How to design a service of structure, openness, and beauty.

by Howard Stevenson, (pastor emeritus of music, worship, and the creative arts at First Evangelical Free Church in Fullerton, California. An article in LEADERSHIP Journal, Winter 1996)

When I was on the faculty of Westmont College, I frequently drove to the campus on my Honda Gold Wing touring motorcycle along a beautiful, seven-mile stretch of the California coast. Dramatic cliffs and rocks lined the beaches; palm trees arched their spindly trunks in the sand; sailboats bobbed in the gentle blue-and-green swells.

I reminded myself not to take this magnificent part of the world for granted. Each day I tried to see things I had not noticed before or to see things in a new way. For seventeen years I continued to marvel at God's handiwork.Leading corporate worship is like taking someone along on that beautiful commute and pointing their attention to God and the creation of God. "Worship is the adoration and praise of that which delights us," writes John Piper. "We praise what we enjoy, because praise completes the enjoyment. We worship God for the pleasure to be had in him."

How can we plan and lead worship so it does not fall into dullness and routine? How can we do justice to this exalted calling when it falls to us to plan and lead it week after week, year after year? For worship leaders, Sunday seems to come every three days. Trying to create a service of structure, openness, and beauty constantly challenges us.

Here are six practices I have found helpful as I plan and lead worship.


I prefer to center worship on a theme. Sometimes the theme is supplied by the season: Advent or Lent or Easter or Thanksgiving. Other times a special emphasis like Missions Month or Family Sunday suggests a worship theme.

The sermon topic is a natural focal point. If the topic happens to be God's faithfulness, or the love of God, or God's sovereignty, it is not difficult to blend the hymns, anthem, and spoken word with the sermon.

Chuck Swindoll and I communicated weekly about his sermon plans. Our memos and conversations included:
a. sermon title
b. passage of Scripture
c. central thought
d. key words or phrases that might be repeated
e. songs and hymn texts that came to mind in his preparation
f. other worship ideas or suggestions from him.

Then again, it's not easy to highlight every sermon subject; I recall a three-week sermon series from Ecclesiastes that focused on characteristics of "The Foolish Man." Every worship service doesn't have to connect with the sermon. This has been liberating. Often, I let the theme of the choir anthem become the theme of worship and fit other parts of worship into it.

In any case, when we focus on one theme, people can come to the end of worship drawn together and to God.


After determining the focal point, I list resources for that theme. First, I turn to four or five hymnbooks by my desk and check the topical index and Scripture reference index. Even if the hymn is not known to our congregation, it can be paraphrased in prayer, read by the congregation, recited by the leader, sung to another tune in the same meter, or used as a solo.

Then I list appropriate worship choruses. These memorized and more personal songs often add spontaneity and freshness. I keep a list of song titles at hand to avoid having to go through ten or twelve spiral-bound booklets.

Next, I read the Scripture text in several translations. A topical Bible and concordance help me locate related passages that can be used in prayer or during transitions in worship.

Finally, I review the means we have of presenting these items: the spoken word, the choir, an organ, people who can read interpretively, soloists and instrumentalists, a readers' group, handbells, children's choirs, and the congregation.

This exercise with the yellow pad almost always produces more material than we ever could use in one service, but the process helps stoke creativity.


As I plan corporate worship week after week, one principle I remember is this: The higher the predictability, the lower the impact. So I look at each element of worship from different angles, to see how it might be approached freshly or arranged in creative combinations and yet with dignity.

For instance, with Scripture I ask: How can it make a special impact upon people who sit in this room Sunday after Sunday? Can it be read responsively by two people? Can it be sung? Can it be read dramatically by a readers' team? Is there a crowd involved that the choir could represent? Can the prophet shout or call from some distant vantage point in the room? Can different people in the congregation stand and proclaim God's Word from where they are?

When we read the Parable of the Sower, we had four different voices each take one soil and read that portion and its interpretation. Another time the choir shouted, "Hosanna to the Son of David!" during a reading for Palm Sunday. Another time still, a "prophet" declared from somewhere in the organ chambers, "Prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God."

Sometimes we have combined Scripture and music. Once we sang "O God Our Help in Ages Past," and between stanzas we read portions of Psalm 90, from which Isaac Watts received his inspiration. When we finished, our organist played a simple, soft, single-line reminder of the melody and text: "Our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home." It was a special moment.

Likewise, prayer can be approached in different ways. Although normally one person prays publicly in our service, sometimes several people have led in prayer, one after the other. Once a husband and wife led us in an almost conversational style of prayer. Jim started out in praise to God; then Carolyn interjected items of thanksgiving; next, Jim picked up, "And, Lord, there are many in our church family who need strength for trials." We've had guided, silent prayer. How about taking a hymn that has just been sung and use its words as the basis for prayer?

We seek variety, not for its sake or because we want to put on a good show, but because we serve a God of infinite variety. We want to catch a glimpse of his face and his character from every possible angle. Each new revelation of truth and beauty and every expression of love and concern helps us to understand him more.


