Worship Planning: what are we aiming at?

I am often struck by how much thought goes into planning worship these days. Back in the day, worship planning often meant the song leader picking out songs on the front row right before worship (with enough time to slide the song numbers in the board at the front, next to the attendance and giving board). These were usually the song leader’s favorites. There was seldom thought given to themes or how the service might flow or build. In Churches of Christ, we thought of worship differently then. We were satisfying “acts of worship,” not so much curating an experience for worshippers. Though informal, we had set prayers and liturgical pieces (“guide, guard, and direct us,” “help us to take this in a manner worthy,” “separate and apart from the Lord’s Supper,” “we lay aside in store”). These stock phrases reminded us that worship was satisfying a list or approved practices of worship.

Surely, the thought that goes into worship planning now is an upgrade over the “guide, guard, and direct us” days.

I’ve put out a worship planning survey in advance of our Streaming conference, Oct 6-8, featuring Jaimie Smith from Calvin College. Our theme is, “Everybody has a Hungry Heart: Worship and the formation of missional communities,” a theme which allows us to consider the relationship between worship and the formation of communities. (I’ve gotten good response, but hope to add more in the next few weeks). The surveys to this point bear out my observation that a considerable amount of effort goes into the planning of worship in most places.

I have other observations from the surveys that deserve further attention. First, the planning process is very sermon-centric. This is particularly true among “free churches” that don’t rely on lectionary readings, but even in more “liturgical” churches, many choices are not made until after the sermon’s direction has been set. Most planners talked about the sermon as setting a “theme” for the worship. And in my own worship planning days, this was certainly how things went.

I was struck several years ago by a comment from Luke Timothy Johnson related to his being asked to speak in chapel at Candler School of Theology. Johnson was taken aback by the suggestion that there would be a “theme,” supplied by his message, that would become the strategic focus of worship planning. This seemed to him to be manipulative and presumptuous. This approach to worship planning sought to manufacture a certain experience in the worship participants, primarily an affective response of some sort (inspired, moved, etc). It was presumptuous of those leading worship to assume we know what best outcome there might be for worship and worshippers and that somehow we can manage God’s work in worship.

Those provocative words have troubled me ever since, and I think he’s on to something. At the very least, every preacher and worship planner knows very well the experience that what was planned or hoped for was not what came to fruition, and often what was not anticipated was better. Still, I think thoughtful planning is better than not, though I would begin now with the lectionary and the time we occupy on a liturgical calendar, not the sermon theme for the day. But I think Johnson’s critique might occasion other important questions.

It seems clear from the surveys at this point that the worship planners are typically aiming at the interior of the individual worshipper, whether that be a rational or emotional aim. One of the strengths of Jaimie Smith’s work is his critique of a modern anthropology, namely that humans are self-possessing, autonomous individuals, and that the interior life counts above all else. It’s pretty easy to make this argument from our worship practices. Increasingly, our worship spaces are theaters for the head and heart, stages, video screens and sound monitors replacing the table, or even the pulpit, as the symbol of worship. I am not opposed to these things in general (though would someone put a table somewhere visible in the worship space), but offer them as evidence that the aim of worship is often the interior of the individual. If you can’t imagine a different aim than that, then this underscores my point.

Other things could be the aim of worship. For instance, the making visible of a redemptive, reconciling community might be the aim, in which case, theater seating and a big stage would be a poor venue. Or we might imagine that the aim of worship might be bringing God’s concern for the world more into focus. Often, we are encouraged to leave the world behind when we come to worship, reinforced somewhat subliminally by the lack of art or plants or windows in our sanctuaries. Mark Noll once suggested changing a lyric in the song, “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus,” from “the things of this world will grow strangely dim” to “the things of this world will become strangely clear.” Our hymnody, architecture, suburban locations, etc, all seem to communicate that the church is a sanctuary from the world, not an outpost for the Kingdom of God.

Let me be quick to say here that our worship does things we do not intend and that there are important ways that community and belonging to the world are fostered by what we do in worship. And God certainly cares about the interior of the individual. But our aim matters, and, at the very least, we should be aware of how our aim(s) are shaping communities of faith.

I hope we can talk about this some at Streaming in October. Hope you’ll come.

About Mark Love

I am the Dean for the School of Theology and Ministry and Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who is a practicing new monastic in Abilene, TX. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and two amazing granddaughters.
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One Response to Worship Planning: what are we aiming at?

  1. jmar198013 says:

    Mark, I am not certain how many of us in Churches of Christ are using a lectionary. I have been since beginning my current preaching and ministry work last summer. I started using the Revised Common Lectionary, but after Pentecost this year I switched to the Narrative Lectionary.

    I am not only the preacher for the church I am ministering with right now. Because of our size and makeup, I am currently also the worship planner and leader. I weave the song service, special videos, etc. around the assigned readings. More often than not, this has been planned out weeks or months in advance, and the sermon does not come until much later. In other words, the sermon serves the scriptures and the service rather than other way round.

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