Join our mailing list

The Worship Sourcebook: An ecumenical guide to planning worship

Ever feel stuck in a rut while writing or voicing prayers for worship? The Worship Sourcebook offers help. A feature story about the ecumenical uses of the Worship Sourcebook.

A national study conducted by Barna Research found that 20 percent of church attenders say they have "no idea what the most important outcome of worship is." Nor do pastors and lay people always agree on which worship service elements are necessary.

Yet as John Witvliet explains in his prologue to The Worship Sourcebook, no matter where or how Christians worship or have worshiped, there are several norms for worship "that transcend cultures and keep us faithful to the gospel of Christ."

This new book describes those norms and tells how to use them in services whether yours tends more toward high church or free church. Most worship handbooks are specific to a denomination, but The Worship Sourcebook's 2,753 prayers, litanies, and other spoken texts come from 100 scripture versions, hymnals, and prayer books-including Catholic, free church, Lutheran, Mennonite, and Reformed resources from several continents. Witvliet and Emily Brink edited the book.

Translating relational habits into worship

The first part of The Worship Sourcebook focuses on the meaning and function of common worship elements. A hefty section on closing worship gives 48 ways to send the congregation out to live and serve as Christ's disciples, plus 21 ways to remind worshipers that God promises to bless and sustain them. You'll find relevant texts whether you are ending a contemplative or celebrative service.

Worship pastors and leaders who attended a recent crash course on worship planning especially liked the book's simple frameworks for planning worship.

"John Witvliet likened worship to eight moments or habits of good relationships. A song or prayer of praise is like worshipers saying, 'I love you,' and the assurance of pardon is like God answering, 'I love you,'" says Leanne Mejeur, worship coordinator at the Christian Reformed Church of St. Joseph, Michigan.

Mejeur bought copies for the eight people who help her plan and lead two different Sunday morning services. Worship leader Sue Veldman told her, "This book helps me verbalize what my heart is longing to say."

"When we learned how to use The Worship Sourcebook, John Witvliet also said we should have three arrows in worship-us to God, God to us, and among us," Mejeur adds.

She plans to go through her congregation's favorite songs and label which are praise, which are lament, and so on. Since her church is in prosperous St. Joseph, across a river from Benton Harbor, where 40 percent of people live below the poverty level, Mejeur says she especially appreciates the book's ideas for voicing lament.

'Time-saving miracle'

The second part of The Worship Sourcebook is divided according to central themes of the Christian faith drawn from the Nicene Creed and Christian year. Each section, say on God's providence or Good Friday, includes suggestions for every worship service element, from the opening to final benediction or blessing.

When Dan Millward switched from pastoring a United Brethren church to planting a Presbyterian (PCA) church, he was "really disappointed to discover that the PCA doesn't have its own prayer book or book of worship with a liturgical calendar." So he and his wife, Laura, began stockpiling excerpts from Episcopal, Lutheran, PCUSA, and other denominational prayer books under computer files labeled "invocations," "corporate confessions," and so on.

When worship team members Dirk and Connie Van Til brought in a copy of The Worship Sourcebook, the Traverse City (MI) pastor says, "We were just blown away. The miracle is how it shortens our planning time for worship. We had six or eight items per category. The Worship Sourcebook has about 40."

Though many church planters believe they must follow a contemporary praise-and-worship style service to attract visitors, Redeemer Presbyterian averaged 90 to 100 people at morning worship within three months of its first service.

"Other pastors are amazed to hear we are doing liturgical services and getting good results. We've all bought into the idea that this interactive, dialogical worship approach is the most faith-filled. We love the historical movement of different elements of liturgy. They make theological sense. And why spend 50 hours dreaming up an entertaining, three-minute video clip when we could spend that time caring for one another?" Millward says.

Rooting a new generation 

Until he took an evening crash course in worship planning, Travis West admits that he thought of liturgy as "a stale, boring attempt of a worship leader to get the congregation to feel like they're playing a part in worship by reading the responses printed in bold type." West, a seminarian interning at Ada (MI) Community Reformed Church, now uses The Worship Sourcebook to craft services that "incorporate not only good music, but good theology."

He says descriptions of each worship element give him a more complete vocabulary to discuss their purposes with his worship team and the congregation.

Author and worship consultant Sally Morgenthaler says, "In some contemporary churches, the worship all comes at you from the stage, TV-style. The opening 20 minutes of singing is the only interaction that worshipers get. But liturgy by its very nature is interactive."