Now I can begin to design a service that has logic and flow. I want worship to be like a streamlined passenger train, not a freight train. A freight train is just a number of cars of all descriptions linked together with gaps between. From within a streamlined passenger train, on the other hand, cars are clearly connected. Passengers easily walk from one car to another even as it is moving at high speeds. Similarly, I want worship to be intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually continuous. That type of service, I believe, engages people most meaningfully.

First, I want to make sure that all have boarded the train--everyone is focused upon God and prepared to worship. A few minutes before the stated beginning time, one of our pastoral staff greets people, underscores some announcements, and encourages people to open their hymnals and collect their thoughts for worship. Then the organist draws the veil of quietness with thirty to forty-five seconds of musical accompaniment.

Then worship can begin--sometimes quietly with a simple chorus, sometimes majestically with brass and timpani; sometimes formally, sometimes informally; sometimes with an anthem, sometimes with a Scripture passage.

Once we positioned a soloist six to eight rows back in the congregation and gave her a cordless lapel mike. At a planned point, she started to sing while seated, without accompaniment, without music in hand, "Brethren, we have met to worship." After singing a phrase or two, she stood and continued singing as quiet support from the organ joined her. She slowly moved down the aisle to the steps and faced her brothers and sisters, encouraging them in song to "Love God supremely" and "Pray with expectation as we preach the living Word." As the song came to a close, she moved back to her seat, singing as she sat down, repeating, now a capella, "Brethren, we have met to worship/To adore the Lord, our God." All was quiet; no one dared breathe; we were brought face to face with the supreme privilege and responsibility of worship.


As the service develops, I look for logical content and emotional flow.

We want the content of the songs, readings, and prayers to contribute to the theme. I want people to discover why a certain hymn was chosen, why it was placed there in the service, and how it relates to the Scripture just read or the prayer that will follow. Sometimes the pastor or worship leader can supply that connection; other times we assume worshipers will discern it.

At the beginning of the service, I usually try to establish the supremacy of God as the object of our worship. The thrust is God-directed, corporate worship. The pronouns of songs here usually will be we, us, and our.

Later in the service may be the occasion for songs using I, me, and my, drawing people to focus on their relationship with God. This part of the service may be quieter.

The service should not be an emotional monotone. If everything is quiet, somber, or reflective, the service may tend to feel listless. If everything is triumphant and one grand climax after another, people may quickly tire.

I also want to avoid jarring emotional shifts. Worship should flow from one part to another. For example, if I follow a prayer with a song, I try to think of a refrain or chorus that people know by heart. Then, instead of interrupting the prayerful atmosphere with an abrupt, "Please turn to hymn number 492," I simply start singing, "I love you Lord, and I lift my voice ..." In addition, I often put such songs in a lower key, so people, in a quiet mood, don't have to sing so high.


Unless we guard against this, worship can become mere performance, an impersonal presentation of words and songs. Above all else, our worship must be authentic.

Sometimes I like to lead worship from the floor of the sanctuary. That helps overcome the separation of worship leaders and people. Or we'll have people come from the pews to lead a portion of the service. Or we'll engage the congregation in some way.

A while ago, we had a preaching series on great questions--things asked by Jesus and asked about him. One week, the question was, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" Jesus, of course, used a child to make his point.

I led some songs from the piano, and then had three children come forward. We talked about what Jesus thought of children, and I asked one girl to read the Scripture. I talked about some qualities of children we never want to lose touch with: trust and the willingness to let others help. I also said we never want to lose the songs of childhood. Then the kids and I sang "Jesus Loves Me." A little touch like that can help keep the service more personal.

We counter "spectatorism" by giving people plenty of opportunities to participate--songs, readings, and prayers. If a lay person stands from the pews to read a proclamation, in a sense, everyone does it.

We also keep worship authentic when we involve people's hearts as well as their heads. One man asked to sing in our choir. "You know why I want to sing in the choir?" he began. "I'm an engineer, and I work with things I can measure, weigh, and feel. I'm inclined to take my spiritual life in much the same way--an inventory of knowledge and a cerebral concept of my Christian life. I need to learn to express the emotion of the gospel."


I like to remember that worship is the ceaseless activity of heaven--occurring right now as you read these words. One day, it will be our eternal activity. Our practice of worship here on earth is perhaps our most significant preparation for the life to come.

I used to tease Pastor Chuck that someday preachers will be out of a job. Preaching will be obsolete when we come into perfect knowledge. But worshipers will be fully employed forever, praising God. "O that with yonder sacred throng,/We at his feet may fall./We'll join the everlasting throng/and crown him Lord of all."

Howard Stevenson is pastor emeritus of music, worship, and the creative arts at First Evangelical Free Church in Fullerton, California. He has authored a book on worhsip along with Jack Hayford called MASTERING WORSHIP. It is published by Leadership and Christianity Today in the "Mastering" series.

Copyright (c) 1996 Christianity Today, Inc./LEADERSHIP Journal

Follow these links for further Reflections:

Back to Main Menu

Follow These Links to other pages on Eldrbarry's Storytelling Page:

Thanks for visiting! Please E-mail me at: Your comments and suggestions are most welcome!
You are viewing: ---