Getting Started with Worship Planning
January 12, 2010
Updated November 30, 2017
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If you haven't had a chance to read this article I encourage you to do so... and then share it with your planning team or committee. Together discuss this article. What parts do you resonate with? What parts does your church do differently and why? What areas are you strongest in? What areas do you want to grow in? What one practice would you like to incorporate in your worship and/or worship team meetings in this coming year? -JB
Worship planners are called to a task that is part priestly and part prophetic. Worship planners are like priests because we shape the prayers of God’s people. We also have the holy task of being stewards of God’s Word. Worship planners are like prophets because we select the texts and themes from God’s Word that will be central in public worship. Our choice of Scripture readings and worship themes represent a degree of influence on people’s spiritual diets—how they feed on the bread of life, the Word of God.
For these reasons, planning worship is an awesome responsibility. It demands our best attention and efforts. Some make the mistake of thinking that a worship service can be planned in a short phone conversation. Perhaps it can, but this approach doesn’t do justice to the importance of worship. The question to ask is not, How quickly can we put together this service? but, How can this service faithfully and imaginatively bring this scriptural text alive? How can the service invite the meaningful participation of everyone present? How can we serve as the prophets and priests for our community at worship? Planning worship is more a pastoral task than a logistical task.
The most important parts of worship planning happen long before you choose songs or write a
litany. The first three ingredients in the recipe for planning worship are the same ingredients needed for living a faithful Christian life: prayer, study of Scripture, and love of your neighbor. Worship planning begins with prayer. Pray that the Holy Spirit will work through the planning
process. Pray for the worship life of the congregation. Pray for all those who lead worship. Pray alone, but also pray with others involved in the planning process. Your prayers acknowledge that the beauty and power of worship lie more in the Spirit’s work than in your own ingenuity. Worship planning continues with the study of Scripture. Begin with the Scripture text chosen by the pastor. Work with the pastor to probe that text. What should the congregation learn? What is the desired response? How does this text challenge us to pray? What theological themes are central? What images, pictures, and colors are central? What other texts are relevant to this passage or theme? The answers to these questions will provide clues for discovering which songs, prayers, texts, and other elements will function best in the service you are planning.
Worship planning also requires a love of the congregation. What events or circumstances will weigh on people’s minds as they come to the service you are planning? What special needs, issues, or concerns is the congregation addressing? What guests are likely to join your community for worship? What goals for worship has the congregation embraced? What songs, prayers, and actions is the congregation in the process of learning? Take time to write a paragraph about the community whose worship you are preparing. Resist the temptation to skip prayer, Bible study, and congregational assessment, even when time is short. They provide the spiritual foundation for everything that follows.
Take time for brainstorming. Imagination and creativity often are easier to develop without the
pressure to make final decisions or to put the elements of worship in order. One worship planner I know spends an hour brainstorming for every service she plans. Another spends two hours. Another spends thirty minutes brainstorming with a team of four people. Each of these people testifies to the value of this time. With the Scripture text or sermon theme for your upcoming service in mind, list possible elements in the service in the following categories:
• congregational songs and hymns
• Scripture texts
• images and colors
• occasions for prayer
• other musical contributions (choral, vocal solo, instrumental solo)
To help with the brainstorming process, consult a library of resources. Develop a file of your congregation’s previous services or services from other congregations. Find a good on-line biblical concordance, a set of hymnals and songbooks with scriptural indices, and a small library of books that include prayer texts, dramatic scripts, and suggestions for visual arts in worship (see the list of resources on p. 23). Perhaps your church library or worship committee can purchase resources that will help you brainstorm.
Thirty years ago, most churches, whatever their denomination, followed a predictable order of worship. But many worship planners today not only choose music and write prayers; they also reorder the worship service. Let’s step back and think about the order of worship.
Why is an order of worship important?
No specific order of worship is mandated by scripture. No order of worship can ensure that worship will be authentic, biblical, honest, or alive. Nevertheless, a thoughtful pattern or order of worship is very important.
A well-thought-out order of worship ensures a balanced diet of worship actions. A regular order of worship protects the congregation from overly zealous or overly creative worship leaders who might impose too much of their own agendas on a worship service. A predictable order of worship gives the congregation something to hang on to, something to expect—especially those for whom regularity is an important prerequisite for participation (including children). Most important, a wellconceived order of worship ensures that the main purposes of worship are carried out. It protects worship from degenerating into a performance, entertainment, or an educational lecture.
