Planning Worship With The Laity

Themes: Biblical, Scholar, Worship Planning

Because worship is a drama involving all the people, planning should involve not only the ministers, but also (and perhaps especially) the laity.

Worship, in the Christian tradition, is commonly understood as “the work of the people.” This is, in fact, a literal meaning of the word “liturgy.” By this is meant that worship is not intended to be a “spectator sport” but an activity involving everyone.

A timeworn but useful analogy by So ren Kierkegaard invites us to compare what happens in corporate worship with a drama. The problem comes when we see the congregation as the audience, the clergy and musicians as performers, and the Holy Spirit as the prompter. If this is the model, then our worship will involve the congregation passively at best.

Kierkegaard suggested we should change the roles. Worship for Christians is indeed like drama. Only it is God who is the audience, the clergy and musicians who are the prompters, and the members of the congregation who are the actors. Worship is what we all do in praising God—some of us have enabling functions, but the worship belongs to the whole people of God.

If we take this approach seriously, then we will involve lay people in the planning, preparing, and leading of corporate worship more than is customary.

What follows is a personal account of how one church has attempted to address this issue. This is, therefore, descriptive rather than prescriptive, and, it is hoped, suggestive of what might be done in other situations.

Laity Services

There was a time in most Protestant churches when we had what was known as “Laity Sunday” on an annual basis. One Sunday was given over to lay people to plan and to conduct public worship. It was a chance for the clergy to get “the view from the pew” and for a few people to get a better appreciation of what went into a Sunday service. In our church, Union Presbyterian Church of Schenectady, New York, there are about seventeen “laity Sundays” each year. These are very different from the old once-a-year version, but spring from some of the same values as well as new ones.

There are three different kinds of “laity Sunday” services in our planning: those designated simply “laity services,” “family services,” and “summer services.” The “laity services” are the responsibility of assigned church groups—three Sundays a year are set aside in this category. The “family services” are planned by families of the church for those Sundays when the entire church family (including children) is present for the full service—these are set for special days such as the first Sunday in Lent or Pentecost, and the first Sunday after summer vacation concludes. The “summer services” are the ten Sundays in the summer—members of the worship department each select one to plan and recruit other lay people to help. (In addition, other special services, such as Christmas Eve and Easter Vigil, involve lay people in the planning).

The Role of the Worship Department

All of these services are the responsibility of the church’s worship department. This group, comprised of three members of the session [the governing body of the Presbyterian church] and lay people at large, with musicians and the pastor, schedules the services and recruits the planners.

For the “laity services,” groups of the church are formally invited to take responsibility for a service. When this process originated, the session set a good example by serving as the first group to plan and to lead a “laity service.” The board of deacons and the trustees followed suit. Since then, groups such as the Membership and Evangelism, Christian Education, Mission, Support, and Worship Departments have planned services, as well as the senior choir, the high school choir, fellowship groups, church social teachers, and others.

The invitations are issued to these groups on a more-or-less rotating basis. By now, most of the groups have had several opportunities to plan and to lead services. Other groups, such as adult classes, have also been asked, or have volunteered, from time to time.

Each group usually selects a committee of its members to plan the service, although more than the committee may take part in the service.

For the “family services,” the pastors usually recruit families of the church at the suggestion of the Christian Education Department. A list is kept of those recruited to avoid undue repetition.

For the “summer services,” the members of the Worship Department select one of the Sundays and recruit members of their own families, friends, or whomever they please. Sometimes people new to the church are included as a way of involving them early. Members who have had questions or concerns about worship are also involved at times to give them opportunities to express themselves.

The final responsibility of the Worship Department is to evaluate these services. Time is given at each department meeting following any of the services to discuss the effectiveness of the service and to note suggestions for future planners. Once a year, the department evaluates the whole process as it looks ahead to scheduling for the ensuing year.

The Role of Laity in Planning

At least one planning session is held for each service. Usually there are several lay people involved, and in the case of “family services,” several children (grade-school age or older) are present. The pastor is also present, and for the optimum effect, so are the musicians.

The planning session begins with the group discussing the Scripture set in the lectionary for the Sunday in question. The texts are read aloud, and several translations are available around the table.

As the passages are read, lay people are encouraged to identify what speaks particularly to them—“What do you need to hear in that passage?” or “What would you want to hear in a sermon on that passage?” are good questions to ask.

Sometimes those passages set in the lectionary are not very useful, and the people find in them too little they can relate to or that seems timely. When this happens, there is freedom to let other passages come to mind.

The next step is to let a theme surface. Often this happens quickly, and some dimensions of the theme can be explored. When there are many ideas or concerns prompted by the Scripture selections, it may take longer to focus on a theme. But it is important to identify the theme so that the whole service can be built around it.

The preacher will want to invite the others to make suggestions about the sermon. Personal insights about the Scriptures will be welcomed, as well as questions to be addressed by the sermon. This experience in the planning stage not only gives people ownership in the sermon, but allows them to grow as they talk about their faith with one another.

Hymns and other music are discussed in light of the theme. The musicians are often ready with suggestions because of advance planning. Sometimes lay people will have ideas about anthems or responses. Hymns can be selected by the group as a whole.

