Worship Glue: Sticking the Pieces Together

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“Just get ‘em warmed up with a few great songs and put me on!” I was the worship planner asking the chapel preacher for the text, theme, purpose and mood of the sermon so that the rest of the service would guide the minds and hearts of the congregation in the same direction. His response to my request was refreshingly honest.

Other preachers had dutifully answered my questions, but many seemed surprised, even suspicious of why I needed to know so much about “their part” of the worship service. At least this guy said it out loud-- “Hey, music leader, you do your thing and I’ll do mine and we’ll get along just fine.”

You’d think that those instructions would be ‘music to the ears’ of the worship leader. After all, I can pick my favorite songs, make sure they are all in the key of G (there’s cohesion for you!) and get the congregation emotionally charged up for the speaker. But you’d be wrong. The idea that Preacher and Musician can or should “do their own thing” is wrong for both practical and pastoral reasons.

With the myriad of songs or other pieces of liturgy available, a worship planner is drowning in a sea of unconnected ideas until someone--often the preacher--says, “This is the text, this is what the text says, and this is what we are going to say to God’s people about this text.”

At that moment, thousands of irrelevant songs and liturgical ideas fall away, leaving merely several hundred to play with. Only then can a thoughtful worship planner begin to piece together the best songs and prayers and readings of supporting scripture.

Besides the practical implications, this notion of ‘separate-but-equal’ worship planning lacks pastoral care. Recent studies have confirmed that, much to my own dismay, people simply cannot multitask. Jerking our congregants’ brains and hearts from one idea or emotion to another unrelated idea or emotion reduces their ability to retain enough knowledge or feeling that could lead to a change of life.

Yet this idea that everything outside of the sermon is simply “warm up” persists. Maybe not with the same brusque clarity as the chapel speaker, but week after week many preachers send the same message. They keep their sermons to themselves until Sunday morning, leaving the worship planners and/or musicians to guess and grope for appropriate pieces to help God’s people find their way to clearer understanding of the text. Preachers preach and Worship Leaders lead worship and nobody bothers to check with each other about what direction they are going.

We Reformed Christians are ‘people of the Word.’ But God’s word is not reserved for sermons alone. Worship planning--done rightly--links the text throughout the service so that each part carries the congregation along toward the appropriate response to God.

Do you value cohesion in your worship? If so, what practices help to connect the pieces of your service?

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I've really come to appreciate the way we do worship planning at First Vancouver.  We have a number of worship teams (which is fun because different people get to contribute with their unique gifts) who are responsible for planning the service.  Whoever is preaching will give the text and a paragraph about what the focus/theme/message will be.  The whole service is inputted on ServiceBuilder (servicebuilder.net) where the bulletin editor can then get all the information.  It's been working out really well for us!  It's definitely more work to be intentional in this way, but it is also much more meaningful.

We often have the children's story before the service dealing with a similar passage or topic that the sermon will deal with later.  This is great in one way, but sometimes takes away the element of surprise or "newness".   Perhaps this might also happen sometimes with pre-sermon songs in the service sometimes, and that's why some preachers are not to worried about correlating the two so much. 

John, I hear you--especially with regards to children's sermons.  But when it comes to songs, I'm learning that 1.) most people really aren't paying that much attention anyway 2.)  I'm really not that good of a preacher--I need all the help I can get! I think having songs and prayers that link it with the theme, use key words etc are a great way to start people down the path I'm hoping they will walk with me during the message, to plant seeds in their minds.  Doing so ultimatley strengthens the overall effect of the sermon, rather than weakens it.  Since I happen to work with Joy, I'm obviously biased...but I think she is on to something.  We preachers can be a fearful and possesive bunch.  Perhaps everyone would benefit if we stopped thinking the sermon is "it" (or more pointedly, that WE are "it") and start thinking of the sermon as one piece of the larger whole that we call the worship service.  

Often yes, it is a good idea to try to link things.  But occassionally not linking things still results in very uplifting and encouraging worship.   Often things will be linked without any planning taking place;  that is the most amazing of all!  An amusing kind of amazing... knowing that God works us and uses us for his glory,   in spite of our limitations.  

The way I think of worship practically happening is that it is a response to a revelation. Specifically in the context of a church service, it is a response to God's revelation. Worship starts with seeing Him. At my church, our typical order of service has four songs before the message and two songs after. I explain this because what often happens to me is I'll want to sing after the message in a way I didn't before the message. After sitting under around 45 minutes of the Word being expounded and the Gospel being proclaimed, I am compelled to respond to God in a way I wasn't at the beginning of the service. After thirty minutes of prepping before the service (running copies, setting up music stands, etc.) I am a little less focused than after sitting still and listening to a carefully prepared message. The same could be said for parents who just arrived at church after wrestling with ill-tempered children or an argument with a spouse. They are likely not coming to worship believing that God is our superior and that He sees us as morally offensive without Christ. When we come to worship believing THAT, it will change the way we worship. Preaching, though it is an act of worship, is more of a "revelatory" activity, at least when I compare it to singing and music which is more of a "responsive" activity for the congregation. This being said, I sometimes wonder what it would be like to have more elements such as music after the sermon than before. While listening to the sermon I'm usually thinking of a number of especially relevant songs I wished we had planned for the service. Perhaps this is a result of poor cohesion. Regardless, even with good cohesion and coopoerative worship planning between all of the church leaders, I often weigh the potential benefits of placing the sermon closer to the beginning of the service and more responsive elements, such as music, toward the end. To play devil's advocate, perhaps planning too many elements after the sermon better enables the congregants to be distracted from its points. Just some thoughts.

Participant

As both a preacher and worship leader (in my small church, sometimes both in the same day), I believer cohesion is essential.