For some, an order of worship might feel like a straitjacket, but this is a false assumption. Consider jazz music. Jazz usually features spontaneous improvisation, but it only works because the musicians in the combo are following a regular, predictable, repeated chord structure. Without this structure, the music would be chaos. In jazz, as in worship, genuine spontaneity happens within structure.
Nearly every congregation falls into a predictable order of worship, whether it is written out or not. Some churches that protest written orders of worship and regular structures are, in fact, the most predictable. Worship planners and leaders should be aware of what their congregation’s pattern is and why it works the way it does.
It is also important not to confuse structure and style. Congregations in Lagos, Nigeria, and in suburban Kansas City may have different styles of leadership and music because of their cultural differences, but they may share the same structure of worship that arises from biblical and theological reflection.
A historic pattern of Christian worship
The following chart outlines a historic pattern of Christian worship. While most churches don’t use the exact wording found in this chart, there are thousands of churches on many continents that use a version of this pattern.
Call to Worship
Acts of Praise
Call to Confession
Prayer of Confession
Assurance of Pardon
Passing of the Peace
Response of Thanksgiving
Prayer for Illumination
Old Testament Reading
New Testament Reading
Response to the Word
Song or Hymn of Response
Creed and/or Testimonials
Prayers of Intercession/Pastoral Prayer
Offering, Offertory Prayer
Invitation to the Table
Great Prayer of Thanksgiving
Words of Institution
Prayer of Consecration
Song or Hymn of Dedication
Call to Service
Notice that there is a basic theological logic and flow to this order. We first approach God with worship and adoration. Our sense of God’s holiness leads us to repentance. Hearing the assurance of pardon leads naturally to thanksgiving, and so on. There is a theological logic to this organization of a worship service that is better than a “list approach.” In some churches, all the actions of worship (praise, intercession, creeds, testimony) are simply listed without regard for how one flows into another. In services like these, the individual actions of worship may be meaningful in themselves. But the same actions would have much more meaning if their context would support them. Imagine that a choir sings an arrangement of “Amazing Grace.” The music is meaningful regardless of its place in the service. But imagine that the hymn is sung at the end of a prayer of confession, following a time of silence. The same music becomes much more powerful and effective because of its place in the flow of worship. Notice also that this historic order of worship does not dictate which style of leadership, music, art, or drama should be used to bring the order or structure to life. This same order, with minor variations, is used in thatched huts in Haiti and in large European cathedrals. It is universal enough to be considered classic. But how should this discussion affect you, the worship planner?
If your church follows an established worship pattern, start your planning there. Look for the theological logic in your pattern. Discuss that logic with others on your worship committee. Changing the pattern, if any changes are needed, should be a corporate project.
If your church doesn’t have a formally established pattern, think for a moment about the implicit pattern that might be there, even if it’s not written out. Consider asking your worship committee, your pastor, or your elders to think about this. When you are planning a service, use the historic worship pattern detailed above as a model or guide.
Ordering the elements of worship
With these observations in mind, you are ready to take the ideas from your brainstorming list and put them together into a complete service. The basic strategy is simple: move through the order of worship, one part at a time, with your brainstorming list in front of you. Ask the following questions: Which texts, songs, and resources will best help us praise? Which will best help us confess sin? Which will best enable us to respond to the sermon? To answer these questions, pay attention to the purpose of the texts you are working with. For example, the song “Create in Me a Clean Heart, O God,” based on Psalm 51, is a prayer of confession. The song “Praise the Name of the Lord” is an invitation to praise.
As you work through the service, avoid asking, Where can put this song I want to sing? Instead, ask, What will enable us to do this part of the service best? Start with the order of worship, rather than with particular songs or scripts or prayers. That will protect you from making choices that don’t fit very well into the service for that day.
A planning checklist
The following is a quick tour of the major parts of most worship services. These brief descriptions don’t explain everything, but they do provide some basic instructions that may help you with the planning process. Consider using the list below as a checklist when you plan your next service.
• The beginning of the service should clearly establish that this public gathering is for worship,
not for entertainment. Make sure that worship begins as worship and that it challenges us to attend not only to ourselves but to God.
• We gather for worship because God has called us to worship, because Jesus has made right call to worship.
• Praise God both for aspects of God’s character and for particular divine actions. Think about which divine attributes and actions are especially related to the sermon or theme of the day. For example, if the sermon is about caring for the environment, praise God for creation. If the sermon is about the witness of the church, praise God for the gift of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church.
