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Profile: Ron Rienstra on Planning Contemporary Worship

While directing student-planned and -led worship services at Calvin College and Fuller Theological Seminary, or while leading worship workshops, Ron Rienstra has sometimes met “worship leaders who get frustrated with other people’s desire to plan carefully. Those frustrated have not themselves yet done much worship leading.”

While directing student-planned and -led worship services at Calvin College and Fuller Theological Seminary, or while leading worship workshops, Ron Rienstra has sometimes met “worship leaders who get frustrated with other people’s desire to plan carefully. Those frustrated have not themselves yet done much worship leading.”

Instead, he explains, “They’re responding to the perceived ease with which worship seems to flow from one song to the next and from song to prayer. They’re attributing that flow to the power of the Holy Spirit, without thinking of the logistics involved.”

So Rienstra often proposes what he calls a thought experiment.

Pushing the limits

He agrees with “go with the flow” folks to imagine a worship service that’s not bogged down by planning. But then he asks, “What will we tell the person who runs the PowerPoint? How will the rhythm section know what’s coming next? When will…”

The thought experiment is usually fairly short. The frustrated person starts to see why every worship service needs a structure.

“A typical worship service is not like a Grateful Dead concert, where the primary players jam till they figure out their next songs. In services that aren’t planned, the music will be one or two very simple songs—this is descriptive, not derogatory—that musicians can groove on for ten minutes.

“The worship will be led by one individual, who may say, ‘Let’s just all shout out a name for God now.’ Or the lyric is ‘we love you, Lord,’ so the leader encourages people to express that love. People don’t need to see words on a screen to sing along,” Rienstra explains.

He has, however, worshiped in churches where the musicians have played together so long that they collectively know hundreds of songs. “I’ve seen this most in African American churches. Maybe the bass player lays down a riff, the rest come along, and as soon as the choir knows what’s going on, they join in,” he says.

Weaving common threads

Rienstra says that most good worship services must be planned. Their forms may vary but they’ll be woven with seven common threads or principles for good contemporary worship: covenantal, participative, holistic, expansive, reverent, Spirit-directed, and expectant.

He spells out each principle in volume one and volume two of his Ten Service Plans for Contemporary Worship, based on services at Calvin College and Fuller Theological Seminary. Each volume includes all you need to plan a service, along with how to vary the plan for your congregation. You’ll also find supplemental songs and tips online.

You’ve probably noticed that Rienstra’s principles for good contemporary worship apply as well to traditional worship. “Yet, they’re explicitly crafted to address particular challenges for people planning worship in what some folks now say is a contemporary mode, using musical and presentational styles borrowed from popular culture,” he says.

For example, contemporary worship planners might not disagree theologically with the principle that worship should be reverent, but might not think of it if no one brings it up.

Similarly, most worship leaders wouldn’t have a theological problem with the idea that worship should be expansive—using words, music, traditions, and gifts of the whole people of God. Yet it might not be top of mind with worship planners who are constructing either traditional or contemporary services.

When Rienstra asks worship leaders to show him their last few orders of worship, he often notices that all the songs were written after 1990.  

His favorite story about why worship should be expansive dates back to the first time the college LOFT team led worship at a Calvin Symposium on Worship.

“Molly Delcamp, a worship apprentice, led a prayer. She was an excellent ‘pray-er,’ meaning that whatever words she spoke, she meant on behalf of herself and the whole congregation.

“We sang Good to Me, which the band continued playing while Molly spoke a prayer of confession. The prayer was straight up Thomas Cranmer, though she probably changed some of the Book of Common Prayer diction, like thee and thou.

“She prayed, ‘We confess that we have sinned in thought, word, and deed by what we have done and by what we have left undone…. In your mercy forgive what we have been, help us amend what we are, and direct what we shall be…’

“After the service I heard one person after another say, ‘That was the most beautiful prayer! Did you think of that yourself?’ They had no clue it was so old and still widely used,” Rienstra says.

Looking at results, not style

Rienstra recently wrote about how new technology—such as amplification, lyric projection, and looping DJ software—has changed the style of church worship.

Church members often focus on whether a worship trend is good or bad. Rienstra suggests looking at how the Holy Spirit uses a technology to expand worship in potentially wonderful ways and how others use it to narrow worship in historically or theologically suspect ways.

For example, using folk- or pop-style music in worship “can be a healthy enculturation of congregational song” for people who believe that worship is the work of the people, he explains. After all, the Church honors martyrs who died for saying that the Word and worship should be in the vernacular, or language, of the congregation.

Yet some composers “borrow and baptize” only those popular music forms that “emphasize internal, individual, and exclusively positive emotional states…. There are some things we wish to say to God, or hear from God, which are not fittingly or excellently expressed in a folk-derived musical genre.”

The best way to evaluate a worship trend or technology, Rienstra says, is to ask, “Does this help people participate more fully, more actively, more intelligently?”