Since graduating from seminary 12 years ago, I have walked alongside three small churches in three different states, and in each of these ministry contexts responsibility for the publication of the church bulletin has fallen to me. This has led me to reflect on the ideal purpose of the bulletin, which I have decided is not only communication but also the promotion and facilitation of spiritual formation. I have tried to employ the bulletins I have published over the years for this purpose, and I offer the following five suggestions for how you might do the same.
#1. Prioritize the worship order. Most church bulletins, if they include an order of worship at all, tend to relegate it to the back page. There it usually sits in a narrow text box next to a wide-open space for sermon notes. Think about what this communicates to the average person in the pew. Does it not imply a devaluing of nearly everything that happens on Sunday morning—everything, that is, except perhaps the sermon? This is a mistake. The order of worship is front-page news. Indeed, I suggest it take up the entire front page.
I do not suggest a mere list of worship acts, however. Rather, I suggest you place front-and-center the entire narrative of worship: God calls us into his holy presence. God speaks to us through his Word. God invites us to participate in the mystery of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. God sends us into the world to participate in his mission. This is the story Christians rehearse every Sunday morning. And the more aware of it we are, the more likely we will live it out Monday through Saturday.
#2. Invite the church to pray. Most church bulletins include a list of people whom the congregation is encouraged to remember in prayer. This is nice, but make sure it does not become merely a list of names. Update it each week. Communicate specific needs as well as your expectation that church members will actually pray for these folks. Obviously you cannot make anyone pray, but communicating your expectation that they will might just convince them that they should. It might also convince you that you should.
Also, I suggest you include more than the list of names. Every now and again include suggestions for how one might go about interceding for the people. In other words, do not just tell them to pray; teach them. You may even want to include the occasional written prayer as a guide. Resources abound (see, for example, The Book of Common Prayer).
#3. Let announcements be clear and concise. Announcements are necessary, and the bulletin is a reasonable place for them. But do not fill it with them. Remember you are interested not only in communicating information but also in facilitating transformation. Making room in the bulletin for other, more important things will enable members to do the same in their spiritual lives.
#4. Give the people something worth reading. Many churches have done away with the bulletin article, and perhaps for good reason. Frankly, they often tend to be kind of lame. Unfortunately, however, they have been replaced with more announcements (see #3). I suggest replacing them with excerpts from classics of Christian spirituality instead. You can do no better than to expose yourself, as well as members of your congregation, to the richness of the Christian tradition. So start reading. Or better yet, start a book club. You might want to begin with Devotional Classics or Spiritual Classics, both of which are Renovarè resources and include numerous excerpts. Then start reading whole works. Draw from these for your “bulletin articles.” You will not regret it.
You may also want to replace the traditional article with introductions to and suggestions for the practice of certain spiritual disciplines. I have done this before using Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline as a resource. Daryl Tippens’s Pilgrim Heart would also be helpful.
#5. Encourage Scripture memorization. Dallas Willard frequently remarked that he would not work for a church that had no plan for memorizing Scripture. I know of none that have such a plan, so I have chosen to go ahead and work for them while trying to implement a plan. The way I have done this is to include each week in the bulletin a passage from the sermon text that I expect them to memorize. Have they? The only way to be sure is to ask someone every now and again to recite one as part of the worship service. I would not do this without fair warning. But I have done it, and it has always turned our well.
If you are a minister in a small church and responsible for the publication of your church’s bulletin, I hope you find these suggestions helpful. But even if you do not find them so, I hope they will at least prompt you to rethink the purpose of the bulletin and find your own ways to employ it for the ministry of spiritual formation. The Lord bless you and keep you.