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Designing Worship Together: Advice that really works

The book "Designing Worship Together" shows how to involve more people in worship planning so that congregations pour their hearts into worship. A feature story on how to plan worship as a team.

In 1978, when Howard Vanderwell became pastor at Hillcrest Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in Hudsonville, Michigan, he planned worship pretty much the way other ministers did.

Sunday morning and evening worship followed standard patterns. Vanderwell chose songs to plug into each service and phoned them in to the organist, Norma de Waal Malefyt. Simple as pie.

Twenty-five years later, de Waal Malefyt had become Hillcrest's full-time director of music, and worship planning was a lot more complicated. But the payoff was worth it, say de Waal Malefyt and Vanderwell in their forthcoming book Designing Worship Together: Models and Strategies for Worship Planning.

"Like a pebble tossed into a pond, our work created ever-widening circles-from the two of us, to worship committee members, to a long list of volunteers listed in a worship resource bank, to a congregation that poured its heart into worship," say the authors, both now resource specialists for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.

Many recent books cast a vision for worship. Other books inspire ministry teams to plan certain styles of service, especially contemporary ones. Vanderwell and de Waal Malefyt provide a framework and practical guidelines that apply across age, culture, class, and location. Their book can help your church move from where you are services that help worshipers engage with the God who has been involved with people since Creation.

God collaborated. Shouldn't you?

The authors make a strong case for expanding the worship planning team, starting with the Holy Trinity as a biblical model for creation within community. The way God organized tabernacle and temple worship in the Old Testament shows it's important to share responsibility. And Paul often explained that as members of Christ's body, each member of the church is gifted so that all may benefit.

Douglas J. Brouwer has pastored churches in four states and freely admits that limiting worship planning to a weekly meeting between the pastor and music director is "usually the quickest, most efficient way to plan a service."

Even so, as he looks back on his dozen years at First Presbyterian Church in Wheaton, Illinois, Brouwer has no regrets about all the time he spent planning worship with staff members and motivated, gifted volunteers.

"Meeting with a worship planning team is a lot like committee work-long, tedious, exasperating, and very often the high point of my week. There's no doubt that our work was creative, energizing, breathtakingly risky. I believe God's spirit was alive in our worship at the Wheaton church, because God's spirit was alive in our planning meetings," says Brouwer, now senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Marc Nelesen, pastor of Third CRC in Zeeland, Michigan, says it requires a new understanding of the church to seek many voices during worship planning.

"If it takes a community to worship, it takes a community to plan worship. Not only is the leader speaking on behalf of God, but he or she is speaking to God with the words and message of the congregation," he says.

Worship doesn't 'just happen'

Nevertheless, Nelesen, like other pastors and worship leaders, often hears this plaintive question: "Why can't we just do it?"  He points out that though worship planning meetings often begin with brainstorming, it takes planning, commitment, discipline, and rehearsal time to bring new ideas to life.

Designing Worship Together offers multiple models that work well. Teams may gather input from many people but leave final decisions up to a pastor and musician. Some churches use several planning teams, organized around a time period (a month or liturgical season) or a task (writing litanies and prayers; involving youth; focusing on sacraments). Vanderwell and de Waal Malefyt also describe successful committee or staff partnerships for designing and leading worship.

In suburban St. Louis, Missouri, Webster Groves Christian Church has separate teams in charge of set up, take down, reaching out, music, worship leading, and pastoral matters.

Involving many members in planning and leading worship has advantages, according to Tim Carson, senior pastor. It reduces disconnect between worship planners and worshipers, and it prevents burnout. "Outcomes are always better when worship is conceptualized, planned, and implemented with a broader team," he adds.

Designing Worship Together includes dozens of samples, templates, grids, and checklists. You'll find worship committee guidelines and agendas; letters to worship committee volunteers; a worship resource bank survey; weekly service planning guides; evaluation forms; and resources for group study.

Explain yourself

The vignettes that begin each chapter show that the authors are all too aware of hair-pulling frustrations among people who agree that planning worship is important.

For example, people may disagree on whether to clap after the choir sings or whether to insert an infomercial about a Thanksgiving potluck into a worship drama. Another vignette highlights how hard it is for members to explain their congregation's worship to interested visitors.

"The landscape of worship today is marked by so many new ideas, new approaches, and new formats that clarifying our understanding of worship and constructing a congregational worship statement have become urgent matters. Every congregation needs a standard, something written down so that all can refer to it," de Waal Malefyt and Vanderwell write.

Some denominations, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) (pp. 145-215), have an approved document on worship but allow individual congregations to decide how to apply the denominational statement locally. Other congregations may need to start from scratch.

You'll find guidelines for how to write a worship statement and what to include in Designing Worship Together. Besides reproducing several congregational worship statements-such as from Church of the Servant CRC in Grand Rapids, Michigan; First Presbyterian in Wheaton, Illinois; and Christ Lutheran (Missouri Synod) in Sioux Falls, South Dakota-the authors show how to use worship statements.

