Worship planning, whether it’s led by a pastor, a musician, a planning team, or a worship committee, begins with this goal in mind: a well-thought-out liturgy that involves the assembly in authentic praise of God. In most congregations, regardless of the church’s size or style of worship, elements of the service—music, prayer, sermon, movement to the table and out into the world—are placed in an established order that will guide the congregation in the worship hour. After the service, any reflection is usually an evaluation of particular elements of worship—this went well; this did not. The pattern is repeated weekly and seasonally.
Often the planners (clergy, musicians, lay members of various functional committees—altar guild, ushers, technicians) anticipate the whole of the service through their own roles in worship. Each sees worship through a particular lens. Musicians are concerned mainly with the anthem or the hymns and songs; ushers focus on the efficiency of seating guests or the smoothness of collecting offerings. The planning revolves around predictable choices and sequences, putting elements of the worship service into established places, into their proper “slots.”
This common method of planning and reflecting is basically linear. It is a logical method of preparing the service because the worship service itself is a sequential pattern. With contextual and denominational variations, the established pattern—gathering, hearing, responding, departing—sustains the congregation in the rhythms of praise and prayer. The shape of the service is dependable and familiar.
While this common pattern of planning is functional, a more expansive and spacious liturgical celebration calls for preparatory conversation that is fluid. For the worship to be multidimensional and multisensory, the planning itself has to expand to include language that is poetic and playful as well as declarative or practical. Brainstorming and imagining offer an open way of thinking and discussing that is more circular than linear. While creative and exciting, an exclusively circular planning conversation can spin on and on, with great ideas but no focus, no defining order. Conversely, a solely linear process can become a series of lists, with limited opportunity for change or expansion. Linear and circular thinking are distinct, but both are useful and must be held in tension as necessary components of planning.
The challenge is to plan multisensory worship services that are structured and focused. The worship service requires order and flow that incorporate the assembly’s expressions of joy and awe and thanks and lament. As my colleagues and I developed a conversational model of worship planning to include both approaches, we learned that separating the two movements of “planning” and “ordering” was the key to working with this tension. In our conception, the planning is more free-form; it involves discovery of multiple possibilities and expressions based on the biblical texts. Ordering is more linear, more sequential; this step puts the pieces in place.
Distinguishing the imaginative/affective conversation from the functional/equipping process allows for diverse ideas and interpretations as well as for careful organization. The discussion among members of the planning team is more spacious; there is no rush to put the ideas into “slots.” In ordering the service, planners base their outlining of the logistics on the needs of the worship service, as well as on local custom.
As we gained skill in practicing this conversation, moving from planning to ordering, then into worship and the reflection that followed, we adopted an acronym for this conversational process: POWR (pronounced “power”). The POWR model goes beyond merely preparing worship services. It includes the work of preparing the people who will worship—through study and discussion, questioning and wondering—so that they might worship more honestly and live more faithfully. This process guides the planners and leaders and congregants, uniting a community of diverse spiritual practices and expressions into a vibrant, worshiping congregation through word and gesture, song and prayer, preaching and sacrament.
The underlying premise of the POWR model is that planning and preparing for worship is holy work. The planning and preparation are themselves opportunities to experience the Holy, to see God’s Spirit at work in us. We are formed by practice.
You will discover that, more than providing a systematic process or structured outline to follow or a set of steps toward worship renewal, the POWR model offers a flexible, guided pattern of conversation among the people of God in a congregation. Though simple in its outline, the process itself is not always easy. It is, however, deeply rewarding, exciting, and life-giving.
The first step in planning is listening to and “seeing” the biblical texts, reimagining the scriptural themes in concrete expression. In this session, the fundamental question is “What is God saying to us in the Word for this day?” This is a time of prayerful reading of the text or texts, after which the leader, usually the pastor, invites responses. In the brainstorming that follows, quick reflections, one-word descriptors of the themes of the text, and probing questions all fill the air and bounce against one another. This initial gathering of the team ends with a bundle of notes and suggestions. Some thoughts may still be swirling as the group dismisses.
The ordering session involves untying the bundle of ideas from the planning time and arranging them within the liturgical structure. In the time between “planning” and “ordering,” some of the ideas will have wilted, some will have disappeared, and others will have come into full bloom. The conversation revolves around the purpose of and need for various elements in the liturgy and the practices of the parish. The planners consider the practical aspects of the service and the leadership needed for the praise of God on this day. Always, the underlying question is “How can we respond to God’s Word in ways that are truthful, ways that call, nourish, and send us to be the church in the world?”
