Read Directions First:

Inspiring Worship Starts with a Plan
by Rev. Jack Daniel

(Excerpted and adapted from Patient Catalyst: Leading Church Revitalization, Jack L. Daniel, Overseed Press, 2018. In part 2 of this 2-part series, we’ll look more closely at developing a philosophy of worship.)

It was Christmas Eve, many years ago. I had just arrived home after preaching twice at our Christmas Eve services. Our three young daughters were asleep, and I was looking forward to a quiet dinner with my wife. The tree sparkled, a fire crackled, and dinner was ready. Then I saw it! Under the Christmas tree was a large cardboard carton with a picture of a child’s toy kitchen on top and a warning in big red letters: READ DIRECTIONS FIRST. SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED. My wife reminded me that it was my job to put together Santa’s surprise before morning. Like any self-respecting guy, I studied the picture on the box for a moment, set the directions aside, and thought, “How hard can it be?” Several frustrating hours later, after many false starts and do-overs, I flopped into bed, exhausted but with mission accomplished. I have long since learned to READ DIRECTIONS FIRST (well, sometimes).

As I visit revitalization churches led by pastors I coach and experience their worship services, it is evident that many have not “read the directions.” What I encounter is a hodge-podge of random worship elements strung together, with no apparent attempt to lead the people into the presence of God. In his book Preaching and Leading Worship, William Willimon says one of the most common weaknesses in worship services is the “lack of focus and coherence in the acts of worship. The service moves in a dozen different directions at once. . . . Careful planning is needed to correct the confusion” (p.16).

The temptation for busy, established pastors is to perpetuate the current worship model each week without ever prayerfully asking if it is leading our people into a vital relationship with God. Alternately, the temptation for many newer pastors is to import a model from another church with the hope it will be a sure formula for dynamic worship. Both of these approaches are merely “looking at the picture on the box” and not carefully reading the directions. We make the same mistake the woman of Samaria made in her conversation with Jesus in John 4. He reminded her that the outward form of worship is only important if it leads to the inner reality of worship that is in Spirit and Truth. In this two-part series, let’s look at some aspects of worship planning.

Know Who Your Audience Is.

The Bible is the record of a Divine Drama. It tells of God’s continuous initiative toward His people down through history, and humanity’s response to it, good and bad. Nineteenth-century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard pointed out the profound truth that this Divine Drama has an Audience, Actors, and a Prompter. Our problem is that we get the roles mixed up. We assume the preacher and worship leaders are the actors, the congregation is the audience, and God is the prompter, inspiring the preacher and musicians to get their parts right. However, Kierkegaard says, it is just the opposite. God is our audience. It is before Him that we live out our lives. The congregation are the actors, striving to act in obedience to His call. The preacher and musicians are the prompters, encouraging, and guiding the congregation to play their roles. If pastors and worship leaders can keep this truth in mind, they can resist pressure from the congregation and their egos to turn Sunday worship into a performance. Every pastor feels the pressure to preach to the congregation’s expectations. A better approach is preaching and worship that recalls all of God’s gracious acts towards us, and then leads us in a response to those acts. Further, it is liberating for those of us leading in worship to know the only audience we must please is God.

Understand the Flow of Biblical Worship.

Fortunately for us, archaeologists have never unearthed a Sunday worship bulletin from a first-century worship service. Otherwise, Christians would have been tempted to slavishly reproduce it week after week for two millennia. Worship is too dynamic for that. However, archaeologists and biblical historians can help us understand the essential framework of early Christian worship, and it gives us a simple but reliable template to work with as we plan worship. There really are some “directions” to follow. The first church at Jerusalem began its existence within the family of Judaism and with divinely ordained Temple worship. Acts 2 tells us of the church’s participation in the Temple worship, though certainly without the animal sacrifices because Jesus had already reinterpreted that component in the Last Supper. Christians added to Temple worship their unique practices of gathering for the Apostles’ teaching and for the “breaking of bread,” a combination of the agape feast and the Eucharist.

When the church moved beyond Jerusalem and drew Hellenistic Jews and gentile proselytes into its fold, worship resembled more the synagogue experience of these individuals. The synagogue service consisted of hymns of praise, the reading of the Scriptures, and the expounding of Scriptures, followed by prayers of petition and the giving of alms. We know this from early Jewish documents, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Gospels, and the letters of Paul. It is important because this is the basic pattern for the Christian worship that followed, and that continues today. What emerges from these Jewish roots of Christian worship is a pattern that has shaped Christian worship from the first century until today. If you could unearth a first-century bulletin, it would reveal a four-fold pattern of Gathering with Praise, Ministry of the Word, Response to the Word, and Dismissal.

