Planning for Worship

Planning for Worship
By John Practica

Father of Jesus, Love divine, Great King upon your throne, what joy to see you as you are and worship you alone!  Frederick W. Faber

I’m dreaming of a Sunday when:

As Jon and Joy pulled out of the garage, wondering again if they’d be late for church, their girls were crying because they had spilled orange juice all over their Sunday dresses. Jon lightened the moment by sharing his idea of the perfect Sunday. “Imagine a Sunday when everything goes right. The kids get dressed and make it through breakfast without spilling cereal on their clothes. You arrive at church twenty minutes early, plenty of time to spare.”

The preservice music draws you and other worshipers into the worship area. The call to worship is profound, yet brief, reminding you of the purpose of the hour. The opening song captures the joy and glory of God as worshipers lift their voices in song. The confession of sin and the assurance of God’s pardon is real and freeing, it’s as though the song about God’s grace lifts tons of weight off people’s shoulders.

The Bible text for the sermon is read effectively. And the sermon, the sermon is a shot straight to the heart, biblically grounded and fresh, with relevant exegetical insights perfectly delivered with a variety of pace and inflection. No wonder the offering plates overflow and chairs have to be set up in the foyer for overflow seating.” Jon would have continued, but they were pulling into the church parking lot, ready to face the realities of a more mundane worship experience.

Does Jon’s ideal Sunday sound like pie in the sky? Probably, at least with regard to worship on this side of eternity. But still, every once in a while, it wouldn’t hurt worship leaders to reflect on the ideal, and then do the difficult and rewarding work of planning for it.

Church Leaders Unite!

In the previous chapter we saw that worship exists to glorify God, the One seated on the throne. In worship we gather to bring our praise to God. Worship leaders direct worshipers’ attention to God and facilitate this meeting between God and his people. To ensure the quality of worship, many churches appoint a worship committee, worship planning committee, or an elder, deacon, or trustee whose responsibilities include worship oversight. Some churches may have full-time staff persons or ministers whose specific task is to coordinate and plan worship.

Whatever your own role may be, or however your church addresses the nurturing and massaging of your worship program, the mandate is the same for all: to nourish a healthy worship life that focuses attention on God. To help you nourish and grow your worship program, here are some key support groups you may want to implement if you haven’t already done so:

The Worship Board

The worship board is a group of persons�five or six for the average-sized church�who regularly meet together to discuss the worship life of the church. Their mandate is to facilitate worship that points to God, seeking to minimize any distractions that may be present during worship. As such, the worship board oversees nitty-gritty details: requesting budgeted funds in the annual church budget, lining up musicians for services, ordering poinsettias for the Christmas season, and so forth. Sadly, many worship boards stop there. What if the worship board were to expand its influence to discuss all aspects of the worship experience?

The Worship Service Planners

A subset of people could be drawn from the membership of the worship board or from the congregation at large whose mandate is to plan specific worship services. The worship planners would meet on a regular basis with the pastor(s) to discuss upcoming sermon themes and Scripture texts. Beginning with this information, worship planners go to work. How can the call to worship this week introduce or highlight the sermon theme or Scripture text that is read later- in the service? Or should the invitation to worship call attention to the season of the church year�Advent, Lent, and the like? Working with a theme gives unity, guidance, and overall shape to worship.

Hymns, songs, and responsive readings all contribute to the theme. To this end, it’s important that worship planners are prepared and come armed with many suggestions and that they familiarize themselves thoroughly with the multitude of resources available to worship planners, hymnbooks, worship journals, and denominational worship guides. In appendix 2, you will find a “Worship Planning Checklist” you may want to photocopy or adapt for use in your service planning.

Ideally, musicians would be invited to the worship planning meetings. Since they, along with the pastor(s), will have responsibility to lead the worship service, it’s important that their input be included in shaping the service. Furthermore, after hearing the pastor preview the sermon, musicians who will lead the worship songs get a better idea of how to lead so that the songs fit stylistically with the sermon. For example, at the planning meeting the pastor discloses that next week’s sermon will end with a powerful story of a person on his deathbed who gave testimony to God’s grace even in the last breaths of life.

