You’ve been given the responsibility of planning worship, but are not sure where to begin, or even if you’re up to the task. Where do you even begin?
Begin with God. Worship has a divine character. We learn the rhythms, patterns, and words for worship through the guidance of the Holy Spirit speaking through the words of the Bible. The Psalms, for example, teach us praise, prayer, and lament.
Take your context seriously. Worship also has a human character. The particular local context of each gathering of disciples also informs the rhythms, patterns, and words we use in worship. An outdoor worship service looks different from worship in a nursing home. Weddings and funerals have elements particular to those occasions.
Trust tried and true patterns. From ancient times, Christian worship has followed a basic pattern. God gathers us for worship. God speaks to us through the words of Scripture. God meets us in the meal of Holy Communion. God sends us into the world to love and serve all people.
Here are a few suggestions to get you started with worship planning.
Too often I’m guilty of making my plans and then asking God to sign off on them. What if instead we begin our worship planning with a blank page and spend some time intentionally seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit? Faithful worship planning begins with deepening our practice of listening to the voice of Jesus.
My friend who is Presbyterian has taught me the importance of the Prayer for Illumination in worship: turning to God in prayer to ask that we might be attentive to God’s word for our lives.
2. Dwell in the Word
One of the most important practices of worship planning happens when you are not planning for worship. One of the best gifts you can give your congregation is cultivating your own rich devotional life. When we spend time regularly in God’s word, we learn the cadences and rhythms of God’s language. Pray the Psalms. Dwell in the Gospels. Listen to Lamentations.
Where we hear God’s word also matters. Dr. Lauren Winner has written that her experience of teaching a Bible study among incarcerated women opened her eyes to seeing Jesus as one who was an unjustly condemned criminal. It also moved her to listen to the Scriptures in new locations. Take the Scriptures that will be read in worship and listen to how they sound in the forest, at the diner, in the school cafeteria, and in the hospital waiting room.
Two of my favorite resources are the Whirl Lectionary Bible from Augsburg Fortress and the Prepare! Ecumenical and Worship Planner published by Cokesbury. The Whirl Lectionary Bible shows what is and is not included in the Revised Common Lectionary. The Prepare planner follows the school year (September – August), prints the texts for the Sunday lectionary readings and has worship song suggestions for each week.
3. Involve Others
God calls us into community. Planning worship is a communal activity. How might the voices and insights of others help enrich the worship planning process?
When we think of worship planning, we immediately think of musicians, readers, and prayer leaders. What would it look like to also involve the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker? Who are the artists and artisans in your community who might bring a fresh and unique perspective to worship planning? What might a night-shift nurse teach us about prayer? What might a teacher teach us about patience? What might a preschooler teach us about wonder?
While it is important to invite others into worship planning, if you have been invited to lead worship planning, you have the added responsibility of keeping the focus of worship on God and what God is doing in our lives and in the world.
4. Blend Now and Later
Good worship planning looks far into the future and yet remains open to the present. The “planners” in your community are a gift. They will rightly encourage you to look three months down the road (I’m a fan of quarterly worship planning). Those who keep up with the news on a moment-by-moment basis are a gift too. They remind us that the latest headlines invite our attention in worship to the God who is Lord of the nations. It’s ok in December to think ahead to Easter Sunday. And it’s good to be attentive to the local news.
For seasonal and cultural milestones, I have found it helpful to have a dedicated place in the worship service for these special elements, usually these fit well at the beginning of worship. However, if someone is being blessed or commissioned or sent, a time at the end of worship might be more appropriate.
5. Build a Bigger Box
Faithful worship planning combines elements that are familiar with voices from around the world. One of easiest ways to learn about worship is by looking through hymnals from other denominations.
The Wild Goose Resource Group from the Iona Community in Scotland publishes worship resources that reflect the diversity of Christian worship around the world. I’m a huge fan of their Wee Worship Book series.
The World Council of Churches provides an ecumenical prayer cycle to pray for the nations of the world over the course of the year and provides worship resources from those nations.
A whole library of worship resources is just a podcast (or two) away. Much of my learning these days comes through my earbuds, especially audiobooks and podcasts, including Working Preacher’s Sermon Brainwave podcast.
I once heard that the worship we offer to God, at its best, is like children bringing their parents breakfast in bread. The toast might be burnt. The eggs might be under-cooked. But it is a gift offered in love and is received with joy. May what you bring be offered to God in love and received by God with joy.
Interested in taking a deeper dive into spiritually-informed and community-grounded worship planning for lay leaders? Check out the course, A Lay Leader’s Guide to Planning Worship Experiences, now available through Faith+Lead Academy.