A Single-Thread Worship Planning Model

July 10th, 2019

No matter what day it is, a deadline looms over you. In less than six days, people will gather, sit, and wait for something to happen. What will it be? What will they experience? Will anything happen, really? In their minds, in their hearts?

Worship planners — pastors, musicians, and others — perhaps have the most important task in the church. At least once every seven days, they must offer something significant in worship so that people’s hearts and minds come alive to Christ, so that they leave transformed in some way, so that they in turn will participate in the transformation of the world.

I believe it is most effective, most of the time, in most churches, to preach in sermon series. This is not an argument for tossing out the Christian calendar. Indeed, the rhythm of our year is critical, and the liturgical seasons should inform our sermon series planning. During some seasons it may be most effective to preach straight from the lectionary — Advent, for instance. And even then, the lectionary itself can form a series. Generally, though, a preacher can have greater impact by developing a single thread in sermons over a three- or four-week period.

The same is true for developing the worship service as a whole. A single-thread approach is both effective and efficient.

With the single-thread approach we plan sermons and worship around a particular aspect of God’s story. Our words, music, imagery, art, and environment all work together, throughout each worship service and throughout the multi-week series.

This method helps us create integrated liturgy, which results in a deeper and more transformative experience for the worshiper. It is better communication. It reflects a biblical model. And it is efficient, making the best use of your valuable time and ideas.

Integrated Liturgy

In a study on issues in the renewal of worship, the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship identified a major issue for many churches:

“Worship that seems to move in multiple directions or incorporates a variety of unrelated themes and events fails to be satisfying and nurturing. However, a liturgy that has a central theme woven throughout speaks more effectively to both our minds and our hearts.”

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Does worship in your church seem unfocused? Do you sense that you’re just skipping from one element to another, without fully developing any particular idea? Do your congregants have a somewhat shallow experience of worship, skimming the surface week to week? Do they seem unchanged? Integrated liturgy might be the missing link.

Integrated liturgy refers to worship that is centered on a particular theme. All the individual elements of the service are based on and shaped by the theme. It is most impactful when an overall theme runs through the weeks of a sermon series, and a narrowed version of that theme runs through each weekly worship service.

So, let’s say the overall theme for a three-week sermon series is God reveals God’s self to us in Jesus Christ. The three weeks of the series would each focus on a specific aspect of that overall theme, for example: Week 1: Jesus is loving and compassionate, and brings reconciliation to us and to the world. Week 2: Jesus is a daily life-changer, and shows us how to live. Week 3: Jesus is righteous and just; he erases our human-made boundaries of power.

You can see how the central thread runs through each week of the series. This sort of worship is focused, ideas are allowed to develop, and worshipers experience something significant.

Ron Man, a musician and teacher, describes some benefits of integrated liturgy. He points out that this sort of worship is:

  • Lingering: the service (and the series) has a single-minded focus, allowing the worshiper to zero in on one part of God’s story
  • Learning: the worship event (and the series) serves a catechetical function, and the worshiper’s knowledge of God is increased
  • Savoring: the worshiper has time for reflection, so that the experience begins to sink in
  • Responding: the service includes a provision for response, so that the worshiper can do something with what she has experienced, which deepens and cements the experience as a whole
  • Uniting: the service has a unifying, God-centered focus, as the community of worshipers centers its attention on God
  • Cultivating: the single-theme focus prepares the worshiper to hear the preached Word

What happens to a person who participates in this type of worship service week after week? It seems to me that this integrated liturgy leads to a deeper, richer, more powerfully transformative experience.

Better Communication

The single-thread worship planning approach also helps us communicate more effectively, which is a basic objective in worship.

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In worship we are to communicate the story of God’s saving acts throughout eternity, the meaning of those saving acts for us and for all creation, and God’s invitation for all of us to join together with Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, in community with the Triune God and with each other. That’s a tall order. And it doesn’t happen by accident. It takes real work, intentionality, and time.

But, all too often, we make things complicated! We forget that simple can be good. We think that in order to offer great worship we must have complex media projects, or dramatic presentations, or announcements that are loaded with too much information. We want people to get it! And so we sometimes beat them over the head, until they walk out of our worship services unable to remember or respond to anything that just happened.

In your worship service next weekend, what’s the one thing you want to say, the one thing you want people to walk away with? It starts with clear and cohesive communication, a single thread.

A Biblical Model

There’s another reason I think this single thread method is important: it seems biblical to me.

The Scriptures don’t tell us everything about ancient worship, but they do give us some good looks at it, like a door that opens up for us to peer through every now and then.

One of those scriptures is Exodus 13 verses 3-10, just after the Israelites have been delivered from slavery in Egypt. Moses tells the people to remember this day…perform this ritual in this month…explain it to your children…discuss it often…and follow this regulation at its appointed time.

God, through Moses, has instructed the church to remember the redemptive events on a regular basis, so that the people will remain focused on God’s saving acts, and on God’s plan. God is very specific, and is concerned that the children, all generations, are instructed, so that they remember, so that they stay focused, too.

This tells me that order, regularity, and focus are all important aspects of our worship, because they are in God’s own instructions.

So, what would happen if, as you sit down to plan worship this week, you were to focus on communicating clearly just one part of God’s story? What if you focused on that one thing for three or four weeks, examining it from a different angle each week? What if everything in the worship service worked together, pointed in the same direction, so that the people in your church remembered and re-enacted that part of God’s story in such a way that they could not forget it?

Efficient

Finally, single-thread worship planning saves you time and maximizes your best ideas and skills. Instead of coming up with everything new each week, you can generate one set of ideas and use them multiple times as part of a sermon series. Choose one key image, for instance, and use it for bulletins, projection screen graphics, and your website for an entire month. Decide on one structure for your pastoral prayer—a bidding prayer, for example—and use it each week for four weeks. This approach allows you to focus your creative energy with intentionality and purpose, and then to leverage that work over a period of time. That’s good for you.

But the most important benefit is for the worshiper, whose experience in worship can be truly transformational. No more worship whiplash.


A version of this article originally appeared on January 13th, 2013. 

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