One of the major responsibilities of a pastor is planning and conducting public worship services. That duty, in fact, may be just as important as the assignment to preach the Word of God in the meetings of the congregation. The minister is not alone, however, in the responsibility to make preparations for worship. Every member of the local body of Christ must also prepare body, mind, and spirit for participating in public worship.
Ministers need to pray just as earnestly for their duties in planning and directing a service as they do for any specific responsibility they have in that worship service. They can obviously find guidance in Scripture and church history in the matter. They may also find help on the subject from those who have gone before them. In organizing a worship service, they should give consideration to various possible types of services as well as to a selection of general service plans. With a pattern from these, they plan the specific order of service for the meeting ahead.
Some of the responsibility for the worship services of a church, as mentioned above, also rests on the congregation. During an evangelistic crusade, individual believers in a church often feel a need to pray earnestly for each service. They will focus on the needs of the speaker as well as on the readiness of sinners to respond. In reality, though, they should feel this same sense of responsibility in preparing for every worship service in their church. Otherwise, as Charles Spurgeon observes, "He who goes to the river, and takes no rod or net with him, will have no fish in his basket, even though there may be schools of them in the water. So, if we want to be blessed in our worship, we must come with a purpose."
Pagans tend to view the human body as evil; for some it is the prison house of the soul. Believers know that God's plan was that the human body be a temple of the Holy Spirit. Scripture speaks of the Church as being such an edifice. When Paul wrote, "If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him; for God's temple is sacred, and you are that temple," he had the local church at Corinth in mind (1 Cor. 3:17). He thus warned against the schisms which threatened that congregation at the time. Later in the same letter, however, the apostle also identified the body of an individual believer as the temple of the Spirit. He wrote, "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?" (1 Cor. 6:19).
Clearly, then, the physical body of the believer is an important instrument intended for use in the worship of God. Jacob made that fact clear when he called on members of his clan to prepare their bodies as they made ready to go to Bethel ("house of God") for worship. He called on them to purify themselves, with a clear reference simply to taking a bath (Gen. 35:2). In the same breath he instructed them to change their clothes; thus the custom of "putting on one's Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes" finds its roots early in the Bible. Randy Peterson counsels worshipers to avoid one possible danger in all of this. He writes, "People come to worship in their Sunday best. Their clothes are pressed and tailored. Their faces are made up, their hair in place. But sometimes I think they also press their souls."
Moses gave similar instructions to Israel as its people prepared to meet Jehovah at the base of Mt. Sinai. The Lord told him, "Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes and be ready by the third day, because on that day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people" (Exod. 19:10-11). Consecrating themselves implied a bath and clean clothes.
A part of the preparation of the body should also be getting a good night's sleep on Saturday. It is more difficult to worship with a tired body than one that is well rested. With plenty of rest the night before, one should find less need to fight sleep on the morning of the Lord's Day as the pastor preaches the Word in the sanctuary.
Jacob drew attention to the need for his family to make spiritual preparations also. He told his people, "Get rid of the foreign gods you have with you" (Gen. 35:2). The Bible says, "So they gave Jacob all the foreign gods they had and the rings in their ears, and Jacob buried them under the oak at Shechem" (Gen. 35:4). In this way Jacob's family repented in turning away from their idols as they made ready to go to the house of God.
Moses also called on Israel to make spiritual preparation for meeting Jehovah at Sinai. He instructed the people to "abstain from sexual relations" (Exod. 19:15). His reference appears to include intimate relations even between husband and wife. Certainly he did not imply any impurity in that, as other Scriptures make clear. God's intent was probably to protect worship of Him from being infiltrated with pagan elements since ritual sexual immorality was often at the center of the worship of idols.
