SETTING THE ATMOSPHERE FOR THE DAY OF WORSHIP
Joseph S. Girdler
Each week, people, volunteers, lay staff, hired staff, pastors, and more all come together around the world to experience and encounter the King of Kings and Lord of Lords through weekend worship services. Over 20% of Americans claim to be in church each Sunday, and though there may not be a single magical pill or idea that builds a church faster than the next, there are common denominators of churches that are growing and doing effective ministry more than the next. Craig Groeschel calls it the “It” factor.
Is setting the atmosphere about bright lights, a warm synth pad in the back, really attractive singers, wearing the most contemporary clothing, the media technology, phone apps, preaching from a table rather than podium, or more? It could be! It could not be. Setting the atmosphere is more about vision casting and setting a tone that is right for your church.
Setting the atmosphere is not about asking good questions, but the right questions. You have to ask yourself, what message are we as a church sending when people drive into our parking lot? What are people thinking when they are greeted and walk into our lobby? Are people being met by a friendly face or someone who looks like they could strike you at any minute?
Do you have a kids ministry that’s actually a ministry? Or a 90-minute, not-quite-so-tidy daycare room full of coloring, tea parties, and a volunteer who’s 15 minutes late and foreign to good hygiene? Is your worship team practicing for the first time, while picking out songs 30 minutes before service? Does the first whiff of the smells delight a person? Or, does it indicate that the building was made 80 years ago? I think we get the picture! What atmosphere are you setting?
Jesus came to earth for three reasons. One reason is to show us who the Father is and debunk misconceptions of God. A second reason is to teach us how to love people. And, a third reason is to be our substitute. Within His ministry, He showed us Truth and Grace and met people where they were. Then He challenged them to change from the inside out in order to draw closer to Him while learning how to love people! Is your church atmosphere sending that message? Remember, the local church is alive for the community, not the other way around. So, every church has to evaluate their vision, mission, cultural intelligence, demographic, and community love language. When you know these answers, your church will begin to set the tone on Sundays, which will then lead the church to set an atmosphere, and the correct atmosphere means you are intentional about the message you want to send and be received.
After serving in multiple churches, one area churches seem to struggle with the most is they are not intentional. And remember, a church is always communicating a message, thought, or idea with or without the church’s permission. We live in a shallow world and if we think people should just get over our awful curb appeal and bad signage, come in and give the church a chance because they want a Jesus they know nothing about, then we are delusional. And that’s on us at the end of the day.
So, why set an atmosphere for your church? Is the Holy Spirit not enough? He is! Do we need to make the good news and gospel of Jesus more attractive? We don’t. Aren’t people supposed to come to church based off their conviction to meet and greet one another, love one another, be a part of the church body, and further the gospel through the local church? We are!
However, we are called to be Kingdom Builders, by God’s will being fulfilled through us and the local church. We are called to do what is necessary to meet people where they are, introduce them to Jesus, disciple them, and challenge them to do the same for others. Do you want to know why the Pharisees and Sadducees missed the kingdom of God? They missed it because they were caught up in their religion and were too busy being self-righteous. We have to make sure that doesn’t become our story as well: too busy about what everyone must look like in church and unwilling to change to reach people.
“For the Kingdom of God is already among you.” (within you) Luke 17:21 (NLT) —addition in parenthesis mine
We are the vessels of the Holy Spirit. We are bringing the kingdom of God to our community! Therefore, we must ask the right questions on how to help people’s spirits, hearts, minds, and souls quiet down to receive what the Lord has for them each and every Sunday, and that is why we the church must be intentional about setting the atmosphere for people to worship the almighty King.
We must remember that we live in a crazy world full of busy schedules, social media outlets full of gossip, a nation that is constantly divided, PTA meetings, soccer practices, …and you name it, we’re living in it. And, in the midst of this craziness, we are called to,
“Be still, and know that I am God!” Psalm 46:10 (NLT)
Therefore, when we meet together, the local church could do the following in preparation for people to encounter Jesus, even if they don’t know its happening:
1. First impressions outside atmosphere
2. First impressions inside atmosphere
3. Easy, obvious, and convenient
4. Transitions and flow atmosphere
5. Stage atmosphere
6. Social media atmosphere
7. Ministry atmosphere
8. Prayer atmosphere
9. Worship atmosphere
10. Offering and giving atmosphere
Dr. Joe Girdler has presented a code of practice and an operating manual to set the atmosphere of excellence and provide an atmosphere for the Holy Spirit to reach and affect hearts and lives. Every church and church leader would be well-served to follow these practical steps to church health.
