This is an outline of the process we use at North United Methodist Church. Our Sunday morning worship is traditional; however, the essence of this process I used in previous appointments that had both traditional and blended services. North is a heavily oriented ‘rational’ congregation which values written liturgy. However, the advice offered below are basic concepts that can work for a more informal worship setting.
Regardless of the style, the heart of worship is Jesus Christ in whom we worship “in spirit and truth.” To worship in “spirit” means that our focus is ultimately on the spiritual encounter through the Holy Spirit. To worship in “truth” means that we are fully honest about ourselves in the presence of God and we are fully receptive to God’s truth in Christ. The words, music, images and movements of worship are a means for helping us “worship in spirit and truth.” For more about the meaning of worship I recommend Don Salier’s Worship as Theology: A Foretaste of Glory Divine.
Long Range Planning
- Discerning the Central Text for Each Sunday: Some pastors use all or most of the lectionary readings to do this, because each Sunday the lectionary texts have a common thread. Other pastors select a theme and then based everything around it. I start with the lectionary and often choose 1 of readings because I have found that using all 4 does not create the precision that makes for a better worship experience. But there are times when the lectionary makes odd choices and omits key passages altogether. I usually follow the lectionary closely and use all 4 readings during short seasons of the year, such as Advent. An essential part of this discernment process is prayer and listening to my pastoral context. I take account of the current ministries and dynamics and I look ahead at what new initiatives and challenges will need to be addressed. For example, if I am selecting a theme for a sermon series, I ask key lay leaders for their opinion. I listen to the issues going on in the community and the world. Praying for illumination by the Holy Spirit and listening for the Spirit in the congregation guides the selection of central texts. Preaching begins with listening
- I usually do not start with a theme because this usually leads to manipulating and truncating a scripture passage to fit the theme. The exception to this is a sermon series which I do once or twice a year, usually during Lent (instead of following the lectionary). The series tend to be 4-6 weeks and I usually write a companion study guide for personal and small group use.
- The process begins with me, the senior pastor, selecting 1 central scripture passage around which everything else is oriented. I select central texts for approximately 2-4 months at a time (for example, I will select central texts from Ash Wednesday to Pentecost so that I can plan how the Easter Season builds on the Lenten sermon series). This helps me avoid preaching on the same thing several weeks in a row and it creates continuity from week to week so that there is a cumulative effect to the formational power of worship.
- The list of central texts is a preliminary list until I involve the staff in planning. This takes place in two ways:
- Seasonal—Twice a year, the entire program staff has a day-long retreat (in April, to plan for the fall-Advent; in October, to plan for Lent-early summer). I present a draft of the sermon series and allow them to help me select specific themes and the Sunday-to-Sunday flow of it. As the senior pastor, it is essential that I take the lead in selecting the overall theme of the series. Then, we brainstorm ideas for worship and explore other ministry opportunities that will complement the series; at the same time, we will adjust the sermon series to align with key ministry events.
- Quarterly or Bi-Monthly Hymn Selection—After the seasonal planning, I finalize the list of central texts for every Sunday. Then, I meet with the music director and organist to select hymns for every Sunday. These meetings are usually a couple of hours.
- Monday mornings I write liturgy and prepare the information for the bulletin based on the seasonal planning and the hymn selection meetings. Writing liturgy and preparing the bulletin on Monday is also the first stage in my sermon preparation. Preparing the liturgy helps me pray the text in preparation for writing the sermon on Thursday. It enables me to engage the text in prayer with an eye toward the congregation. Every Monday—and in every hymn selection meeting—I give attention to the following:
- Flow—Is the movement from one thing to the next smooth? If the service moves from one idea or emotion to another, is there a good transition? Does it feel abrupt? Can I minimize the awkward pauses between speakers or musicians? Is there a dynamic in the emotional progression of the service?
- Continuity—Do the words and music, the actions and symbols fit together and point to the same theme? For example, the key words and phrases used in the call to worship are immediately heard in the opening hymn. Continuity also involves the emotional mood that is set. The service should not feel like a car ride with sudden breaks and sharp turns. For example, if the overall theme is the suffering of the cross, then the anthem should reflect that theme with a somber tone as well as having lyrics about the crucifixion. The liturgy and music should help set the conceptual and emotional context in which the sermon can be heard. In turn, the sermon helps explain and tie together the various elements of the worship service.
- Balance—Is there a balance between talking and singing? I try to break up the monotony of reading liturgy with music and try to balance the music with readings so that it is not a string of music. Are there too many pieces of liturgy that are alike in form, such as several unison prayers or multiple responsive readings? I am also looking for a balance of emotions so that the entire service is neither flat nor constantly energetic in order to give the worshipper the ability to process what is going on.
- Actions—How we enter the sanctuary and move to and from the pulpit or choir loft, for example, are important. Do our actions distract from the moment of worship, such as someone walking in front of the choir while they are singing? On the positive side, are there non-verbal gestures and symbols that can be done to enhance the message of the liturgy and music?
- Silence—When there is silence, is it intentional and meaningful? Or is it a distraction? Don’t be afraid of silence in worship because the right amount and timing of silence enables the words to be heard.
Resources & Criteria for Selecting and/or Writing Liturgy
- Resources—I prefer resources from the Celtic tradition, such as the works of David Adam from Lindisfarne, the Northumbria Community, and the liturgies from Iona. I also often adapt things from Carmina Gadelica. In addition, I use the books of worship of The United Methodist Church, The Methodist Church of Great Britain, and the Presbyterian Church USA. The only ‘contemporary’ American resource I trust are the Feasting on the Word Worship Companions (More often than not, it is a source that inspires me to write my own rather than to simply use their work. However, if one is not comfortable writing liturgy, Feasting on the Word is a good resource.)
- Liturgy Should:
- Be Trinitarian & Name the Name of Christ—No vague or ambiguous liturgy.
- Express the Diversity of God’s Revelation—avoid the neutral and the generic
- Various titles and adjectives are used for God. Avoid the overuse of “Lord” and “Father” and the trite use of adjectives, such as “Almighty” and “Loving”.
- Instead of making every reference for God generic in order to avoid masculine images, use both feminine and masculine images. Strive for balance in the overall images and names for God rather than making everything neutral. For example, if the anthem has male pronouns then balance it with feminine images in a unison prayer.
- Use Inclusive language when referring to people
- Balance between the individual and the social, the spiritual and the material
- Challenge without Coercing the worshipper—Be mindful of what the people read verses what the leader reads. Do not use liturgy as an ideological weapon or to make a personal point of attack as the pastor. Instead, it should expand the laity’s view of God. Indeed, there is a fine line here.
- Be relevant without being politically partisan
- Be creative without being tacky or trendy
- Be readable
- Pay attention to the layout in the bulletin. For example: Where are the line breaks in the unison prayer? Liturgy should not look like the terms of agreement in a legal document.
- Liturgy should have a degree of lyricism to it in order to be readable. It does not have to rhyme but it needs to flow, and the sound and (literally) the feel on the tongue should be easy and potent.
- Give expression to the feelings and needs of the people while at the same time expanding their faith in Christ
–Darren Cushman Wood