The worship planners choose to conclude the service by singing “Amazing Grace.” Had the musicians not been at the meeting, they might have assumed that the concluding song should be done in a grand and triumphant style. Now that they know the sermon’s conclusion, however, the musicians reconsider how best to lead the hymn, perhaps in a quieter, more reflective style.
To that end, musicians can ask good questions of the pastor and worship planners: Can you summarize in one sentence what the sermon will be about? What response do you want to evoke in the congregation, trust, comfort, hope, resolve? What are some ways to involve more people in our worship this week?

As worship planners talk together, other insightful questions are asked: How can our instrumentalists and musicians better draw out the praise of the people? Are we singing too much hymnody or too many praise songs that don’t challenge us intellectually? Or, on the other hand, do too many of our songs assume advanced theological awareness? Can we balance the two? One wise professor of church music once said that every church service should have “something old, something borrowed, and something blue.” By this, she meant that the balance of a congregation’s musical diet should be eclectic and include something from the church of the past ( “something old”), something from the worldwide church (“something borrowed”), and something from the church of today (“something blue”). This formula works well to ensure that all God’s people give voice to their worship of God in a well-rounded way.

After the worship planners form a rough sketch of the service, they communicate the plan to all who will be involved, as well as to those not-so-involved. Does the church custodian need to know of any change of schedule or set-up needs as a result of our plan for the worship service? Could the children sing this song in church school so that when they join us for worship they will know it? Could we create a children’s bulletin to complement the worship theme of the day? Are there symbols from the Scripture text that we could place in our worship space, stones, wheat, vines, bread, and the like? Are there in-house artists who could be commissioned to produce works of art for us? In the church, as in most volunteer organizations, preplanning, over communicating, and broad involvement by all members are essential ingredients.

Worship planners pray. Even our best-laid plans are futile without God’s blessing. So worship planners conclude their planning session by praying together, asking God to use the music and message, and all the elements of the service, to bring glory to God and to unite worshipers in their praise of God. Worship planners pray for the guest who may be present, asking that he or she would meet Jesus through worship. Worship planners pray for minimal distractions during worship, and they pray that worship leaders would become less so that God would become greater.

Worship planners arrive at worship on Sunday with a sense of anticipation. They communicate confidence to other planning team members and to all worship participants. They walk through the sanctuary doors with a spirit of thanksgiving. They sit in silence prior to the service, meditating on God�giving nonverbal cues to others that it’s time to prepare for worship. They sing songs with enthusiasm. They fill the sanctuary with prayer and with praise of God. Their spirit of joy and thanksgiving is contagious. At the next meeting, worship planners don’t ask, “Did this work?” but, “What else could we do?” A synergy soon arises that gives the congregation’s worship a unique shape and voice, because it is now worship of the congregation. And because planning and participation have been shared by many, ownership of and enthusiasm for worship are widespread within the congregation.

Through it all, worship planners remember that people’s praise is at the heart of worship. They have done all they can do to invite people into the circle of praise around God’s throne. What a blessed and liberating moment it is when worship planners realize that God doesn’t call their church to be just like somebody else’s church. God uses different churches, with unique and various gifts and patterns of worship, to bring glory to him in different ways.

Not all churches have to look alike; they don’t need to model themselves after other “successful” churches. In fact, the reason these other churches are successful is that they have first discovered their unique gifts and have translated them into meaningful service within their community and within their community of faith.

Several excellent resources exist for worship planners.’ Remember, the central question for all worship planners and music leaders is this: How can we, as organizers of this faith community’s worship, better direct the worshipers’ attention to God? Any other goal for worship planners will only result in an entertainment treadmill, where next week’s service has to be a notch above last week’s in order to keep the interest alive. That sort of worship planning is doomed, because we are at the center and not God. Remember, true worship naturally directs worshipers toward the One seated on the throne.

