Join our mailing list

The 'Jazz' of Worship Planning

Convictions and suggestions for planning public Christian worship services that welcome and make room for all

Bible-Shaped Wisdom

In our work at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and the Center for Excellence in Preaching, we are eager to draw deeply from Bible-shaped wisdom of classic Christian liturgies throughout the centuries, and to express that wisdom through a sampling of the wide variety of cultural, musical, and artistic forms used in congregations around the world. This pastoral task involves a challenging interplay of freedom and form, of bringing to expression a deep unity-in-diversity, diversity-in-unity.

Form and Freedom

Over the years, we’ve become aware again of how many communities—all over the world—are wrestling with this interplay of freedom and form. Jazz music features remarkable bursts of freedom, creativity, and soulful expression, but those bursts of freedom depend entirely on the common use of a well-crafted chord pattern, which each musician accepts as a kind of musical discipline. Likewise, the faithful, soulful expression of Christian worship is deeply strengthened when we accept spiritual and liturgical disciplines that are grounded in the gospel itself. Here is a brief, suggestive list of some of these key disciplines.

Key Disciplines

  • Begin liturgy with God’s words of greeting and invitation, and end with God’s words of charge and blessing, affirming that God’s words are the first and last word in worship and life.
  • Engage with God not only in praise and thanksgiving, but also in confession and lament—a reflection of the full spectrum of human experience and an acknowledgement that we live in the “already, but not yet” of God’s kingdom.
  • Throughout worship, feature the interplay of God’s words to us and our words to God—a covenantal conversation. This helps us experience and renew the promise-based baptismal relationship that God invites us into through Christ.
  • Include Trinitarian prayers which convey how we depend on the Holy Spirit to work in and through our praying, preaching, and participation in the sacraments, and how we cherish Jesus’ role as our only high priest, the perfect mediator of our prayers.
  • Dwell in scripture, Old Testament and New Testament, as it is read and preached, presenting and responding to God’s Word as an indispensable source of spiritual sustenance.
  • Stretch intercessory prayers to convey the breadth of God’s promised work in the world. What we pray for in public powerfully witnesses to what we believe God is doing and can do in the world. We signal trust in God when we pray for local and global concerns, for the environment and humanity, and for the church and culture, as well as individual concerns.
  • Participate deeply as God’s children gathered at Jesus’ table, where we celebrate a meal of memory, communion, and hope, a celebration of hospitality, justice, and covenant renewal.
  • Look for ways to strengthen participation and mutual service of young and old, seeker and lifelong believer, and people with a variety of gifts, abilities, and challenges.
  • View each action of worship as a formative, super-concentrated Christian practice that we echo and practice in our daily lives—practices that range from saying “I’m sorry” (confession) or “I’m listening” (illumination) or “peace be with you” (passing of the peace) or “What can I do?” (dedication). As “God’s language school,” liturgy teaches us ways of speaking to God and each other that lead us to be more faithful disciples of Jesus.

These are a sampling of the core convictions that have guided us in our work and worship services we plan for our events, including the annual Calvin Symposium on Worship, guiding us as we draw on a wide range of artistic and musical styles and ways of using projected and printed texts. Every change in plans and each technological innovation offers us new opportunities to assess plans and further adapt.

We encourage you to adapt this list for your context and let us know what you are learning about the interplay of form and freedom. We pray that these disciplines may become a strong basis for faithful, imaginative, and soulful worship, used by God’s Spirit to strengthen the unity and vitality of our life together in Christ. 

Complementary Approaches for Music: Printed, Projected, and Orally Taught

At the worship services for our events, we aim to sing some songs from printed notation, others from projected text and lyrics, others from projected text, and others that are led orally, without anything printed. During the past years, we have noticed congregations rethinking how to do this best. Some churches that project everything have rediscovered the value of printing some things, as a way to encouraging singing with harmony or with greater introspection. Some churches that sing from only printed sources have discovered the value of projecting some things, as a way to encourage hands free singing. Churches of all kinds are learning to find good ways to assist worshipers with vision loss, who often are not able to read small print or see items projected on distant screens. We would love to learn what you are learning about this! 

Inclusion and Universal Design

“Please rise, in body or in spirit”

Public worship can be designed from the start to include people with a wide range of abilities and disabilities, gifts and limitations. Examples of “universal design” approaches at worship services include: gluten-free bread available at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper; use of the phrase “please rise, in body or in spirit”; use of large-print materials and/or availability of printed orders of service for use on various devices; availability of sign language upon request; use of printed orders of service which support those who worship best with a predictable schedule to follow; monitoring of the overall volume of projected sound to support those who process sounds differently or who may be using sound amplification devices; flexible seating and ramps to worship spaces; loop system for those with hearing devices; and planned multisensory options to best engage each participants, such as availability of hand tools for those who listen best when their hands are active.

Once these kinds of universal design elements are in place, many more people can find a home in worship, and the benefits often extend to many people who may not identify a need for assistance.