Monday, June 19, 2006

Designing Worship Together

Recently I was asked a rather interesting question by a group of church leaders. What would I do if lay members leading a worship experience said or did something that I strongly disagreed with either theologically or spiritually?

Describe the circumstances I replied. This family worship gathering, I was told, was an early morning service that preceded a more traditional worship experience in the life of the church. All the pastor had to do in this family worship gathering was to show up and offer a brief message in a casual atmosphere, while lay leaders took care of everything else. What do you think such dynamics are bound to produce?

I thought to myself in hearing that early family service described, that any number of confusions and misunderstandings were bound to arise over time. Lack of communication, a perfunctory role for the pastor, and an obvious lack of worship planning could all contribute toward conflict.

A part of my answer to this group of lay leaders was that worship is "the work of the people" and that misunderstandings can arise when either pastor or people fail to join their best efforts in designing a compelling and appealing worship experience for all ages and stages of faith.

One quite helpful resource to help in worship planning is the book "Designing Worship Together", with the subtitle "Models and Strategies for Worship Planning".
Authors Norma deWaal Malefyt and Howard Vanderwell offer up a wealth of practical and exciting suggestions about how teams of people in the life of the church can be empowered to do the work of the people of God in worship.

The authors of "Designing Worship Together" remark that "When the two of us began our ministries in the late 1970s and early 1980s, worship planning consisted of selecting three songs to "plug in" to the standard order of service, phoning in the song numbers to the organist of the day- and worship planning was done!" You could call that style of worship design the "fill in the blanks" style of worship planning. The problem is that such a style doesn't offer any opportunity, much less encouragement to employ the creative gifts of members for worship. Drama, liturgical dance, visual backgrounds for scripture using power-point technology, use of multiple voices in reading and speaking the texts of worship; you name it, all of these elements of a vital and engaging worship experience are omitted with cut and paste or fill in the blank worship services.

How is it that the creative God we worship, who is all about inspiring creative gifts and accomplishments of people in the world, would not want to invite our best creative efforts in planning worship?

"Designing Worship Together" makes a pursuasive case for collaboration in planning worship. An honest part of this case for collaboration also involves a look at obstacles to collaboration: Incompatible views of worship, insufficient available time to plan, failure of partnerships, personal agendas, and yes, the failure of pastors to plan ahead. But none of these challenges is insurmountable.

"Designing Worship Together" offers a mini-course for pastors and lay worship leaders or committees on how to work together. One helpful suggestion calls for worship leaders to come up with a thoughtful and appealing "purpose statement" for worship that guides the worship and mission of the church.

A number of other suggestions are offered, including a reference to work by noted Presbyterian pastor and worship leader Tom Long of Emory University. Long says that vital and faithful congregations:

1. Make room, somewhere in worship, for the experience of mystery.
2. Make planned and concerted efforts to show hospitality to the stranger.
3. Have recovered and made visible the sense of drama inherent in Christian worship.
4. Creatively adapt the space and environment of worship.
5. Forge a strong connection between worship and local mission
6. Maintain a relatively stable order of service and a signficant repertoire of worship elements and responses that the congregation knows by heart.
7. Moves to a joyous experience toward the end of the service.

What would I do if I disagreed with others leading worship? Well, a sense of humility calls for each of us to recognize that our worship and our leadership of worship is always in need of reform. No experience of worship is ever perfect, but ours is a gracious and loving God who welcomes us into the divine presence, and gladly receives our gifts. This loving God also seeks to transform us and change us and make us more holy. Together we are called to design worship that honors the goodness of our God. The good news is that we are called to do this together!


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