By Lise Caldwell
Worship is a response to who God is. Can you plan to respond? Maybe not, but we find great satisfaction in crafting experiences that lead people to worship God.
We huddle around 8-foot round tables strewn with laptops and iPads, soda cans and pizza crusts. The whiteboard that dominates the front of the room is ominously blank. The dates of our upcoming weekend services throb in the corners, pulsating in their urgency. I scribble on my notepad. Someone coughs. The room grows quiet.
Time to plan our worship services.
“Planning” worship sounds counterintuitive. We don’t “plan” to love our children, or laugh with our friends, or hold hands with someone special. Worship is a response to who God is—can you “plan” to respond?
But it is possible to craft experiences conducive to worship—for which worship is the most appropriate response. Worship planners have no more power to “make” anyone worship the Lord than to “make” them fall in love.
So how do those whom God has called to guide others in worship accomplish this monumental task—week after week (after week after week . . .)?
Wise worship leaders (or exhausted ones) recognize it’s difficult for one brain to generate fresh, meaningful, effective ideas in the face of the continual onslaught of Sundays. By determining an approach to worship planning, then assembling a group of enthusiastic and creative people to pour into the process, worship leaders may find that crafting creative and engaging worship opportunities is possible and exciting—and ultimately its own form of worship.
I’ve been a member of the worship planning team at Indian Creek Christian Church (The Creek) in Indianapolis for about eight years. I am not a staff member (though I happen to be married to one). We’ve tried a variety of approaches. For years we planned services—and sermon series—thematically. We’d write dramas and find songs that linked to the sermon topic, and the entire service would tell a story.
Sometimes it could be frustrating. Sermons on God’s power or Christ’s redeeming work lend themselves to the incorporation of a wide variety of worship music. But what about a sermon on tithing? Or marriage? Or homosexuality? Find me the praise choruses that link thematically with that.
Then something changed. Instead of using our worship services to tell a story, we started using our services to tell God’s story.
Each time we plan a worship service, we keep these five words at the forefront: love, evil, rescue, choice, and restore. When our worship and creative arts (WCA) staff attended the Willow Creek Association’s 2011 Leadership Summit, Bill Hybels used these five words to summarize the story of God. God created humans as an act of love. Adam and Eve’s fall introduced sin (evil) into the world. In his mercy and grace, God enacted a plan to rescue humankind from sin through the redeeming work of Christ. That leaves each of us with a choice about how we will respond. If we choose to follow Christ, and accept his salvation, God restores us to a right relationship with him.
Five words that tell God’s story.
When planning worship services, the WCA staff at The Creek makes sure that at some point in each service, each of these components of God’s story is addressed.
Also incorporated are opportunities for both revelation and response. What is being revealed about God? How are people called to respond?
The sermon is the starting point. In the fall of the year, a team of staff members (led by senior minister Gary Johnson) determines sermon topics and Scripture passages for the entire coming year. Then, 12 weeks out, Gary meets with members of the WCA and preaching team to flesh out how a group of sermons (generally about a month’s worth) will be approached—who will preach, and what specific aspects of a passage or topic will be addressed. That information is sent to the worship planning team, which meets about eight weeks before the start of that group of sermons to brainstorm worship elements for those services.
That’s where I come in. I’m part of that team. We give our WCA staff raw material to work with. Out of a pool of about 12 people (some staff, but mostly volunteers), usually half of us come to any one meeting—meaning that the mix is always different. Some of us are “artistic” types—others are tech gurus. Some are young enough to know what’s current—others bring experience and a hint of gravitas. We are writers, photographers, graphic designers, painters, musicians—and engineers, accountants, and stay-at-home moms.
Tom Harrigan, worship minister at The Creek, urges, “The collaborative experience is invaluable. It helps bring perspectives that one person cannot think of alone.” As respect and trust builds between team members, spirited debate, respectful disagreement, and inspired creativity result.
