Not for Us, Right? Worship Planning in the Non-Traditional Church

Some churches and worship planners naturally gravitate to hymn books, studying published prayers, or following the lectionary. But, some churches might resist these practices.

Perhaps your church is small and doesn’t have the resources to buy some of these publications, or perhaps you are a church plant or an emerging church with worshipers who bristle with some of the “traditional” terminology or practices. Maybe your church has decided it wants to be more contemporary, where following a template doesn’t quite feel right anymore. For any number of reasons, you or someone you plan worship with might be wondering if the process of planning worship needs to be different for less traditional settings.

So, does it? Yes, and no. There are many steps in worship planningthat are not dependent on style. In fact, the basic steps can be identical:

  1. Begin planning with prayer. This is good advice whether planning individually or with a larger group.
  2. Focus on a scripture text. Using the text from the sermon will help unify the service.
  3. Gather resources. In a less traditional setting, these resources might be different from church to church. You might keep a binder with lead sheets of all the songs your congregation has ever sung, or you might sort through stacks of cds. (Don’t be afraid to look through resources like hymnals and prayer books; you might find that you can adapt these resources to fit your worshiping community. In fact, some of these resources, such as The Worship Sourcebook, encourage adaptation!)
  4. Consider your worship pattern. Nearly every church has one, even if you don’t think you do. Do you begin worship with a multiple song set? Do you usually have a prayer after the sermon? Do you have a time of response after the sermon? You may need to take time to determine what pattern your community uses, and it may be helpful to compare your pattern to that of other worshiping communities. Consider discussing the wisdom of various patterns.
  5. Utilizing your pattern, plan songs, prayers, and scripture readings. You can be fluid with this. You can even plan to include extemporaneous prayers, but the planning will assist you in knowing how the prayer will help worshipers move from one part of the service to the next.

So, how is worship planning different in a nontraditional setting? It starts with the questions worship planners ask themselves. Nontraditional settings have three types of questions that powerfully shape a worship gathering.

1. Participants: Although every worshiping community should know and be sensitive to those gathered, the worshiping body in nontraditional churches often varies greatly from week to week. These communities need to know who is likely to gather to worship, and respond accordingly.

Consider asking questions like these:

  • Who is likely to attend this service?
  • Who is most likely to feel uncomfortable in this service, and why?
  • What is the biblical knowledge of the worshipers? (You might need to give background to scripture readings or even explain how chapters/verses work.)
  • What is the educational level of the worshipers? (This may affect the examples you use as well as the vocabulary of prayers and spoken traditions.)
  • What is the English language fluency of your congregation? Will you have worshipers who speak English as a second or third language?
  • How will a worshiper hear certain terminology? Does your community have several people who have been hurt by church in the past, or people who were not raised in a church who may need extra explanation of various practices and traditions?

2. Leadership: Again, every worshiping community should be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of its leadership, but leadership may come in different forms in nontraditional church settings.

Consider asking questions like these:

  • Who are the leaders of our worshiping community?
  • Are there others who normally gather who may be waiting for an invitation to lead? If so, what unique gifts would they bring to planning and leading worship?
  • What training is needed?
  • Who could mentor whom? (with leadership opportunities in mind)
  • Are there parts of the service that just don’t “feel right”? Why? How might changes with planning those parts of the service change the flow or feel?
  • What gifts does our congregation have?
  • If we discover that someone plays a tuba (or any other less traditional instrument), how might we encourage that person to be involved? Will there be limitations on which instruments lead worship? Will there be ability requirements?
  • What parts of a service could we encourage someone who is not in our majority (for some, this might be children while for others, it might be senior citizens) to lead?

3. Participation: Every worshiping community is hoping to foster full, active, conscious participation of worshipers, but that goal might require different questions in different settings.

Consider asking questions like these:

  • With what modes of participation is our community comfortable?
  • In which ways should our community be challenged? Why?
  • Are there particular people or groups of people who seem to struggle with participating in ways we usually worship? If so, who and why? How can we best accommodate them?
  • Do people sing? If not, how can we lead the music in a way that encourages those present to join in song?
  • Do the words that we use leading worship affirm all people are made in God’s image?
  • Are we involving a wide variety of learning styles in worship? If not, are there creative ways to imagine involvement of all worshipers?

So, if you’ve been asked to plan a worship service and you find yourself wondering if the traditional practices will work for you (or you are pretty sure they won’t), ask yourself and others planning worship with you some hard questions that help you adjust your worship pattern to your setting. Experiment with some of the best practices that cross style differences, and then make them your own.  

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