Planning Worship Services (beyond songs and themes)


I was sitting in a Thai food restaurant discussing the various things that people expect out of a worship service like songs, volume, scripture readings and other things with a friend of mine when he asked the question that brought on the last couple of years of clarifying the “why and how” of worship design.

He simply asked, “what are you trying to accomplish when you’re planning worship services?” 

We proceeded to discuss the various theologies about what should happen in worship as well as my practical experience with each of them. All of this conversation took place as I busily scribbled notes on a paper napkin. As I did, I began to notice considerable overlap in the various approaches. I’ll briefly explain the 5 main ways to look at designing services. (I’ll have to tie them all together in another post…sorry)

 Worship Design Blocks

Telling stories has been one of the most effective forms of communication since the beginning of time. It’s the reason the movie and entertainment industry exists. We love hearing and seeing characters lives unfold. In every great story there is a struggle, a battle, a great love and purpose. We have been given the greatest story ever told, the original story of God and his relationship with people. We live in a day and age of biblical illiteracy. Most people don’t know the individual stories of the bible, not to mention the overarching story of what God has done throughout time.

I. Telling God’s Story approach to worship design is not a new concept but Robert E. Webber is probably most well known for his contributions. I strongly encourage any worship leader to read his Ancient-Future Worship book that outlines this is much more detail. Basically during worship, our job is to help people remember and reenact what God has done in the past and then anticipate what He is going to do. We do this by telling the story through elements of our worship service.

The story consists of these major headings:

  • Creator/Creation

  • Redeemer/Choices/Consequences/Catastrophe

  • Covenant-Maker/Community 1 & 2/ Conquest/Crown/Conceit

  • Incarnate- Christ

  • Savior- Cross

  • Master- Church

  • Consummation/Complete Restoration

No one likes to be a in a relationship where one person sits passively and listens while the other talks non-stop about their own thoughts and feelings. The best relationship is an exchange where you both get to express what’s on your heart and mind while at the same time listening to each other and growing in your understanding of who that person is. Our worship services are the same way, God speaks to us (in theological terms He reveals himself) and we listen and then we respond.

II. Conversational Worship is built on this biblical foundation of revelation and response.

God’s Revelation comes through:

  • Creation- Psalm 19:1-4, Romans 1:20 (He is powerful, intelligent, creative, personal, kind and gracious, righteous)

  • Conscience- Romans 2:14-15 (He has preprogrammed individuals to know certain things are right and wrong. Moral laws point to a Moral Lawgiver)

  • Christ- John 1:1, 1:18, 5:18, 8:58, 14:9, Hebrews 1:1-2

  • Canon Scripture- John 20:31

Our Response is has both timely and timeless aspects to it. However, for the sake of this post I’m going to focus on the attributes present throughout scripture and history as described by Bryan Chappel in his book Christ Centered Worship. He says that regardless of culture there have been major components of Christian responses in worship.

Our Response to God’s Revelation is:

  • Adoration- Recognizing God’s Character (greatness and goodness)

  • Confession- Acknowledgment of Our Character (sinfulness and repenting)

  • Assurance- Affirmation of Grace (God’s mercy)

  • Thanksgiving- Expression of Devotion (for his mercy and blessings)

  • Instruction- Acquiring Knowledge for Pleasing God (how to express more love for God, His Creation and His Creatures)

  • Communion*- Communing with God and His People (God’s holiness, provision for our sin, Jesus’s coming again)

  • Baptism*- recognizing God’s holiness, provision for our sin, encouraged by Jesus’s coming again

  • Petition and Intercession- Desire for Aid in Living for God

  • Charge and Blessing- Living for God with His Blessing (our responsibility to live out what we have heard and believe)

*The tricky part to this is that Revelation and Response are intermingled, just like a good conversation. You can respond simultaneously while someone is revealing something about themselves. Probably the most intermingled of this simultaneous revelation and response are communion and baptism. Again, too much to tackle here so I’ll have to dig into that some other time.

III. Church Vision is another major component for us in designing worship because our mission is to glorify God by creating and equipping disciples which is the same goal of our worship service. For other churches it’s equally important to make sure that your worship service is reinforcing the values and mission in their unique context.

Our values are:

  • Believe– (Word) A well grounded person passionately searching God’s Word in order to know Christ fully and apply God’s wisdom to all of life. (Grace) A joy-filled person humbled by God’s grace and celebrating God’s mercy through a lifestyle of prayer, worship and thanksgiving.

  • Become– (Lordship) A Spirit-led person daily seeking the leading and power of God’s Spirit as a means of transformation instead of relying on oneself. (Holiness) A zealous person pursuing holiness by turning away from sin, cultivating godly habits and putting on the very character of Christ.

  • Build– (Ministry) A selfless person sacrificially using their spiritual gifts, abilities and resources to build up Christ’s spiritual family, the Church. (Family) A deeply devoted person demonstrating true spiritual leadership by shepherding their entire household toward godliness, faith and love.

  • Bless– (Love) A compassionate person putting their faith into action and serving Christ in the face of the poor, sick, downtrodden and less fortunate. (Testimony) An influential person confidently sharing the good news of Christ and partnering with other Christians to promote God’s kingdom globally.

IV. Biblical Themes are something that I came across in Constance Cherry’s book Worship Architect. She says that there are six foundational themes in Christian worship. Since I’ve already talked about revelation and response I’ll highlight the other five here.

They are:

  • Centered on God’s Acts of Salvation (The Exodus and The Cross)

  • Enacts a Covenantal Relationship (the formal relationship between God and His People to relate to one another in agreed upon ways)

  • Corporate in Nature- (Vertical) God to people, people to God (Horizontal) people to people. One head, one body, one Spirit.

  • Trinitarian in it’s essence (to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit)

  • Journey of Transformation (an ongoing encounter with God starting right where we are spiritually and physically that takes us through a process that changes us)

V. Thematic Design approach to worship is by and large the most  popular method for worship planning. This is where you take the main idea based off of the sermon or sermon series and choose the elements to reinforce that theme. I am not saying this is a bad approach, but there are some drawbacks. For example, some topics just don’t have any music written about them. Another reason might be that it’s difficult to know where the preaching minister will be going, either because of a flaw in the planning process or a late Holy-Spirit inspired change. The final reason is that if you consistently follow this then depending on the preaching topics, you may never hit on the whole story of God and how to respond to Him.

In my experience, I have found it much more liberating to choose music that might fit the theme but definitely fulfill the other criteria of worship design and then use spoken transitions, scriptures and prayers to draw the theme throughout the service.


This way, the theme becomes a thin memorable thread that ties seemingly different things together without being restricted to a single theme.

I know I’ve crammed a ton into this post and think it’s important to study the books where these ideas have been pulled from. Hopefully this can start the conversation on how to make our services more powerful and biblically faithful.

I plan on writing a part two to show how we are practically working through doing these things in our services. It’s much easier to get an idea of how this works when you see it in action. Keep checking back.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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6 thoughts on “Planning Worship Services (beyond songs and themes)

  1. Sorry I’m a little slow finding your comment on my blog ( and checking out your post. I’m a big subscriber to the both/and theory and it sounds like you have a good thing going here. You’re paying attention to important worship elements while still honoring the sermon. Thanks for sharing!