Service Planning

SERVICE PLANNING

In corporate worship, believers reenact the gospel
and are thus shaped by it. Below, you will find resources
to help you understand how to plan and lead gospel-shaped worship.

Planning Gospel-Shaped Services

Gospel-shaped corporate worship proclaims the gospel, not that the sermon and hymns will necessarily always be explicitly evangelistic, but in the act of corporate worship itself. Corporate worship is the public acting out of the spiritual realities of worship; it is a dramatic re-creation of drawing near to God through Christ by faith.

In other words, a worship service can be structured so that it proclaims the gospel simply in its order, whether or not the content of the hymns or sermon is explicitly evangelistic. Such a gospel-shaped worship order will look something like this:

  1. Revelation: God Making Himself Known to Us
  2. Adoration: Exalting Our Glorious God
  3. Confession: Lifting Contrite Hearts to the Lord
  4. Propitiation: Forgiveness Through Jesus Christ
  5. Proclamation: God Speaking Through His Word
  6. Dedication: Responding to the Word of God
  7. Supplication Praying for the Church and the World
  8. Commission: God Sending Us Forth to Serve Him

This basic flow of a worship service (one that has characterized worship in many traditions for centuries) reflects the flow of the gospel: God reveals himself in his Word (Revelation), which leads a person to recognize God’s greatness (Adoration) and his own sinfulness. He then confesses his sin and puts his faith in Christ (Confession), which leads to forgiveness in the gospel through the merits of Christ (Propitiation). This Christian is now ready to hear God’s Word (Proclamation) and obey (Dedication), bringing his burdens before the Lord (Supplication) and ready to go into the world to serve God and fulfill the Great Commission (Commission).

Communing with God is like eating with someone around your table in your dining room. In that kind of setting, you can let your guard down; there’s no need for pretense. Dining with someone is an opportunity for you to listen to them, to get to know them, to enjoy their company. It is an opportunity to share your heart, to communicate something of yourself. There is a mutual give and take that happens around a table. You listen as the other person speaks, and then you respond in dialogue with that person. And as you do, your relationship with that person grows deeper as you get to know them better.

This should describe the nature of our relationship with God: dining with him. We listen intently as he speaks to us through his inspired Word. And our goal in listening to his words is not simply to gain more knowledge; our goal is to know him better, to learn his likes and his dislikes, to enjoy his company. And then we speak back to him; we tell him how much we love and adore him; we share something of ourselves and cast our burdens on him. And as we share this communion, our relationship with God grows deeper. This is why worship is profoundly relational; all true worship is communion with God. Jesus described this kind of dialogical nature of worship when he said to the Samaritan woman in John 4 that God desires those who will worship him in spirit (our response toward God) and truth (God’s Word to us).

Historically, church worship services have been designed in such a way to both display and nurture this kind of communion by being structured as a dialogue. God speaks, we respond. God speaks to reveal himself to us and call us to worship, we respond with praise and adoration. God speaks to remind us of our sin and unworthiness, we respond with confession. God speaks words of pardon through Christ, we respond with thanksgiving. God speaks words of instruction to us, we respond with dedication. God speaks a charge and blessing upon us, we respond by going out in obedience. This dialogue of worship is why our services contain abundant Scripture—God’s words to us—and prayers—our words ton God.

The structure of our services, the songs we sing, the Scriptures we read, the prayers we pray—everything about our services shapes our minds and our hearts to be the kind of people who will commune with God like this regularly as individuals in private times of communion, and as families in times of family devotion.

One of the most important truths about corporate worship that we need to remember is that God has ordained corporate worship services to form and shape his people into holy, mature worshipers. In other words, everything we do in corporate worship—the Scripture readings, the songs, the prayers, the sermon, Communion, and even the order of the services—has been designed by God to sanctify us into people who will bring him most glory through our lives and devotion toward him.

This means that when we gather for corporate worship, we are not devising our own means to draw near to God in worship based on our personal preferences, convenience, or what is popular in the culture. Rather, God has established certain practices and patterns in his Word that we follow because they are what God has given us to conform us into his image.

