Worship Planning: From Concept to Service
Planning a service that incorporates staff, volunteers, and a congregation can feel like a particularly daunting task. But there’s no need to reinvent the wheel—while each church is unique, there are general planning techniques that can be helpful to almost any worship planner. Our church finds the following outline helpful. It is not a detailed map, but it does provide the fundamentals. The trick is for each church to find what works best for its own staff, volunteers, and congregation.
Several Months Ahead . . .
The process begins when the pastor and I have an initial discussion about the upcoming series of sermons. At South Bend we tend to work in sermon series, which accomplishes several things: whatever we do visually, either to the PowerPoint or to the sanctuary itself, we are able to use for several weeks. This allows us to create visual aids in our worship space that are in keeping with the sermon content. It also allows us to write/adapt/find liturgy that’s relevant to the sermon series.
For example, during our series on the book of Ephesians, we used the same assurance of pardon (see sidebar).
For the same series on Ephesians, we adapted the prayer of confession each week to the passage on which the pastor was preaching. (For an example, see sidebar, p. 4.)
Following this initial discussion, the pastor and I typically mull our discussion over as we continue with our day-to-day work. Over the next week or so, we develop our concept of what the worship services in the series might look like and which parts are particularly suited to adaptation with the text.
Months Ahead . . .
With that concept in hand, we call a meeting of our worship planning team—a group that includes a variety of people representing different demographics within the congregation. This group meets seven or eight times a year, depending on how many different sermon series we do (typically the team meets once for each series).
The pastor and I introduce the text and the particular direction we’ve been thinking about. From there the team breaks into smaller brainstorming groups to discuss the sermon series, using written questions to prompt their imagination. (Be sure one person in each group takes notes!)
After compiling the notes and information from the worship planning team, the pastor and I sit down with our pastor of spiritual formation and discuss reactions and suggestions from the larger group. We boil those down until we have an outline of the liturgy for the entire series as well as a firm idea of what we want to do visually.
Weeks Ahead . . .
In this next stage of planning, a smaller worship team works to develop the elements that will remain constant and decides on at least one of the elements that will change weekly. This smaller worship team, which meets every other week, consists of people who are experienced in worship planning. It includes the pastors, two congregation members who are experienced in planning and leading worship, and myself. Bringing in lay people at this point is a good “reality check.” After spending so much time developing the worship plans, it’s all too easy for planners to overlook potential weaknesses in the liturgy. This step helps us avoid tunnel vision.
In addition, this smaller group helps to select the music for each service and discusses the services every other week. What’s working? What needs to change? Are we using a balanced mix of songs?
We come out of those meetings with a fairly finished product. At this point, “all” that is left to do is write the elements of the service that change each week. (See sidebar, p. 5.)
Two Weeks Ahead . . .
By this point, the service plan is finished: the text is chosen, the music is selected, and the entire liturgy is written. I create an “expanded liturgy” for everyone involved in the service and post it online. This includes the content of the service as printed in the bulletin or projected on the screen, as well as cues and other information for worship leaders.
In addition, the expanded liturgy includes the music that’s been selected and the names of all the people involved. (And I mean everyone: those responsible for preaching, liturgy, children’s message, organist, pianist, guitar, bass, drums, singing, congregational prayer, other special readers, and so on.) This allows musicians time to learn the music and to look at themes and choose meaningful music for the prelude, offertory, and postlude.
Having this information all together in one place means people can look at it ahead of time, which increases the chance of discovering any errors or miscues.
Finally, I include the [fairly] complete PowerPoint for the service so others can proof it and the liturgist can make sure he or she is using the version of the liturgy that matches what the congregation will see on the screen.
One Week Ahead . . .
The week before the service, I verify that all participants have
- received the information they need for their role in the service.
- understood their role during worship.
- posed any questions they might have.
This is the time to finalize the last bits of information (such as choice of prelude, offertory, postlude) and make sure up-to-date announcements from the congregation are available online for the preacher, liturgists, and the congregational prayer. It’s also the time to notify the person reading Scripture about which version to use so he or she has time to practice.
You’ll also want to finalize rehearsal times, making sure there’s time for different groups to practice without overlapping. Unless your readers are experienced, encourage them to practice speaking into the microphone ahead of time. Finally, I create a Sunday-morning checklist for myself to avoid missing anything.
Sunday Morning . . .
I try to arrive a couple of hours before the service. While this may seem like an unnecessary step, I have found that it accomplishes several things. First, it allows me time to get to church and pray, to be silent before God. That sets the tone for everything in the service. It also gives me time to make sure the projectors work, the organ is turned on, the sound system works, the sanctuary is ready, and so on. By the time the service starts I can enter into worship without having to worry about details.
The final element of planning—providing feedback—is no less important than the rest. Make a note of elements of the service that went particularly well or that could be improved so you can provide valuable feedback. Even something as simple as, “Stand closer to the microphone when you sing” can make a big difference.
Developing your own worship planning routine will result in an integrated, smoothly flowing service that incorporates people who have been properly prepared to lead your congregation in the worship of our God.
To God be the glory!
Assurance of Pardon for a Series on Ephesians
You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. (Eph. 2:19-22, NRSV)
Prayer of Confession for a Service on Ephesians 4:17-5:2
Lord God, Paul describes the life of sin as futile, like fumbling in the dark, like having a heart as hard and unfeeling as rock.
That is not the life we have in Christ.
For surely we have heard about him and were taught in him.
The truth is Jesus.
We have been taught to put away our former self, to set it at the curb with the rest of the trash. We have been called to put on a new self, the self we were created for.
Forgive us, O Lord.
The old self hangs in our closet. We pull it out now and again and try to convince ourselves it still fits, it still works.
Forgive us, O Lord,
when we flip off the light switch and choose to fumble in the dark, when we ignore that pain in our chest as we allow our hearts to harden.
Forgive us, O Lord. Bring us into the light and truth. Restore to us a heart of flesh. Clothe us in forgiveness and grace, righteousness and holiness. In Jesus’ name, amen.
I create space on our church’s website for worship preparation using a simple, easy to remember URL. This page is not for the general population, and there is no link to it from the website. I e-mail the link to everyone involved in the service, along with the password and username (it is password protected to avoid music piracy and the like).
Our website is created using Dream Weaver software from Adobe. This is not difficult but can be intimidating. If you feel that this software is beyond your technical abilities, there are still many online options designed for this very purpose (such as http://www.planningcenteronline.com). The Internet is a terrific way to make sure everyone is able to see music, liturgy and readings in advance. It also allows you to control which version everyone is seeing, so that you all arrive having practiced from the same material.
Typically, the online material we provide for a service looks something like this:
- Sunday, Date, Morning Service
People involved in this service:
Preaching and Welcome and Blessing:
Children’s Message: (name)
- Opening Litany Readers:
Full service bulletin and liturgy. Final version!
(Be sure to let people know if it is not the final version so they come back to get the final version later)
- Opening Litany from Psalm 146
Bulletin and announcements (updated)
Songs in order:
“There Is Joy in the Lord” Done by the band as written
“We Come, O Christ, to You” Done by organist, verses 1, 2, 5
“Speak, O Lord” Done by the band all three verses, repeat final measure each time
“Your Mercy Flows” Done by the band twice through
“Blessed Are They” Done by the band, verses 1, 2, 4
“Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow” Done by organist, Amen included
Note: all bold text links to PDF files.