Several years ago we moved the 'worship time' to after the sermon and it is intentionally response to the message. But I want the other aspects of the worship service to tie in to the theme of the day as well. We have a call to worship, opening song of praise, greeting, invitation to transformed living, prayer, sermon, worship and praise, congregational prayer, offering/offertory, announcements, blessing & closing hymn. As much as we can we tie those in as well - some are not as closely tied in as others, but wherever and however we can we do.

I remember one time when it didn't work. A message on friendship included a section on the importance of non-addictive relationships (i.e., codependence); the first song following was "Bind us together" (yes, this was a few years ago). Oops!

I try to lay out my sermon series (when I preach them) as far in advance as I can to help our worship planning process. Sometimes thinking long-term can help too, for example, when that really good song would be great with next week's, rather than this week's message.

I think planning the other elements around the sermon can be nice, but certainly isn't essential. The very structure of a service can provide the internal logic that connects elements--God calls his people together, and we respond with praise. We acknowledge our sinfulness and receive again the good news of forgiveness. Reminded of God's work for us, we hear his will, and are sent out to respond.

I thought it was interesting that you interpret the disconnected sermon and songs as a message of "the songs are warm up for the sermon." I tend to flip the coin around...in my mind, it's the idea that the value of the songs and other elements is dependent on how well they connect to the sermon that really treats them as a warm up.

Honestly, I sometimes find that trying to plan according to the sermon is more frustrating than anything. It's kind of like standing in my kitchen and saying "I have nothing to eat." I'm feeling like I have no ideas for a service, and I have to stop and take a step back say, "Seriously...how many things could I say about God? It's impossible to have no ideas!"

Again, cohesion can be nice, and it's usually at least a part of my planning, but it's certainly not the be-all-end-all, and I don't mind dropping it altogether.

Thanks, JT.  You prompted me to post the food illustration below with your own illustration of standing in the kitchen!

Just to clarify:  my preference is not that the songs/prayers/readings connect to the sermon, but that all "pieces"--sermon included--connect to the same text/theological concept.  As both a preacher and a worship leader, I value the various ways of how God's word is made available to God's people.  

I also believe that there are variety of ways to connect the pieces.  For example, the pieces could all say a part of the whole story.  No sermon can contain all that can be said about a given text.  Leave off some of the sermon and let a song say it.  

Or the pieces might provide an application for the text that is best done in prayer instead of preaching. Maybe the opening pieces--gathering, confession, assurance-- lead up to the text, the sermon allows us to sit in the text and then the closing pieces reflect the text back to us. 

I'm presuming by your reference to "the internal logic" of a worship service that you already practice the principle of cohesion--probably without having to try too hard.  Unfortunately, not all preachers or worship leaders understand the value of structure or "internal logic" in worship planning.  Thanks for a clear description of this structure. 

Thanks for your thoughtful comments on this topic.  As I’ve been reading your responses, an illlustration has been growing in my mind so I’ll share it with you, knowing that all images break down at some level.

Planning worship is like creating a good meal.  (We could go many directions with that opening sentences and I invite you to try your own hand at it, but for now, I’ll apply it to our topic of “glue” in worship.)

 

Suppose we have a bumper crop of tomatoes.  What a great start to many dinners.  But what we do next with the tomatoes begins to limit options and direct us in a more focused meal preparation.  Add oregano and basil and we are on our way to an Italian Sausage with Penne pasta and a Chianti.  Add onions, cilantro and chipotles or poblanos and we’ll need some Mexican rice and beans.  Add garlic and kalamata olives with chunks of goat cheese and we are now headed for the Greek Isles.  Add palm oil, nuna bean and some smoked fish and we will need pounded yams from West Africa.  

 

Of course someone might try a fusion dish and mix up a few of the ingredients and find a fabulous new flavor, but throwing it all in the pot and hoping for the best is probably not the wisest choice.  (Trust me, you want to be careful where you throw those nuna beans!)

 

And once we pick the Mexican meal, we’re wise to stick to flan instead of Tiramisu or baklava for dessert.

 

Anyone hungry yet?  

 

As several of you have suggested, over-planning can wreck a worship service.  It can feel stilted or manufactured.  Worse, over-planning sometimes comes from a desire to manage or control the worship--to manipulate the people and hog-tie the Spirit.  Woe to us when our planning excludes the intention and desire to follow the Spirit’s lead.  

 

Still, it seems kind and right of us to help God’s people find the intended lesson/challenge/blessing/hope of the day’s text by emphasizing that message in other forms of worship in addition to the sermon. 

Participant

I like your meal analogy, Joy. It works for me on a lot of levels. One is that the worship leader is the host, creating an atmosphere of hospitality for God's people and God's presence (Nouwen loved that idea). Another, is that the 'host' should be concerned to bring a full, nutritious meal, and not merely pander to the 'taste' of the most immature, who often complain the loudest and most frequently -- while, on the other hand, providing food that will be eaten (i.e., so worship happens).

What really gives me heartburn is the apparent attitude of some that the worship time (they often call it the "singing time") is treated like desert: sweet, but not really essential -- a nice addition to what we're really here for.

Participant

hmmm... I think of it as a treasure hunt... letting the Holy Spirit give you guidance/ "clues" to find  the treasure aka songs, scriptures, message, etc.  He wants you to use to create a new masterpiece of worship, so that when it's all together, it's a beautiful "crown" to offer to Jesus, that also ministers at some level  to everyone worshipping, no matter where they are at spiritually.

I see here you're talking about how worship planning is key and whe done right, creates a beautiful worship service - this article really goes along with what you're saying http://worship4christ.com/2011/09/how-does-your-church-plan-your-sundaywednesday-services/ I think it complements what you say here very well.