End the Worship Wars: Straight Talk about Programming Worship Songlists and Church Services

On Wednesday I had the privilege of sharing at two breakout sessions packed with worship leaders at the National Worship Leaders Conference (NWLC13), helping them understand (inter-denominational!) basics of worship programming and worship leading. Eugene Peterson explains;

“Worship is the strategy by which we interrupt our preoccupation with ourselves and attend to the presence of God”

Of course, some people won’t like this definition because it presumes God meets with his people, haha. But I like it – note the ‘we’ in the quote, and the de-throning of self. In this social media age, the self is often described as “the modern project”. The great temptation is for us to become god of our own lives. But worship presses “pause” on everything we are, and helps us encounter God as Other (with a big ‘O’). Worship is a structured dialogue that attributes worthiness to God, and unthrones humanity as the created, under the authority of our Creator.

In regards to worship programming, many voices sell formulas that claim to be universal. But in local churches there’s a wide diversity in what worship leaders do – in some churches “worship planning” means selecting four songs (two fast, two slow), and scripting (or impromptu leading) the verbal directions between songs. In others, it’s structuring a service using a pre-selected format. Other worship pastors receive a completely blank piece of paper and the request to fit in a 25 minute sermon. So, it’s hard to find principles truly universal to worship planning (globally the diversity is even more astounding!!!). However, here are three practical concepts that help me both write songlists and plan liturgical services. They are taken from the book 100,000 Sundays by Gail Ramshaw. Basically, worship helps us to:

  1. Attribute meaning to the past
  2. Build shared values
  3. Imagine our future

This brings all three time dimensions together. We remember and honor the historical aspects of Christian tradition, making sure serve our particular congregation, while growing our effectiveness for mission. These aspects need to be kept in balance.

They can be considered the big goals for worship leaders and programmers. But as we bring a community’s attention to God, we must see the Father’s arms as wide, wide open to all. In Luke 14, The Parable of the Great Banquet explains a principle all scripture is drenched in …. it’s a small story Jesus Himself used to explain the Father’s heart. Although his chosen guests refused the Master’s invite, he did not call off the feast. Instead, he opened up his home to the B-list, C-list and D-list people of society. He didn’t stop inviting until there was no space left in the banquet hall;

Luke 14:23 “Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full”.

Worship is often the practice of the church considered most resistant to a “missional” stance. Partly this is due to missiological history, which I won’t get into now. But I don’t see “attractional” and “missional” as two points opposed on a continuum. We need to interrogate this idea. I believe our worship service can be missional (“go out” as in the above scripture) even if we physically are in the church building on Sunday morning at 10am — through an attitude of openness, attention to this craft of programming, and continual evaluation. Worship leaders compel people to “enter the feast”, a metaphor for the type of covenant relationship God wants with us… and we also empower our congregation to become the servant above, compellingly inviting those not present also into this relationship.

When it comes to the worship programming of the church, in fact the opposite of Ramshaw’s model can be true. Probably the negative picture (in the vein of apophatic theology or negative space as in visual art) best shows why these three points are great underpinning goals for worship leaders and pastors. This is rarely talked about in the context of worship programming, so it’s worth outlining here.

1) Bringing Meaning to the Past: Many churches use a musical worship time to facilitate a happy feeling of nostalgia. You can’t imagine how many people have said to me after a service; “wow, thanks for including that chorus, I love it, it reminds me of being at camp around the fire/ at the Lake/ on the beach”, or “I always love it when I hear our voices sing that section of the hymn”. This is the worst feedback for new worship leaders!!! I’m not saying these feelings aren’t real. And I believe positive reminiscing may even be highly spiritual. But how does reliving a memory bring meaning to anyone else gathered? How does it promote the type of inclusion we see in the scripture above, crossing all known social barriers? Unless a worship leader structures worship to give it contemporary meaning (and by that I mean it has relevance for everyone in the room) we are relying upon the strength of musical communication, and rehearsing our individual past encounters with liturgical pieces. This is the worst form of self-worship, where members of the church desire a string of evocative musical moments they forge into a personal theological ideology. That individualism isn’t the point of worship, and misses the potential of integrating Christian history – as a celebration of the people of God.

