Do you have a consistent model for planning worship services? Or, do you just create a setlist based on what’s popular on the radio, on CCLI or what other churches in town are playing?
I’d like to share a model for worship planning I have been using for almost a decade.
One of my seminary professors was John Frame. In our classes he became famous for making a triangle out of every subject. We are Trinitarian after all!
His biggest contribution, I suppose, is tri-perspectival thinking about epistemology (the study of how we know something). He and Vern Poythress have helped many pastors and seminary students think about this.
Since a picture is worth a thousand words, let me share a helpful diagram. I won’t unpack all the elements of this, but suffice it to say that all these different trilogies have been found to fit in this framework.
Here is the nutshell version of triperspectivalism: Every issue can be understood from three perspectives. The normative perspective explores how things should be and God’s decrees (the law, Scripture, morals, etc…), asking “what do God’s norms direct us to believe?” The situational perspective uncovers how things are (the world around us), asking, “What are the facts?” The existential perspective discovers how we interact with our world, asking, “What belief is most satisfying to a believing heart?”
What Does Tri-Perspectivalism Have to Do With Worship Planning?
As I’ve been planning worship over the last decade, this Trinitarian approach to worship, knowledge and life has helped me develop a model for worship planning that results in services that honor Christ, connect hearts and minds to what the Spirit is saying through the Word, and empower Christians to live and believe the Gospel.
I share this to help my fellow worship leaders in your weekly journey in developing worship services. I also welcome others to share their planning process.
NOTE: This is my ideal. Some weeks don’t allow for this level of thought. That’s okay. The Holy Spirit is in charge of our worship and He will work through all circumstances to bring glory to the Father and Son. However, I have found this habitual practice of prayerful thinking has enabled me to better connect with the Father’s heart and to create bridges to the hearts and minds of my congregation members.
2 Things to Do Before Planning Worship
I have found two things to be immensely helpful before I ever start planning a worship service (aside from living a daily life saturated in Scripture –see the article I wrote on the role of scripture & prayer in preparing for worship):
Worship regularly under someone else’s leadership–weekly, if possible. You may have to do this online, if there’s not a local church with a service at a time when your church doesn’t meet. I have found Northland Community Church to be a great resource and encouragement because of all the different service times (including virtual access) and their creativity in worship planning and commitment to thoughtful worship. However, I recommend you find several churches so that you don’t subconsciously start mimicking just one.
Here are three benefits from doing this:
- It provides fresh ideas for songs and services formats
- You are primarily a worshipper and you need to find places and ways to worship where you are not in charge.
- You may serve a congregation where it makes sense to design services that don’t scratch your creative itch. You can visit churches that do and that can free you up to pastorally serve the community to which God has called you (just protect yourself from jealousy and The Greener Grass Syndrome)
Clear your mind of internal distractions. Through journaling or weekly conversations with a good friend (doing both is ideal), take time to process what’s going on in your heart and mind. Otherwise, you will find yourself planning a worship service that is primarily for you and not for your congregation.
Here is a refreshing arrangement of It is Well With My Soul from Northland.
These first two steps help to take your eyes off your own needs so that you can focus on what God is saying to your community. These next three perspectives form a set of lenses for hearing and seeing how God is moving.
3 Perspectives on Worship Planning
Before I ever think about songs, scriptures, prayers or the role of other art forms, I try to take time to prayerfully look at the coming worship service through these 3 lenses. Note that these steps would equally apply when preparing for a sermon series or a longer planning cycle, just allow more time for step one.
1. Exegete the scriptures (normative)—The Word
I want to understand the passage the pastor is preaching. I will spend 15-30 minutes (longer, if possible) studying the passage for myself. I’m not planning to preach it, but I do want to understand it and see how God might speak. The fruits of this labor inform the structure of the service, the ordering of the songs, the prayers and complimentary scripture readings.
Some questions I ask are:
- How does Jesus show himself as prophet, priest and king in this text?
- What are key themes revealed in this passage?
- What heart idols are exposed or addressed?
- What do I sense God might want to say to us?
After my own study, I compare that with the emphasis the preaching pastor is pursuing. I want to make sure not to duplicate his points, but to compliment and support.
As a last step, I try to boil the fruits of my labor to a summary statement of what it seems God might be saying to us through this passage for this week. Sometimes the preaching pastor has already provided this, but I will generally tweak it for my planning purposes as he typically has been appropriately focused on the sermon and not the whole service.
2. Exegete the congregation (existential)—The Congregation
Now I look pastorally at what I see happening in the lives of people I know and love in the congregation. This is best done with other staff members, at least periodically—preferably weekly.
I will try to come up with the names and faces of several people so that I’m planning services with specific people in mind. This is where having a habit of meeting regularly with people for coffee or meals can be very important. You are planning services for real people with real issues. Get to know these people.
I’ll also look at trends or themes in our congregation. When I was at Harbor, I knew that we had many dual-income families with young children and 70% of the congregation was Asian. That told me a lot of things about the kinds of general pressures and issues they were facing week in and week out.
I also look at calendar issues and things happening in the life of the church. People have a certain frame of mind around Labor Day with back to school issues versus the 4th of July when they are thinking about vacations, for example.
One thing to keep in mind is that God made your congregation to worship. Chris Tomlin’s song Made to Worship is a helpful reminder of this truth.
3. Exegete the community/culture (situational)—The Culture
One of my seminary profs encouraged us to prepare our sermons with our bible open next to a daily a newspaper. Our services must be connected to the broader culture. That’s not to say we identify with or comment on everything, but we are aware and sensitive to communal pain and sin patterns. We should know the major events and trends in our community and broader culture.
Redeemer Presbyterian in NYC found that many people living in Manhattan struggle with bondage to work, money and success. The image of a Redeemer who purchased them out of slavery is an important metaphor.
Knowing your communities meta-narrative can help you speak to trends and specific communal tragedies and events. One of the pastors I know in Wichita had the challenge of overseeing the funeral of four young people who were massacred by two gunmen. He knew his scriptures, but he also knew the culture and was able to speak effectively in that moment of crisis for four different families and a whole community.
Pulling it All Together
After studying and thinking about all these issues, I’m ready to start brainstorming songs, scriptures, prayer and other works of worship art that might help tease out some of the themes identified. I typically come up with a list of 10-15 songs and numerous passages and other artistic ideas.. These are mostly selected based on thematic content.
Now it’s time to narrow the list to which ones will work well together and eliminating those we’ve overdone and including those we are still trying to reinforce.
Sometimes I will find a hymn text that perfectly sums up the message, but the melody is unfamiliar. Depending on time available, I will seek out (or write) a fresh melody for the hymn or sing it to a familiar hymn tune that matches the meter.
This is a high level view. Next week I’ll show an example of how this might work.
What Works For You?