By Laura Dingman
Everyone loves a good story. We live for the intrigue, the action, the surprise, the mystery. We love a valiant hero, a triumphant underdog, a liberated prisoner, a conquered villain. Hearing good stories never grows old.
God wired us to love story. He reveals his character in the stories of the patriarchs and moves the plot forward in the books of history. He discloses his compassionate and just nature in words contained in the poetry of the Psalms. Jesus, a masterful storyteller, taught in parables, explaining new truths to his listeners in accessible, everyday forms.
God authored the greatest story ever told. His story is a love story complete with war scenes and rescue battles, hopeless situations redeemed, and a hero worth celebrating.
As a worship leader who must craft weekend experiences over and over again, keeping my love for this story alive can be difficult. While hearing good stories never grows old, it does take some effort to keep telling the same story over and over again. I fall into the trap of pulling services together without much creativity or effort. I can rely too much on the music our congregation knows and loves to carry our weekend worship.
Sunday arrives with alarming regularity. We cannot skip a week even though we might sometimes like to try (admit it, you’d like to on occasion). With that regularity comes the potential to lean on what is known and trustworthy.
After more than 10 years of planning weekend worship services, seasonal experiences like Lent, Christmas, and Easter, and the plethora of other worship experiences that don’t fall into regularly scheduled programming, I have discovered something: loving the story matters.
Sadly, there was a time when I didn’t understand the power of the story. I would look for the next innovative thing that might blow someone’s mind to introduce into our services. It never seemed to work the way I thought it would. More than introducing cutting-edge music, culturally relevant videos, or even, dare I say it, a well-scripted sermon, cultivating a passion for the story of God breathes undeniable life into the design of worship.
Several years ago our leaders planning our worship experiences made a distinct strategic shift. We had been working in a sermon-centered model—a thematic design where the sermon topic was woven throughout the entire service. The bottom line of the sermon (a concept found in Dave Ferguson’s book The Big Idea) was the centerpiece of every weekend worship experience.
We were creating big stage sets that supported the sermon series and were crafting elements that would take large withdrawals from our volunteer team while leaving little deposits with our congregation. It was difficult to keep up with the production aspect of this model.
We also found it difficult to base the entire service around certain themes. Our church places a high value on the authority of the Word, and there were certain passages that needed to be discussed in certain ways in order to maintain the integrity of the Scripture. We found ourselves managing a new tension.
For example, there was a weekend when Gary Johnson, our senior minister, preached a message on cohabitation. We wanted to make sure our people knew the truth about what the Bible says, but we also wanted them to know how gracious and loving our God is when we confess and repent. We wanted them to know Jesus bleeds forgiveness and redeems and restores broken things. We desired to tell the truth, but wanted to tell the rest of the story.
In our exhausted state of constantly managing this tension, we began to discuss what it would look like to move from a sermon-centered model to a story-centered model. What if the gospel story was the centerpiece of every service? I realize this sounds like a ridiculous question. Shouldn’t the gospel always be the centerpiece? Isn’t that the point of worship? As much as we thought we were already making it the point, we quickly discovered we weren’t.
This was our model:
In our discussions, we discovered the tremendous amount of pressure our senior minister was feeling to carry the entire service. He was having to tell the gospel story in about 30 minutes or less every weekend while dealing with sensitive scriptural texts that required certain responses.
In an effort to relieve this tension, we flipped our model to make it story-centered.
The Whole Story
We defined the story in a succinct, five-word tool we could use to make sure our weekend worship experiences were telling the entire gospel story.
LOVE—“God is love” (1 John 4:16). He loves his creation.
EVIL—But evil entered the picture in the form of sin, and we were separated from God. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
RESCUE—So God arranged a rescue through his Son, Jesus. “God demonstrates his love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
CHOICE—We have a choice as to whether or not we receive that rescue. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
RESTORE—When we choose to follow Jesus, God restores our relationship to him. “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1).
These five words became the centerpiece of our worship gatherings. How could we tell this story better? We found many times the sermon would focus on a sinful behavior (evil) and what we need to do about that (choice), so the worship experiences around it would need to tell the rest of the story (love, rescue, restore).
While music is certainly a staple in the worship experience (we are called to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs in Ephesians 5:19), there are many other creative ways to tell the greatest story ever told. Our role as storytellers is not simply to tell the story, but to get our congregations engaged in the action of the ongoing story.
God is still writing his story in each person every single day. They are participants and characters in this grand story. Getting them in the action broadens their understanding of the story God is already writing in them.
Beyond worship music, there are a few key elements we incorporate on a regular basis in our worship gatherings.
The Word—We include Scripture outside of the sermon every weekend. Whether we read it corporately, speak it to our congregation, or weave it into a song, it shows up.
One of our core values is the Bible is our final authority. Because of this, our congregation has a high regard for the Word. We also know that it never returns empty (Isaiah 55:11). If the gospel is the story, the Bible is the storybook.
Testimonial Stories—We tell stories. A Hebrew word for “remember” (zakar) implies that remembrance crosses your lips. There is power in our telling our stories. Revelation 12:11 says, “They triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony.” When we share stories of how God is working and moving, people’s faith in the transformative power of God grows.
These can be done in many creative ways, from interviews to videos to prepared speeches to dramatizations of a real-life story.
Prayer—We pray: with one another, for one another, in private confessional moments with God, through the lyrics of songs, in groups during Communion. There are many ways we weave prayer through a worship experience, modeling various types of prayer so our congregation can take those practices back to their personal time with God. Prayer shows the active engagement of God in our current stories.
Revelation—Our definition of worship is simple. God reveals himself and we respond. If that is our definition, the beginning of our worship shows the nature of the author of the story. Who is God? How does he love us? To what lengths has he gone to rescue us? Declaring who God is should be a part of what we do every week.
Using Scripture and song is an easy way to do this, but allowing people to declare it themselves can also do it. For example, create a place at the front where people can write the character and nature of God and ascribe to him the glory due his name (Psalm 29:2).
Interactive Response—Once God reveals himself, we respond. Sometimes we need to respond by confessing, sometimes by surrendering. Sometimes we need to respond by celebrating what God has done in our own stories.
Song is certainly a way to respond, but we can also create interactive experiences where people begin to put themselves in the story. In a weekend about the importance of evangelism, we built a pallet board wall and outlined the word HOPE with nails. Everyone in the congregation received a sticky note to write down the name of one person they wanted to reach with the gospel story. They were asked to put the sticky note on a nail. When the weekend was over, the wall was covered, and “HOPE” was revealed. It was a powerful visual of the number of people our church desired to reach for Jesus.
Missional Sending—Another key element for us every week is our missional sending. At the end of each service, we don’t dismiss our people. We send them. They are entering the story again. They have a purpose and a mission outside the walls of our gathering, and we don’t want them to forget that.
This moment can be a passionate prayer, a Scripture we read aloud together reminding us that we are chosen and have a purpose, or simple statements that are reminders of what God is calling us to when we leave the comfort of our church building.
If every worship service is an opportunity to tell the story again, it has the potential to grow stale. That potential grows when we are chasing creativity for the sake of wowing our congregation and not for the sake of being a better storyteller. We must believe in the transformative power of the gospel narrative. When we believe the gospel story has the power to resurrect lives from the dead and make broken things new, it will never grow old.
Laura Dingman serves as creative arts director at The Creek, Indianapolis, Indiana.
Worship Ideas from The Creek
Laura Dingman has shared a few examples of worship services and worship elements from gatherings her team has planned at The Creek. Find our free download at christianstandard.com/?p=32918. It contains orders of worship, monologues, and responsive readings to stimulate your creativity or even to use where you worship.