Getting a Sunday meeting right in a church plant is a combination of oodles of tiny factors. Here are 25 easy hacks for a better Sunday meeting:
1. Introduce yourself
Always start the meeting by introducing yourself (it's not a bad idea to also do it again later in the meeting as not everyone will be there for the start). You don't need to be too formal about a title, but just give people an idea who is standing up to speak. I tend to go with something like "Hi, my name is Tom and I am part of the team here at Christ Church Manchester." Short and sweet, but enough to put people at ease. This helps new people feel at home, and even if you don't have new people it helps set a tone amongst your regulars that if they did bring a friend along, they would be bringing them into a welcoming environment.
2. Don't reference the Numbers
Let's face it, numbers matter to church planters. And the temptation is to feel like you have to apologise when there is a down week "but we know Jesus we will be with us if even two or three are present..." DON'T DO IT! This is simply projecting your insecurity onto everyone else and dampening the faith in the room before you even get started. Similarly, you may feel very excited on the week that you get a massive turnout... but remember, you live in church planter world, so while 30 might seem massive to you it still seems pretty small to most people - and if you make out like revival is breaking out because you have three dozen people there, you are projecting weakness rather than strength. Better to ignore the numbers and focus eyes on Jesus, however many people turn up.
3. Know your brief
If you are leading a section of the meeting, make sure you know what you are talking about. Giving a notice, only to get the time/place/date wrong and need to be corrected by a heckler just makes you look sloppy, and if you are plugging an event that you don't really get the vision of, be assured that people can tell. Make sure you are clear on everything you are talking about, and if you have invited somebody else to lead a part of your meeting, it is your responsibility to make sure they are well briefed and have all the information they need to do their role well.
4. Keep your phone out of sight
Standing up at the front doing a Bible reading or giving notices from a mobile phone is not a good look (a tablet isn't quite as bad - but it doesn't look as cool as you think it does...). An old-school hardback Bible, and any notes you need clipped neatly to a clipboard is a much less distracting way forward. Also, avoid the temptation to be fiddling with your phone during the rest of the meeting. I realise you may be uploading the perfect shot of the meeting to your church Instagram, but nobody else knows that and all they can see is that you are not engaged with what is happening - and if you aren't engaged, why should they be? If you do need somebody to be on social media during your meeting (and I am not convinced you do...) then entrust it to somebody else who can be much more subtle about it than you can.
5. Don't sing happy birthday
Two reasons. (1) If you stop your meeting to sing happy birthday to people, you are doing something that people who are already in the group can engage with but that can alienate newcomers who don't know the person. Privately it is important to make a big deal of your people, and remembering their birthdays is good - but your Sunday meeting is not the time or the place for it. Avoid things that make you seem like an inward-looking community rather than an outward-looking one. (2) If you sing it for some people, you have to sing it for everyone - and if you are doing it for everyone, then inevitably there will be times that you forget and alienate people. If you build it as a habit when you are small, it will be hard to shake it as you grow (if you grow) and it will become unwieldy and unmanageable.
6. Keep your timings tight
Being bad at timings isn't the same as moving in the Holy Spirit. Work hard on your timings. Start the meeting close to the time you say you will - giving people 5 minutes to get seated and settled is probably okay, but when you keep dragging on the start to allow latecomers to arrive you build a culture of lateness and the latecomers will just get even later. Make sure the person anchoring the meeting says what needs saying and leaves it as that - waffle doesn't help anyone. Give the preacher a time limit (we go for 25-30 mins) and expect them to stick to it. Have a total time that you expect the meeting to last, and don't make a habit of over-running. If you feel God is doing something as the meeting is coming to a close, you can invite those who want to receive more to come forward for prayer, whilst honouring the time of everybody else by closing the official part of the meeting.
