I don’t know how other folks in my shoes do it, but, in my opinion, successful long-range worship planning in a large church involves (to be honest) nearly obsessive, hyper-anal behavioral patterns. I’ve been spending the morning mapping out our church’s 2011 calendar (ideally, I would have done this in September), and perhaps the exposure of my methodology will be helpful for some of my readership. I’ve come to the conclusion that everyone has their own style and every church has their own ethos. Where a church is on the free- to high- church spectrum, liturgy-wise, greatly affects the planning. Church size affects planning, as well. Usually, the larger the church, the more you have to plan ahead if you’re desirous to pastor your people with any sense of cohesion and unity.
I also believe that the worship planner should feel the burden of being the most ahead of any ministry on staff. Here’s why. If worship is one of the primary, most central, most lasting functions of the church (mission is, too, but mission will cease in the eschaton, while worship will not), then it is natural for all the other ministry-arms to think of themselves as flowing out of worship. And this is not only functional, but theological. Here’s my syllogism:
If all of life is worship,
And if life-worship is consumated with, exemplified in, and fueled by the church’s regular corporate worship,
Then all of life flows out of (and gets its meaning and purpose from) corporate worship.
To some, this probably sounds grandiose and perhaps even arrogant, but the longer I live and worship, the longer I observe and pastor the local expression of Christ’s church, and the more I read my Bible, the more I believe this is true.
So, if the heartbeat of the church is corporate worship, it’s only logical that the heart actually beat before the blood pumps. Too often, in large churches, ministries operate as kingdoms unto themselves. They function as self-sustained, amputated limbs, pumping their own blood with their own artificial heart. Worship planning far out is one of the best ways to ensure that the beat comes before the pump and that the church is operating as one unit.
That said, here’s my method. I put together an 11×17 word doc with a massive table. The table has 6 columns and over 52 rows (one row for each Sunday, along with special non-Sunday services like Ash Wednesday). I’ll describe it, but you can see it here (PDF). My 6 columns include:
- Theme(s), Liturgical Calendar
- Preacher / Passage / Title / Topics
- Ordinary Rotated Elements
- Events to note in planning
Theme(s), Liturgical Calendar. We’re a church which follows the Church Calendar Year, so it’s important to list what week we are in Epiphany, Lent, Eastertide, etc. I would say that, for us, the liturgical year colors our worship more than the sermon series or topic. Sometimes, though, we have specifically themed Sundays (e.g. mission Sunday, Sanctity of Life, Mother’s Day, etc.), and I like them at the forefront so that I remember to plan for them.
Preacher/Passage/Title/Topics. Sometimes what the preacher is preaching on is in tandem with “Theme(s), Liturgical Calendar,” but sometimes it is not. For that reason, I give these separate columns so that, if I have to do a bit of weaving work to make the Sunday cohesive, I can.
Ordinary Rotated Elements. I would highly recommend worship planners think seriously about something like this. There are always those things which are very important to the church’s life and worship, which don’t necessarily need to happen every Sunday (either for time constraints or because of balance of emphasis). Often times, we worship leaders can get hyped up about some new (or new/old) idea and want to implement it. It’s fresh in our thinking for a few months, but it wanes in importance later. A year later you remember, “oh yeah, I valued that thing I used to do. Whatever happened to it?” Some people have the brain that can remember everything in perpetuity (my wife is one of those). I can’t. So, in a sense, I’m “scheduling my priorities.” Our ordinary rotated elements include: the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, Mission Spotlights, Prayers of the People, Baptisms, and Communion. With regard to Baptism, it’s simply the case that in a large church, you have to plan slots for them, or else the organization and spontaneity get way too hard to manage. With regard to Communion, my jollies would be to do it every week (it’s part of my theological persuasion), but our church isn’t ready for that (another post, another time), and so it falls into the “Ordinary Rotated Elements” category.
Notes. This is the big column. Any time I get requests for added elements (a testimony here, a video presentation there), I consult this column to see how truly “full” the service is (whether it be full time-wise or full theme-wise). I’m very protective of worship not being crowded with too many disparate themes, because I believe it spoils the cohesion of the service and muddies the centrality of communicating the gospel in liturgy. Part of my being a good pastor, elder, and shepherd, is guarding worship in this way…which sometimes doesn’t make others happy. This column is where I stick those added elements (e.g. children’s choirs singing, hand bells playing, recognition of graduating seniors, etc.). I also use this column as an idea drop-box if someone comes up with something worth exploring or thinking about but it’s way far out. Often times, I’ve heard a new worship song or an old hymn that I think would go well in a different season of the church’s life. This is where I’m able to “store” those thoughts for future reflection and implementation. I can’t tell you how many times this column has saved my backside from some big worship disasters. I praise God for this column.
Events to note in planning. This is my “worship-meets-culture” piece. Here I’m talking about both national/international culture and our church culture. This is where I note when national holidays are, when the super bowl is, when Daylight Savings Time switches back and forth, when big cultural events (like elections) occur. This is where I keep myself aware of other major events in the church’s life (like Vacation Bible School, Mission Weekends, Special concerts, etc.). Here’s where I also note whether key regular participators in worship leading (e.g. our pastors, our choir) will be out of town or off that week. This column is important, though I would say that of all the columns, it commands the least of my attention.
There you have it. In a nutshell, that’s my methodology for big-picture worship planning and managing details in a large church setting. I believe that a pastor’s/worship planner’s administrative methods should flow out of his or her theological convictions and priorities, and the above is an attempt at demonstrating one person’s outworking of that reality.