It may come as a surprise to some of us that the Holy Spirit does not take a day off. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit works on Tuesday as well as he does on Sunday mornings. Even the Tuesday a week before. Or a month before.
Many worship planners struggle with how far ahead to stay. If we start planning too far ahead are we just relying on our own abilities, or is God guiding the process? Am I leaving room for the Spirit to speak if I use an outline to fill in my liturgical elements each week? What about waiting until the last minute for God to speak, can we make changes on the Sunday morning before service? The answer is Yes and No.
God desires that our worship be intentional and thoughtful, no doubt, so I, as both a preaching pastor and a worship planner, try to work in three timelines: ‘the far,’ ‘the near,’ and ‘the now.’ However, the Spirit can also move in the immediate context so I also am open to last minute changes that seem particularly Spirit-led in their appropriateness to the current context.
This is a time as far out as the shared visions can see. It is as long as we can plan for comfortably. For some churches, this is a few months, or even a season (Lent or Advent) at a time; for other churches, it is possibly a whole ministry year or beyond. This could include a time of gathering a wide range of people, formally or informally.
In one church I worked at, we would have an annual summer planning time to plan from September to May. We would meet again after Easter to plan the summer and book vacation times, etc. This allows for major themes to be introduced by the preacher(s), times for special services to be plotted and for ideas to start percolating for worship planners. The church administrator was also very helpful at this meeting, as she picked bulletin covers and communicated with the church office (and vice versa). She had a pulse of the church that was different than the preaching pastors. She reminded us of Cadet Sunday and GEMS Sunday, then someone remembered the commissioning service they did three years ago… And so it went. ‘The far’ is a time to allow any ideas to go into the hopper, and allow for what comes out on the other end. Don’t worry—that is sorted by time spent in ‘the near’ and ‘the now.’
The near is the window in which most worship planners work. It is a window of three to five weeks, when we know something of what is coming but not everything is coming together. This is the time to be listening. Listening to songs and stories that may work within the theme we have. Chances are, that the preacher has not nailed down everything they will say the morning of, but they have been thinking about it. That is the reality of planning worship three to five weeks out. Preacher or worship leader, this is the golden time of worship planning. This is the moment when we can enjoy not having to make firm decisions and can be in brainstorm mode. A song we hear connects with the theme; add it to our list. Read a verse in the morning from the Bible that relates; jot it down. This is a fruitful time for thoughtful, diligent, intentional worship planning. But, this season is only enabled if we have made time for ‘the far.’
‘The now’ is the week of your worship service. ‘The now’ is a time to polish. If ‘the far’ was loading something onto the microscope slide, and ‘the near’ was the coarse microscope adjustment, then ‘the now’ is the fine adjustment on the microscope. In ‘the now,’ a worship planner wears their ‘leader’s hat’ and makes final decisions with (and sometimes for) their worship participants. How many choruses? Do we repeat the bridge? Should there be a tag at the end of this song or a rit? This is the time to be specific. This is an enjoyable time, when the rough stump brought in has been hewn to have features and qualities that are lifelike. ‘The now’ is a time to participate in that which we have created.
It is also important to be aware of the specific acoustics in which each worship service occurs. An event in the local community or even across the globe could require us to be attune to the Holy Spirit’s leading; do we need to change how we begin worship? Add a time of lament? Include prayers of celebration or lament in our pastoral prayer that we hadn’t planned on?
It takes a certain level of expertise to be flexible within the worship service but there too we may sense the Spirit at work and extend a song, create more time for silence in the midst of a prayer, make room for a unplanned time of response following the preached word. This Spirit-led flexibility requires a lot of trust between the worship leadership as well as between the leadership and those gathered. Our white congregations can learn much from our African-American and Latino churches who are much better at sensing and following the lead of the Holy Spirit in the moment.
The Holy Spirit really doesn’t take a day off.. Whether we are a year-at-a-time planner or a week-to-week-er or some of both, know that God desires us to be thoughtful and intentional in our worship planning while flexible to the movement of the Spirit. Be encouraged: the process can start a lot earlier than we may imagine. I know that there are some challenges, like pastors who don’t work ahead or the challenge of vacancy—but know this: it is not just we who influence the worship plan or the worship practice. The Holy Spirit goes with us in our planning, whether in the now, the later, the near or far. The Spirit goes with us, if we are willing to be led. The Spirit is as active on any given Tuesday as any Sunday.