This is the third in a three-part series, How Does The Gospel Shape Our Gathering? Read, “Part 1: A Theological Framework,” and, “Part 2: Our Liturgical Form.”
We’ve moved in this series from the fixed and permanent things to the more flexible things. Every church should sing and preach the Word. But churches can go about that differently. I’ve known of churches where the congregation requests songs on the spot. That’s not what we do but that’s one way to do it. In this post I’ll outline how we design our worship services. There are five sections of material here working chronologically as they typically happen. But these aspects of service design often blend in together. We have a formula to help us work well together, but don’t mean to be formulaic.
Focusing the Service
The most consequential and non-negotiable part of our service is the preached Word. Preaching is the main way Christ by his Spirit saves and sustains the church. Preaching defines the gospel and, therefore, the church. For these reasons, preaching is the structural climax and thematic center for our service. Everything else leads to and flows from this.
Keying off the preached Word, each Sunday gathering has two themes: a theme of revelation and a theme of response. The first theme focuses our attention on a facet of God’s glory and grace. The second theme focuses our response in a way appropriate to what God has revealed.
Here are some questions we ask to bring focus to a service:
- Is there a doctrinal theme in this week’s text, last week’s text, or in the series that would be especially useful for this Sunday’s gathering, keeping the overall diet in mind?
- Is there a natural biblical response offered in the book or preaching text that we can draw from for this service?
- How do these themes of revelation and response relate to the thematic emphasis of the sermon? (reinforcement, complement, contrast, etc.)
Gathering the Texts
Several tools help us gather our songs and readings. The first is a song catalogue, curated with about 160 songs that we sing as a church. These are songs whose texts are, in our judgment, especially good and whose tunes are especially singable. They are also songs that we can lead musically with excellence while still stretching us. We have songs that help us learn and sing just about every truth we believe. We have songs written for calling us into God’s praise, for leading us in confession, and for praying for the Word. We tag each song in the catalog to help us find the best songs for each Sunday. The second tool we use is a liturgy notebook filled with Scriptures and readings. Some of these are home cooked but many are curated from various other resources.
In gathering our material, we want to avoid two ditches. We want to avoid the ditch of incoherence, where there is no thematic relationship between the songs. On the other hand, it’s our approach to avoid a service that is too matchy-matchy. Someone should not end the service and think, “wow, we just sang a bunch of songs about how Christ is a ‘rock.'” Rather, as a result of the cumulative effect of the design, we want to say together, “wow, Jesus Christ is our rock!”
Here are some questions we ask ourselves once our themes are chosen:
- What songs, readings, or prayers immediately come to mind? How might these serve the following elements?: call, praise, confession, assurance, illumination, and response. With more research, what other songs, readings, or prayers might serve these elements?
- Is there an opportunity this week to use a song that we haven’t sung in over six months? Is this a good week to introduce a new song we have waiting for the right Sunday to introduce? Are there any newer songs we should repeat? Any regulars we should avoid repeating?
- What additional themes have emerged so far in this preaching series—and especially last week—that we can at least subtly echo in this service?
Organizing the Material
There are three basic patterns we can follow in designing a service. First, the historic gospel pattern in which we move from a call/praise > confession > assurance > a prayer/song of illumination > preaching > response/ordinances > benediction. We may put a profession of faith in there, but that’s the general flow. This is our most typical pattern and these elements will emerge in the other approaches as well, but for some elements less prominently. Second, there’s the gospel narrative pattern, where we move through an event in Scripture, whether it be the Bible’s whole story from creation > fall > redemption > new creation, or an event like the Exodus. The third approach is the gospel passage pattern. This is where we take a passage of Scripture—a Psalm or a paragraph in a letter, for example—and we work through that passage in the course of the service.
Here are a few questions we ask in this phase:
- What pattern of service design seems best suited to the theme and texts we’ve gathered?
- How can we bring a sense of proportion to this week’s service with songs old and new, songs to God and to one another about God, traditional and modern musical settings?