And the patterns that we find in Scripture are reenactments of God’s work on behalf of his people in order to rescue them from their sin and draw them into communion with him. A perfect example of this in the Old Testament was the Passover. Passover was a corporate worship service that enabled God’s people to literally reenact God’s deliverance of his people in the Exodus from Egypt—that’s why God calls it a “memorial.” He wanted his people to regularly observe this memorial so that they would remember his deliverance of them and, perhaps even more importantly, be shaped by that remembrance as they reenact the first Passover.

Fifteenth hundred years later, while observing the Passover himself, Jesus Christ established a similar reenactment and commanded his disciples, “Do this in remembrance of me.” This new Christian memorial serves the same function for the church as Passover did for Israel—it shapes Christians by a remembrance of Christ as we reenact his broken body and shed blood.

And even more, as we celebrate the Lord’s Supper as part of the complete worship service, eating at Christ’s Table pictures the communion that we enjoy as Christians with Christ and with one another through the gospel. The order of our worship service reenacts the gospel, which then shapes us to live out the gospel, and the climax of the gospel is communion with God because of what Christ did for us on the cross.

All of this emphasizes the need to regularly observe the table as part of the gospel-shaped worship service because this is the primary means God has given to form us into people who live out the gospel.

This is why early Christians observed the Table every time they gathered; celebrating Communion was the characteristic act of their corporate worship. If you look through the New Testament at descriptions of corporate worship, almost without exception the service is characterized by the central act of the Lord’s Supper. Acts 2:42 says that the first Christians were “devoted to . . . breaking of bread.” Acts 20:7 says, “On the first day of the week we came together to break bread”; that’s how they described their corporate worship—breaking bread. The regular practice of the early church was to eat the Lord’s supper every time they gathered because by regularly reenacting the communion they enjoyed with God because of the broken body and shed blood of Christ, they were formed and shaped by it.

There are many reasons the frequency of Table observance diminished through the history of the church, but the one likely most relevant for churches like ours is when corporate worship was replaced by evangelistic meetings in nineteenth century American evangelicalism. When that happened, the Table as the climax of corporate worship was replaced by the altar call. Whereas in traditional worship everything in the service progressed toward the Lord’s Supper, a nineteenth-century evangelistic service progressed toward the come-forward invitation.

Now, there has been in much of evangelicalism a recovery of worship as the primary focus of church gatherings on the Lord’s Day, but for a variety of reasons one thing that has not been recovered in many churches is frequent Lord’s Table observance, though more and more churches are beginning to recover the practice.

Important Considerations

Worship leaders may not realize that the singing of even well-written songs and hymns without any reference to the Scriptures may wrongly communicate that the songs or hymns sung in the service have the ability to serve as both the initiators of God’s revealed truth and the means of congregational response to God.

Congregational singing does not initiate worship, God does. Songs don’t call people to worship, God does – through His Word. He speaks, we listen. He commands, we obey. He calls, we answer. He invites us to worship him, we attend and respond. It must be made clear that God is the inviter and initiator of corporate worship.

If the Bible isn’t read or referred to during the congregational worship time prior to the message, it is unlikely that the people in the pews will respond to God and His revelation.

When the Word of God is absent from the corporate gathering, worship leaders place an incredibly heavy burden on themselves, the accompanists, and humanly-composed song to express both God’s revelation of himself and an appropriate congregational response.

For many leading the small group worship gatherings, questions might arise such as, “What do I say?” “How do we transition from one aspect of our worship to another?” “Without an order of worship, how do we know what to do?” We would encourage those facilitating the gathering (who might be treading new territory) to simply let the Word of God guide you through the worship. Here are some important things to remember:

  1. Worship is like a rhythm … God revealing, his people responding.
  2. In Christian worship, believers don’t respond to songs, or music, or a leader—we respond to God as he reveals himself through his Word by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Word does not return void!
  3. God gave us the gift of music to unite our voices as one voice to praise our glorious God. But music is limited in its power to unite us. What truly unites us is the Word of God through the Spirit of God, that’s why the Scriptures are so important during the corporate gathering—even before the message!
  4. Our access to God the Father in worship isn’t made possible by any means other than the completed work of Jesus Christ through the power of the gospel. Jesus is our worship leader! (Heb. 2:12). Take heart! He will lead by the Spirit in your living room as you gather with others to worship.
  5. Jesus is both the object and the means of our worship. We don’t gain access to God through an amazing band, an energetic worship leader, a stellar choir and orchestra, or our favorite style of music! Self-actuated worship is no more possible than self-actuated salvation. We are saved by grace and we worship by grace!
  6. We can do nothing apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide and direct every aspect of your small group gathering.

