So the pastor is going out of town, to a conference, or died recently and you have to plan worship this Sunday… hmmmm. Where to begin? Or maybe you are a new pastor arriving at your first appointment or call, and suddenly realize that no one in seminary bothered to tell you how to create a bulletin. Well, hopefully, this isn’t too far fetched for you as a Christian who has attended church and paid attention to what happens inside each worship service. Here, I offer a simple guide to anyone planning a worship service in any tradition or pattern:
Step 1: Pray.
Yes, Pray. You’d be surprised at how easy it is to begin this process without first going to the primary source – GOD. Believe me, I know. I’ve been guilty, and if you ask your preacher to be honest, I’m sure she or he has been guilty of quickly putting a bulletin together without first talking to God. Every worship plan should beginning with prayer. Remember back when you did research papers for high school and college and the English teacher constantly said, “first read the primary source.” When it comes to worship, the primary source is God. Worship begins and ends in the Heart of God. The Spirit is about preparation in prayer just as much as inspiration in work.
Step 2: Text.
Now remember, I’m just talking about planning the worship service, not the sermon. The sermon (I hope!) also follows these steps. Whatever way the text is chosen, whether you are following the lectionary or a sermon series or going through a book of the Bible, read it several times before setting down to plan worship. Make time to read prayerfully and intentionally read the text. I suggest five to ten times as a minimum so that you get breathe deeply what the Spirit is cooking from the recipe.
Step 3: Context.
The very word con text implies that this is intended to go with the text. Each worship service has it’s own flavor. Theologically, in a worship service, the audience is God. As you plan the worship service, keep in mind who the players on the stage are – the people! If they are accustomed to the formalities of high church processions, go with it. If they crave Gaither songs and knee slapping, go with it. What I am emphasizing here is that they need to be a part of the plan. Worship is from God through us to God. So don’t forget us, eh?
Also keep in mind the context of the building, the atmosphere, and who’s leading. The space we meet in comes with plus and minus signs as does the ambiance and feel of the room. While we can’t change these, we must realize they are there. Everyone comes to worship with different energy levels. Don’t put a monotone reader in charge of reading Psalm 119, nor put someone who’s had eighteen cups of espresso in charge of leading the congregation through a responsive reading – wemayreadjustabittoofast!
Step 4: Theme.
One of the most tragic things that happens in poorly done worship is knee-jerk emotions and inappropriately placed events. Having a central theme that runs throughout the worship service is ideal. A sermon on transformation in Christ shouldn’t be followed by “Just as I am.” The thought just doesn’t follow. Nor should a hymn take us emotionally someplace the sermon wasn’t. If the service is focused on praise, let’s not sing a slow love song for a savior. And definitely don’t throw in a random event like honoring Graduates when the theme is Pentecost. If it interrupts the flow, it probably should go. A service with a theme has a thread that connects and guides us closer to God and one another.
The theme should be the big picture; that one concept that everyone at every age is exposed to in the worship. An example would be a service on John 1:1-14 (notice I began with the text) which focuses on God’s coming to us in the flesh. Every part of the worship service should be about this theme – prayers, songs, kid’s time, sermon, benediction. This takes a lot of time, preparation, and choreography; but the end service to God through the people is worth it.
Exceptions to the Rule…
Weddings, funerals, and high holy days already have their themes (and yes, a wedding is a worship service if clergy are signing the marriage license). Weddings usually deal with the love of God expressed in human relationships. Funerals should be about the person who died, how their life reflected Christ, and the promise of resurrection. Easter is about resurrection, Christmas is about the Birth of Christ, etc. In these worship services we should pray, honor the theme, keep an eye to the context, and read the text (unless you are following a strict lectionary style).
My prayer is that this will help all worship leaders in their planning. Please feel free to contact me, I’ll be glad to help in any way I can.