Service Planning: “The Lord Is in the Details!”

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We have all heard the rather sinister saying in reference to our man-made plans, “The devil is in the details.”  Generally, it means that our dreams may be lofty and our goals may be noble, but the little stuff that connects our dreams and goals to real life may bring the whole thing down on our heads. My fellow worship leader, I hope you are not offended if I sanctify this saying and bring it into the Kingdom of God with a major edit:

“The Lord is in the details!”

Even a casual glance at the Lord’s amazing creation will reveal a CREATOR who is the master of details, both small and great, both sub-microscopic and super-telescopic. Paul’s worship confession removes all doubt:

Col 1:15-17 NIV
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.
For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible,
whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.
He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Uppity scientists may mumble something about the force of gravity, but we know the universe is set in order and running on schedule because Jesus is “holding things together!”

This is the God we worship and our services should be a reflection of Him.  No wonder Paul instructs the Corinthians that when it comes to worship, “let everything be done decently and in order.” (I Cor 14:40)  Surely by now you have dispensed with the old idea that Pentecostal worship cannot be, or must not be, planned.  We used to think that to be truly led of the Spirit, we must be free from any pre-conceived notion of what the Lord wants to do in a service.  Time, experience, and the leadership of the Holy Spirit have proved that the Lord is the master of time and space so He can and does lead His chosen leaders in advance of a service.  Worship leadership, whether as Chief Musician or Lead Pastor, demands a sensitivity to the will of God in advance of the service in order to be prepared to lead.  Planning worship services is an exercise in prophecy! We enter into the future and see what could happen! In addition to specific leadership for particular services, our lives are themselves advance preparation for those wonderful moments when the Lord surprises us in a service as unplanned events unfold before us.  Leading Pentecostal worship is also an adventure!

Detail Number One: The Sense of the Service
Services of worship are important events in the life of a congregation.  The Lord is a planner and He has sent us His indwelling Spirit to reveal to us the parts of His plan we need in order to be in the right place at the right time with the right truths in focus so that as we lead the service, He is leading us. Wow!—right?

So, this means that the Lord has a plan for each service and, according to our leadership responsibilities, His indwelling Spirit implants into our hearts and minds the information we need to do our part.  This is not some wild theory.  This has been my experience as a worship leader for several decades.  I could tell you story after story of how the Lord led me to plan services far beyond any knowledge I possessed of the details of His master plan for the church in that moment.

Here is my theory of how this works:  Remember that Jesus told the Samaritan woman that True Worshipers would worship in “spirit and in truth.”  I take this to mean that there is a Truth the Spirit wants for every service.  This central truth is the theme for the service. To the extent of your leadership responsibilities, this truth becomes your guide.  Most of the time my responsibilities extended only to the music, so I left to the pastor the other planning details.  Except for special services like Missions Sunday or holiday seasons, we seldom met together to plan yet time after time the services came together as if they were carefully constructed.  I called it the routine miracle.

Detail Number Two: The Structure of the Service
Most churches I have served used a more or less standard service order.  Planning was largely a matter of filling in the blanks week by week.  One pastor I worked for was different.  He had a set of laminated cards prepared with the different events of the service on one side and nothing on the other.  He would clear away the corner of his desk and spill them out face down, mix them up and turn them face up and that would be the order of the service.  That was fun—and challenging! Later, when I discovered the meaning of the Tabernacle/Temple Model for the structure of a worship service, I discovered the “pattern” God has given us for worship. It is based on the heavenly throne room of God Moses saw on Mt. Sinai. (Heb 8:5)  The progression through the Tabernacle/Temple Model is the primary, quintessential order of NT worship:

Be assured, this structure of public worship works!  It is based on the fundamental principle of worship—the praise-to-worship sequence.

Detail Number Three: The Songs of the Service
Our creativity is now available to choose the worship arts to express the stations and the transitions between them.  We can be sure that the Lord will lead us whatever structures are used when our hearts are filled with His love and our songs with His truth, He will inhabit those “details,” also.

Selecting the songs the people will sing in a worship service is one of the most crucial of all the tasks of the worship service planner.  There are two basic and very different ways of doing this.