We start with the “rocks”—the givens that must be present. Besides the usual—sermon, Communion, etc.—some weeks have other nonnegotiables. A missionary is coming to share about a ministry our church supports. The children’s choir is scheduled to open the service. The preaching minister has a video he plans to incorporate into his message.
Then (if all goes well) the ideas begin to emerge. We share Scriptures that came to mind as we studied the primary passage—could they be used as a dramatic monologue or a congregational reading? Someone has an idea for a script. Or a video. Or a song. Soon ideas are being woven together—what if we transitioned from that drama to this song? Do we know someone who has a testimony that relates to the sermon? When we can, we connect the stories of people to the story of God.
Slowly we begin to fill the blank whiteboard with ideas—raw material for our WCA staff to use in planning the services.
Does the sermon focus on personal sin? That addresses “evil.” The team might then choose a song that expresses God’s love for us, a drama in which a character grapples with the “choice” to follow God, a “sending” Scripture that highlights the message of restoration, and a Communion meditation that explains our rescue and restoration.
“People connect with a story, and there can be no greater story than the story of God,” says The Creek senior minister Gary Johnson. “Using the ‘five words’ in planning every service enables us to take people on a consistent journey that always ends with hope found only in Christ—and that is good news.”
As our WCA team plans services, they also keep in mind opportunities for revelation and response. Sermons tend to be revelation-oriented; elements, such as Communion and invitation times, provide opportunities for response. “Response” is not just “getting saved”—for the vast majority of people in a service, accepting Christ for the first time will not be the appropriate response. If the only response offered is becoming a Christian, most of the congregation is left out. Provide other possibilities, such as a responsive Scripture reading, a time of guided prayer, or a call to specific action.
We’ve learned the hard way that there are some things to watch out for.
Tom Harrigan warns, “Don’t confuse flash for substance. It’s easy to be drawn to a video or a story or a prop that ‘must be used’ because it’s culturally relevant, and be so focused on using it that we force it into a weekend experience that it doesn’t really fit.”
Worship planners should identify their own proclivities. Are you drawn to the latest and greatest or the tried and true? What is your preferred musical style? Do you think every “hole” in a service is best filled with a drama or video? Do you embrace the use of humor in worship, or does it make you uncomfortable? Recognizing your own preferences and tendencies will help you avoid crafting the services that you prefer instead of the ones that would most benefit others.
Failure needs to be an acceptable possibility. If people are condemned for trying and failing, they will cease to try. Sometimes an idea that sounds great on paper flops on stage. When that happens, discussions should follow. What went wrong? The basic idea? The execution? The timing? Learn from mistakes, but don’t be afraid to make them.
“Excellence is a core value at our church,” observes Laura Dingman, director of creative arts at The Creek, “and we always want to bring our best to God because he is worthy, but excellence can also become an idol. No one is going to lose their salvation over a creative element that doesn’t meet our expectations. Honestly, failure gives our teams the opportunity to be real and take risks. Sometimes the bigger creative win that’s coming is worth it.”
Perhaps the biggest pitfall is failing to work as a team. “Conflicting and overextended schedules can prevent the team from working together,” says Johnson. “It is essential that thorough and continuing communication take place between preaching staff and worship leaders.” Taking time to both plan and evaluate worship experiences also allows relationships and trust between worship leaders and preaching ministers to flourish.
As a worship planner, you are a travel guide. When I travel, I love to take guided tours. It’s amazing how I can come to deeply appreciate a museum or ruin or cathedral I first found overwhelming, intimidating, cold, or boring when an insightful guide brings it to life for me by telling me about the people and stories connected to that place.
Imagine the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual journey you wish to lead. Provide context, insight, and opportunity for reflection. Simply exposing people to the riches of God’s kingdom may not be enough. Take them by the hand. Lead and guide them. Explain and interpret. Help those who find God overwhelming, intimidating, cold, or boring see who God really is and how his story connects to their story. You plan, so they can respond.
And in the process, you may discover opportunities to delight in the Lord—and fall in love all over again.
Lise Caldwell, a part-time freelance writer and editor and full-time home educator, is a member of The Creek’s worship planning team.