Planning for Grief in a Worship Service
It is better to go to the house of mourning
than to go to the house of feasting,
for this is the end of all mankind,
and the living will lay it to heart.
Sorrow is better than laughter,
for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.
— Ecclesiastes 7:2-4
The joy of the good news of Jesus outshines all other joys, making it seem like we must be dreaming, filling our mouths with laughter and our tongues with shouts of joy. In light of our unspeakably glorious, unfading, irrevocable hope in Jesus, we begin to lose our taste for lesser joys. And, in an age that relentlessly proclaims to us that hopelessness, meaninglessness, and despair are the ordering realities of our world, one of corporate worship’s chief goals is to remind God’s people that the resurrection of Jesus is the guarantee of our own resurrection unto eternal joy.
So our worship services should feel joyful, right? On the whole, yes, of course, they should. But that is far from the whole story.
Nineteen years of weekly planning and leading corporate worship services for congregations I know, love, and pastor has made me inescapably conscious of the reality of suffering in their lives. Although in Christ we are already reconciled to our Creator, we live in a fallen world where things are not yet all as they should be—disease, relational brokenness, and persecution will find us. And our loving Father in fact uses difficult circumstances to prepare us for eternal joy, shaping us so that we can most fully delight in the riches of his glorious grace. Look out at the people you lead in worship on Sundays: many of them are walking through enormous pain. They are asking God, “Where are you? Do you see me? How can I move forward after this loss?”
Several years ago I spent a Saturday in the hospital with a family whose baby had been born with an unexpected life-threatening illness. I prayed with the mom and dad and their extended family, but mostly I stood with them silently, not having any idea what to say. The next morning as I was leading the songs I had planned to lead that week, I saw the whole extended family walk into the sanctuary, and my consciousness of the lyrics we were singing was heightened considerably. Around that time we had an unusually high number of couples who experienced miscarriages all in a short season, and I frequently saw tears in people’s eyes as we sang. More recently I led the singing in a service in which the death of a wife and mother after 51 years of marriage was announced, and I was glad for the opportunity for our congregation to voice the words, “Come, you weary, and he will give you rest; Come, you who mourn, lay on his breast” (from “Sing to Jesus” by Fernando Ortega).
Dan Allender says, "Christians seldom sing in the minor key. We fear the somber; we seem to hold sorrow in low-esteem. We seem predisposed to fear lament as a quick slide into doubt and despair; failing to see that doubt and despair are the dark soil that is necessary to grow confidence and joy.” If our worship services make no space for hurting people to speak their hurt to God, we send a strong message that God wants nothing to do with their pain—in precisely the place where God is at work in their lives to reveal his grace to them. If in corporate worship we are not equipped with biblical language for lamenting with hope, then we are left to lament hopelessly and despairingly.
It used to be common for worship leaders to exhort us to “leave our baggage at the door” as we came into corporate worship; thankfully, I don’t hear people say things like that much anymore. Our baggage does not fall outside the purview of the Lord of all, and he isn’t afraid of it. Lament allows us to take off our happy masks and to be honest about our suffering.
In a broken, fallen world, the practice of singing and praying lament acknowledges there’s a way things should be. It reminds us that God does indeed want to meet us in our brokenness, and it equips us with words to draw near to him in prayer. Even (perhaps especially) those who are not currently walking through trying times need to be equipped with these words, and to be reminded of the suffering of their brothers and sisters.
Lastly, lament insists on our mortality and the reality of death in an age that is perpetually trying to distract us from that reality, saying, “You shall not surely die.” To acknowledge our fallenness, our helplessness, and our mortality is to affirm our need for a Savior to give us eternal life.
As you are planning your services each week, how might you include songs or prayers that make space for God’s people to lament?
Wes Crawford (@wescrawford) serves as Worship Pastor of Christ Church of Austin. He previously helped plant a church in Kansas City, Missouri, and before that served as a missionary in Monterrey, Mexico. He has been married to Melissa for 17 years, and they have four beautiful daughters.