- How do each of these songs/readings/prayers uniquely relate to the service theme and how should they be ordered?
Ironing Out the Details
This step involves writing out the Call to Worship, modifying any readings to better advance our themes, and crafting song transitions. To return to our metaphor of a building, transitional comments are like signs that move through the gathering. They aren’t destinations but directions to help us get where we’re going. These are typically short—one or two sentences—just like signs should be. They should be meaningful, minimal, and memorable so that they can be delivered comfortably and with connection.
To write these, we identify where we are in the service and then meditate on the beginnings and end of songs to form a simple verbal conceptual link between them. These brief comments do more than explain, moving us from one element to another. They invite and exhort us, moving our spirits and moving us toward one another and to the Lord.
Here are some questions we ask in this phase:
- Where is the movement plain enough between elements that we can forego a transition at least once or twice during this service? Where is the movement between elements unclear enough such that a transition of some kind is needed?
- Where needed, how can we craft one or a few lines to help us move simply, briefly, poetically, and (for the leader’s sake) memorably from one element to another?
- How can we adapt the readings to more carefully unify the service and advance its themes?
Preparing the People
We want our gatherings to adorn the Word of God with undistracting excellence. We want to raise our affections with the Word. We want to involve the whole congregation without smothering their voice with our artistry. All of this involves a certain combination of musical and technical skill, spiritual maturity, nurtured relationships, and things like emails, software, and rehearsals. What does this mean for us week-to-week? It means involving the right people in the right ways and with the right preparation.
At Heritage, we are blessed immensely with skilled musicians who love our Lord and love his church. We have people skilled at playing instruments, arranging songs, leading rehearsals, mixing sound for the room, and organizing these parts to put our attention where it belongs. We have godly elders and deacons who prepare and lead us in prayers that are scriptural, understandable, and sincere. Deanna Moore skillfully prepares our music and our musicians. From the back of the room, Brian Burch leads our tech and mixing teams, so you don’t even notice them. A post could easily be devoted to the work involved in the teams they lead. Lisa Hansen supports us all with with heart and administrative skill. Abe Stratton leads us pastorally and vocally most Sundays without missing a note. There are countless others.
Focusing now just on music and musicians, here are some questions we ask:
- What kind of ensemble and instruments are best suited for this week’s songs? Is there a song we’re singing that requires a special musical touch by a particular musician? Importantly, who is available?
- What musical settings and transitions will best serve this week’s service themes and design? What can we do musically with undistracting excellence? How might we hold out the truth of a song with our artistry?
- Are there any opportunities this week for us to grow musically and technically? Are there any singing difficulties with one of these songs that requires special attention?
As you see and know those who lead us in more and less public ways on Sunday, give thanks to God for them, and then give praise to God with them. That’s why they’re there.
In addition to preparing those who will lead us on Sundays we also prepare you. We prepare you with details about the sermon text and theme, with playlists of songs we plan to sing, and with prayer before the service taking place in a number of venues. Watch Friday’s email, The Weekly, for those sermon and song details.
What Makes for Acceptable Worship?
Acceptable to whom? This is a good place to end this series of posts. Our concern in gathered worship is how we may offer worship acceptable to God. Our forms and expressions should be sensible for us as a unique local church. But our first interest is in worship that pleases the Lord.
What makes for acceptable worship to the Lord? Simply this: the blood and righteousness of Christ. There are many matters of prudence when it comes to the songs we sing and how to order our gathering. We should come on the Lord’s Day with hearts devoted to him, no matter what happened that week or what we did the day before. But none of these things earns us a standing with God. None of these things makes us acceptable to God. That’s because none of these things can make a worshiper of God. Christ and Christ alone makes us acceptable to God and Christ alone makes sinners into worshipers.
Before we come together we must come to him. And having come together, we come through him! Loved ones, remember, “as you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1Pe. 2:9, 10).