The idea was simple. I would select a Biblical text that lifts up a clear act of thanksgiving to our God—from the Psalms or from the writings of Paul. Then, I would share a small slice of gratitude for events or people through my own summer in a briefer-than-normal message. Finally, I would invite members of the congregation to offer their own expressions of thanks—with a few strategically placed “plants” already prepared in the congregation. A certain anticipation and excitement built for this service in the first year I offered this worship experience.
When the next “end of summer” season came around, I suggested we do this service again. The idea was greeted warmly, but with a bit less enthusiasm. I was somewhat puzzled. Why the de-spirited attitude? Where was the enthusiasm from the previous year?
The third year—when I suggest the service once again—several people took me aside for advice. “Let’s not do this again,” they counseled. “Too many people are saying they will not attend this year. Their summer has not been one of gratitude and thanksgiving, but one of loss and difficult transition. And several are dealing with severe health diagnoses.”
I learned an important lesson about worship leadership over those three years. Every worship service brings people who are hurting, broken, sad, disheartened, or afraid. They don’t come to learn about joyful weddings, a spectacular family week at the shore, or an unexpected healing. They come to church for a “word from the Lord” to encourage and strengthen a battered, fragile soul.
Yes, the Apostle Paul counsels “give thanks in everything.” But he does not say “give thanks FOR everything.” Learning to give thanks through a difficult time or tragedy is not easily attained. God does work for good in all things. But the process takes some time. Expressions of real gratitude need time and patient healing. Giving thanks cannot be imposed upon someone through a single, if well-intended worship experience.
I was in my early thirties when all of this “end of summer” worship planning took place. I am grateful for this learning experience by way of some thoughtful and wise laity four decades ago. And I have tried to be much more sensitive to the vastly varied needs people bring to any given worship service at any given time.