• Consider what type of expression of penitence is suited to the sermon of the day. If the sermon is about family relationships, consider a prayer of confession that acknowledges brokenness in those relationships. If the sermon is about God’s frustration with the disobedience of the people of Israel, the prayer of confession could acknowledge how we continue to disappoint God when we are unfaithful or unresponsive.
• Consider allowing a time of silence before, during, or after the prayer of confession.
• Confession should always be followed by a clear declaration of God’s grace as shown in Jesus Christ. Use passages like 1 John 1 or Psalm 103 to declare God’s promise of forgiveness and grace.
• The “passing of the peace” or another mutual greeting is a fitting response to the declaration of pardon. It is a sign that our unity and fellowship are possible only because we are forgiven in Christ.
• Proclamation begins with a prayer that the Holy Spirit will work powerfully through the reading and preaching of God’s Word (sometimes called the prayer for illumination).
• Consider which passages of Scripture should be read before the sermon. In some churches, every service features readings from the Old Testament, the Psalms, and the New Testament. The use of both Old and New Testaments also points to the unity of Scripture and helps provide the congregation with a balanced diet of biblical readings.
• Think about how to read the Scripture lessons you have chosen. A poem (such as a psalm) might best be read by the whole congregation or by a group of two or more readers. A parable or a historical narrative could be read like a dramatic script, with different readers taking the part of the characters in the story.
• Consider which type of liturgical action best allows the congregation to respond to the sermon. Some sermons naturally lead to praise, some to dedication, some to testimonies, some to confession of sin. Make sure that the prayer, hymn, or creed that follows the sermon allows the congregation to respond appropriately to the message.
• Find ways for the congregation to participate in prayer: through a spoken or musical refrain, by reading a portion of the prayer in unison, by responding with a unison “Amen.”
• Consider how to balance extemporaneous, prewritten, and scriptural prayers. Extemporaneous prayers can respond to what is happening in the service itself. Pre-written prayers allow worship planners to compose prayers which, like simple poetry, are especially beautiful and apt. Scriptural prayers, including the Psalms and the Lord’s Prayer, have the value of using wellknown, even memorized language.
• Make sure the prayers address a balance of personal, congregational, and universal needs. In congregational prayer, we pray on behalf of the needs of the world; we voice the prayers of those who are unable to pray. We often become narrow and self-centered in our prayers and ignore the larger problems and injustices in our world. We can remedy this tendency through corporate prayer.
• Take care not to refer to this act of worship as the “collection.” The purpose is not simply to collect money to defray expenses, but rather to offer our firstfruits to God—to render a sacrifice of praise.
• Consider how to enrich the congregation’s participation in this important act of worship. You might, on occasion, invite worshipers to bring their gifts to the front of the sanctuary as a sign of their dedication.
• Provide worshipers with clear, concise information about where their moneys will go. This information should be clear to anyone who visits your congregation.
• Consider choosing offertory music that directly corresponds with the theme of the service. In one congregation, the offertory always consists of a musical meditation on the hymn or song sung just after the sermon. This practice helps guide the personal prayers of worshipers during the offertory.
• Think carefully about how you can focus the offertory prayer on the cause that the people are contributing to.
• Remember the four basic actions that Christians in nearly every tradition use in celebrations of the table: prayer of thanksgiving, words of institution, prayer of consecration, invitation to the table. Consult an approved Lord’s Supper service, like those printed in the Psalter Hymnal or The Book of Common Worship.
• Consider how to increase the congregation’s participation in the Lord’s Supper. Perhaps the congregation could read the prayer of consecration in unison. Perhaps, as in many congregations, the congregation could sing part of the prayer of thanksgiving, with the words “Holy, holy, holy . . . ”
• Provide clear instructions, especially for guests, about how the celebration will proceed—how the bread and cup will be distributed, who is invited to participate, and when the congregation will eat and drink.
• Look for music that will communicate the joy of the gospel and the meaning of the celebration.
• Find a brief, focused statement or challenge to give the congregation as the service closes. This can be printed in the order of service or spoken by the worship leader.
• Look for a song or hymn that reiterates the theme of the service and speaks about the difference that theme makes for living the Christian life.
• Close the service with a word of blessing from Scripture that indicates God’s promise to be present in all circumstances.
• Make sure there is a balance of familiar elements and things that will stretch the congregation. An entire service of unfamiliar music will not enable the congregation to participate. An entire service of overly familiar or often-used examples can cause worship to become cliché. Balance is the key!
