Worship Planning – What Should Worship Look Like?

Woman studying Bible. Black and white photo. (cc0)

It Depends . . . On, Well . . . Lots!

by Dr. Kimberly "Kace" Leetch, RCL Worship Resources & Clergy Stuff Founder


If you walk into any congregation in any denomination, of any size, in any location, you would have a different worship experience than in any other place. Worship is a very communal activity, meaning not only is it for the community, but it also reflects the community. Worship at the tiny Little Church of Keystone in Nebraska will look vastly different from the megachurch, Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, New York. Every community has its own preferences, cultural celebrations, and yes, even political persuasions.

But worship is also communal on a global scale. If I walk into a Lutheran worship service in the Iringa Diocese in Tanzania, Africa, there will be familiar elements to my home congregation of St. Stephen in Bloomington, MN. If you were dropped into a service with no knowledge of where you were going or what you were to do there, the seating, the altar, and the prayers would make the experience immediately recognizable as worship.

So, what makes worship, well… worship? While there are certainly differences, there are a few elements a worship service does not live without. Here are some important ones…


Community

Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:20) While we can certainly experience worship-like elements all alone, the experience of a worship service needs people. 

Structure of service (order of worship)

Some services are as simple as Welcome, Prayers, Music, Scripture, and Message. Others are quite complex including other-worldly-sounding names like, Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. Whether you prefer your service bare-boned or rich, it’s important to have some sort of structure. Structure provides consistency and familiarity, even as the elements within the structure can remain fluid and creative.

Bible

The most important voice that will be heard during your worship experience is God’s. The second most important will be those of God’s prophets, poets, storytellers, historians, missionaries, even God’s own son(!), that speak through the words of Scripture. Worship without God’s word is just noise. When you begin your worship planning with the Bible, you give those voices a platform, and you can focus all the elements of that day’s worship around the word being heard.

Prayer

The next most important voices are those of the worship participants. In prayer, worshipers are given the opportunity to speak to God communally, individually, formally, or informally – but always intentionally. And during times of prayer, God’s voice (the most important, remember?) is also heard. In prayer we can give God time and space to communicate with us as we are willing and able to listen.

Music

Can it be worship without music? Maybe. But music is a timeless way to tap into the spiritual, emotional, and artistic sides of ourselves. The lyrics, the rhythms, and the melodies and harmonies all open us to experience worship even more vulnerably than we would without it. Even deaf congregations have music – it’s a shared experience that we need each time we gather.

Message

In most settings the message is delivered by a scripturally educated preacher to the congregation. This has advantages – someone who has studied Scripture at length can often open the Word to those without the time or access to such study. It can also have disadvantages – often God’s Word can become so intermingled with the preacher’s word that it is hard to distinguish which is which. And it offers only one human voice’s perspective.

Some congregations have made a shift to including other voices. Some turn the sermon’s traditional monologue into a dialogue between those gathered, either in a talk-show-style question/answer/reflection, or in small groups. Some even invite lay members to preach – often these become witness testimonies rather than scholarly speeches, which can be incredibly powerful experiences! (Heck, even the children’s Christmas pageant is a message delivered by some of our congregations’ most honest young members! And have you ever been moved by a hymn sing?) However you choose to deliver or share a message, the voices of God’s people are critical to the experience.

And, of course, God!

As mentioned earlier, God’s voice is the most important voice in worship. God’s voice can be heard in scripture, prayer, music, message, art, ministries of the congregation highlighted during worship, and so many other ways. If there is nothing else in your worship, make sure God’s voice can be heard above all else.

So, what could worship look like? It could look like a delicious blend of God, you, your congregation, and the community around you (whether they worship or not).

Leave a comment about worship and what it looks like for your faith community.