Make sure the people involved know what each other are doing. The person anchoring, the preacher and the worship leader should all know what each other is planning and work hard on smooth transitions. If the worship leader is planning to pray before the first song, the anchor doesn't need to also do so. If the preacher is ending on a sobering note, the first song after the preach should catch that mood and create the space for people to respond accordingly. Also, make sure you continue communicating as the meeting progresses. Good eye contact is a must, particularly between the anchor and the worship leader (and while singing with your eyes closed looks spiritual, as a worship leader it really doesn't help you catch what the anchor wants to happen next).
8. Have a check list
There are a bunch of little things that you need to do every week. Physically write them down and work through the list each week. Things like finding your offering bags, testing the batteries in any microphones you are using, setting out the communion bread and wine, etc. etc. You know what these little things are for you so write them on a list.
9. Explain things as you go
Not everyone who attends your meeting will have been along to a church like yours before, or even to church at all, and you could really help them engage by letting them know what is happening. At the start of the meeting, briefly mention what you expect will happen in the service, and as you move through your service, flesh this out. Find ways of explaining your offering, your worship, communion etc. that are short, engaging and clear. When something unusual happens, for example if somebody speaks in tongues, pause what is happening to briefly explain it so that your guests - and everyone else - understand what is going on, and then explain what will happen next (e.g. in the case of tongues, wait for an interpretation).
10. Make space for God
A plan is good, but don't be so tightly bound by your plan that you miss what God wants to do. It is good to create a bit of space and let the Spirit lead you. During your worship, singing a few songs together, separated by times of just music with no singing allows space for your congregation to share a prayer, or a Bible verse or an encouragement or a prophecy. When God leads the meeting in a clear direction, particularly when he speaks in a similar way through a few different people, don't be afraid to divert from what you were originally intending to do.
11. BUT try not to make things too awkward for people
A bit of space is good, but leave it too long and people start to feel uneasy. There are times, especially with quite a small crowd in the room that nobody feels particularly led to pray or contribute and that is fine - be ready to move the meeting on to the next song or whatever else you have planned. Don't put your people in the position where they are bringing things for the sole reason of breaking the awkwardness. There's no need to let the awkwardness get that far.
12. Don't take yourself too seriously
You're not Hillsong. Don't pretend you are. When there are 25 of you, pretentious ministry names for everything you do can come across a bit daft, as can being too rigid in how things have to be. At this stage, leading organically is the way to go, and a bit of self-deprecation doesn't do any harm at all.
13. Serve good food
This is an easy win for a church plant. There's simply no excuse for a pack of smart price biscuits and instant coffee. Put some thought into the food that you offer. If there are people in your group that love to bake, this is an area to get them involved in. A quality coffee machine is a must have investment, and think through different dietary requirements. If you have gluten and/or dairy free options available, this can win you massive brownie points with guests who wouldn't normally be able to indulge in your snacks. Also, at this stage of the life of your church, everybody eating together before or after one of your services is not that difficult an undertaking. Regular church meals are a great way to build community amongst your regulars and help newcomers feel at home in your church.
14. Put most of your time into people
It's tempting to spend most of your time before and after the service rushing around doing jobs, but the most strategic use of this time is talking to people. Try to make your set-up as easy as possible, and try to get it finished before people start arriving. If your band can practice midweek, it frees them up on Sunday to be more engaged with people and help you to create a homely environment where guests feel like they are your priority rather than just getting in the way.
15. Borrow people
You want to get a great vibe at your meeting with lots of people participating energetically, andwith gifted preachers and musicians bringing their A-game without burning out. With just 12 of you this seems impossible, but the answer is to borrow people - especially in the very early days. If you are a site plant or have been sent out by another church fairly local, they may be willing to lend you a few people each week to bolster your congregation, as well as sending over guest worship leaders and preachers to help get you started. These people serve as scaffolding for you while you gather and train people of your own (who you can then lend to the next person you send out). If you are planting further away from your sending church, this is one reason why building great relationships with other churches in your local area is so important, as you may well find favour with someone who is willing to help you out in this way.
16. Get good background music
Having the right music playing before and after the service can help create an ambiance that enables people to feel at home and relax as they talk. Try to have the music playing right up until the service starts and put it back on as soon as you are finished. Don't assume this needs to be worship music - there is lots of music out there that could set the right tone, and most of it isn't just an extension of your praise time. Don't assume that just because you are leading the church this makes you the right person to choose the music. Delegate the task to somebody who knows what they are doing.
