Join our mailing list

Planning Contemporary Worship Services

Do you know how to look beyond the style of a "traditional" or "contemporary" worship service to find its worship vision, structure, and theology? Ron Rienstra says it's a question more worship planners should ask and answer. A feature story exploring the planning for Contemporary Worship services.

Picture two coffeehouses. In each, espresso scents the air. Images flicker across screens. String bass, keyboard, and saxophone twine a slow rhythm that makes your shoulders relax. You forget your must-do list and let poetry, Scripture, and music soothe you.

Seen through the lens of “contemporary worship style,” these coffeehouse settings are twins. After all, they’re both doing Jazz Vespers.

Look deeper and you’ll see that neither is all about the music. “Jazz Vespers here only vaguely resembles its original incarnation at Calvin College,” says Shannon Sisco, who helped lead weekly Jazz Vespers as a college student and transplanted the idea to Wicker Park Grace Church in Chicago, where she’s in graduate school.

As Sisco and other contemporary worship leaders explain, worship is more than music. It has a structure. And the ways we worship form how we live out our Christian faith.

Recognizing true worship

Sisco says the college vespers, with its dimly-lit seating, bouncy jazz, and bright stage, created a space so “those on the fringes and uncomfortable with church could draw near to God.“

She describes Wicker Park Grace as part of the emerging church movement. “A central focus in our worship is building authentic community and encouraging dialogue among participants,” she says. The typical vespers turnout is small enough that people can sit in a circle, volunteer to read from their seats, and take time to talk about the readings.

Both incarnations of Jazz Vespers fit within a definition of worship that resonates with Shannon Sisco and other former worship apprentices, such as Peter Armstrong and Dean Kladder.

Armstrong, now worship pastor at Sanctuary Christian Reformed Church in Seattle, explains that worship is covenantal, a lot like renewing wedding vows. “Within that context, worship is a drama or conversation between God and God’s people. One lesson I still think about every week is Ron Rienstra’s arrow system.

“I look through a liturgy to see where God is speaking to us (downward arrow) and where we are speaking to God (upward arrow) and where we are speaking to each other (two-way horizontal arrow). It’s a delicate balance. Making space for God may look like silence and meditation…or unique readings of Scripture,” he says.

Kladder, now a Princeton seminarian, recently completed a church internship. “Liturgy means the work of the people. So the people should take up their work,” he says.

He’s experimented with having the pastor put the pastoral prayer (a.k.a. long prayer or congregational prayer) back in the people’s hands. “One long prayer can be broken into shorter prayers of invocation, intercession, lament, and confession and placed meaningfully into the liturgical order,” he explains.

Hearing others pray their prayers on your behalf reinforces the understanding of worship as diverse people united in the work of conversing with God.

Structuring worship

Good worship—whether labeled contemporary, traditional, or blended—has a structure. It uses many liturgical forms, all intentional.

When Guy Higashi was associate pastor at New Hope Christian Fellowship in Honolulu, senior pastor Wayne Cordeiro always said, “Form before content.” Just as a lumber form holds concrete in place while you pour a driveway, worship structure provides the form through which content can be delivered.

“Similarly, a frame for a photograph or painting accents the beauty and centers one’s focus. It either adds or takes away,” says Higashi, now a doctoral student and continuing education program manager at Fuller Theological Seminary.

With five services and 10,000 people, New Hope needs to include all worship elements without going overtime—else traffic gridlock results. Cordeiro’s six-sermon series gives worship teams time “to think out what creative elements to use rather than spontaneously scrambling. A simple element like serving communion requires lots of coordination,” Higashi says.

New Hope values using every member’s gifts. With so many involved in planning and leading worship, a clear structure helps all teams keep the service flowing toward the same goal.

Allison Ash, director of chapel at Fuller Theological Seminary, says, “Students who embrace more contemporary forms of worship may see written prayers and formal liturgical structures as boring or dead.

“What they may not understand is that those forms have been crafted throughout Christian history with distinct intentionality. There’s a reason worshipers hear the assurance of pardon after a prayer of confession.”

She’s noticed that students find liturgical forms alive and meaningful when presented in contemporary ways. “After singing Charlie Hall’s ‘Give Us Clean Hands,’ try singing Billy Foote’s ‘You Are My King,’ which allows worshipers to sing of God’s forgiveness just after singing about ‘laying down our idols,’ ” Ash suggests.

Finding freedom in patterns

Far from being dead, worship structures and liturgical forms offer freedom for creativity, according to Chip Andrus, a Presbyterian musician and emerging church specialist.

“For centuries the faithful have gathered together, giving praise, confessing sin, sharing peace, reading God’s Word, praying for others, giving alms, and breaking bread. In this pattern we find the freedom to express our relationship with God in authentic, relevant ways.

“We find deep connection to those who worshipped God before us. We pass on mysteries of the faith to our children in ways that will endure,” he says.

The age-old worship pattern of prayers of the people, followed by offering and communion, teaches us how to live. “If we pray for someone in the hospital, our offering might be to visit that person. If we pray for the homeless, our offering might be volunteering at a homeless shelter once a week during our lunch break.

“This pattern helps us understand that we are people who ask God for help (prayers of the people) and participate with God in answering prayers and serving others (offering). We do this not on our own but joined with Christ and one another (breaking bread and sharing wine),” Andrus says.

He explains that once you see the deep meaning, you realize that how worship structures and liturgical forms are conveyed—whether through organs, robes, PowerPoint, or worship bands—isn’t the point.

“The most important thing is to make space for Christ’s Spirit to move through us, shape us, and feed us as we offer our prayers and lives as servants of the living God,” he says.

Learn More

Order Ten Service Plans for Contemporary Worship by Ron Rienstra. 

Learn more about Chip Andrus and his work with the emerging worship movement. Listen to his music.

To learn more about principles of good contemporary worship and music, attend The Church Music & Worship Summit, in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Glean insights into how worship leaders use projected technology in worship. Check out Methodist advice on how to start a contemporary worship service. Learn why one congregation has chosen not to offer a choice between traditional and contemporary worship services.

Browse Reformed Worship articles on contemporary worship.

The prologue to The Worship Sourcebook states, “A well-conceived order of worship ensures that the main purposes of worship are carried out. In other words, a thoughtful pattern for worship keeps worship as worship. It protects worship from degenerating into a performance, into entertainment, or into an educational lecture.” The Worship Sourcebook gives ideas for every element of worship, no matter what “style” you aim for.


Start a Discussion

Talk about good contemporary worship:

  • What does the structure of your typical worship service reveal about your theology?
  • This story states that good worship must have a structure. A bonus story suggests that holistic worship includes lament and confession. Which ideas do you agree or disagree with? Which elements of worship would you like to change, add, or subtract—and why?
  • If you examine the music, words, art, and other elements of your worship service, how many Christian eras and cultures would be represented?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to address and talk through principles of good contemporary worship?

  • Did you find a resource—visual, online, printed, multimedia, or seminar—that helped your church think through how and why to make changes in your worship services?
  • If you have surveyed other congregations in your area or denomination regarding their most creative (and biblically sound) contemporary worship ideas, will you share the best ideas that you discovered?


Note that you need a Facebook account in order to add comments.

If you don't see a place above to enter or view comments, it may be due to your browser's security or privacy settings. Please try adjusting your settings or using a different browser.