As we gather to worship with other believers, it’s vital to realize that what we do during our time together (whether in our churches or homes) is formational. Biblical worship clarifies our views of God, ourselves, and others. What we sing, pray, say, and do in worship shapes our devotional lives. Worship on Sunday forms how we worship and live the other days of the week, which is why it is so critical that our worship be guided by Scripture, for the Bible is what the Holy Spirit of God uses to sanctify us.

We become who or what we worship! The words in Psalm 115:8 are a powerful reminder giving a warning that those who trust idols “are just like them.” However, we also see in 2 Corinthians 3:18 that as we look to Christ and worship him, we are transformed into his image.” May it be that all of us realize more and more that we resemble who or what we revere.

Scripture contains a rhythm of worship that is simple but profound—the rhythm of Revelation and Response—God revealing and his redeemed responding. There is another rhythm in worship that we see throughout Scripture and it is the rhythm of Transcendence and Immanence. In other words, in our corporate gathering we should be reminded first of who God is! He is the one who initiates our worship. He is the one who makes it possible for us to worship. Worship begins with God, and He is all the things we are not … omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent. But through Christ, he is also intimately near. His thoughts toward us “would outnumber the grains of sand” (Psalm 139:18). The God who said, “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3), also said, “Let the children come to me” (Luke 18:15-17).

A.W. Tozer once said, “The most important fact about any human being is what they believe about God.” That’s why corporate worship centered on the Word of God is so important! While all of creation is a powerful reflection of God’s general revelation, his Word is his specific revelation to us. That’s why the Word is so important as the centerpiece of Christian worship.

In his book on worship (Look and See), singer/songwriter Matt Papa says, “The triune God is the only thing large enough and interesting enough to bear the weight of glory, and ultimately worship. Anything else will break your heart. Money isn’t secure enough.… Entertainment isn’t impressive enough. Music isn’t interesting enough. Food isn’t satisfying enough. People aren’t reliable enough. The world isn’t good enough. Creation isn’t permanent enough.… Only God, the highest and greatest good, the infinite holy One, is finally enough.” Nothing can bear the weight of your worship other than Jesus Christ!

Further Reading

Sample Services

Planning Workflow

When planning a gospel-shaped service, elements like songs, prayers, and Scripture readings are selected based on how their content fits the gospel structure, dialogical shape, sermon text/theme, and season of the year.

Arrange the macro-structure of the service according to the gospel shape:

  • Revelation: God Making Himself Known to Us
  • Adoration: Exalting Our Glorious God
  • Confession: Lifting Contrite Hearts to the Lord
  • Propitiation: Forgiveness Through Jesus Christ
  • Proclamation: God Speaking Through His Word
  • Dedication: Responding to the Word of God
  • Supplication Praying for the Church and the World
  • Commission: God Sending Us Forth to Serve Him

This structure remains consistent each week. You will select songs, Scripture readings, and prayers that fit into each section based on the textual content. Hymnary.org is a wonderful source for finding hymns that fit a particular theme or Scripture passage.

The gospel shape is already structured as a dialogue between God and his people: God speaks—we speak. However, as you add songs, prayers, and Scripture to each section of the service, pay attention to maintaining the dialogue.

  • God Calls Us to Worship
  • We Praise God
  • God Calls Us to Confession
  • We Confess Our Sins
  • God Declares Us Forgiven in Christ
  • We Thank God
  • God Speaks to Us from His Word
  • We Dedicate Ourselves to God
  • God Invites us to His Throne of Grace
  • We Bring our Supplications to God
  • God Sends us into the World with His Blessing

The sermon is God’s word to his people, and prayers are our speech toward God. The other two worship elements (songs and Scripture) could be either God’s speech or our speech depending on the central content.

Along with the gospel structure and dialogical shape, the sermon text and theme for the day should govern the songs, prayers, and Scripture readings of the service. Aim to choose elements that not only fit the service section but also tie in with the sermon.

The season of the church year can also contribute to your choices of worship elements, whether or not the sermon specifically connects to the season. Use of resources like a lectionary can help you find passages that fit the season.

