Planning Traditional Worship

Themes: Biblical, Scholar, Worship Planning

Long-range and short-range planning are essential to worship services characterized by strength, order, and beauty. Pastors and church musicians are responsible for planning, but participation in music during worship should include adult and children’s choirs and the congregation singing hymns, psalms, and anthems together.

In Into His Presence: Perspectives on Reformed Worship (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Christian Reformed Church Publications, 1985), James De Jong describes worship as a dialogue in which God’s people receive God’s greeting, pardon, instruction, and blessing, as well as respond in confession, thanksgiving, and praise. Many times the music in our services has blurred this view of Reformed worship. Howard Hageman tells of a worship service he attended in which the congregation had as much music to listen to as it did to sing, and the music had little or no relationship to actions of receiving and responding. Hageman then goes on to talk about “liturgical integrity” (Liturgy and Music in Reformed Worship [Fall/Winter 1983-84]: 4).

One way to avoid the kind of service Hageman describes is through careful planning. Long- and short-term planning helps worship leaders to integrate the ministry of Word and music and find ways of involving the congregation meaningfully in the service.

Responsibility for Planning

Who is responsible for planning worship services?

Since worship is the lifeblood of the church, pastors should realize that time devoted to worship planning is a necessary and vital part of their ministry. To give choirs, instrumentalists, and soloists adequate time to prepare, pastors must plan their preaching schedules well ahead of time.

Involved in planning with the pastors are the church musicians—those in charge of proclaiming the gospel through music. Pastors and musicians, recognizing their roles as servants working for the glory of God and the edification of the congregation, together can make worship planning an enriching experience that results in God-pleasing, meaningful worship.

Pastors will use such planning sessions as opportunities to highlight the principles of Reformed worship. They will insist that contributions made by choirs and soloists should not be a source of poor theology, that “neither sentimentalism nor bombast are replacements for the nourishing word which builds and sustains faith” (Carl Schalk, The Pastor and the Church Musicians: Thoughts on Aspects of a Common Ministry [St. Louis, Mo.: Concordia Publishing House, 1984], 5).

In turn, the musicians will highlight the contribution of music. “The pastor needs the poetic aid of hymns as well as the exaltation of music to make the message come alive with splendor. The hallelujahs sound best when they are set to music and have an added dimension which the pastor himself could never give in any words. This understanding of the power of music to add a new dimension to the proclamation of the Word ought to draw pastor and church musician together in dialogue as nothing else can” (A. R. Kretzmann, “The Pastor and the Church Musician,” Church Music, 2 [1970]: 8).

Since pastors and music directors usually have more flexible schedules during the summer, this is an ideal time to plan music for the year. Summer planning allows for more leisurely examination and purchase of music and gives accompanists and instrumentalists adequate preparation time. Such yearly summer planning also provides the groundwork for later seasonal and weekly planning sessions.

Planning Congregational Singing

Because hymns and psalms form an important part of the Christian life and faith, congregational singing is a vital part of worship. The goal of good singing is to involve the entire congregation in singing a sizable number of hymns and psalms with spiritual perception and musical artistry.

Select Opening and Closing Hymns

Use the topical index of the hymnal to select appropriate hymns to open and close the service. These will usually be hymns of praise and dedication that can be sung for several Sundays, but they need to be varied, preferably to reflect the seasons of the church year.

Select New (Unfamiliar) Hymns

The congregation’s repertoire of hymns should be expanded. Every hymnbook includes some wonderful unknown hymns that should be introduced and sung regularly.

Plan New “Service Music”

Service music includes doxologies, response to prayers, or musical settings of the creeds. Again, the congregation may need to learn this music, and the selections should be varied during the course of the year. Instead of using the traditional doxologies, consider singing doxological stanzas of hymns, such as the last stanza of “All Creatures of Our God and King.”

Organize Hymn Sings

Hymn sings can be either designated sections of a worship service or full-fledged hymn festivals. Careful planning can make such hymn sings both educational and inspiring. The choice of hymns may be topical or seasonal, or may consist of “rehearsal” hymns to be sung in later worship services.

