An inside view into the craft of planning worship
A church member once asked my wife, “When does Ruth finish putting together the worship service?” Ruth was my worship ministry assistant. The member thought that Ruth designed the worship service, and my job was to rehearse the ensembles and lead those services. Many people believe worship pastors work only two days per week, after all! It is essential to understand that planning an impactful service requires more than taking random worship elements and ordering them into a logical sequence. Most pastors spend seven to eighteen hours preparing a sermon, so the worship pastor should thoughtfully plan the worship service. I have developed my methods over twenty-five years, and I continue to grow as a worship planner. I expect to continue to adjust my philosophy until I plan my final service.
Effective Christian worship planning begins with an abiding relationship with Jesus Christ. Planning worship, at its core, is a spiritual endeavor.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” -John 15:5 (English Standard Version).
There are no shortcuts to abiding in Christ because Jesus calls us into a relationship and not to religion created by man. Crafting transformative worship services begins with time spent in prayer and Bible study. I have nothing of eternal value to offer the church apart from that which Jesus works in and through me.
A worship pastor needs to know the people in his congregation. He is a shepherd of people. Spend time to get to know the people with whom you serve. Then you will discover their felt needs, struggles, and areas that need to be shaped by the Holy Spirit. Critically important, the worship pastor must model a lifestyle of worship.
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:1–2).
Consider yourself blessed if you are a worship pastor whose senior pastor plans his sermon well in advance and values meeting and planning with you. I meet with my pastor weekly to discuss his upcoming messages and other special needs for those services. I cannot overemphasize the importance of a healthy working relationship between the lead pastor and the worship pastor. We meet for 30–60 minutes weekly.
Walking through these recurring rhythms organically shape your philosophy of worship. It takes years to develop but the time invested in developing how you think about worship is well-spent. That philosophy will inform every decision you make as a pastor and worship planner.
I realize this is the “churchy” answer but praying is the most important thing to do before planning worship. Prayer is the sharpest tool in our arsenal.
I have a word processing document called “Upcoming Worship Services” that projects a year into the future. The moment I am aware of a service element for a given service, I enter it into this document. Headings include sermon title, Scripture, theme, special music, congregational songs, and other included elements (baptism, guest speaker, Lord’s Supper, etc.).
I maintain a spreadsheet that includes every congregational song we sing. Column headings include song title, key, meter, tempo, theme, date last used, CCLI number, form, and timing. This file is helpful when sorting for a song by any of these criteria.
We use a web-based program called Planning Center. Planning Center is a tremendous tool for the worship pastor and the entire worship team. Musicians can view the service order and sheet music and listen to audio samples of each selection. The program communicates between the worship pastor and the team, emailing all musicians assigned to a given service. The participant accepts or declines the assignment. The worship pastor can then substitute a musician when alerted to a need.
Seemingly unlimited options are available when choosing songs today. Christian Copyright Licensing International offers a subscription called SongSelect, which contains thousands of song titles. You can print or download lyrics, lead sheets, chord charts, vocal charts, and transpose songs. I also use PraiseCharts, Lifeway Worship, and other services to purchase pieces for my church.
Although not an exhaustive explanation of how I plan worship, I hope people consider this post a helpful starting point. The Bible offers patterns of worship to use in designing services. Read God’s Word as well as books by respected worship pastors. Learn from them but allow God to use your unique qualities to serve His church.