  1. One is what I call the Song-driven method. In this approach, the worship leader has a standard service order with a routine number and position of the congregational songs.  The worship leader chooses songs to occupy those positions in the service.  Hopefully the songs will be related in some way to each other and any theme of the service there may be.
  2. The other approach is the Praise-and-Worship method. This is an extended sequence of songs that function as a complete liturgy for presentation to the Lord.  There are no other events or announcements between the songs unless they are an integral part of the worship experience.  Like any work of art that unfolds in time, these worship sets are most effective as 3-part creations with a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion.

I have found this 3-part worship set to be the most satisfying and effective way to come before the Lord’s presence with the People of God.

The 3-part form is a standard structure for arts which unfold in time and is the structure of stage plays and films: Act I, Act II, Act III.

  • Act One is the exposition wherein the theme of the story and the main characters are introduced with the needed details of their lives.
  • Act Two is the presentation of the conflict of the story and the series of challenges facing the main characters.
  • Act Three is the resolution of the conflict and the vision of the changes in the characters brought about by the events depicted.

The 3-part structure is perhaps best defined in the standard form of classical instrumental music, the Sonata Allegro form, which unfolds as Exposition, Development, and Recapitulation.

  • In the Exposition, the principal themes of the music are presented.
  • In the Development section, the composer presents extensive altered variations on the themes.
  • In the Recapitulation, the principal themes are presented again in a recognizable form but altered by the development processes.

In effect he sonata allegro form is a musical journey from home to a distance destination and back to home again.  However, the music has been changed by the journey.

Here is my adaptation of the 3-part structure to a praise-and-worship set:

  • Call to Worship-A song that expresses the theme of the set.
  • Application-Additional songs exploring other expressions or supporting themes
  • Conclusion-A climactic song that sums up the set; perhaps even a restatement of the Call to Worship (recapitulation) as a conclusion.

A significant factor of creating an effective song sequence is the flow of tonality.  God has created a music system that flows from chord to chord and from key to key in a graceful and natural way.  The great musicians of history have created music from simple songs to massive epics by stringing together piece after piece in seamless unity using these flowing relationships.  It only makes sense that worship leaders should connect the songs and sections of the worship sets they create by using the graceful, powerful elements of tonality God has given us.

The shorthand for this God-given system is “The Circle of 4ths and 5ths.”  I will not take time to present it here, but I will encourage you to discover it and use it; it works. Let me share a couple of biblical metaphors that guided me in the early years as I learned to depend on the “circle.”

  • It is reported that the builders of Solomon’s Temple didn’t need the hammer or iron tool to join the stones David had ordered cut because they were so well-planned. When I would try to put two songs together in the wrong keys and the flow of worship was interrupted by what we call a “train wreck.” I would say to myself, “Wow! I had to use an iron tool and a hammer to get those songs to come together!”
  • Jesus was known to have a beautiful robe woven in one piece. I wanted to put my worship sets together in the same way, with no visible seams.

So, learn more than just songs—learn the ways God made music to flow!

The music ministry of a healthy church is an amalgamation of processes. I encouraged all the presenters of special music to seek to be led of the Lord in their song choices.  Even though we were operating on several layers of preparation schedules:

  • Praise and Worship Songs—Weekly
  • Choir and Orchestra Anthems—4-6 weeks,
  • Special Music—3 months,

It was amazing how often the music fit wonderfully together as if we had all sat at a table and planned every detail.  “Let everything be done decently and in order!”

Detail Number Four:  The Significance of the Service
I believe the amazing creativity of God should be regularly seen in our services of worship.  Public worship is far from wasted or even frivolous time.  It is time well spent and the individual events of worship are important.  Our songs are praises and prayers.  Our musical offerings to the Lord are not entertainments designed to amuse the masses. They are holy expressions of eternity squeezed into the times of our lives.

It only makes sense that God would have a plan for each service and it follows that through the indwelling Holy Spirit the Lord wants to lead His leaders to that plan.  Few would doubt these statements of vision and purpose.  Today we have been considering the details.  In the routine processes of our ministerial lives, who will we find hidden in those details?

Semper Reformanda!

Stephen Phifer

© 2023 by Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved

Service Planning: "The Lord Is in the Details!"

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