On Worship Planning

Q. I’ve been working hard on worship planning, but no one seems to notice.

A. The goal of worship planning is not to draw attention to the amount of time and creativity that went into planning the service, but rather to enable people to worship in the most fitting and meaningful way. Not everyone will appreciate or understand your choices and the thought behind them. It is doubtful whether anyone will notice the connection between the second Scripture reading and the third line of the third stanza of the second hymn (a connection that you planned carefully). Again, the point is not for people to say, “Wow, what a nice fit,” but rather to be able to worship genuinely.

This point also suggests the importance of explaining to the congregation why you do what you do. If a worship leader says, “We respond to the sermon today by singing a hymn that expresses the last point of our pastor’s message”—that connection helps the congregation sing the hymn with greater understanding.

Consider one other perspective: think of a pastor who diligently prepares a sermon, knowing that many people will not be listening actively. This pastor knows that even those who do listen carefully may only comprehend a portion of the message. One listener may respond to one point, one to another. So too in worship—some worshipers may respond well to a hymn, another to a prayer, another to the use of the visual arts. No one may be aware of all you’ve done to plan the service. But many may be enabled to worship!

Q. I never know what the Scripture text for a given service will be. Our pastor doesn’t choose them in advance. Help!

A. This is the single biggest frustration for worship planners, musicians, and artists in many congregations. Ultimately, it would be best if your pastor saw the advantages of advance team planning. If not, you may have to plan services that fit together as a whole, without regard for the sermon. In this case, choose themes that draw from the heart of the gospel (such as the wonder of God’s creation, the forgiveness of sins, the presence of the Holy Spirit). Consider the themes of the church year. Don’t choose themes that are too narrow.

Q. Does everything in the service have to fit the text of the sermon? What a straitjacket!

A. No. There is no absolute rule about that. But the advantages of a coordinated service are striking. Both the sermon and the service benefit if one complements the other. However, the liturgy and music need not repeat the sermon (if the sermon is on Psalm 23, not every song needs to be a setting of Psalm 23). Rather, think of the service as setting the larger context for the sermon. That is, if the sermon text is Psalm 23, the service might focus on the theme of God’s providence. If the sermon is on the narrow topic of Christian marriage, the service could focus on the more general theme of our union with Christ—which is the context for Christian marriage and the Christian life.

Q. The order of worship in our church is so formal. Changing it would require an act of Congress or Parliament. What do I do?

A. All creativity happens within the context of constraints. When composers set out to write a piece of music, they begin by stating their limitations (such as, “I will write a piece for two average clarinet players based on the hymn “Praise to the Lord”). So begin by trying to be creative within the constraints you have. Perhaps those constraints are wise!

If the constraints are too restrictive, start a conversation with your church council or worship committee about the structure of your services.

Q. Our church has no order of worship at all. In fact, I was told, “You can do pretty much anything you want.” But I want to bring a little structure to the service. How do I do this?

A. Study the historic, classical pattern of Christian worship, and order the elements of worship according to that pattern. For example, in one congregation weekly worship typically began with eight to ten songs sung in no apparent order. A wise worship leader in that church ordered those songs according to the ancient pattern (call to worship, praise, confession, assurance, thanksgiving), choosing one song for each element of worship. Several people expressed appreciation that the songs didn’t seem so disconnected or haphazard. There is great wisdom in this historic pattern. It is not the only way to structure worship, but it is a proven, well-balanced place to start.




We hope you find Q&A stimulating. We also hope that you’ll join in the dialogue. Send your questions about worship to Reformed Worship Q&A by mail (2850 Kalamazoo Ave. SE Grand Rapids, MI 49560), fax (616-224-0803) or e-mail (rw@crcpublications.org).

Rev. Dr. John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.

Reformed Worship 51 © March 1999, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.