17. Fill all the seats
It is always encouraging and faith-building when all the seats are taken and you need to put out an extra row of chairs at the back. When you are setting up the room, it is better to err on putting out too few chairs than too many. When there are more empty seats than full ones, this only emphasises your smallness. When you are bursting at the seams, this shows that you are growing. Use your space well, don't rattle around. Don't overdo the number of seats but have some on hand that you can add later when extra people arrive.
18. Train your core people
A church planter friend of mine told me that before he launched, he did a training session with his core people where he ran through every element of his Sunday meeting and explained exactly what he needed from them: how to listen to a preach; how to engage in the worship; how to welcome guests into the church, etc. etc. This is a fantastic idea, and one that I intend to use myself. I would suggest you do so too, and even if you have already launched, it is not too late to provide this kind of input to your people.
19. Start outside
Don't just worry about what happens in the room, think about the entire experience from the perspective of a visitor. Is the venue difficult to find? Get somebody out on the street nearby pointing the way. Is the surrounding area full of litter? Show up a bit early and clear it up. Is it chucking it down with rain? Consider getting some people with umbrellas in your car parking space to help people walk to your building. Make sure the first people who guests meet are warm and friendly, and have them stay in place for a while after the meeting begins to welcome any latecomers.
20. Get the words right
If you are showing slides with Bible verses, preaching points and song lyrics, make sure they are correct. Don't have the passage displayed from the NIV and then read it from the ESV. Don't put the lyrics up to one version of Be Thou My Vision and then have the band sing a different version. Don't make spelling mistakes or typos on your slides. Take the time to get it right. It may not matter to you, but there are some people who notice, and who it really does matter to. I am one of them and find my focus in worship totally broken when a word is spelt incorrectly on the screen.
21. Limit new songs
New songs are good thing, when introduced well, but if you try doing too many of them at once you will knock the wind out of your meeting. If you are introducing a new song, do it for a few weeks in a row (I have heard it suggested to do it three weeks in a row, give it a rest for a week and then do it again on the fifth week). Only once you have done this and the congregation know it and sing it well can you think of it as an established part of your repertoire. Don't introduce another new one until it has reached this point (and remember, 'new' means new to your congregation - a song may be a few years old, but if your people don't know it, it is still a new song).
22. Play the long game
Don't thing that everything that needs saying must be said each week. If you have more things to say in your preach than you have time for, save some of them until next time. If you feel you have a prophetic word that doesn't quite fit the flow of the meeting, hold onto it and wait for when the time is right. Don't pressure new guests to give their follow-up details if they don't want to. Allow them to find their way in at their own pace.
23. Be you
In the early stage of a church plant, people gather to two things - food and friends. A little bit of personality in how you lead the meeting goes a long way. Show them who you are - your passion, your sense of humour and let people gather to yourself. There are lots of great preachers and leaders out there to learn from, but don't cross the line into trying to be like them rather than being yourself.
Okay, technically prayer isn't a 'hack', but if you want to have a great Sunday meeting this is the most important thing you can do. Spend time in the week praying into the Sunday. If God speaks to you, follow his lead, and before you start the meeting spend some time in prayer with your team. It is God's church and he is far more invested in building it than we can ever be. Lay the meeting before his throne and trust him to do things his way.
25. Don't take it personally
Sometimes you will stuff it up and things will go badly. Other times you may do everything 'right' and it still didn't go as you hoped. Don't take these things to heart. They are part of the journey of church planting, and you need to just dust yourself off, learn any lessons that need learning, and go again next week full of faith and ready to see God move.
BONUS - Do communion every week
Some churches do communion once every few weeks, but we found it to be a gamechanger when we started doing it every week. Communion forms the centre-piece of our services as we draw attention to the cross and share together in all that Christ has done for us and I would highly recommend doing communion every time you meet.