Just Fill in the Blanks – Marc Brown
Have you ever wondered how a Worship Pastor/Minister of Music plans worship? Do evangelical Worship Pastors really start with a blank slate, relying on the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit to generate genuinely fresh approaches to worship every week? Or, through our habits, do we create our very own version of a liturgy? While I can’t vouch for the entirety of the evangelical worship planning world, my experiences and observations lead me to believe conditions are much closer to the latter. I believe congregational worship has a natural tendency to settle into its own liturgy, a word that just means “work of the people”, so shouldn’t those of us serving in free-church evangelical settings think deeply about the “liturgy” into which we settle? After all, we have a choice. Since I have been asked more than a few times to describe my personal process, here goes…
Foundations to Build On
While researching and writing my thesis, I was very blessed to be mentored by Dr. Constance Cherry. She has authored an amazing series of books entitled The Worship Architect. Constance presents the process of building a house as a metaphor for building a worship service. Following the metaphor, Constance suggests that worship services have three basic aspects: structure, style and content. When considering a house, the builder is foremost concerned with building a structure capable of supporting and housing the content and aesthetic stylings that will follow. As with a house, there is more than one possible structure capable of bearing the weight of a worship service. Many contemporary worshiping traditions have embraced John Wimber’s (Vinyard) Tabernacle model, where the service preceding the sermon is constructed mostly of songs moving stylistically from louder, upbeat music to slower, more contemplative. Through subtle changes of text, tempo and volume, this progression ushers the worshiper from the “outer courts” of the tabernacle to the “inner courts” on their way to the “holy of holies” or the sermon. Many people schooled in traditional hymn-based worship may have been taught the Isaiah 6 model. This model uses the first eight verses of Isaiah chapter 6 as a framework for designing worship. A brief outline of this structure includes beginning with large, majestic praise reflecting Isaiah’s observation of worship in God’s heavenly throne room. What follows is a sequence hinging on the worshiper’s realization of their sinfulness, confession of those sins, and assurance of pardon. After this crucial element of Holy dialogue, the worshiper is, as in the Isaiah passage, fit to hear and understand God speaking to them (sermon) and challenging them to respond (invitation). In my professional ministry, I have used both of these models.
Though I have used both the Tabernacle and Isaiah 6 models, I now choose, regardless of worship style, to use the 4-fold model as my primary structure for worship. As Constance states, the 4-fold model comes both from scriptural roots and historical documentation of the early church (Worship Architect, 46). The four “folds” are (1) gathering, (2) Word, (3) Table, (4) and sending.
“Worship is a journey – a journey into God’s presence (gathering), of hearing from God (Word), that celebrates Christ (Table), and that sends us into the world changed by our encounter with God (sending) (Worship Architect, 47).
For most evangelical traditions, the catch in using this model is the inclusion of the Lord’s Supper in every service. When the Lord’s Supper is not observed in worship, the 4-fold model fills its place with an element called the “alternate response.” While I am a great advocate for evangelicals increasing the frequency of Lord’s Supper observance (see my article entitled, “How Much is Enough”), I am also very glad to serve in a church where we have the perfect worship component to fill such a need – the offertory. There are three prominent worship themes found in observance of the Table:
- Lord’s Supper=Ceremonial Meal memorializing Christ’s sacrifice
- Communion=Ceremonial Meal creating indescribably close spiritual connection to Christ
- Eucharist=Ceremonial Meal celebrating Christ’s victory over sin and death
All three are proper responses to God revealing Himself through the holy dialogue that occurs in every worship service. An offertory, with its opportunity to respond through giving, contemplation, prayer, standing, sitting, kneeling, or singing, is a fantastic opportunity to respond to God in services where the Table is not observed.
Start with Scripture
You may be thinking, “This is all very interesting, but I’m really only curious about how the songs are chosen.” In previous times, I have been content to choose songs simply based on their connection to the pastor’s sermon or my own personal preference. I was filling blanks in an ad-hoc liturgy that has developed in many Baptist churches. Now, when I choose songs, I start with scripture. Since evangelicals look to scripture as our sole authority, I choose to not limit the congregation’s interaction with scripture to the pastor reading his sermon text. In past eras, when scripture was not written in the language of the people or congregations were illiterate, pastors and church leaders came up with a wonderful strategy to help expose worshipers to the entire Bible. Since worshiping through the entire Bible is a pretty lengthy task, the authors of this scripture strategy pragmatically decided on a three-year plan. This ingenius plan for congregational scripture interaction is called The Lectionary. The Lectionary takes about 90% of the Bible and distributes it into four weekly readings; one Psalm, one Old Testament, one New Testament epistle, and one Gospel reading for each Sunday of the year. The consistent readings in worship not only expose the congregation to scripture, but they also help believers orient their lives around the events of God’s story of creation and redemption. Even though most evangelical pastors do not use the readings in the Lectionary to decide what they will preach, the Lectionary is still a fantastic tool. Using the index, I can identify the pastor’s sermon text and then find companion scriptures throughout the Bible.
