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More Inclusion = Deeply Meaningful Worship

The lessons learned at two seminaries that renewed their chapel worship services can make a big difference in your congregation.

What worshiping community wouldn’t welcome these gifts?

  • more gratitude for the gospel

  • a deeper sense of God’s presence

  • heartfelt congregational singing

  • worship leaders eager to learn more

  • former spectators engaged in multisensory worship

  • new practices that welcome people from other backgrounds

  • higher attendance

  • greater appreciation for what it takes to plan and lead creative, meaningful worship

Two North American seminaries experienced these gifts while renewing chapel worship during their Vital Worship grants from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Your congregation or school can apply many of their discoveries to revitalize public worship. It starts with making worship central to your community, stretching together and thinking theologically so you can balance hospitality and discomfort.

Make worship central to your community

Prioritizing public worship is no more a given at a seminary than it is at a church. Though seminarians may attend chapel, a typical MDiv (master of divinity) curriculum focuses on Hebrew, Greek, biblical and theological courses, preaching and ministry studies. Seminary graduates arrive in churches having spent little or no class time on worship.

The seminaries mentioned above—Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (PTS) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, North Carolina—are ahead of the curve in recovering worship’s central role in forming ministers and congregations.

As the PTS chapel webpage says, “The goal of a theological school is to understand God truly. But God cannot be understood truly, and not be worshipped. Therefore worship is an integral part of our lives at PTS.”

Your church can follow these seminaries’ lead in making worship central by inviting more people to plan and learn about worship and to eat and reflect together.

“Including a wider circle of people in worship planning gives concrete expression to our claim that worship is central to who we are as a community. We invite participants to think more deeply and systematically about their liturgical decisions, something we hope students will take with them into the parish,” says Angela Dienhart Hancock, who teaches homiletics and worship at PTS.

PTS invited students to join one of eight themed worship teams. Teams met regularly with a mentor to plan and lead monthly chapel services. “Our strongest mentors were eager learners themselves, not only drawing on the gifts of team members but asking others in our community for guidance, ideas and resources,” Hancock says. They also learned through book discussions and guest-led workshops.

At Wake Div, the Community Worship Committee is divided into student sub-teams who parcel out upcoming chapel services. This seminary made worship central by offering six one-credit worship courses during its grant year. More than half the student body took one or more of the worship courses. “Chapel services last 40 to 45 minutes in our chapel, but worship lasts through lunch as we break bread together at tables,” says Jill Crainshaw, who teaches worship and liturgical theology. 

Stretch together

Making worship central requires stretching beyond “traditional versus contemporary” and collaborating with people whose ideas differ from yours.

“Most worship doesn’t fit neatly into traditional or contemporary categories, and the categories themselves can become problematic and divisive,” says Kendra Buckwalter Smith, PTS worship coordinator. That’s why chapel planners made room for variety in their new weekly pattern: Taizé on Monday; rotating theme teams on Tuesday and Wednesday; communion on Thursday. “Taizé has become a very significant part of our worship as a seminary community,” Smith adds.

The eight PTS team themes were Moravian Singstunde (theology in song), global and multicultural, healing and wholeness, creative use of denominational resources, Old Testament lectionary texts, Christ in the Psalms, The Big Story: creation to redemption, and intercessory prayer and the global church. “Because each team focused on a particular theme rather than a particular style of worship, students were able to approach the themes from their own background and experiences,” Smith says.

Hancock describes the PTS student body as about half Presbyterian, along with Methodists, Baptists, free church and “a smattering” of Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Orthodox and others. About 30 percent of students are African American, and smaller percentages are Asian, Hispanic or Native American. International students come from Canada, Egypt, Korea, Malaysia and Scotland.

Team members came in with thematic preconceptions based on their own cultural and church backgrounds. Smith says these differences created tension and discomfort at first, yet she adds that one of her “greatest joys as the year progressed” was to experience theme team members opening their minds and hearts to different ideas and allowing them to shape their own ideas.

Think theologically

Collaborative worship planning works best when you can explain why you’re doing what you’re doing. This requires moving beyond service mechanics to theology. One-credit worship courses helped Wake Div seminarians explore how worship leaders embody and shape theological values, beliefs and perspectives through their liturgical gestures, actions and language.

