Ministry: Worship Planning
(Author’s Note: As the Lenten season comes around again –February, 2023–pastors and worship leaders hear things about Lent and other aspects of the Christian Calendar. As a life-long Pentecostal, I knew very little about these ancient modes of worship. When I studied the calendar at the Institute for Worship Studies, I found these things very interesting and full of potential for 21 century worship. The simple idea is to put the Jesus story right in the middle of our lives starting with Advent and continuing until the season of Pentecost. Seems like a good idea to me! This article was written in 2017.)
Sanctifying the Hallmark Calendar
A Lightheared Look at the Convergence of the Social with the Spiritual
Hail to the Flags
Upstage left and right on many worship platforms the state flag, the US flag, and the Christian flag are displayed waiting for the breeze that makes them wave, the breeze that will never come. On Memorial Day Sunday, Independence Day Sunday and Veteran’s Day Sunday a Color Guard bravely marches the American Flag down the center aisle of the church as worship begins with the National Anthem and perhaps the Pledge of Allegiance. On any one of those same Sundays, veterans will be recognized for their service.
Before the sexual revolution of the 1960’s, many churches held Mothers’ Day competitions: The youngest mother, the oldest, or the one with the most children. When, year after year, a pregnant, unmarried teen won the youngest mother prize, the practice was quietly dropped.
Easter Egg hunts are major outreaches to children in the community. Choirs mount huge fake “trees” to sing the Christmas story to the world. In almost every sanctuary artificial Christmas trees too small to host a choir will decorate the worship platform. Fathers’ Day often competes with Pentecost Sunday and wins the match.
Combining the Holy with the Social
Deep beneath the lights and flags and brightly colored eggs lies a basic conflict each worship planner has to confront: How do we honor all these ideas and customs and still keep the worshipfulness of the Sunday service?
This combination of the holy (worship of the Triune God) and the social (honoring of other human beings) is called syncretism. The Free Dictionary Online, defines syncretism as:
“the attempted reconciliation or union of different or opposing principles, practices, or parties, as in philosophy or religion.”
Through this process the ancient festival of the Winter Solstice became Christmas. Easter grew a set of secular symbols—rabbits and eggs—and Christmas grew decorated trees.
Sanctifying the Calendar, Redeeming the Time, Incarnating the Word
On the positive side of history, the process has also enabled Christianity to adapt to local cultures, seizing local customs and Christianizing them. Let’s use a more theological term: local customs have been sanctified—made holy and set apart for God’s use. The church has “redeemed those times.” In artistic terms we have incarnated the divine Word of God into very human forms and customs.
The Christian Year
Today there is widespread interest in the Christian Year. For many this is old news; they have been worshiping according to the Revised Common Lectionary their whole lives. For others all we know of the Christian calendar is Christmas and Easter. I want to deal with the problem of worship planning with the expectations of the people for these essentially secular celebrations and the challenge of keeping the focus of the Sunday worship experience centered on the Lord Jesus.
Rule Number One:
Do not interrupt the flow of worship with secular celebrations.
A properly planned and led worship service should flow seamlessly from beginning to end, with each song and ceremony gracefully emerging from one event and gliding effortlessly into the next. This is what Paul meant when he said “Let everything be done in a fitting and orderly way.” Two biblical models always challenged me as a worship leader:
- The seamless robe of Jesus was woven in one piece. Wow! That’s what I want every service I lead to be—a seamless robe for my Savior—a work of art diverse and yet inherently unified.
- The building of the Temple was an amazing experience for the stone masons. Huge stones were cut using the plans of King David that were so precise that tools were not needed to put them together.
In building the temple, only blocks dressed at the quarry were used, and no hammer, chisel or any other iron tool was heard at the temple site while it was being built. (1 Kings 6:7 NIV)
Wow! That is planning! Sometimes while leading worship a transition between songs or keys would breakdown or just be awkward, and therefore be a distraction. I would say to myself, “Oops! I really had to use an iron tool to get those songs to come together! Forgive me, Lord! I’ll plan it better next time.”
Into the craft of worship planning–this spiritual, prophetic, and mysterious process of building this week’s liturgy, the song set, “the work of the people,” comes a celebration of motherhood, fatherhood, or Americana!
What is a worship leader to do?
Well, what not to do is break the flow of worship! If a worship service unfolds like this:
- a great call to worship,
- several minutes of congregational worship, and then a sudden left turn—
- we honor all the fathers, mothers, graduates, soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines.
- Then we try to pick up the Book and preach or
- light the candles of congregational prayer as if nothing strange had happened.
The secular interrupts the spiritual and creates a huge parenthesis in the service. What do I mean?
So, I suggest doing the secular before or after the spiritual so the worship can flow supernaturally from start to finish.
Rule Number Two:
Keep the Focus of the Celebration on God.
Rule Number Two requires deep spirituality and imaginative creativity. Without giving it much thought, we might select music for the Hallmark/Patriotic Sundays that is rather shallow in content, like a liturgical greeting card.
For years I never saw much difference in the three Patriotic Sundays: Memorial Day, Independence Day and Veterans’ Day. I considered the music almost interchangeable. My studies at IWS (Doctor of Worship Studies, 2004) introduced me to people who hated the mixture of Americana and Worship. They wouldn’t even allow American flags in the Sanctuary. This advancement in my worship education made me think more deeply about the differences between each of these celebrations. I found that if I wasn’t careful Memorial Day and Independence Day and Veterans’ Day Sunday could be redundant.
In those years I led worship in a great church only 10 miles from the Pentagon. Believe me, we did the Patriotic things at every opportunity. I loved it! (Hey! I’m a card-carrying Baby Boomer who can’t get enough of WW2 history and an ex-band director who loves marches!) In rethinking how to plan worship that would keep its focus on God and fulfill these cultural expectations I had to understand the distinctives of each day. They are not all the same.
- Memorial Day is about those who have given their lives in the service of our country.
- Independence Day is about the USA.
- Veterans’ Day is about current service personnel.
Seeing these things clearly, I decided upon these emphases:
- Memorial Day will honor our forebears and dwell on the hope of heaven.
- Independence Day will be an opportunity to be thankful for our freedom of worship and to pray for our country and for the People of God.
- For Veterans’ Day will honor our veterans and pray for the peace and prosperity of our country and the witness of the church..
This thematic breakdown helped me find worship and choir/orchestra music that could either start the service or flow within it without being a parenthesis. Also, the fact that many patriotic songs are actually prayers helps integrate them into prayer for the country and for the church.
These “high and holy” (not!) days present a greater challenge if the worship leader wants to integrate Social/Family celebrations into worship. Some obvious choices have been worn out and should be outlawed in every state: (Just Kidding!)
- Men’s Chorus on Fathers’ Day or Mothers’ Day
- Women’s Chorus on Mother’s Day or Fathers’ Day
- Singing “Faith of our Mothers” to the tune of “Faith of Our Fathers.”
- Mothers’ Day Olympics: Youngest, Oldest, Most Children, the Most Operations, Can Remember Her Original Hair Color, etc.
I have never had the privilege of deciding when these recognitions should take place in the service—the Pastor did that. My best recommendation would be to handle these things at the beginning or end of the service. Another alternative is to treat them in the same manner as Graduation Sunday, First Responders’ Day, Teachers’ Recognition and the like. If these are observed as part of corporate prayer time the parenthesis effect can be avoided.
1. Keep the focus on God.
2. Don’t break the flow of worship.
Wait a minute—these two rules are in effect every Sunday!
© 2017 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved (Updated Feb 2023)
For more go to: https://stevephifer.com/worship-leading/ and