Here at ChurchMusicToday.Net we have been privileged to have some guest writers post on the site: Pastor Mark Williams posted about thematic worship, John Cashion posted about leading a volunteer choir, Matt Deweese wrote about Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, Tim Hooper wrote about leading different styles of worship, and finally, Travis Doucette wrote on the “Ten Characteristics of a Worshiping Church” just last week!
ChurchMusicToday is please to announce that Rod Ellis is this week’s guest blogger! Rod is the Worship/Outreach Pastor at Journey Baptist Fellowship in Lexington, KY. Rod is also the Music/Worship representative for the Kentucky Baptist Convention. Read Rod’s article below called “Outside the Box? Expanding Our Worship Planning Boundaries”.
C. S. Lewis wrote that liturgy (the structure of a Sunday gathering) should be like an old shoe, something you barely notice. Is he right? After all, the days we’re living in seem to be screaming for worship planning to be out of the box.
I’d like to suggest it depends on the kind of box we’re talking about.
Some worship gatherings are sort of like a “Jack-in-the-box” where there is indeed anticipation, but it is mostly accompanied by fear. When the big surprise comes, it is distracting from God and places our focus on the clown instead.
Other worship plans are like a plain cardboard box with no markings: nothing attractive, nothing to move us emotionally at all.
And then there are those we remember. They could be described as being like the long-awaited prize in a box of Cracker Jacks. The whole box is delightful but there’s that one little surprise that everyone waits for, and when we discover it—or when it presents itself—we are genuinely excited.
If we draw too much attention to the worship gathering, we have created an idol.
If we give too little attention to the design of the worship gathering, we have missed a golden opportunity.
And if we work with the Spirit to find ways to unleash the drama inherent in Biblical Christianity, we can have a great time, a rich time, and a transforming time, even better than Cracker Jacks.
Here are a handful of suggestions about how to get there:
1) Pray first and pray often. This is not the requisite “Sunday School” answer. It is the only appropriate Christian answer. We can’t very well expect to experience Spirit-led worship if we don’t engage in Spirit-led planning. Invite yourself to join the work of God rather than inviting God to join your work. When you are working alone, pray. When you are working in pairs, pray. When you are working in teams, pray.
2) Work in pairs, specifically with the preacher. If it is your pastor, a guest, or anywhere in between, explore with whoever is speaking what they want the congregation to know, to feel and to do as a result of the sermon. Then use those objectives to guide your choice of various worship elements. If you and your pastor aren’t already working as a pair when it comes to worship planning, then perhaps talking about this blog would be a good place to begin. And remember, your pastor is the spiritual authority in your church, not me or Dennis. So this is offered as a conversation starter, not a conversation ender.
3) Work in groups. If you can assemble a team of folks to do this regularly, that’d be a huge bonus. Find people who represent the diversity of your congregation’s taste—young and old too—and structure your conversations (meetings) in three stages: a word from God (Psalms, favorite passages, or any teaching about worship), a word with God (pray together, remember?), and work with God. This last phase is where you can engage in brainstorming, designing, refining, and evaluating. More on that in just a moment.
4) Gather input. In addition to the development of some kind of team, ask people questions that can guide them beyond the issue of preference to the idea of transformation. You could visit a small group or Sunday School class and ask them some questions like: when’s the last time you felt really moved, deeply moved by a song? What was the song? Was there some reason it connected you to Jesus in a deep way? The more we ask those kinds of questions, the more we can unearth and unleash the passion our folks have for worshiping God. It may also help us calm the conversation over preferences. Wouldn’t that be a welcome addition to many of our churches!
5) Pray. As the services are crafted, don’t forget to pray for God to be glorified, for the body of Christ to be encouraged, and for those who may be far from God to be graciously confronted by truth wrapped up in love.
In #3 above I mentioned brainstorming, designing, refining and evaluation. Let me share a brief word about each of those.
Brainstorming rule #1 – there are no bad ideas. Brainstorming rule #2 – ideas produce ideas. Brainstorming rule #3 – never evaluate ideas; only generate them. Brainstorming rule #4 – have a blast.
Design is a word I prefer over planning. A service of worship should be crafted. In design we take all the ideas that have been brainstormed and sift through them to find the treasures. In worship design we have to remember that there are three essential audiences: a) God, b) the Body of Christ, and c) unbelievers. I’m convinced we must design for those audiences in that order. If we testify to unbelievers and offend God, we’re in big trouble. And if we honor God but are inconsiderate of those 1 Corinthians 14 calls “outsiders,” we are taking a chance on inhibiting their journey toward salvation. And of course if we leave out the edification of those already walking with Jesus, we might as well just toss out most of 1 Corinthians 12-14 where we’re told that gathered gifts are for building up the saints.
Refining is where we move from a great pool of resources—good song choices, appropriate readings, and powerful media elements—to presenting a complete package. Every worship element works best in a specific place in the order of service. Moving from piece to piece is very often the mortar that holds the bricks in their proper place. Transitions can make or break a moment. Nancy Beach, in An Hour on Sunday, does a great job of teaching us about the potential of stomping on a sacred moment. Refining a worship design makes all the difference.
Evaluation is as difficult as it is helpful. Worship design and presentation are deeply personal and emotional. Evaluation has to be done with people we can trust to always and only tell the truth expressed in love. Grace is essential; so is truth. Our worship gatherings will not get better by doing bad things well or by doing good things badly. We have to evaluate each element, each person’s role, and all the stuff we’ve just talked about.
My prayer for you is that every gathering would have its’ own flavor, but that each of them would also have a God-sourced and God-sized surprise that changes our world.
Grace and Peace,
Rod is a graduate of Georgetown College and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has previously served churches in Columbus, Ohio, Lansdale, Pennsylvania, and Cincinnati, Ohio. Rod is currently serving at Journey Baptist Fellowship in Lexington, KY. On behalf of ChurchMusicToday, thank you Rod, for your time and talents shared on the site!