“The Worship Matters class, taught by Chris Copeland [grant project director] and Jill Crainshaw, focused on the theology behind every rubric and action of worship. The question of ‘what is the theology behind this?’ became our guiding theme for planning all our services,” says Sally Ann Morris, Wake Div chapel musician. Every chapel sub-team consults her for music resources.

“We had fascinating discussions about seemingly ordinary things, such as lighting candles. We adopted a rubric we call ‘Bringing in the Light’ before the gospel reading,” she says. The discussions opened options to use candles for purposes besides illuminating the scriptures. “We sometimes follow the Light into worship and follow it out,” she adds.

Ken Pettigrew helped plan more than 30 Wake Div chapels. “Taking three worship courses taught me the importance of intentionality in worship. Though Children in Worship was targeted at engaging children, it helped me think more thoroughly about how adults process language in worship and how to incorporate concrete ideas,” the Class of 2016 member says. 

Balance hospitality and discomfort

Preparing well helps worship planners balance hospitality and discomfort. Both Kendra Buckwalter Smith and Sally Ann Morris use the phrase “wonderfully creative” to describe theologically sound ideas proposed by seminarians. “At times these flopped, because students weren’t entirely prepared to execute them and communicate the rationale to the congregation,” Smith says.

The strategies that worked well for introducing new worship elements at these seminaries will likely work in your church. Begin by thinking together about moments that worshipers might experience as unfamiliar or uncomfortable. Give a brief explanation in the bulletin about the cultural context and reason why you’re using this new song, practice or gesture. Extend a carefully planned verbal invitation in worship to try the new idea.

Hancock says this approach worked well when each PTS theme team planned an Advent station for a chapel series. She assigned Isaiah 64:1-9, a potter and clay passage, to the intercessory prayer and global church team. They invited worshipers to take a clay lump from their Advent station and consider how God might be molding them. Worshipers handled the clay while hearing scripture and singing, in Spanish and English, “Cámbiame, Señor/Change My Heart, O God.” Before moving to the next station, worshipers could wash their hands in water, “giving thanks for God’s cleansing and restoring grace.”

It’s hospitable to balance familiar and new worship moments, which is why every Advent station worship segment included the refrain “Come, Come Emmanuel.” Singing an entire service was new to most worshipers, so the Moravian Singstunde team “saw the wisdom in taking up a new form repeatedly until it became familiar,” Hancock says.

She’s noticed that using resources from other cultures can “paralyze” worship planners who “worry about ‘doing it right.’” Taizé chapels provide her favorite example of how to balance “attention to the original context while allowing a liturgical element to become an expression of our community. We include most practices of the Taizé community in France, but we also include the mandolin, the ocarina and, yes, the banjo in our ensemble! So it is authentically Taizé, but also authentically our own.”



Don’t miss this story’s companion story and two companion conversations: 

Learn more about the 2013 Vital Worship grants at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and Wake Forest University School of Divinity.

PTS created chapel resources that you can use to plan worship in your church, school or community. Several PTS teams used online resources from Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Begin exploring the breadth of CICW resources by choosing a specific worship task or browsing top resources in topic showcases about worship and youth, disability, the visual arts and more.

Watch videos and read worship service plans for Taizé services.

Want to include more people to plan and lead worship? Ken Pettigrew recommends using Google Drive. He says that the Wake Div Community Worship Committee uses Google Drive and a worship template to plan services. They use a GD spreadsheet to list chapel dates, lectionary texts, service locations, worship leaders, chapel planners and special notes. There’s a GD folder for each service, which makes service bulletin creation easy. “This allows us to constantly engage all students, faculty and staff,” Pettigrew says.


Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your chapel team, education or worship meeting. These questions will help people think about how to include more people as worship planners and leaders.

  • Describe the typical pattern of worship in your setting. There is a pattern, even if you don’t call it a liturgy or order of service. Ask worship planners, leaders and worshipers to explain the theology behind your pattern and worship elements.
  • Leaders quoted above said it’s important to support—but not save—worship teams. How do you feel about letting worship teams find ways to make things work, even imperfectly?
  • PTS and Wake Div build in meeting time for planners to reflect on completed services. They ask questions like “Where was God present or absent for you in today’s service?” and “What do we want to lift up and appreciate?” and “What can we learn from what worked well or not in planning?” Which reflection questions do you use to review your worship services?