Worship takes many shapes and forms depending on the context in which we participate in it. No matter what we think about worship, it may well be the most important thing that we do as the body of Christ.
Worship, particularly the corporate worship that occurs as we gather together as the body of Christ, has the power to shape us, particularly what we think about God. It has the power to shape what we believe about humanity. And it has the power to shape what we believe about whom we are called to be as those who call themselves disciples of Jesus Christ. Worship gives us the opportunity to recognize and give praise, honor, and glory to the God who calls us into the act of worship, enables our worship, and gives us the incredible gift of life. Worship has the power to change lives.
If we, as pastors and leaders, believe that this is the case, we must begin to prioritize worship planning in our schedules each week. We must take a closer look at how much time we spend planning and preparing for those precious moments that we spend with our congregations each week in worship. Many of us have ideas about how to plan worship services, preferences of what should happen in worship services (if you do not, ask your people; they do), and yet we find that when it comes to planning worship each week, we are not always sure what we should be doing. It is easy for us (or those whom we work with in planning each week) to choose a few songs, decide when to make announcements, pray as a community, take the offering, and then move on to the “important” parts of our work. Such practice does not necessarily reflect poorly on our concern about worship, but instead, perhaps we are unsure of what is important in worship and what is not. We may not be sure of the commitments that we should have when it comes to worship. My goal is not to give a step-by-step guide to worship planning, but rather to offer certain considerations that will assist those who lead in worship each week in their planning.
1. Bathe Your Service in prayer
Prayer should be the basis of our worship planning. I often find when talking with those who plan worship that this is not something that they do. They have put their planning on autopilot and forgotten that it is God who invites us to worship and enables our worship as the Body Gathered. Each week, as we sit down to prepare our services of worship, we must listen closely for how God might be leading our services. I believe that as we seek God, God will be faithful to lead and guide us in our planning.
2. Remember whom worship is for
At its core, worship is not for us, it is for God. God is the author of our worship and the one who receives our worship. Often, our main concern in worship planning is appealing to and connecting with those who will gather as worshipers. This is certainly important, but unfortunately, what happens is that we spend most of our time talking about ourselves (I, us, we). Instead, our services of worship should be first and foremost places where God is exalted, given the praise, honor, and glory that is due to the Creator of the universe and Sustainer of all things. As you plan worship, look at the songs that you are singing, the prayers that are being prayed, even what you include in your worship order– are you placing the emphasis on the glory and honor of God or on the people in your congregation?
3. Worship is revelation and response
Spend some time looking closely at the relationship between God and God’s people throughout Scripture. Most of the stories in which we see that relationship follow a similar pattern: God is revealed to humans, the humans recognize who God is, and they are led to respond to that revelation in awe and praise. It makes sense, then, that our worship would follow this same pattern. In our services of worship, we should be proclaiming who God is through the songs that we sing, Scripture that we read, and the sermons that we preach. We should also give our congregations the opportunity to respond to that revelation of who God is and how God is at work in our world.
4. Engage all of the senses
Although people experience the world with all five of their senses, our services of worship often appeal to only one or two of these. We are good at engaging our sense of hearing (primarily through music and preaching), but our services often fall short of engaging the others. Think about other ways that you can engage your people in the worship service, such as: the use of visual arts (whether on a screen or actual visual art/banners), drama (either skits or the dramatic reading of Scripture), or even colors that are used to decorate the church for the various seasons of the Church year. Creative methods will engage the whole person in worship.
5. Plan with Purpose
Perhaps the biggest enemy of purposeful worship planning is time: There just is not enough of it. Sometimes, it is Thursday, Friday, or even Saturday when the final details of a service are discussed. This kind of planning is the number one enemy of creativity and thoughtfulness. You may have a great idea for a creative and powerful element in your upcoming worship service, but if you think of it on Wednesday, it will probably be difficult to incorporate it for Sunday. If you want to be intentional about the planning of your worship services, one of the first 1 commitments that you must make is to advance planning. Not every detail will be completed weeks in advance, but advance planning ensures you are thinking far enough in advance to give space for creative ideas to take shape and be carried out.
6. Plan with Participation in Mind
I have heard the same complaint from pastors of many churches: People do not participate in worship. Instead, they sit back and watch worship happen. Pastors are wondering what has changed, but I believe that people are living into the worship that the church has provided. For too long, the congregation has been treated as an audience for the worship leader, praise team, and the preacher; consequently, they are beginning to act like it. The reality is that as worship leaders, we are not called to lead worship for people, we are called to lead people in worship. Worship services should be planned in such a way that people are invited to participate as much as possible - not only through congregational singing, but also through times of corporate prayer, responsive readings, testimonies, and moments of response to God’s revelation throughout the service. A challenge to the worship leader: Find as many ways as possible to put the work of worship into the hands of the people, allowing them to participate in and take ownership of worship.
7. Worship with All Generations
It has become the practice of most churches in our day to separate people by age groups into their own worship services. Children’s and teens’ worship has become the norm rather than the exception in our congregations. In this model of ministry, our youth and children are not comfortable or engaged when they do attend “big church,” and our senior members are not sure what to do when the younger folks “invade” their worship service. The danger of this kind of separation is that worship becomes primarily about what “speaks to us” and what is “relevant” to each age group. We learn little about what it means to give up preference for the sake of the other, or what it looks like to live life as the body of Christ. If we are planning and leading worship for all generations, we must consider whether all of the age groups are welcome (think crying babies, noisy children, teens on their smartphones, or adults who believe that God can only be worshiped through hymns sung in fourpart harmony). We must also find ways for all who are in the service to participate in worship in meaningful ways. It is no doubt challenging to speak to all of the generations of our congregations gathered in one place. But, if we are able to find ways for all generations to worship together, we teach what it means to love one another, to care for each other, and to put others before ourselves for the good of the whole.
8. Come to worship with a sense of expectation
I often get the feeling that we come to worship more out of a sense of duty than because we actually believe that God will show up. When we come into worship, we must remember that God is already in our places of worship, eager to work in the lives of those who have gathered together as disciples of Christ. I wonder what it would look like if we came to worship believing God was actually going to move among us through the work of the Holy Spirit: What would happen if people came to worship each week waiting to experience how God would be revealed to them? We might come to worship a little differently. Author Annie Dillard says it well in her book Teaching a Stone to Talk,
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.*
What if we came to worship with that sense of expectation?
I believe that what happens each week in worship will do more to form our churches than any ministry, program, outreach, or Bible study that we are providing. As pastors and leaders, we have the significant responsibility of helping people come before God each week offering praises, prayers, petitions–expecting that if we offer ourselves in worship, God will meet with us. May it be our prayer as leaders that by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us, God will use our services of worship to transform us evermore into the image of Christ.
HEATHER DAUGHERTY is assistant professor of Worship Arts and the director for the Center for Worship Arts at Trevecca Nazarene University.
*Dillard, Annie. Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: HarperPerennial, 1982), 52-53.