Planning creative worship

July 28th, 2021

As a liturgist, I am often approached by folks  all sorts of folks  who have taken on the task of planning a worship service. Often they’re seminarians or clergy people who have been asked to plan some sort of special service at their church: an interfaith service for Thanksgiving, for example. An interdenominational peace vigil. A special liturgy for Mother’s Day, or a service of Lessons and Carols. Sometimes they’re hoping to supplement their Sunday morning worship with creative elements. Either way, after a brief introduction to the worship service they’re planning, they’ll say to me, “I’m just not sure where to begin!”

Reaching outside of the boundaries of your prayer book or your Sunday morning traditions can be a bit overwhelming, but there are steadfast places to begin when you’re planning worship. No matter the type of service you’re putting together, these foundations for worship planning will act as guides as you craft liturgy. They are designed to help you create worship that is grounded in Christian tradition, faithful to biblical witness, and overflowing with the Holy Spirit.

Start with the Bible

Every worship service that you plan should begin with Scripture. Just as a sermon grows out of faithful reflection on scripture, wonderful liturgies grow out of reflection on the word of God. I begin reading and meditating on the texts I’ve chosen for a service weeks in advance, turning them this way and that in my imagination. When I’m truly familiar with the text I’m working with, ideas for services begin to spring up from the text unbidden. So your first step when planning a service is to identify the texts you would like to work with and let the service grow from those texts.

Think about feel

The curtain rises on a stage. Whether the set behind it is of lush velvet and deep colors or stark concrete and harsh lines, it immediately evokes an emotional reaction from the audience and creates a tone for the play. Worship services also carry tone, which is influenced by the physical space the service takes place in as well as the words and actions of the worship that takes place in that space. A candlelit evensong service feels very different from a lively hymn sing or the familiar pattern of morning prayer.

Think about how you would like your service to feel. How will your congregation feel as they walk in the door, and where do you want to take them during the course of the service? How will they feel when they leave? Keep this feeling in mind as you craft your service, and be aware of how the music and texts that you look at fit into this feeling. Finally, create a rich physical space to support this feeling with flowers, cloth, or visual art.

Make your service a story

Just like most of the stories we were told as children, a worship service has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A worship service is not made up of a lot of pieces stuck together. Rather, it starts in one place and goes to another, each piece flowing into the next as the service unfolds.

Many Christian worship services follow a four-fold pattern of gathering, hearing God’s word, responding to God’s word, and departing. This pattern works very well for almost any type of service you might be planning. For instance, if you were planning a simple peace vigil, you might begin the service with a welcome and a prayer, as well as some singing. Then you may share some readings  perhaps scripture, poems, or other sacred texts. If there was someone who was to speak or preach, they would follow the readings as part of the “hearing God’s word” portion of the liturgy. Then the congregation could respond with some kind of action, perhaps through sharing communion, perhaps through lighting candles, perhaps through praying together, or in some other way. After the response, you may plan ways to prepare the congregation to depart, through a final prayer, more singing, or a benediction or blessing.

Imagine the service

So far, you’ve chosen and reflected on scripture, thought about the tone and feel of your service, and have begun to fit the elements of your service into a four-fold pattern. Perhaps at this point, you’re beginning to feel a little lost or stuck. There’s something that’s just not coming together or doesn’t feel right. It’s at this point that I often sit down and imagine my way through the service.

Begin by picturing what it will feel like to walk into the worship space you’re planning for. How you'll be greeted, where you’ll get bulletins. What the space will feel and smell like. How much light is there? Is there music playing? Continue to imagine the service in as much detail as you can all the way to the end. Sing through each hymn, and read each text. As you go, you will probably notice a few things that you hadn’t thought of. Perhaps a certain text is particularly hard to follow. Maybe it would be best to break it up between two readers standing in different places in the room. Maybe there’s something not quite right about the transitions, like if it feels funny to stand and sing the text of a hymn after listening to such a powerful poem. Or maybe the ending of the service seems abrupt and people will need a bit more time to be ready to leave the space.

Remember your worship book

Just because you’re planning creative worship doesn’t mean you need to throw the baby out with the bathwater! Retaining elements from your worship book such as prayer forms, invocations, or calls to worship will ground the liturgy you’re planning in your tradition and give your congregants an important sense of stability. If you’re working to plan a service with a church from another denomination, it might be helpful to explore the worship books from both traditions, discovering what they have in common and how they might be blended to create a service that feels familiar to those attending.

Be pastoral

Remember the pastoral needs of your particular congregation, and respond to those needs throughout worship. You can do this in explicit or implicit ways. For instance, if your congregation is going through a transitional time, it might be helpful not only to address this from the pulpit but also to give them a chance to pray aloud for their own concerns during the service. You might also choose written prayers or hymns to address this particular need. Services revolving around trauma or difficult subject matter (such as a liturgy for an end to sexual violence) benefit from long chunks of reflective silence, as well as an opportunity to respond in a non-public way, such as writing prayers on papers that will be hung in the space. Think about how people will feel and what they will need, and be sure to offer pastoral support after a difficult service for those individuals who may be particularly emotionally affected.

Encourage participation

Engage your congregation through participation. Think of all the ways in which you might invite the folks in the pews to participate: responsive readings, whole congregation processions, lots of singing, responding verbally to the sermon, offering prayers aloud or on paper, lighting candles, or in a myriad of other ways. Your congregation will take ownership and leadership in the experience of worship if they are invited to take an active part in creating that worship  so invite them to participate.

Leave room for the Holy Spirit

Worship is a careful balance between excellent planning and creating space for the Spirit. As you lead worship, be aware of the Holy Spirit moving in the space and the reaction of the congregation to the experience of worship. Don’t be afraid to allow time for reflective silence, to let the energy of a song or hymn build, or of things “going wrong.” Improvisation is a holy act; listen to your congregation and play along as the worship service unfolds. Remember that when two or three are gathered in Christ’s name, Christ is there among them.

A version of this article previously appeared at Ministry Matters.

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