Prayers of the service are sorted out so that lay people may write or select their prayers. The pastor will want to be available to those writing prayers, but often little help is needed—prayers composed by lay people are often fresh and vital. The content and style of the service’s prayers are discussed by the whole group at this point.

Other actions or visual aspects of the service are also explored. The use of banners, the manner of serving communion, processions, and countless other considerations may be given for the fullest participation of the congregation. It is the unique contribution of the lay people in planning to suggest what is meaningful to people in the pew.

It is important that the musicians have a comprehensive view of the year’s worship experience as well as an understanding of the particular services. Awareness of the flow of the church year and the dynamics of each service is essential for musicians to make maximum contribution.

This means that the musicians, with the pastor, will do considerable advance planning for the whole year, noting those Sundays that will involve lay people in detailed planning. In the course of the advance planning, themes of the church year will be identified and the lectionary reviewed in its broad outlines. Some details of the lectionary will suggest specific pieces of music and should be noted in the advance planning.

When the actual planning meeting with the lay people occurs, the musicians will be prepared with resources to offer. It is good to have more to suggest than can be used, so some selections can be made.

If the musicians are participating in the planning process, new ideas will occur to them on the spot, and they will find their own creativity stimulated. Listening to what the lay people are saying, then, is an important role for the musician. The musician’s purpose is to help the lay people give musical expression to the service they are designing.

The musicians are also teachers. They have an educational contribution to make in the planning so that all the others are better informed about the content and quality of church music and about the particular liturgical goals of the musicians. Something of the history and development of church music is often of interest to the lay people, as is the background of many of the hymns.

While the musicians are leaders in worship and have particular talents to bring, and while they are resource people to the planning meeting, they are mainly partners with the lay people and pastor in shaping the worship experience. It is this sense of partnership that is most important.

The pastor is the key person in this process. As “minister of the Word,” the pastor has particular responsibility for the worship experience. But it is not an exclusive responsibility; rather, it is important in the planning stage for the pastor to include others in the fulfillment of that responsibility.

First, the pastor needs to listen to the people. Where are their needs for the gospel? What special insights of faith do they bring? How can they more fully participate in the acts of worship? These and other similar questions should be in the front of the pastor’s mind during the planning.

Consider the sermon, for example. If the pastor is listening to the people about where they are and what they hunger to hear, the sermon will have a relevance beyond what is possible in one devised in isolation. Even specific illustrations will be suggested or quotes offered, and the sermon will have a vitality and authenticity not otherwise achieved. Children often have wonderful and quotable things to say in the planning sessions. At the very least, the preacher’s pump is primed and creative thought is prompted.

Preachers who have not tried this will likely be somewhat threatened by this approach. But those who have experienced it are aware of the enormous benefits to be gained.

Another role the pastor plays in planning is that of teacher. Throughout this process over a period of years the pastor has an opportunity to teach about liturgy that is unparalleled. Each planning meeting is like a class in worship. Basic education about the theology and dynamics of worship takes place painlessly. Those doing the planning are eager students, as they would not otherwise be there.

This means that the pastor will have to be prepared and will have to do homework. The pastor is the resident theologian and, therefore, needs to study constantly. Teaching courses on worship in the church’s education program will force solid study. One role of the pastor in the planning meeting is to be a teacher for worship. And the pastor will have to know more than anyone else to fulfill this responsibility.

Toward the end of the meeting, it is good to review the various responsibilities. Who will be reading Scripture, or writing what prayers, or leading what part of the service are some of the many details to be nailed down.

Then there will be follow-up conferences. If someone needs help with a prayer or guidance about which translation of Scripture to use or whatever, there will need to be opportunity for checking with each other. Any unresolved issues should have a definite way of being resolved.

Those who actually will lead worship should have a chance to practice. The pastor and musicians can be helpful in coaching. It is important to make sure the leaders feel comfortable to minimize distractions from the worship resulting from their nervousness or lack of preparation. More than that, the leaders should finish with a sense of having done a good job and with positive feelings about their participation in leading the service.

The overall effect of this process of lay involvement in planning and designing corporate worship at our church is that there are more people growing in their appreciation of the richness of worship. They have learned, not deductively because someone told them this is the way worship is supposed to be, but inductively because they have struggled with designing a service and discovered a new significance to worship.

The benefit to the pastor is that the sense of isolation is minimized. The pastor will be less inclined to be defensive about criticisms of worship or even the sermon because others are involved. Sometimes perpetual critics make excellent planners when they are given a chance to share their gifts in a positive and concrete way. A broad appreciation of worship from this kind of experience tends to give criticism a more helpful flavor.

This process also forces the pastor and musicians to be prepared. It requires study and work in advance and an openness to learn in the process. It is always educational for the professionals.

The participation of children in planning worship is essential. This need not happen every time, but it ought to happen some of the time. This prevents us from thinking what we can do “for” the children in worship and leads us to consider with them the purpose of our public worship. Children are potent interpreters and leaders, if we have the wisdom to listen and the grace to follow.

The purpose of all this is to praise God with all the fullness of the worshiping community. Worship belongs to the people, and it is appropriate that planning for worship include representatives of the whole family of faith.

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