Planning for Worship

Most worshipers probably are unaware of how much work goes into preparing a good worship service. Effective liturgy flows so smoothly that worshipers have no reason or inclination to wonder about its design or its designers. Worship itself is all that matters.

But behind all good liturgy is careful planning. Traditionally, most of that planning has been done by the pastor in consultation with the organist or choir director. The worship committee has typically concentrated on essential “maintenance” activities: arranging for organists and ushers, procuring musical talent, preparing the elements of the Lord’s Supper, providing for “pulpit supply” when the pastor is absent, reacting to the worship services and serving the pastor with advice, seeking approval from the church officers for general changes in the liturgy, and so on.

That vital and traditional role of the worship committee is expanding in a growing number of congregations today. Worship committees in these congregations do more than perform essential maintenance tasks. They take an active role in liturgical planning and change. They promote congregational participation in a variety of worship functions traditionally reserved for pastors. They seek to help pastors plan services that convey a unified theme to worshipers.

To offer its readers a sampler of innovative liturgical planning performed by worship committees, Reformed Worship recently contacted several Christian Reformed (CRC), Presbyterian (PCA), and Reformed (RCA) congregations:

Third Reformed Church (RCA), Holland, Michigan

A worship committee that functions like a “think tank” rather than an administrative body is behind much of the solidly Reformed worship of this congregation of some five hundred families.

Third’s worship committee, called the “Worship and Spiritual Formation Council,” meets monthly and consists of twelve lay members, three council members, and the pastor. According to senior pastor Rev. Willis Jones, the “think tank” function of the committee is evident in a number of liturgical changes at Third.

For example, in response to a congregational concern that the evening services be more innovative, the worship council studied and deliberated and then proposed a “menu” approach. As a result, on Sunday evenings some members participate in the Bethel Bible series. Others attend the guild of lay theologians. Still others participate in “the office of evensong,” a time of prayer and singing and meditation. Young people meet in their youth groups.

Despite this unusual approach to the evening service, the worship council advocates a traditional Reformed liturgy for the morning worship. “We have a strong historical consciousness for structure in worship, following the Reformed liturgy,” said pastor Jones. “We’re not ‘high church,’ but we do like structure.” Jones, who usually follows the lectionary, said that unity of worship is very important. He meets with choirmaster and organist Roger Rietberg once a week to plan the music for the services.

Thanks to the expertise of Rietberg and the talents and dedication of numerous other members, the congregation has earned a reputation for excellence in liturgical music. Recently the worship council helped prepare the congregation—through informative meetings—for adoption of the RCA’s new worship hymnal, Rejoice in the Lord.

Christ Church (PCA), Grand Rapids, Michigan

How does a congregation come to “own” the liturgy?

Working toward that end, Christ Church encourages its one hundred and twenty families not only to participate in the services but also to help plan them.

According to pastor Paul Engle, the system works like this: a worship committee appointed by the session chooses worship-planning teams of two persons each from the congregation. These “worship planners” work with pastor Engle to plan morning worship services for two consecutive Sundays. Approximately fifteen to twenty people serve on these teams at a time, for terms of six or seven months each. The teams plan all the morning services throughout the year.

Before agreeing to serve on a team, potential worship planners attend informational sessions where expectations are explained and guidelines for worship distributed and discussed. These guidelines say, among other things, that the worship service is a “totality,” from the opening to the close, and that members’ gifts are to be used within the service.

Once they agree to serve, worship planners follow a carefully structured process that begins with the planners selecting—from a master schedule— those services they’d like to plan.

The pastor then gives the planners a worship-planning worksheet, which includes his sermon text, title and thesis, the worship theme, and available musical selections. At least two weeks prior to the worship services to which they’ve been assigned, the worship planners meet with the pastor to fill in the worksheet and develop a unified order of worship.

Planners work within five categories to plan the services: preparation, praise, confession, proclamation, dedication. Within these categories the worship planners provide creativity and variety and congregational participation. For example, planning teams often ask other members to write and recite prayers of confession, to read Scripture, to present the call to worship, to participate in creedal litanies, to sing musical versions of the Apostles’ Creed, and to design bulletin covers and banners. Elders take turns leading the service, presiding over four consecutive services each.

Planners must contact all those participating in the service. The church secretary includes the final order of worship in the bulletin and distributes copies in advance to all participants. Just before the morning worship the elders and all available participants meet to double-check assignments and to pray.

“This approach gives a fresh perspective to large numbers of people in the congregation,” says pastor Engle. “It deepens their understanding of worship and adds variety and creativity to the services.”

American Reformed Church (RCA), Orange City, Iowa

A unique format for the evening service is one of the liturgical marks of this congregation of 276 families.

According to Pastor Marlin Vander Wilt, evening services are informal, educational gatherings that usually feature films, presentations by guest missionaries, Advent family nights, and similar activities. Communion—accompanied by a sermon—is offered at one of the evening services each month. Sometimes—during Lent for example—the congregation meets in various homes for worship.