Here's one way that Hillcrest CRC spelled out an implication of a worship statement principle: "Music is the offering and response by the worshipers in a given situation. It evokes a spontaneous response to a specific moment in worship and, therefore, it should be live [not prerecorded]. Those requiring amplified sound should use the church's sound system."

Maintain love and respect

Some worshipers welcome change. Some find it difficult. Still others worry that planning will thwart the Spirit, suck the life out of worship, or erase the congregation's character.

The authors repeat that following principles of worship planning doesn't result in look-alike services. It's a good principle to use a worship planning calendar, but there are pros and cons for each choice, whether your congregation follows a chronological, church program, "greeting card," or Christian year calendar.

Through continual study, coupled with patience, congregations can improve worship while maintaining love and respect among members. When church organist Sue Imig became involved in worship planning 15 years ago at Sunnyslope CRC in Salem, Oregon, the elders said, "We don't need anything much. Just plan the music ministry." She'd often turn in service plans that didn't receive approval.

"It was frustrating," Imig says. "But once I started explaining the purpose for different things, like why Christians have historically used ashes to make a cross on their foreheads at Lent, the elders understood." She also used the church bulletin to explain new worship elements to the congregation.

What helped most, however, was that Imig continually educated the worship committee and Sunnyslope got a pastor who started attending worship committee meetings.

As Designing Worship Together recommends, Imig takes time each meeting to study and discuss an article or book chapter with her team. "It helps our committee understand, discuss, and think about worship," she says. Attending a summer conference inspired one team member to write litanies and prayers.

Pastor Al Machiela and Imig co-chair worship meetings. He chooses service themes, the committee brainstorms suggestions for songs, litanies, and visuals, and Machiela puts the service together.

"We've gotten some resistance to learning global music, but our Advent series went really well. The theme was that Christ is king of the whole world. Al talked with our missionaries so he could include their stories in the sermon and we could learn how to pray for them. Each week during Advent we sang songs from those cultures," Imig says.

For worship planners, no service ends at the final prayer or benediction. Instead they evaluate how things went, perhaps week by week or season by season.

With a month between meetings, planners at Loop Christian Ministries in Chicago turned to email to offer fresh evaluations. Individual worship team members plan and lead services, so each Monday, the worship chair sends out an email inviting reflections on the previous day's service.

"Some responses are brief. Others lead to extended email conversations. The weekly emails free our committee to tackle larger issues at monthly meetings, instead of having to remember whether a particular hymn worked well," says Lisa Stracks.

Of course, whether in email or person, team members must learn how to offer and receive constructive criticism.

"Ideally, the worship leader would be able to say, 'This is what I meant to do and convey. Did it work?' We all have to remember that our evaluations must be done in love and with the goal of furthering good worship," Stracks says.

Learn More

To attend an upcoming worship training event led by the authors or other resource specialists from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, see the CICW's Calendar of Events.

Each week Howard Vanderwell and Norma de Waal Malefyt post a complete, new worship service plan. You may also use these eight services they developed to give worshipers a better picture of Jesus during Lent and Easter.

If you'd like to start including study and discussion as regular parts of your worship committee meetings, consider reading:
•  Books on worship
•  The quarterly journal Reformed Worship
•  Other stories specifically written for inspiration, learning, and group discussion

To broaden your repertoire of resources for worship services, check out The Worship Sourcebook. Denominations offering resources on planning worship include the Church of England, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, The United Methodist Church, United Church of Christ, and these resources from Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) members. Text Week posts print, music, and visual ideas based on the Revised Common Lectionary.

If your worship planning team experiences conflict, you may find solutions in Neal Plantinga's address on spiritually preparing to lead worship or the books To Know You More: Cultivating the Heart of the Worship Leader and Trouble at the Table: Gathering the Tribes for Worship.

Start a Discussion

  • Designing Worship Together suggests that worship planners adopt several practices, such as using a printed agenda, developing a congregational worship statement, including study in every meeting, and specifically describing worship team member duties. Which habits have most helped your worship planning team?
  • The authors say they hope their book will inspire leaders "to respect one another, recognize God's gifts in each other, and be willing to learn from each other." What prevents you from learning from others? Are you slow to see connections, quick to decide something won't work, eager to embrace change before you understand its potential, reluctant to listen to artsy types who aren't gifted at explanation?
  • How far ahead does your team plan services? Which calendar have you found most helpful in providing unity from week to week?
  • What are the top talent gaps or frustrations your team experiences in planning and leading worship? What might you pray for? Who might you invite to join you? Is it time for some of you to take a season of rest from worship planning?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you've found to help your congregation become more intentional about and interesting in planning and leading worship?

  • What methods have you developed to use as many members' gifts as possible-without making people feel burned out?
  • Have you written checklists or a simple manual so that new worship committee members understand their roles and tasks? Have you shared these with congregations like yours?
  • Which practices have been most helpful in inviting your congregation to accept and learn from new worship ideas?
  • Do you use certain phrases, songs, or metaphors to remind each other to chill out and evaluate worship services in a loving, constructive way?