She finds The Worship Sourcebook's structure attractive to young, emerging churches that don't have liturgical roots but seek Christocentric resources that also revolve around the Trinity.

"It introduces them to spiritual practices via the liturgy and the rhythm of the church year and 'ordinary time.' The section on elements of worship introduces a whole new generation to what we in mainline churches take for granted," she says.

She predicts that young emerging churches will pair these print resources with music, sound, and projected images, from ancient Celtic Christian symbols to Rembrandt paintings or urban art depictions of Christ. "These churches want to go beyond the 'eternal now' or 'how I'm feeling today.' They're interested in symbols, images, and metaphors drawn from church history."

When she's not traveling, Morgenthaler attends Pathways Church in downtown Denver. The church is using The Worship Sourcebook to plan Advent services.

Biblical, evangelical, ecumenical

Though designed to be ecumenical within the Reformed and Presbyterian traditions, the book is helpful in denominations beyond those traditions.

Carl "Chip" Stam plans worship for Clifton Baptist Church and weekly chapels at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, both in Louisville, Kentucky. He keeps one copy of The Worship Sourcebook at home and one in his seminary office.

"The book pulls together the language of the Bible and historic Christian faith to give leaders easy access to the centrality of the cross, atonement, and other issues. When our prayers, blessings, and songs can be filled with the language of scripture, this is a good thing," he says, though adds that the book doesn't speak broadly enough to the free church tradition of believer baptism.

Still, every Sunday Stam has in his worship folder a page of benedictions gathered from The Worship Sourcebook. More formal churches might have the benediction printed out in a bulletin, weekly liturgy, or worship book. Clifton Baptist's worship bulletins simply say "Benediction," so Stam is free to choose a closing blessing as the Spirit moves.

Robert D. Shofner Jr. pastors St. John's United Church of Christ (UCC) in Boonville, Indiana. The UCC is a diverse community uniting churches from Christian, Congregational, Evangelical, and Reformed traditions. Shofner's background is more Congregational/Christian but says his congregation was founded in 1860 by German evangelicals and still includes descendants of those founders.

A typical service at St. John's starts with welcome, handshaking, a peppy song, and announcements. Then it moves to more formal worship: prayer of preparation, prelude, choral introit, call to worship, hymn, invocation, Gloria Patri, children's time, scripture, sermon, pastoral prayer, confession/statement of faith, prayers of the people, intercessory prayer, prayer hymn, offering, doxology, and closing hymn.

"The Worship Sourcebook is theologically sound and provides the right 'style' for us," Shofner says.

Learn More

Read John Witvliet's article on how The Worship Sourcebook fits into a long tradition of service books, starting with the biblical Psalms. Order The Worship Sourcebook. It comes with a companion CD containing the entire 800-page text for easy cutting and pasting into bulletins, overheads, and orders of worship. The smaller Prayers of the People: Patterns & Models for Congregational Prayer is excerpted from The Worship Sourcebook.

Consider starting a book club, discussion group, or adult education series to study (or excerpt highlights from) these books on worship: A Royal Waste of Time, by Marva Dawn; Millennium Matrix, by Rex Miller; and Younger Evangelicals, by Robert Webber.

Sally Morgenthaler describes Digital Glass, based on five key elements of New Testament worship, as "our attempt to fuse past and present." The DVD comes with a guide to help you understand the historical significance of the Apostles' Creed, the Stations of the Cross, and more. It also offers interactive worship ideas.

Experience the principles of good worship planning put into practice at services held during the Calvin Symposium on Worship.

Start a Discussion

  • What images, memories, or assumptions come to mind when you think of the word "liturgy"?
  • What images, memories, or assumptions come to mind when you think of the terms "church year" or "liturgical calendar"?
  • Which eight common worship elements do you most often include in your services? How do you transition from one element to the next, so that the congregation understands their role in each part of worship?
  • What are the reasons people commonly attend an event, such as a sporting event, lecture, Christian music concert, or potluck? In what ways is attending worship at your church more profound than attending another event?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you've found to help your congregation become more aware of the elements and purposes of worship?

  • Have you found an effective or creative way to teach your congregation about the purpose, structure, and elements of worship?
  • Have you visited other churches and written church newsletter articles to explain how worship differs elsewhere and which elements were most or least helpful?
  • Have you chronicled your congregation's journey from stage-oriented worship planned by the staff to more interactive worship planned by staff and parishioners? If so, have you shared the highlights and pitfalls of this process with other congregations?