In the early years of my ministry, I came across a little book by New Testament scholar Ralph P. Martin, under whom I had studied in seminary: Worship in the Early Church. It helped me understand this basic and ancient pattern for modern worship. This paradigm can help us plan worship that is rooted in Biblical history, and that leads people into God’s presence to hear from Him and rightly respond. Let me unpack it for us.

  • Gathering with Praise. The Gathering is the entrance of God’s people into the presence of God. The congregation symbolically enters the presence of the living God the way the ancient Jews entered the Temple courts, where the manifest presence of God was evident. Ancient Israel expected to be in God’s presence there. Jesus likewise told his followers to expect His presence when they gathered together. While individual worship is to be a lifestyle for the believer, it is in corporate worship that we should expect to be more fully in the presence of Christ. As we think about this aspect of worship, we are aware that it is God who does the gathering, drawing worshippers to Himself. Jesus redirects the Samaritan woman’s thinking away from the cultural particulars of worship to the universal fact of holy worship, namely that God is actively seeking “true” worshippers. When you think about the worship service you are planning for the coming Sunday, keep in mind that God is way ahead of you in planning. He is already speaking to the hearts of people, drawing them to Himself. He is continuously calling people to Himself. So plan everything with the confidence that He will draw them, as Christ is lifted up.

Think through every aspect of corporate Sunday worship, from your church’s digital presence and the building’s physical environment to the prayers lifting up the service and the human welcome the gatherers will receive. Prepare it all, for God is drawing those with hungry hearts to worship Him. This is all part of the “unofficial” Gathering. The “official” Gathering begins when the people are assembled. The form of our worship, whether traditional or contemporary, depends on culture. It is the intent of worship that matters, and in the Gathering, the intent is Praise, voices raised in corporate song. Other elements, such as prayers, greetings, and calls to worship, are also fitting here.

  • The Ministry of the Word. The next part of this ancient pattern of worship is the Word of God, both read and proclaimed. In some churches, this involves a children’s message, signaling children’s inclusion in the family of faith. The public reading of the Word is also an important element in this second part of the worship framework. Unfortunately, the public reading of Scripture has all but disappeared in much of the church today. This worship practice goes back to the church’s deepest roots in the ancient Jewish synagogue, and the New Testament exhorts us to continue it. The culmination of the ministry of the Word is preaching; the sermon is the center of gravity in Christian worship. In both ancient Jewish and early Christian worship, the sermon was not the last element of worship but the next to last, leaving room for a thankful response to the proclaiming of the Good News of God.
  • The Response. This third part of the worship framework is thanksgiving. If the sermon has faithfully told what God has done for us in Christ, then a response will be natural. The response may include public prayer, an offering of our resources, the reception and baptism of new converts, a call to commitment to Christ, and (as often as we celebrate it) the Lord’s Supper—that is, the Eucharist, or Thanksgiving. It is in the breaking of the Bread and the drinking of the Cup that Christ is in some special way present with us. Also included here can be the reciting of creeds, which are the congregation’s affirmation of their faith. All of these are appropriate responses to God for all that He has shown and done for us in Christ.
  • The Dismissal. The Last Supper concludes with the disciples singing a hymn and then departing the upper room. Concluding a service with a song is an ancient tradition in Christian worship. Depending on the theme and tone of the service, it can be quiet and worshipful or upbeat and victorious. The final act of the Dismissal is the benediction, which is not a prayer but a pronouncement of God’s blessing upon the people, literally a well-wishing. The gathered worship concludes, and the church scatters, taking their whole selves, Christ in them, into their worlds as living sacrifices. This also is “spiritual worship.”
This ancient four-fold pattern of worship has been observed in endless varieties down through the ages by most of the world’s traditions. I believe it is the divine set of directions for worship planners. It takes the emphasis off outward forms and models because it works with any form or model. It creates a flow that ushers us into the living presence of God, to our true audience. Moreover, following the directions makes worship planning much easier because it helps us set parameters on worship services. It gives us a rationale for including what belongs and eliminating what does not. In other words, it shapes our philosophy of worship.