Every once in a while, worship planners would do well to step out of weekly worship planning and talk about the overall worship program, addressing larger questions and plans:

* How are our bulletins laid out? Are they clear and easy to follow? Is there enough white space, or do we cram too much information in too little space? Conversely, do we print too little information, unknowingly causing our guests to wonder about things and thus distract them from worship? (For instance, is it clear how we partake of the Lord’s Supper? Who is welcome, who is not?) Do we use in-house lingo or abbreviations that would confuse a guest?
* Will guests know where to find our nursery? Once they get there, are they welcomed by warm, caring, and trustworthy people? If guests are at ease because they know their child will be well cared for during the worship hour, it’s easier to focus attention on worship.
* Look at the overall flow of the worship service. Are there too many “commercials” by the pastor or other ministry leaders? Are there other ways to communicate announcements to the congregation?
* Visually, does our worship space define a “center”? What is the center of our worship? Is this reflected architecturally? Is the Bible the center? The pulpit? The cross? A vase of flowers? A guitar stand?
* Is there too much clutter in our worship space? Could artists help us with such aspects as color and furniture placement to create a mood for gathering around the throne? Could our artistic members be invited to create new banners for the sanctuary or works of art that could be reproduced on the weekly worship folder?
* Who are the participants in our worship service? Is our worship reflective of all God’s people, do we involve many, including persons from all age groups? Does one person, or a select group of people, “do” the worship while others simply watch? Or is our worship participation too much of a good thing, so it seems like a parade of emcees doing a lot of disjointed exercises that fail to direct our attention to God?
* What kind of preparation do we give lay readers and worship participants? There are many excellent articles and resources that provide simple but important lessons for those who speak publicly. Could our church designate money in the budget for bringing in a communication professional to work with your cadre of Scripture readers? The Word of God read simply, clearly, and intelligently is powerful indeed!
* Are our greeters and ushers on board with the worship vision of our church?2 Your church leaders may want to consider providing consistent yearly training for pivotal “behind the scenes” persons such as greeters (if your church doesn’t yet have people who welcome members and guests, you might implement this volunteer position), ushers, and nursery workers. Oftentimes, these are the first people worshipers encounter. If one sees a warm and welcoming look on their faces, one will want to participate in worship with people such as these.

The Pastor

Pastors play a formative role in focusing the faith community’s worship on God, both as a participant during the service of public worship and as a cheerleader for the musicians and worship planners. Pastors may be the most important part of the music program! A good pastor understands and values worship. Just as worship focuses on God, so the life of the church revolves around worship. The sanctuary is the primary meeting place in the church building. Out of worship flow the music programs, outreach programs, and education programs. With such a central focus to the life of the church, worship ought to be a very high priority for a pastor.

Some well-intentioned but misguided pastors confuse worship with “sermon,” and sometimes even think good worship is (only) a good sermon. From there it’s one small step to preparing only for the sermon and missing out on weekly opportunities to lead the congregation in other (non-sermon) acts of worship. Pastors need to understand and appreciate all the elements of the worship service. When I was in college, I served on the campus worship planning committee. Students on the committee took turns as worship leaders and would call the preaching pastor for their particular week.

I once placed such a call, introducing myself and sharing with the pastor what I would be doing in the service. I told him that I’d like all the components of worship to focus on the sermon theme, and then I asked if he had any input. His answer was unforgettable: “Oh, you just lead the preliminaries any way you want. Just make sure you leave me a good forty-five minutes for the sermon.” Insightful and effective pastors value the entire hour of worship, sensitive to how all acts of worship prepare hearts and minds to acknowledge and celebrate God and his mighty acts of love and grace.

Pastors use carefully chosen words to invite people to worship, to draw them into the praise of God, and to elicit heartfelt confession of sin that leads to majestic praise for God’s saving grace. To enable this important work, pastors keep worship as their central focus and set aside quality time not only for sermon planning but for service planning. Pastors reflect the importance of worship by the amount of budgeted dollars in the annual ministry plan they set aside for worship ministries; what’s more, they show their commitment by giving consistent and positive feedback to worship participants.
Most of all, pastors reflect critically about their role in worship. Worship is about God; it must not be about the pastor. How can I as a pastor naturally point worshipers to God? Do I have an unhealthy need to be the center of attention? Is my sermon God-centered and based on Scripture? When pastors prepare well so that they avoid an embarrassing mediocrity, when they become true servants of God in public worship and give themselves to being conduits for God’s Spirit, God is truly worshiped and magnified, when pastors become less, God becomes greater.
Worship boards, worship planners, and pastors live to bring worshipers before the throne of God.

But we have yet to discuss the vital work of church musicians, keyboardists, singers, and instrumentalists. How can they serve to direct attention not to themselves but to God? It is this important topic we take up in the next chapter.

This article “Planning For Worship” was taken from “Serving In Church Music” by John Practica and may only be used for research and study purposes only.