No other activity takes up more time and energy in the life of a congregation than worship. It is at the heart of what it means to be a community of faith. What congregational leaders plan to happen in worship and how they go about planning for it are critical missional choices.
For years, here is how I planned for worship. I took last week’s bulletin and wrote in a new scripture and sermon title. I picked out three different hymns and wrote them down. Then I gave the bulletin to the secretary who filled in the anthem, prelude and postlude given her by the choir director and organist, who seldom knew ahead of time what the sermon was going to be about. That was my worship planning process. (Except for first Sundays when we had communion and then I used last month’s first Sunday bulletin.) I pretty much thought of my sermon as the teaching center piece and everything else as preliminaries. While I didn’t consciously admit this to myself, I didn’t really expect anything to happen in people’s lives, except perhaps for them to learn something about being a Christian in today’s world. Which is to say: I didn’t really expect the Holy Spirit to be doing much and I felt pretty much on my own.
To say that this reflects a woefully lacking theology of worship would be a gross understatement! If asked, I could have shared a theology of worship that I learned in seminary. However, somehow in the practice of ministry, a theological perspective got set aside. This changed for me -- though the story of how is too long to share here -- as I came to recognize two things.
(1) Planning for worship is about planning for people to encounter the living God afresh. We certainly do not presume to control what God does. But whether we plan for and invite others to enter into worship with an expectation of meeting God in life-changing ways greatly influences whether people are looking for and open to receiving whatever God hopes to do this Sunday. When I remembered this, planning shifted from filling in the blanks to asking, ‘How can we shape a worship experience that has the possibility of opening people to encountering Christ afresh?’ When approached from this perspective, preparing for worship becomes like planning an expedition – a weekly spiritual journey into the very presence of God. And in order to bring people along with me on this spiritual adventure, I had to think about how all the elements of worship worked together to assist us in getting there.
- Do the elements work together with a sense of thematic unity? Do they flow emotionally and rationally one to another?
- Are people getting lost in the transitions?
- Are they getting distracted from focusing on God by announcements and greetings that need to be at the beginning or end of the worship service?
- Are we involving all our senses as whole persons in worship or are we just planning worship from our eyebrows up?
- Is the cringe factor of things done poorly diverting people’s attention from the real purpose of worship: encountering the Living Christ?
- Are we drawing from the rich resources of the broader Christian tradition or just the narrow tradition of what we did last week, last month or last year?
- Are we boring people with predictability or overwhelming them with novelty for entertainment’s sake?
- Are we sharing esoteric (read: irrelevant) truths from Scripture that have no practical relevance to people’s real lives or are we helping apply timeless Scriptural truths that help people deal with the challenges and struggles of life beyond the sanctuary?
Now if all of this sounds like too much for one pastor to do, I agree with you! Which leads me to the other major thing I’ve learned:
(2) Worship planning is best done as a team. Let me close by share a variety of reasons I think this is so:
· A team of people can be more attentive to all the aspects of taking people on a journey into the presence of Christ better than one pastor can.
· A team is more effective in evaluating last week’s worship service than one person. Consequently, worship has a better chance of improving when planned and evaluated by a team.
· A team of worship planners greatly multiplies the energy, gifts, life-experiences, and creativity focused on preparing for worship.
· A team takes pressure off the pastor to be good at everything. The strengths and abilities of others can shine in ways that complement the pastor.
· Planning for worship as a team in frankly more fulfilling and fun than doing it alone – both because of the better end product and a more enriching process in getting there.
· A team of people helps strike a better balance between consistency and newness, between “doing what we’ve always done before” and drawing from the rich, broader tradition of the Christian Church.
· A team of people is better at sensing the Holy Spirit’s guidance as they select worship themes and metaphors that speak to the real life of the people in their community.
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Dr. Jeff Stiggins
The Center for Congregational Excellence