Lead Pastor, Journey Church, Brandenburg, Kentucky, and Kentucky Assemblies of God “Under 40 Ministries” (U-40) Director
For nearly fifteen years, I’ve preached week-to-week in a different church and a different city each ministry engagement. I’ve preached in Anglo churches and multicultural churches. I’ve preached in English-speaking churches and in nations where there would be two live translations of my English to the audience, sentence to sentence. I’ve learned a few things about how churches function—what they do well, and sometimes not so well. I’ve picked up on some things that most guests notice, recognizing from the onset of my arrival that the local church family has no concept or consideration of what the guests have noticed or are sensing. There are few places where a book of this nature—short, concise, easy to read, and easy to implement—can be found.
Originally scripted and compiled as a general overview of various considerations of church systems for pastoral leadership development and training venues which I would lead as an annual leadership cohort, I continued beyond the training offered to find church leaders and pastors fascinated and interested in these practical guide-steps for pastoral leadership. While some found these broad topics as mainstream and standard, others found items listed they had yet to consider.
Although larger churches are usually well-structured (or so one might naturally think), well-led, and well-developed in the sense of these types of day-to-day calibrations for functionality, there remain some that are surprisingly not as established as could be anticipated. Usually, it is the church guest, the first-time attender, or the well-meaning searcher looking for a church home that finds the weaknesses and observes “the little things” that are not so little. And, to them, it matters much as to whether or not they will again attend your church or further consider it as a viable and spiritually fitting home for their search.
While the topics of this book have been used in churches of varying context, some might say this book targets most especially the rural church. Few books address practical matters for rural ministry, especially as it pertains to the practical elements we’ll address in the pages ahead. I love rural churches and the callings of rural pastors. In the many nations I’ve had the privilege to minister, the rural (and not always, but often small) church is often the core of the local Christian community and the trusted family for believers and non-believers alike when it comes to theological standards and numerous elements of encouraging community hope. Typically rural in context, the small church is oft times challenged with having available resources, multi-element trained leadership, or even the availability for attending various training opportunities in light of the necessity of bi-vocational career requirements of their leaders, family necessities, and church budgets. These realities of today’s church are further reasons for a short book of this nature to offer help and encouragement, suggestions and insights, thought-provoking ideas and “a point of consideration to start from” for God-called leaders globally.
This is not intended to be a full-scope research on any of the topics below. It is quite simply a quick-read overview designed to stimulate thought and help today’s church leaders better structure their worship environment so others might find the manifest presence of God. Certainly, any one of us could prepare a myriad of supplementary themes germane and applicable to the topic. It is not penned as a comprehensive analysis on the substance matters listed or to be the insinuated guide for every church or church leader.
Contextualization is critical for both scriptural and biblical preaching ministry, as well as the development and implementation of church systems. While most of the considerations offered in this work are best understood in context to North American, traditional, often-rural environs, no doubt those functioning with a mobile, metropolitan, or missional system will likewise find usable considerations offered.
Be accountable to Christ and to your leaders and colleagues. Inquire of particular fellowship or denominational standards and protocols if you are a member or a part of an organized church. Know your audience and your ministry agenda and venue. Finally, use these suggested mindsets as simply that—proposals to aid you and your team in being the most effective and efficient possible for reaching your world for Christ.
In all truth, there is nothing you can do to work up, sing up, and shout up, or raise up the presence of God. He is powerfully sovereign and, as Scripture teaches, genuinely interested in the eternal—and the everyday—aspects of all individuals on earth. The Bible says He inhabits the praises of His people. That is what really matters, isn’t it? That His presence is evident to all who worship, seek, or even casually observe as first-time guests. The importance of the Church is not designed around what we do as leaders, our projects, or our strategies. The importance of the Church is that we allow God to do His work in our lives and in the lives and hearts of all who attend for worship. Understanding that primary principle should cause us as leaders to strive in offering our best for the Lord. Excellence in all we do, as much as can be presented, is our goal so the Lord and His magnificent presence can be readily and tangibly sensed and received by all open to His work in our lives.
From the Moment People Arrive on the Property
Guests form opinions of your church the minute they drive by—or drive onto—your property.