Vander Wilt cites greater lay participation in the liturgy as one of the benefits of the informal evening services. “People feel freer to come to the front, to participate,” he says. Various committees in the church—not the regular committee that handles worship—plan the informal services.

Morning services are more traditional, although the worship committee (called the Commission on Worship and Sacraments) develops special liturgies that the congregation follows for each major church season (Advent, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, etc.). Members of the congregation sometimes read the Scriptures, act as liturgists, or give a children's sermon, but the pastor generally leads in prayer and writes, as well as leads, the responsive readings. Pastor Vander Wilt says he hopes that in the future the commission will plan entire services.

At its monthly meetings the commission’s nine members spend most of their time planning seasonal liturgies and coordinating plans for future worship services. Chaired by an elder, the commission’s other members include the pastor (ex officio), a deacon, musicians, and other interested persons from the congregation. Commission members serve a one-year term, renewable to three years.

Although its major policy decisions must be approved by the consistory, the commission is otherwise given a free hand, according to Vander Wilt. Soon, he said, commission members will discover how the congregation reacts to two young women interpreting a vocal solo by what the commission is labeling “movement.”

Pastor Vander Wilt said he and the organist and the choir director work together to select music appropriate to the sermon topics. Following the lectionary (“most of the time”) helps the pastor select his topics several months in advance.

How have the commission’s work and lay participation in liturgy affected American Reformed’s worship? “People are becoming more and more a part of the proceedings. And generally the services are more vital and alive and related to where people are,” Vander Wilt said.

Worship committees in these congregations do more than perform essential maintenance tasks. They take an active role in liturgical planning and change.

People need to catch a sense of the grandeur of worship.

Trinity Presbyterian Church (PCA), Charlottesville, Virginia

“Worship has always been a real center of Trinity’s life,” said senior pastor Joseph F. Ryan, Jr., one of several active pastors of this congregation of over twelve hundred members.

Working without a formal worship committee, the pastors plan three Sunday morning services, one of which is an early morning communion service. The three services help accommodate two hundred to three hundred student visitors from the nearby University of Virginia. The services at Trinity are designed, said pastor Ryan, to provide “freedom in the midst of structure.”

Structure is important to pastor Ryan, not only because he and a number of people in the congregation come from an Episcopal background, but also because orderliness and form are essential to God-centered worship. “People need to catch a sense of the grandeur of worship,” he said. “The most important element in worship is that the Lord is present.” Yet he is quick to add that form and formality need to be balanced by freedom and joy and a certain amount of self-expression.

Freedom within structure is very much evident in the morning services. These services follow a traditional liturgical structure, as outlined in the bulletin. But the visitor may be surprised when an item marked “choruses” in the bulletin turns out to be a very informal time of singing, praying, and sharing. As the children are called forward, an overhead projector beams choruses and spiritual songs on one wall of the sanctuary. The congregation sings, accompanied by a variety of instruments (the church does not have an organ). While Trinity’s worship is far from charismatic, worshipers sometimes raise their hands in praise. After the singing comes congregational prayer, sometimes open to participation by all members, sometimes led by one. To close the informal time, people mayturn and greet each other.

A sermon of twenty-five to thirty minutes and other traditional liturgical elements follow.

Interestingly, although choir selections are frequently keyed into sermon topics, a “unified service” with a single theme does not have high priority at Trinity. “Having a unified theme is too rigid; it jams things into a certain mold,” said pastor Ryan, adding that worship naturally brings in many different aspects and concerns.

Trinity provides “teaching fellowships” on Sunday evenings, offering small group instruction for adults. The sacrament of communion is celebrated on the first Sunday evening of each month.

West End CRC, Edmonton, Alberta

Walk into this congregation of 166 families on a given Sunday morning and you’ll enjoy a special pre-service welcome for visitors. If you stay for the service, you may be surprised to see much of it led by what West Enders call a “service participant.”

The service participant reads the “Words of the Covenant,” (the Law or a scriptural equivalent), leads a prayer of confession, gives the assurance of pardon, chooses a song of response, and offers a prayer of illumination before Pastor Gordon Pols preaches the sermon.

“The worship committee has been given a free hand to do this sort of thing,” said Pastor Pols, noting that only permanent changes in liturgy require council approval.

The seven-person committee includes Pols, an organist, a council liaison person, and others who are suited to the task. Terms run for two years and are renewable. At its monthly meetings the committee selects the “service participants” and provides them with written guidelines for leading the service. Some thirty to thirty-five persons from the congregation have functioned as service participants, according to Pols. He generally informs the participants of his sermon topic ahead of time so that they can plan a unified worship service.

“The main benefit of all this is a certain freshness about the morning service,” said Pols, adding that the practice reinforces the “priesthood of all believers.” The pastor conducts the evening services without the help of service participants.

Evaluation of the worship services—and recommendations for changes—are part of the committee’s regular tasks. Pastor Pols also relies on a separate “sermon discussion committee” for critiques of his sermons.

Robert Rozema is an education editor for CRC Publications.