Assuming the primary scripture of the week is the pastor’s sermon text, how do I handle 2-3 extra scripture readings? To the average evangelical worshiper, stopping the music 2-3 times during the service to read scripture would seem a bit jolting. No worries, there are plenty of solutions. Even though we are dealing with the “Word” portion of a 4-fold structure, we can still use music and we still pray. Of the 3-4 possible scriptures for each service, one is read by the Pastor as the basis of his sermon; one is read by an individual, team or the congregation; at least one is sung in paraphrase as a congregational song; and one is transposed into a prayer. The result is that my congregation is edified through reading, singing and praying scripture – a lot of it – without destroying their style sensibilities. This is one of the reasons I believe that the 4-fold structure “bears the weight” of any style, from the most traditional to the most contemporary.
Although some of you reading this article are still only wondering how I choose songs, it’s important for you to know that I can’t choose songs until I’ve gone through this process. Now that I am here, I may still have “blanks to fill,” but I have a more complete understanding of what type of songs will best fill those blanks. Here is a list of the things I consider each week in choosing songs for worship:
Does the song set or paraphrase the primary text or companion scriptures?
I believe there should be a variety of tempos represented in each service. If you want service music that fails to connect with the congregation, choose songs that all have the same tempo.
There are holy mysteries in the way God created music. One of those mysteries is how musical keys relate to the emotions of the listener, player, or singer. I don’t want to choose songs that are all in the same key (see Tempo comments). I also want to avoid keys that step down. The congregation may not exactly know what happened, but if the songs in your worship set step down, they will know something feels wrong. This can disconnect them from their ability to participate. I prefer songs that ascend. This can happen via step-wise movement, such as C to D; circle of fifths movement, such as A to E or G to D; triad motion like C to E to G, or songs that are in relative or parallel keys like e minor to G or A major to a minor. When I am building a song set, I try to follow the same rules for key relationship that make a good sonata or symphony.
There are several song selection rubrics out there for worship planners to use in selecting the best songs for their congregation’s use. The one I use has a pretty extensive series of questions that help me assign a point value to a song’s text, theology and musical strength. When I answer the questions, I do so subjectively, but after multiple layers of subjectivity I find that I gain a more objective idea of the song’s usability. While I don’t run every song through this process every week, I do revisit the rubric with new songs from time to time just to keep my mind oriented to the process.
Time of Year
This consideration may seem obvious, but it needs to be mentioned. For instance, if the pastor’s sermon on Mother’s Day doesn’t focus on godly parenting or the biblical role of motherhood, I still need to make considerations in my planning process. Being aware of the time of year is also important during times of the Christian Year like Ascension, Pentecost or Epiphany.
Familiar and Unfamiliar
I am guilty of getting stuck in ruts with both new songs and old songs. If your congregation’s participation in worship is important to you, you need to be very strategic in the use of new songs. I suggest never using more than one new song per week. I also suggest re-using that song the next week.
I hope it is apparent that style is not the most important issue for me in planning worship. But it is very important to make your selections balance with your congregation’s stylistic center. Sometimes worship pastors can be at tension with where the congregation is stylistically comfortable and where your church leadership wants to go – these are not always the same place. I have found that as long as I put my emphasis on the biblical and theological soundness of worship planning and song selection, people are willing to give grace as I figure out what styles work best.
In former times of my ministry I would spend no more than an hour planning each week’s worship. I was, in fact, filling in blanks. Since embracing the 4-fold structure and a commitment to using more scripture and prayer in worship, my planning time has increased to at least five to six hours per service. It is totally worth it. Several times I have had people tell me how they are not sure what is different, but they somehow feel there is more depth in their worship. Not only does this give me the feeling I am giving God my best effort as a worship planner, but also that I am being a better leader for my church. Here is a brief list of the authors and books that have influenced my own worship renewal:
Beale, G. K. We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology or Idolatry. Downers Grove, Illinois. IVP Academic, 2008.
Chan, Simon. Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community. Downers Grove, Illinois. IVP Academic, 2006.
Cherry, Constance M. The Worship Architect: A Blueprint for Designing Culturally Relevant and Biblically Faithful Services. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010.
Furr, Gary A. and Milburn Price. The Dialogue of Worship: Creating Space for Revelation and Response. Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing Incorporated, 1998.
Packiam, Glenn. Discover the Mystery of Faith. Elgin, Illlinois: David C. Cook Publishers, 2013.
Wainwright, Geoffrey, Doxology: The Praise of God in Worship, Doctrine, and Life. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Webber, Robert E. Ancient-Future Worship: Proclaiming and Enacting God’s Narrative. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008.
This blog post available courtesy of thinkingaboutworship.wordpress.com and Marc Brown.