In regards to the positive, hymns and older texts are representative of the communal history we share and draw from. But this requires explanation for newcomers. I suggest framing hymns in ways that bring clarity, especially to dense texts. I find teenagers are the best test of whether a church is doing this well. Teenagers are intelligent, honest, and experience the songs and prayers without nostalgia. Program your services for teenagers, and you will find things change quickly!! Bringing meaning to the past can be done easily — with a quick explanation, a prayer, coupling hymns with songs that bring a vernacular meaning, or remixing them. Plenty of artists provide resource for this task. The reality is, though, we need to acknowledge that we are meaning-making in a contemporary context, or, if we fail to do that, we exclude new Christians, younger Christians and people from non-European Christian traditions.

2) Building shared values: when we look at this negatively, in regards to what we do in worship that does not build shared values, we can see worship is often just used as a way of asserting our own identity over and above other groups. Contemporary worship leaders use the top 10 CCLI songs to assert youth over older portions of the congregation; Worship leaders use culture to assert blackness over whiteness or the reverse; Seminaries use hymns to assert education over lack of education. This is done in many, many subtle ways; choices of sounds, language, people and technologies.

On the flip side, however, when we attend to what God is doing in our community and program around shared values, we build unity. In our home church, God is encouraging us to bridge the inter-generational divide. Recently, our Executive Pastor encouraged everyone under 30 to come down the front. They lined the front area of the stage. He asked them to look at the older generation in their seats and likewise asked the older generation to really see the cute-as collection of Millennials. He turned to the college-aged kids and gave a heartfelt, honest apology for all the times they felt disregarded, unloved, forgotten in our church. Then, he asked all the older congregation raise their hands towards the younger congregation, and pray for them. And as a sign they were forgiven, he asked the younger ones to raise their hands towards the older generation and pray. He formed a value that day – inter-generational ministry. And now, when young people are on stage, our older generation see it as representative of a value our congregation now holds. Likewise, when the young people feel discomfort hearing rockabilly sounds or songs, it’s not for lack of love. It’s there because we exercise generational tolerance. There are many biblical values you can build your worship around: ethnic/racial diversity, thankfulness, generosity, social justice. But when values are missing or unclear, there’s little point to gathering.

3) Imagining our future: in many churches, there’s no future-forward anything, except the idea of eating lunch. This makes people unsure why they should continue coming. If you have no picture of where your congregation is going (other than a glossy printed picture of your new sanctuary in a brochure), don’t be upset if your congregation begins to decline. There’s just no reason to come back.

Jesus captured people’s imagination. This is the biblical picture we are moving towards, that gives people goals by which they can measure their progress. Jesus didn’t only overturn the tables in the temple, but he spoke incessantly about the Kingdom of God. If there is no future Kingdom of God in the worship, is this representative of Jesus, aka Christian? I’m not sure.

So! These are three ways in which to evaluate worship, and to talk about worship planning with your team. So much time is spent thinking through style, whether songs are in the right key, and whether there is ‘flow’, but really, if these three goals aren’t being met, your worship programming is sorely lacking. My husband Tim has turned it into three questions he uses to program for the youth ministry of our church:

1) What in this service celebrates our history, where we have been?

2) What in this service celebrates who we are?

3) What in this service celebrates where we’re going?

Here’s to worship leaders who think less about the outfit they will wear on Sunday, and more about the spiritual formation of the community.

2 thoughts on “End the Worship Wars: Straight Talk about Programming Worship Songlists and Church Services

  1. Who thinks about all of this? If someone is hung up on the youthful tone of the songs being sung or or the “Blackness” of the style, how can they be worshiping? Leave it some suburban white dude to come up with all of this fluff.

    Leave the simple-minded, self-centered songs with 2 chords behind. Worship is heart-felt, sincere music & singing to God. Just do it.

    1. Well I’m sorry this post came across like that. But are you for real? Your comment doesn’t make sense – it definitely doesn’t link well to my article. For the record, I am not a “suburban white dude” (hilarious for you to say that), and neither is Gail Ramshaw. I am not encouraging people to focus on the “blackness” or “youthfulness” of the style, but to attend to the past, present and future of the Christian story. Thanks for dropping by.

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