This article is excerpted from a new booklet on planning worship in the popular So You’ve Been Asked To . . . series (see inside back cover for more information).
So You’ve Been Asked to . . . Plan a Worship Service includes sections on The Role of the Worship Planner, The Planning Process, Patterns for Efficient Planning, Long-Term Goals, Questions, and Resources.
The following is a quick tour of the major parts of most worship services. These brief descriptions don’t explain everything, but they do provide some basic instructions that may help you with the planning process. Consider using the list below as a checklist when you plan your next service.
- The beginning of the service should clearly establish that this public gathering is for worship, not for entertainment. Make sure that worship begins as worship, and that it challenges us to attend not only to ourselves but to God.
- We gather for worship because God has called us to worship, because Jesus has made right worship possible, and because the Spirit prompts us to praise. Begin the service with a scriptural call to worship.
- Praise God both for aspects of God’s character and for particular divine actions. Think about which divine attributes and actions are especially related to the sermon or theme of the day. For example, if the sermon is about caring for the environment, praise God for creation. If the sermon is about the witness of the church, praise God for the gift of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church.
- Consider what type of expression of penitence is suited to the sermon of the day. If the sermon is about family relationships, consider a prayer of confession that acknowledges brokenness in those relationships. If the sermon is about God’s frustration with the disobedience of the people of Israel, the prayer of confession could acknowledge how we continue to disappoint God when we are unfaithful or unresponsive.
- Consider allowing a time of silence before, during, or after the prayer of confession.
- Confession should always be followed by a clear declaration of God’s grace as shown in Jesus Christ. Use passages like 1 John 1 or Psalm 103 to declare God’s promise of forgiveness and grace.
- The “passing of the peace” or another mutual greeting is a fitting response to the declaration of pardon. It is a sign that our unity and fellowship are possible only because we are forgiven in Christ.
- Proclamation begins with a prayer that the Holy Spirit will work powerfully through the reading and preaching of God’s Word (sometimes called the prayer for illumination).
- Consider which passages of Scripture should be read before the sermon. In some churches, every service features readings from the Old Testament, the Psalms (often sung rather than read), and the New Testament. The use of both Old and New Testaments also points to the unity of Scripture and helps provide the congregation with a balanced diet of biblical readings.
- Think about how to read the Scripture lessons you have chosen. A poem (such as a psalm) might best be read by the whole congregation or by a group of two or more readers
- Consider which type of liturgical action best allows the congregation to respond to the sermon. Some sermons naturally lead to praise, some to dedication, some to testimonies, some to confession of sin. Make sure that the prayer, hymn, or creed that follows the sermon allows the congregation to respond appropriately to the message.
- Find ways for the congregation to participate in prayer: through a spoken or musical refrain, by reading a portion of the prayer in unison, by responding with a unison “Amen.”
- Consider how to balance extemporaneous, pre-written, and scriptural prayers. Extemporaneous prayers can respond to what is happening in the service itself. Pre-written prayers allow worship planners to compose prayers that, like simple poetry, are especially beautiful and apt. Scriptural prayers, including the Psalms and the Lord’s Prayer, have the value of using well-known, even memorized language.
- Make sure the prayers address a balance of personal, congregational, and universal needs. In congregational prayer, we pray on behalf of the needs of the world; we voice the prayers of those who are unable to pray. We often become narrow and self-centered in our prayers and ignore the larger problems and injustices in our world. We can remedy this tendency through corporate prayer.
- Take care not to refer to this act of worship as the “collection.” The purpose is not simply to collect money to defray expenses, but rather to offer our firstfruits to God—to render a sacrifice of praise.
- Consider how to enrich the congregation’s participation in this important act of worship. You might, on occasion, invite worshipers to bring their gifts to the front of the sanctuary as a sign of their dedication.
- Provide worshipers with clear, concise information about where their moneys will go. This information should be clear to anyone who visits your congregation.
- Consider choosing offertory music that directly corresponds with the theme of the service. In one congregation, the offertory always consists of a musical meditation on the hymn or song sung just after the sermon. This practice helps guide the personal prayers of worshipers during the offertory.
- Think carefully about how you can focus the offertory prayer on the cause that the people are contributing to.
- Remember the four basic actions that Christians in nearly every tradition use in celebrations of the table: prayer of thanksgiving, words of institution, prayer of consecration, invitation to the table. Consult an approved Lord’s Supper service, like those printed in the Psalter Hymnal or The Book of Common Worship.
- Consider how to increase the congregation’s participation in the Lord’s Supper. Perhaps the congregation could read the prayer of consecration in unison. Perhaps, as in many congregations, the congregation could sing part of the prayer of thanksgiving, with the words “Holy, holy, holy . . . “
- Provide clear instructions, especially for guests, about how the celebration will proceed—how the bread and cup will be distributed, who is invited to participate, and when the congregation will eat and drink.
- Look for music that will communicate the joy of the gospel and the meaning of the celebration.
- Find a brief, focused statement or challenge to give the congregation as the service closes. This can be printed in the order of service or spoken by the worship leader.
- Look for a song or hymn that reiterates the theme of the service and speaks about the difference that theme makes for living the Christian life.
- Close the service with a word of blessing from Scripture that indicates God’s promise to be present in all circumstances.
- Make sure there is a balance of familiar elements and things that will stretch the congregation. An entire service of unfamiliar music will not enable the congregation to participate. An entire service of overly familiar or often-used examples can cause worship to become cliché. Balance is the key!
- Start and end strong. Unfamiliar elements are most disconcerting if they are placed at the beginning or end of the service. Using a sturdy congregational song to start and end the service is the first step toward encouraging greater participation.
- Don’t worry about getting your service plan right the first time. Like good writing, service planning may require several drafts before you get the correct “feel.”
- Resist the temptation to choose songs simply because they are your favorites! Again, the question to ask each week is, Which songs will help this congregation express this element of worship most meaningfully in light of the Scripture text or theme of the day?
- Pay attention to the emotional impact of parts of the service. If you are going to sing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” which was recently sung at two funerals in your church, then don’t follow it by “Crown Him with Many Crowns”—that would be emotionally jarring. After you complete a draft service plan, work through the entire service, considering the emotional impact of each element. Caution: some worship planners use emotional impact as their primary criterion for choosing music. They want to manipulate the congregation into feeling exuberant or sad. The goal is to be sensitive to the emotional content of worship without trying to manipulate the emotion of the service.