In worship, the people of God gather for praise and prayer, confession and celebration. They expect a Word from the Lord. The circular and imaginative conversation of planning and the linear and functional organizing all come together in the poetry of hymns, the giving and receiving of the offering, the expected gesture of sharing bread, and the unexpected sunlight shining through the window on the heads of children at the altar. People who are drawn to varied expressions of worship find a welcome place. Their songs are heard, their prayers given voice. Those who have planned and studied and suggested ideas and those who have trained the servers and acolytes and choir see this preparatory work offered to God. The multifaceted planning and ordering come to full expression in the gathered assembly’s worship.
The holy work of the planning team continues after worship. The team comes together to pray and to reflect on what happened in the community’s gathering before God. Deeper and more constructive than a list of what was “good” or “not good” about the service, the conversation is about God’s actions, God’s presence in worship. The conversation begins with God’s actions, God’s presence, and subsequently involves more practical aspects. Through this reflection, the pastor and the planning team members are once again brought around to the beginning of the process. “What is God saying to us this day, and how might we respond?”
Rather than helping to structure a series of worship services punctuated by preparatory meetings, the conversational model involves discussion that is both imaginative and functional. The planning team gives explicit attention to fleshing out the liturgy, making visible God’s invitation and our response through specific actions and gestures, signs and symbols in this place
Over time, through careful planning, ordering, and reflecting, worship becomes richer, not routine or habitual. Team members learn to speak clearly and listen well. In return, each is affirmed and welcomed in his or her uniqueness. It is a grace-filled pattern that weaves together the preparation for and the response to worship. The rhythms of circular and linear thinking that engage both mind and heart lead to an ongoing encounter with the Holy.
Comment on this article on the Alban Roundtable blog
Adapted from Encounters with the Holy: A Conversational Model for Worship Planning by Barbara Day Miller, copyright © 2010 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Encounters with the Holy: A Conversational Model for Worship Planning
by Barbara Day Miller
Many churches have active worship committees or planning teams, and an abundance of books and resources guide pastors and laity. Encounters with the Holy offers a conversational model of worship planning that was developed to train practitioners to be more reflective in their planning of worship experiences.
Designing Worship Together: Models and Strategies for Worship Planning
by Norma de Waal Malefyt and Howard Vanderwell
This book draws on more than two decades of collaborative worship planning by pastor Howard Vanderwell and musician Norma de Waal Malefyt, offering thoughtful, field-tested processes and tools for planning, implementing, and evaluating life-enriching weekly worship.
When God Speaks through Worship: Stories Congregations Live By
by Craig A. Satterlee
When God Speaks through Worship: Stories Congregations Live By is a collection of stories of congregational worship in which God’s ongoing presence, speech, and activity are apparent. These stories of proclaiming the gospel, teaching the faith, praying, singing, baptizing, blessing, and sharing bread and wine in Jesus’s name share the purpose of these activities in worship, yet still challenge the reader to explore the motives behind them.
Worship Frames: How We Shape and Interpret Our Experience of God
by Deborah J. Kapp
In worship we encounter God’s gracious presence and come face to face with the frailty, goodness, and potential of our humanity. We are comforted, corrected, forgiven, healed, challenged, and sometimes even disturbed by the Divine and one another. The mysterious and uncontrollable work of the Spirit is at the heart of all genuine worship. Yet worshipers and leaders work hard to worship. In Worship Frames, Deborah Kapp explores how the sociological concept of frames can help us better understand the social and human dynamics of worship. By understanding our frames, she contends, we can learn how to reframe worship to give fuller and richer expression to our faith. font>
The Work of the People: What We Do in Worship and Why
by Marlea Gilbert, Christopher Grundy, Eric T. Myers, and Stephanie Perdew
Despite its centrality to church life, worship is too often taken for granted as something a congregation experiences rather than collectively creates. This book simply and clearly explains the structure of worship, the actions and words we use in liturgy, the environment in which it all happens—in other words, what we are doing and why. It will guide congregations in worshiping in a way that encourages participants’ spiritual growth, welcomes new participants into faith, and sends people out as the body of Christ to transform the world.