Planning Congregational Singing with Choir Participation

One way to escape the exclusive pattern of the choir performing while the congregation listens is to plan for joint singing. Such joint singing will clearly identify the choir as part of the congregation and may also encourage better congregational participation.

Hymn Concertatos

A hymn concertato is a hymn arranged for congregation, choir, organ, and various instruments. In many concertatos, choir and congregation sing alternate stanzas, or the choir sings a descant while the congregation sings the melody. Be sure to include an explanation in the bulletin, outlining the singing procedure for all participants.

Alternate-Stanza Singing

The singing of alternate stanzas is based on the ancient practice of antiphonal singing. Alternation can occur between choir and congregation or between segments of the congregation (e.g., men, women, and children).

Planning Adult Choir Music

The most important function of the choir is to provide strong and solid musical support for congregational singing, especially when new hymns are sung. The choir can also sing anthems and other more elaborate music.

Another important function of the choir is to lead the congregation in performing certain liturgical acts, such as a call to worship, a song of confession, or a musical meditation after the sermon. Through such “service music,” people are encouraged to pray, confess, or meditate while the choir formulates the congregation’s intention. Service music should not call undue attention to itself and must be clearly understood. (The words should probably be printed in the order of worship.) Some service music can be repeated in several services; other selections will be chosen for a particular service.

Summer is a good time to develop a schedule of choral music, balancing hymns or psalm settings that involve the congregation with anthems that will be sung by the choir alone. Music also should be ordered then to permit adequate rehearsal time later. The choir director and the pastor would do well to work together on the worship schedule.

Planning the Children’s Choir Participation

The summer planning suggestions for the adult choir also pertain to the children’s choir. Like the adult groups, the children’s choir should be viewed not as a novelty but as an integral part of worship. John Calvin used children’s choirs to teach the congregation the new settings for psalms, and such teaching continues to be legitimate today. A hymn such as “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly,” for example, which may be new to the congregation, is easy for children to learn. Consider having the children sing such a song for the congregation, then inviting the congregation to join in. You’ll find this “teaching method” is an excellent way of helping everyone, both children and adults, become familiar with a new hymn.

A beautiful contrast in sound can also be achieved by combining the children’s and adult choirs. One example of an anthem arranged for such combining is “Like as a Father” (Cherubini, arr. by Austin Lovelace for children and adult choir, three-part canon, Choristers Guild, A156). Other anthems may be adapted for such use by assigning certain stanzas to each choir or to the combined choirs. This method works well for John Rutter’s “All Things Bright and Beautiful” (one-part; Hinshaw Music, HMC-663).

Soloists

The same liturgical considerations that apply to choirs apply to soloists. Soloists should not convert the sanctuary into a recital hall; instead, their singing should remain an expression of the congregation’s worship. Again, early planning, including careful communication with the soloist, is the key.

Periodic Planning

Yearly summer planning will greatly simplify the coordination of specific services, but periodic planning meetings are also necessary. The planning team (either a church staff or, in a smaller church, the pastor and the organist/choir director) should meet monthly to coordinate the services for the next several Sundays. They should discuss ways of introducing hymns (perhaps through a hymn-of-the-month program) and select hymns (including stanzas) for each service. If the choir is to sing, their selections should also be integrated meaningfully into the order of worship.

Using a preprinted weekly planning form is a good method of consolidating the necessary information. Such a form provides space for listing the hymns, anthems, call to worship, organist’s service music, titles of instrumental music, soloists’ selections, and participants’ names and also leaves room for evaluating the music.

Since the best-laid plans may go awry, it is well for the pastor and the musicians to pray and consult briefly before each service. Only through such careful and prayerful planning will services evolve that reflect the strength, order, and beauty that should characterize our worship.

Does all this sound like too much work? First, remember that early, comprehensive planning is very efficient and will save time when planning for specific services. Second, as the poster on our choir room wall reminds us, keep in mind that “genuine praise is worthy sacrifice that truly honors God.”

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