• Start and end strong. Unfamiliar elements are most disconcerting if they are placed at the beginning or end of the service. A sturdy congregational song to start and end the service is the first step toward encouraging greater participation.
• Don’t worry about getting your service plan right the first time. Like good writing, service planning may require several drafts before you get the correct “feel.”
• Resist the temptation to choose songs simply because they are your favorites! Again, the question to ask each week is, What songs will help this congregation express this element of worship most meaningfully in light of the Scripture text or theme of the day?
• Pay attention to the emotional impact of parts of the service. If you are going to sing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” which was recently sung at two funerals in your church, then don’t follow it by “Crown Him With Many Crowns”—that would be emotionally jarring. After you complete a draft service plan, work through the entire service, considering the emotional impact of each element. Caution: Some worship planners use emotional impact as their primary criterion for choosing music. They want to manipulate the congregation into feeling exuberant or sad. The goal is to be sensitive to the emotional content of worship without trying to manipulate the emotion of the service.
Once you have a basic outline of the service, go over it and ask, What resources do we have to strengthen our participation in these actions of worship? Perhaps a young child could illustrate the Scripture reading for your bulletin or worship folder cover. Perhaps your church (or a neighboring church) has a banner that is especially appropriate for your theme. Perhaps there is an instrumental solo or ensemble that could play pre-service music based on one of the hymns or songs that you have chosen. Perhaps you could find a thought-provoking poem, hymn text, or quotation that could be printed in the bulletin or worship folder. Perhaps you might write a brief paragraph about the service you have planned. In short, before you commit to a final draft of the service plan, pause to consider untapped resources that could make the service more meaningful. But don’t make these additions at the last minute—the people you ask to help will need time to prepare their contributions. With sufficient planning, your efforts to enrich the service can make a meaningful contribution, especially to worshipers attuned to visual arts, poetry, and music.
Before you commit to the final draft of the service plan, think also about the wide range of people who will attend the service. Will it be possible for children to participate in this service? Are all the worship aids (bulletins, worship folders, projected texts, etc.) accurate and clearly understandable? Have you prepared simple explanations or other instructions to make the service more accessible to those who rarely attend worship? Will any songs require extra explanation when they are introduced to the congregation?
If you will be planning many services, create an efficient process to help you use your time well. Consider developing four resources:
• Create a template for your order of worship and use it to develop a first draft of every service you lead. Evaluate this template by comparing it to other well-established orders of worship.
• Create lists of the congregation’s musical repertoire. On one, list all the hymns and songs the congregation knows well. On another, list the hymns and songs that the congregation is coming to know or should know. Evaluate these lists to make sure they represent a balanced musical diet.
• Create a roster of people with gifts in the areas of reading Scripture, leading prayers, creating visual art for worship folder covers or banners, or any other role in worship.
• Develop a process for feedback and group discussion. Worship services should never be
planned in isolation. Ask wise and discerning people in your congregation, What enables you to participate more profoundly? What resources do we have as a congregation to enrich our worship?
When planning a service, remember that not every service can meet every need, solve every problem, or address every goal. However, in the course of several services, worship planners can contribute to worthy long-term goals. Consider these three examples:
1. Work to balance the congregation’s musical repertoire. Worship planners should be intentional about which songs are added to the congregation’s musical diet. New songs must be sung more than once. Familiar songs can’t be sung too often, or they will become stale.
2. Work to expand the congregation’s participation in corporate prayer. One congregation wanted to kneel for prayers of confession and lift their hands during songs of praise. Another wanted to add a response to the Scripture reading (“The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.”) to help the congregation actively participate. These innovations cannot be mastered in one service. They must become habits—in the best sense. To accomplish this, every service, or nearly every service, must include these actions.
3. The biblical Psalms are the church’s prayerbook. They have played an important part in worship for more than three thousand years. One admirable goal for worship is to make sure that a congregation becomes well-versed in the Psalms. This requires a commitment on the part of every worship planner. One congregation resolved to sing a psalm between the Scripture reading and the sermon each week. Another committed to using one psalm during at least one portion of the service (perhaps Psalm 100 as a call to worship one week, and Psalm 51 as a prayer of confession the next). This requires both commitment and creativity. It is important that these goals, and others like them, be embraced by the entire team of worship planners and leaders. There is nothing more disconcerting than when one planner advances her or his agenda one week, only to have another advance a competing agenda the following week.
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