Related: “Using Hymnals for Your Worship Planning” by Scott Aniol

Service Resources

Worship Leader Self-Evaluation

by David Manner

As worship leaders we sometimes don’t consider evaluating our own leadership until we receive complaints about something we are or aren’t doing or singing. Consequently, when those criticisms occur our responses are usually defensive rather than corrective.

Self-evaluation is preventive and proactive rather than defensive and reactive. So in order to avert or deter an unfavorable assessment from others, we should first ask some hard questions of ourselves. The following list of self-evaluation questions is not an exhaustive one but hopefully a place to begin.

  1. Are the services I plan and lead usually easy to follow or are they more often disorganized and disjointed?
  1. Am I planning worship each week for the congregation I’ve been called to lead or one I wish I had been called to lead?
  1. Are my verbal instructions and transitions ad-libbed and verbose or prepared and succinct?
  1. Am I encouraging passive worshipers by leading worship for them instead of with them?
  1. Do the people I put on the platform adequately represent the cultural, generational and spiritual characteristics of our congregation?
  1. Is my primary consideration for selecting worship team members musical or spiritual?
  1. Are the songs I lead on the platform evident in the life I lead off the platform?
  1. Am I selecting or not selecting songs and styles just because I personally like or don’t like them?
  1. Do I select song keys to intentionally encourage congregational participation or just to complement my own vocal range?
  1. Are the songs I select theologically sound and biblically accurate?
  1. Are any of my artistic, visual, verbal or musical expressions contrived or distracting?
  1. Do I convey that worship starts and stops with our opening and closing songs?
  1. Do I begin worship planning each week with song titles or Scripture and prayer?
  1. Besides the latest songs, am I learning anything new?
  1. Since Sunday isn’t usually a Sabbath for me, when am I taking one?
  1. Do I ask how something might impact my family before asking how it might impact my worship leading?
  1. Have I surrounded myself with those who can protect me from my own stupidity?
  1. Am I spending a lot of time worshiping privately before leading worship publicly?
  1. Does always highlighting my playing and singing sometimes imply I don’t really care whether the congregation is singing or not?
  1. Do I wake up every morning feeling unqualified in my own power to do what God has called me to do?
  1. Am I taking care of myself spiritually, emotionally, physically and relationally?
  1. Have I gotten in the habit of using worship service prayer as a segue for musical elements instead of a divine conversation?
  1. Do I ever welcome divine interruptions in my service planning and leading?
  1. Am I casting vision for the future without denigrating the past?
  1. Do I determine the worship language of my congregations based on how I might appear to my worship leading friends?
  1. Am I able to worship when I’m not the primary leader?
  1. Is worship leading a calling for me or just convenient?
  1. Am I leading worship just because I don’t know how to do anything else?
  1. Am I making a conscious effort to pour into younger leaders or am I just trying to protect my territory?
  1. Am I threatened when someone on the team plays or sings better than I do?
  1. Am I depending on my musical skills alone to do what it’s only possible for God to do?
  1. Do I act like a gatekeeper by holding my congregation captive to my favorite worship styles and musical preferences?
  1. Does it seem like the services I plan tend to place more focus on the creative or the Creator?
  1. Am I spending more of my time developing my musical skills or my relationship skills?
  1. Do I find myself coasting or faking it more and more often?
  1. Am I approachable, available and accountable?
  1. Am I more concerned with playing right notes than having right relationships?
  1. Does it seem like I’m more of a cheerleader than a worship leader?
  1. Is it evident from my worship responses that I’m no longer amazed by God’s revelation?
  1. Does my leading lean toward manipulation instead of exhortation?
  1. Do I always seem to disappear when it’s time to set up or tear down?
  1. Am I showing up to rehearsals unprepared?
  1. Do I treat the worship team like backup musicians?
  1. Do I ever use my artistry and busyness as an excuse for laziness and lateness?
  1. Am I coasting at the first of the week causing me to scramble at the end of the week?
  1. Is the worship I’m leading challenging our congregation to be doers or just hearers?
  1. Am I regularly praying for and with those I lead?
  1. Are the songs I’m selecting giving our congregation an opportunity for celebration and contemplation?
  1. Do I offer a healthy balance of both familiar and new songs?
  1. Is it evident to others that I’m as much of a worship leader on Monday as I was on Sunday?
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