• If you have a larger church, do you have engaging, welcoming parking lot attendants to greet, help people to feel comfortable, and direct and assist in parking?
• If you have a smaller church, are there enough parking spaces that a guest can comfortably get a “close to the door” spot without that “ugh” and “angst” of feeling “they don’t have room for me”?
o Do regular attendees take all the good spots up close? Consider asking your team and your regulars to make an effort to park in the furthest locations to accommodate guests, elderly, and newcomers.
o Is the paint faded on the parking spots, or clean and fresh? Paint it.
o Would guest parking spots help you, just in case?
o How about handicapped parking spots?
• According to which church growth expert you read, guests determine within the first 2 to 8 minutes as to whether or not they’ll be returning.
o That means you have less than 10 minutes to show them what you’re about.
o That means, if they arrive 15 minutes prior to the service, they’ve likely made up their mind about returning prior to the first song ever being sung and prior to you ever saying one word of your message.
• Is the grass mowed?
o Are there flowers freshly planted?
o Is there anything at all that says to guests driving by in the community, “I would like to try there some day!”
• If you have rain on Sunday morning and do not have an awning for people to be dropped off, consider having volunteers with umbrellas to assist people from the parking lot to the building.
• If your church has a grassy/dirt parking lot, consider putting down some gravel if your budget doesn’t yet afford asphalting the surface. It will do wonders to dress up the property!
• If winter weather allows a service, it goes without saying…make sure your walkways are shoveled and salted long before the service starts! We live in a litigious society. No one wants to fall and be injured, and no church needs the potential litigation that could be incurred from good people.
• Is there an awkward dingy smell or dim lighting when you walk into the building (especially if it’s an older building)? These can be costly repairs or simple fixes, but they are prime and top-of-the-list items to be resolved.
• Consider inexpensive outdoor speaker systems that can be wired permanently in the parking lot, connected to your equipment inside.
o When you come into the church to open the doors an HOUR early or more—before anyone arrives—turn on worship/praise music and let it play in the parking lot to greet those who drive up. It sets a stage that prepares hearts. And, it says, “Wow, these people seem to care and they seem to have it together.”
• What percentage of your seating is filled or available? As with the number of minutes given before someone makes a determining decision of return on your church, similar determinations are assessed based upon comfort of seating arrangements, as well as ease of parking.
o Consider if you’re 75% full, you’re full. Typically in the Western church culture, with the matriarchs of the church laying their coats and purses beside them or the men and their cases, Bibles, coats, or books taking up ample seating, when people arrive and it’s not comfortable for them to find seating, they reconsider their return.
o The same considerations apply to your church’s parking arrangements. So, as is possible, provide ample and convenient parking and seating for guests, newcomers, the handicapped, veterans, and seekers. On various occasions I’ve visited Times Square Church in NYC. I remember walking in as a guest from the busy streets of Times Square and being greeted almost immediately to determine if I were a guest and would like to be seated in conveniently offered “kept open for the purpose of guests walking in” seating in the main auditorium. Now, that’s planning ahead and being purposed for your message making its highest impact on individuals in your audience
“The book Setting the Atmosphere by Dr. Girdler is a must read for the modern minister. Dr. Girdler is both practical and inspirational to the reader. Inspirational because when we as ministers of the gospel are given tools to go to the next level, it is inspirational! Setting the right atmosphere allows the Holy Spirit to multiply our efforts. You will be blessed and encouraged by this book.”
Dr. Randy Valimont
Lead Pastor, Griffin 1st AG, Griffin, GA
“As we battle daily for victory, even on our home court, Pastor Joe’s experience, vision, and passion for Setting the Atmosphere for the Day of Worship will empower, equip, and excite leaders with a simple and effective game plan that will result in championships for individuals, marriages, families, and communities.”
ret. NBA (Atlanta Hawks, Toronto Raptors, and Italy’s Benetton Treviso, Cordivari Roseto, and Wurth Roma), 2X NCAA National Champion (1996, 1998), NCAA Final Four Most Valuable Player (San Antonio, 1998), Mr. Georgia Basketball (1992), Gatorade Georgia Player of the Year (1993), University of Kentucky Wildcats guard (1993-1998)
“Effective ministry begins with the work of the Holy Spirit in both the leader and the people. However, structure and systems are designed to assist the healthy local church. My friend Joe Girdler’s book is a must read. His practical insights on structure and systems will help any church leader move to the next level of impact and effectiveness.”
