Planning Creative Worship

Themes: Biblical, Scholar, Worship Planning

The communal nature of public worship is shaped and affirmed by liturgy, which is a script of a congregation’s unfolding thought processes, social interaction, and psychological movement. Liturgy proceeds in stages of collective activities that can be both physical (outward) and psychological (inward); it helps a worshiping community gradually move into the presence of God.

The Scroll

A scroll is often used to depict the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. The Old Testament form (left) is found in Isaiah 11:2 (rsv): “The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” The New Testament form (right) is based on Revelation 5:12 (rsv): “Worthy is the lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing.” The New Testament scroll is found more often in Christian art than the Old Testament scroll.

Private devotions and public worship are quite different activities in the life of the Christian. While the former is shaped by individual preferences and tastes, the latter is built around a comprehensive public consciousness and identity. Liturgy is the tool by which this public consciousness is named and orchestrated in the rites of public worship.

Thus, the development of liturgy is more than merely a listing of things that will be done during an allotted period of time. It is instead a script of the unfolding of a community’s thought processes, social interactions, and psychological movement. Liturgy sits in the director’s chair, calling the mass of gathered individuals into a purposeful common ritual that will allow the congregation to commune with divinity, revisit heritage, reaffirm identity, refocus activity, and draw the cares and concerns of each participant into the healing graces of the whole.

Liturgical development often reflects the dominant features of the culture in which the church finds itself (e.g., the “parliamentary proceedings” of high church Anglicanism, the “town meeting agendas” of Congregationalism, and the “social rally” of African-Americanism). It may also imitate certain predominant psychological motifs within a theological tradition (e.g., the “ordo salutis” unfolded in historic Reformed worship, the “sacramental reception” of Roman Catholicism, or the “temple processional” of neo-Pentecostalism). But liturgy, within each of these types and the hundreds of others that exist, requires attention to the thought development of group identity to complete the psychological process inherent in the church’s public worship of God.

That thought development involves at least four things: (1) plural speech; (2) an encounter or dialogue; (3) purpose; and (4) movement. The speech of public worship is plural because of its group character. An overemphasis on individual experience destroys what is at the very heart of a community’s understanding of its identity. The dialogue or encounter frames liturgy’s conversational interaction between God and his people. Purpose keeps each new worship experience focused and fresh, and movement plots its pace of development.

Psalm 100 graphically expresses these elements of liturgical development in what probably was a typical temple celebration of ancient Israel. It further unfolds the wavelike progression of group worship activities: series of similar worship rites collected in units that begin, pick up momentum, climax, and transition into a new focus of communal thought. They might be summarized from Psalm 100 as celebration (vv. 1–2), confession (v. 3), gift-giving (v. 4), and testimony (v. 5).

In the New Testament a casual reference to public worship activities occurs in Acts 2. Though incomplete as a basis for a full theology of worship, it nevertheless circumscribes worship in the early church in successive waves of group activities: learning, fellowship, sacraments, prayer, praise. A broader view of communal worship is shown in Revelation 4 and 5, where ever-widening ripples of praise flow outward in concentric circles from the throne of God in heaven, gaining strength and power until they become the warp and weft in the weave of the fabric of the universe.

Liturgical development serves the group mind best when it proceeds in stages of collected activities. These may be structured in terms of physical movement:

1.     We come, seeking God.

2.     We worship, finding God.

3.     We listen, understanding God.

4.     We respond, reflecting God.

5.     We disperse, praising God.

Or psychological movement:

1.     Worship: the desire of our hearts

2.     Worship: the testimony of our voices

3.     Worship: the unfolding of our spirits

4.     Worship: the expression of our lives

Or even a combination of the two:

1.     A time of preparation

2.     A time of praise

3.     A time of proclamation

4.     A time of profession

5.     A time of parting

The waves of worship may also find their orientation in God’s activity toward his people:

1.     God our Father draws us into his arms of love.

2.     God our Father touches our lives with his grace.

3.     God our Father guides our lives.

4.     God our Father blesses us that we might be a blessing to others.

Or they might take their cue from the community’s search for God:

1.     We gather to worship the King.

2.     We receive a word of encouragement from the King.

3.     We give of ourselves to the King.

4.     We boldly move on in life shaped and surrounded by the King’s blessing.

In each liturgical development the titles describe the elements of worship activity that will occur within each of the successive “waves.” Songs, prayers, Scripture readings, testimonies, gift-giving, responsive readings, confessions, greetings, teachings, blessings, sacramental celebrations, and the like become the building blocks of each successive “wave” of worship. Psychologically, these elements are arranged in such a way that they draw the communal mind-set of the group into a growing consensus of activity and then provide closure to each sectional movement.

The church’s public worship of God requires careful planning if it is to draw the great variety of individual Christian experience into a common group activity that meaningfully moves the congregation through successive stages of its identity-formation and devotional expression. The “waves of worship” are the stairs by which liturgy walks the worshiping community toward the throne of God.

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