Some church services keep my attention; others tend to bore me. Some carry me along with building energy; others have built-in distractions. Some flow like a symphony from beginning to end; others seem like a series of disparate parts.
Certainly some of the responsibility for a negative worship experience is mine: I'm not listening, I'm too preoccupied, or I'm in the wrong frame of mind. But worship planners and leaders also share the responsibility. Services that lack cohesiveness strip the sincere worshiper of the ability to glorify God with his or her whole being and deny the seeker the opportunity to feel with her or his whole being the power of the Spirit at work.
Why Do We Worship?
In worship I as a believer look for a clearer sense of my relationship to God and my walk with God. I need to think differently, maybe even feel differently, but certainly behave differently. Having been in the presence of God, I cannot remain the same. Worship demands some new or renewed decision and/or commitment in my life concerning my obedience to God.
Guidelines for Planning Worship
1 Think of the worship event as a single, whole experience.
In planning worship, be clear about what overall result you want to see in my life as an attender. I may like the singing, the message, the choir, the visuals in the auditorium, or other parts of the service, and that's fine. But what overall impact from tlie experience do you as a planner and leader want to see in my life?
Duane E. Vander Brug is director of established-church development for Christian Reformed Home Miissa3B$ Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Once you have defined that goal and have it in mind, plan and lead the worship so that I experience all of it moving toward the desired outcome: choose the right components and hnk them together so that their flow, their energy and their movement form a single structure. Lead me into God's presence with joy and praise. Help me hear God speak through insightful, creative, pointed presentations of the Word. Enable me to celebrate with thanksgiving the sacraments. And send me out with God's blessing to minister to others in love. But do it all with the specific outcome you are looking for in my life clearly in view.
Test your worship planning by asking me what happened in my relatioiiship to God as a result of the worship, not what I learned or what I liked. Ask me how I will become a (more) devoted follower of Jesus.
Then watch for the emotional side of my response. Has the meeting touched my soul? Stirred my passions? What observable, measurable behavioral changes do you see in my life? Are they in line with the desired outcome that helped you plan and lead the service?
2 Build the parts of the worship experience as movements build in a symphony.
I am not a musically literate person, but I am learning to understand and appreciate symphonies. For the last few years my wife and I have had season tickets to a symphony series. Prior to each concert we attend a lecture where conductors, musicians, and sometimes composers enrich our understanding of the musical pieces in that evening's concert. What is always fascinating for me is to see the deliberate and careful way all the parts of the musical composition are woven together, build on each other, and move to a finale to create the one musical work.
The same careful attention has to be put into planning and leading worship. The parts of the service have to be planned so that I can experience their unity while the momentum builds. Careful thought must be put into linking tlie words, the phrases, the concepts, and the emotions of each part with that which follows. This linking must take me from the end of one section naturally into the beginning of the next.
Such linking may sound simple and obvious, but it can be difficult to achieve. Every connection should move me forward and heighten my awareness that we are moving toward a conclusion.
Test your worship planning by asking me whether the service kept my attention— and why?
3 Relate the worship experience to my life from the start.
Remember, I'm at worship as a whole person. I have feelings, thoughts, responsibilities, duties, possessions, relationships, money and a conscience. I face certain challenges and temptations. I have to make constant choices. I have things I am proud of and others I'm ashamed of. I may have problems in relationships and work that need solving. Perhaps I have unfinished business with my parents or other authority figures.
In short, I'm alive in this world. I have a life that I'm responsible for, and I need guidance, whether or not I admit it. If this meeting with God does not deal with the fundamental questions and concerns of my life in relationship to my Lord, in all likelihood I will mentally check out.
Test your worship planning by asking me whether the worship experience was another one of those "so what" experiences in my life, or if and how it touched my soul.
4 Lay out the terms of salvation in Christ clearly.
Take nothing for granted regarding my understanding of the gospel. I, like every human being, am usually in some way at a crossroad in my life. Some of my needs may be known to the congregation, some known only to the elders or pastor or myself. The Spirit may use the service to awaken me to needs of which I wasn't even aware.
So help me hear clearly Christ's call to follow him in all profoundness and depth. Help me to see Jesus. Weave the Good News clearly into the whole fabric of the service so that I know what my next step must be in my beginning or maturing walk with God. Don't be obtuse, complicated, or highly technical. Paint for me the picture of the "waiting Father" whose love enables me to confess my sin, return home, and be a fruitful member of the new family in Christ.
Test your worship planning by asking me whether I know what my next step is in starting or growing in my walk with God.
5 Move the worship service to a conclusion in which I am faced with a decision.
When I, as a sinful person, have been in the presence of the almighty God who loves me, it is unthinkable that things can stay the same in my life. God's love is irresistible. Something has to change. Some relationships have to be rethought. Some actions need confessing. Or perhaps some change needs to take place in the way I handle my finances.
Some of these challenges and changes are meant for us as a community; they are the WE-challenges. Others are the ME-challenges; they are meant for me as a person, and I need to hear them clearly.
This is my starting point. What is God calling me to be and do? How does that relate to the desired outcome in my life around which you planned the service?
Test your worship planning by asking me if the concerns raised in worship have been put sharply and directly enough so that I cannot duck their implications for me as an individual and for me as a member of God's new family in Christ (if I am a believer).
An Uncommon Energy
In summary, plan and lead the worship event so that
- I experience it as a whole entity
- in which the parts build like movements in a symphony,
- in which the concerns of my life are dealt with,
- the tains of salvation in Christ are clearly spelled out,
- and I am faced with a challenge to become a disciple of Jesus or grow to be more fully his follower.
Attention to these five concerns will help, I believe, in creating a worship experience in which worshipers can best catch the creative energy of the Spirit at work making all things new in Christ. But remember, even though the focus in worship is always on God, another measure of effective worship is whether I hear God's call to become (if I am not already) or grow as (if I am already) a devoted follower of Jesus.
When I hear that call in worship, the likelihood of my becoming bored or inattentive decreases sharply. An uncommon energy is present that demands the full attention of my head and heart— because the Spirit is working right then and there.