Superintendent, Oregon Ministry Network, Assemblies of God
“I’ve had the honor of knowing Pastor Joe Girdler for many years and I can say without hesitance that virtually every time I’m around him I’m left with some thought that will improve my church in a practical way. The man lives, breathes, and sleeps to help the local church thrive. Setting the Atmosphere is a lightning-quick read that challenged me to improve how we “do church.” As a church planter, this would have been a great help before we launched.”
H. L. Hussmann
Lead Pastor, Daylight Church, Louisville, KY
“Setting the Atmosphere is a practical, wide-angle view of the local church presenting its best. Unlock the doors, check the T-stat, and you’ve only just begun to get ready for a church service. Joe Girdler’s pastor’s heart and wide experience shines through in this simple scan of the church service moment from the parking lot to the “Amen.” A wise leader will not only want to make ready for guests, but also convey to the stalwart, faithful members “we really DO care about this assignment from God.” This simple read may well start you on a great journey of improvement.”
Executive Presbyter, Assemblies of God, Plainfield, IL
“Setting the Atmosphere equips pastors to consider desired outcomes for each aspect of Sunday services and to act with intentionality. It provides practical advice, forged from life experiences, to assist the local church to take people from where they are, and to journey with them strategically and relationally, to where they need to be in Christ. This is a “must read” as it challenges the local church to be intentional, relational, and caring and in fulfillment of Ephesians 4:11-16.”
Dr. Mark Flattery
Executive Director, Network211.com
“An esteemed colleague and good friend, Dr. Joe Girdler, has written a great “how to” book for pastors covering a wide range of topics—a practical A to Z on what to do and not do—in creating a meaningful church and worship experience. This short volume is not short on valuable insights and ideas, from initial drives onto the church property to becoming fully engaged as church members. Whether new to pastoring or looking for fresh perspectives on “setting the atmosphere” at your church, you’ll find this book a real game-changer for ministry leadership!”
Superintendent, SoCalifornia Network, Assemblies of God
“A practical, approachable, and direct blueprint for setting the atmosphere. Drawing from more than 30 years of pastoral care, this book will help both new and established ministries intentionally refine all aspects of their organizational system. A much-needed read for leaders in the local church.”
Steven Girdler, MD
Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, NY.
“Setting the Atmosphere for the Day of Worship is an awesome tool for any church leader to read and put in their reference library to be looked at often and to remind them of the amazing insights it holds, especially from the perspective of a visitor. I visit a lot of churches every year and as I read this book, I thought, “Wow, what insight for every leader who wants to create an atmosphere conducive to a wonderful visit and great day of worship.” I highly recommend this to every church leader.”
Superintendent, Alabama District, Assemblies of God
“I read through Superintendent Joe Girdler’s book Setting the Atmosphere. Immediately it reminded me of a book I read years ago, Simple Things Will Make a Difference. This book is a reminder of doing everything with excellence. I will use this book for our churches in Indiana to teach practices that are practical. This book will help people sense that our places of worship are prepared for the manifest presence of God.”
Superintendent, Indiana Assemblies of God
“Dr. Girdler offers simple, practical, and pastoral guidance that will set churches up for success. If you’re looking to do an honest audit on your church’s weekend experience, then this book is an excellent guide. Read it, apply it, and take your church to the next level.”
JP Vick, PhD, D.Min
Doctor of Ministry Program Coordinator, Assemblies of God
“Dr. Joe Girdler offers a concise yet highly practical resource for helping local churches cultivate the kind of atmosphere that is both welcoming to newcomers and spiritually nurturing for members. The insights gained from years of study and pastoral experience provide a holistic framework from which churches can critique their vision and practices from a wide spectrum of topics related to church life and ministry. Of particular relevance are the many probing questions and reflections to help the pastor and church leader see from the perspective of the visitor. I highly recommend this book for anyone involved in Christian ministry.”
David Trementozzi, PhD
Vice President, Academics, Continental Theological Seminary, Brussels, Belgium
“Joe Girdler is the master of taking the overlooked things of ministry and making them alive and vivid in the mind of the pastor. All I can say about this book is, “Practical, practical, practical…and then some!” Setting the Atmosphere is an easy read that is guaranteed to make your church’s worship experience better.”