Author – Adam Perez is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at Duke Divinity School.
One of the hardest things for me in planning worship is constructing the overarching narrative of the service. From the very first word to the last, I want the worship services I plan to take the congregation on a journey of encounter with God and each other. I want it to seem effortless and inevitable, like each element couldn’t possibly lead into any other than the one that’s been chosen. If you’re in the work of actually planning any or all of worship, you know that achieving such an ideal can often be elusive (for encouragement, see Ginny’s blog last week about ‘Success’).
Worship As Narrative
I call worship a narrative because I think it needs to go somewhere thematically, logically, spiritually, emotionally, and even physically. It needs to have a plot, and some subplots. Key characters who are developed over time. It needs to generate conflict and resolution, tension and release; it needs to have some small climaxes and some big ones too. It needs a range of emotional engagement. Not every story is told the same way. Narrative can take on a diversity of styles, as we know about the best books in a variety of genres; scripture also shows a diversity of genres.
My commitment to narrative for worship comes from scripture. Aside from the cosmic view of the Bible as one big narrative from Genesis to Revelation, it is true in more micro-cosmic ways. In the Old Testament, God’s people are encountered by God who (via the prophets) reminds the people of God’s story about them and they respond (e.g. Joshua 24). In the Gospels, Jesus himself tells stories (parables) to teach about the kingdom of God.
Hymn Sandwiches and Thematic Planning
But not all worship services or their patterns seem to have a clear direction to them. The classic ‘hymn sandwich’ service can feel like a game of ping-pong that never has a winner. ‘Thematic’ planning, where a simple theme is chosen to orient the service (e.g. “Grace”), can sometimes generate services that have many smaller elements that point to the central theme, but are disconnected from one another. Thematic planning can especially impact services with extended song sets, resulting in an opening time of musical worship that spins its narrative wheels. Even in congregations where the liturgy is (supposedly) ‘set,’ the sense of overarching narrative can be overlooked in the midst of the structure–a forest missed for the trees. Worship planning in these settings can often feel like a ‘fill in the blank’ exercise. In all of these examples, the question remains the same, ‘How can a worship narrative more deeply embed the congregation in the story of God?’
Here are a few simple suggestions:
- Think about the genre of the scripture story for the day. Ask how the music and the whole service can inhabit that storytelling mode in its structure and content.
- Choose a song that uses scripture paraphrase or quotation and use it in place of one of the readings for the day (rather than a reiteration of the same text). In your worship bulletins, mark those songs as scripture or scripture paraphrase.
- If you’re only responsible for music choices, ask the worship leader, reader, or pastor, to say a one sentence introduction to a congregational song you’ve chosen. If speaking would be too cumbersome, put a note in the back of the bulletin. If you’re doing choral music, this is a great way to key in the congregation for how to listen well to the piece as part of the service. Why did you choose it, what are its virtues at that point in the service? What does the song express that can’t be expressed with words alone?
- If you’re responsible for the whole service, I can’t stress enough how the use of ‘in-between-words’ can help tell the big picture story in worship. See Paul Ryan on this (of Calvin, not the WI politician!).
- Avoid redundancy in music! If you have a song that acts as a confession, don’t also read a confession–let the song do its part in the worship story.
- Assess your choral music based on function–from week to week, an anthem’s text and music might not always best serve the narrative of worship by being sung during the offering. Ask, “What is this text and music doing and where might if fit better”?
If you do some of these things to support a narrative-based approach to worship planning and leadership, it will support worshippers’ deep engagement with worship. More importantly, it will support a deepening engagement with God who shows us love through the redeeming life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ–the most important story worth telling.
How do these suggestions engage with your worship context? Share with us in the comments!