Belief and Action in Worship Leadership

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As leaders we have an opportunity every week to lead people in worship. Not only is this an incredible opportunity, it is also a great responsibility. Much of what we do is extremely practical. But all the practical elements, from greeting others to singing to praying to standing in prayer, are grounded in theology. What we believe about God and about worshiping God shapes how we worship. Importantly for us as leaders, what we believe about God and about worshiping God shapes how we plan worship services.

I participate in a non-traditional worship service. We gather in a college auditorium every Sunday morning. Much of my worship planning experience comes out of this particular context, but I believe that the following beliefs about worship can be applied to the way you plan worship, whether you are in a traditional or non-traditional setting, if you meet in an established sanctuary or in a rented space. We each worship within a particular context, so style and setting will impact the practical elements of the service. But the theology behind how and why you plan should be the primary influence.

Since we believe how we plan worship is informed by how we define worship, we’ve developed a couple of phrases to describe worship that keep us in check. These phrases are both concise and memorable for our team. We believe:

Worship isn’t for us.

Worship is for God.

But,

Worship doesn’t change God.

Worship changes us.

This reminds us when we plan worship services that we do so with a particular audience in mind. Our audience is God, not us. It’s not about our personal preferences – what style of music we like, what kind of flowers are on display, what people on the stage are wearing, or what announcements are made from the pulpit. Some of those things might be important to the worship experience, but they aren’t primary in worship planning. Our preferences always take a backseat when we remember that worship is for God and our goal is glorifying Him. We want to choose songs and scriptures and pray prayers that proclaim who God is and honor his character and his story of working in the world.

But, we also recognize the reality that worshiping God doesn’t change God at all. Our worship of God doesn’t make Him more holy or more powerful. It doesn’t increase his ability to be everywhere at once. Worship does not result in giving God the power to do miracles or work in our world. God is all those things and the power to work in the world whether we worship him or not.

The flip side is we believe that while worship doesn’t change God at all, worship does change us. The experience of worship can impact someone’s life. It’s true that in worship we encounter a just and loving God and we can find our identity in Him and our place in his story. Finding ourselves in God’s story changes the way we view ourselves and our place in the world. It gives us a framework for interpreting what happens in our lives.

When we plan worship, we try to choose service elements that both glorify God and proclaim his story while at the same time considering how our service elements will impact the people who worship. It’s a tension we recognize. If we tried to resolve the tension, we might risk either manipulating people and their experience of God or we miss opportunities to connect people with God.

Our worship planning team asks questions like:

  • Will a song’s lyrics proclaim God’s character while at the same time connecting with people in such a way that they see their brokenness and need for God?
  • Does this sermon illustration communicate God’s truth and grace in a way that our community can easily relate to it?
  • Will this creative element (video, skit, artwork, etc.) link a current event or experience from our context to God’s story?

Get together with your worship planning team and have a thoughtful conversation about how you would define and describe worship. Think about how your definition of worship impacts how you plan your worship services. Can you craft a concise statement your team can memorize that will help you plan worship services that not only glorify and honor God but also change people and connect them to God?

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Emily lives in Long Beach, Mississippi with her husband, Ben, and their three kids, Sadie, Joe, and Lizzie. Together they serve at The Well, an offsite service of First United Methodist Church in Long Beach. Ben is the pastor for The Well. Emily volunteers as the leader for the Worship Planning Team and helps with the spiritual formation of The Well's band. Emily graduated from Asbury Theological Seminary in 2006. She loves learning more about planning and leading people in worship. When she's not working on something for The Well, Emily's probably telling her kids stories about growing up in Kentucky. You can find her on Twitter (@emilyhbarlow) but she mostly live tweets University of Kentucky basketball games.

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