It may be that the Easterner excels the Westerner in preparing the inner person to make ready to approach a god. Eastern religion generally stresses such things as the art of meditation. Thus, those of the East may be generally more comfortable in quietness than those of the West. Westerners have become so accustomed to being bombarded every waking moment with noise that they may have come to fear listening to their own thoughts! At any rate, having the mind filled with images of a Saturday night television program or even a mystery novel one reads while drifting off to sleep may interfere with worship on Sunday. For that matter, being overly occupied with contemplation of one's business affairs or an upcoming recreational event may also interfere with the believer's ability to worship the Lord.
Lack of adequate prior preparation for worship on the part of the people tends to make it empty, meaningless, routine, and boring for many. If people approach the house of God with little thought of what the Lord has done for them during the week, they can hardly engage in heartfelt singing during that part of the worship time. When people go to church with no plans for prayer, that part of the meeting holds little meaning for them. If they have not been reading the Bible and thus have no questions from its pages that they seek answers for, the sermon cannot help but seem irrelevant to them. John Broadus warns the believer against going to "just sit to see if the choir can stir you or to see if the preacher can stir you." Spurgeon adds, "The man who does not meet God outside the temple will not meet God inside the temple, he may rest assured of that."
In addition, one should approach the place of worship with an earnest desire to be used of God in blessing others. This is what Paul has in mind when he writes, "But eagerly desire the greater gifts" (1 Cor. 12:31). He continues by explaining that those gifts are the ones that specifically build up fellow believers. Even in moments of fellowship before or after the formal worship in the sanctuary, believers have frequently found themselves speaking a word of wisdom or knowledge to some struggling fellow. The ears may be surprised to hear what the mouth has just spoken. Such believers have been instruments through which the Spirit manifests Himself. To be used as such a vessel requires a prayerful attitude, an alert mind, and a spirit prepared in advance to worship God. Viewing things in this light gives one a different outlook on approaching public worship services.
Individual preparation for worship requires thoughtful effort. Naturally the mother gives attention to helping her children get dressed appropriately for going to the house of God. Few neglect this aspect of physical preparation for worship. If parents are not careful, however, the time before departure for church on Sunday morning can become the most hectic hour of the week around the house. The mother can be harsh when ordering her offspring to scrub themselves carefully in the bath. She can easily show her frustration in laying each child's clothes out to wear. She may even get into the habit of waiting to press them or sew on missing buttons until the last few minutes before the outfit must be put on. She may shout out commands in a rough manner, ending her orders with, "We are getting ready to go to the house of God to worship!"
While it accomplishes the goal of physical preparation for going to church, such an atmosphere may actually hinder spiritual preparation. A better idea to facilitate such spiritual preparation might be to play appropriate worship music on the sound system in the house while everyone is getting ready.
Ministers, of course, have much of the responsibility for the conduct of worship services. Because the average attendance at two-thirds of the churches in the land is no more than one hundred, pastors frequently have many routine duties in simply preparing the facilities at the church for worship. Where congregations have no custodian, it is often the ministers who must see that the buildings and grounds are kept tidy. They are the ones who unlock the doors to the sanctuary in good time on Sunday morning. Even before that, it is they who turn the heat or air up or down so that the rooms of the church will be comfortable by the time the people arrive. They turn the lights on before, and off following, the service. They and their families sometimes become weary in always being the last to leave the building after they have flushed the commodes in the restrooms, made sure that all the lights are off, and locked all the doors.
Pastors make other, more important preparations, however, for the worship services of their congregations. Even more than the members, ministers must get their hearts and minds ready for the assembly. Their preparations certainly include the solemn duty of the ministry of the Word in the pulpit. Yet they are also the directors of worship, as noted above, and thus need to plan for that critical responsibility. Meetings by no means "just happen" and run smoothly from beginning to end without some forethought.
There are a number of types of services that pastors can utilize. Ministers who are disposed to a more liturgical approach to worship services have given much thought to the matter and set down their conclusions in writing. The fruit of their labors can be helpful even to those who take a less formal approach to planning their services. For example, Andrew Blackwood describes three basic ways of planning a worship service: the unified service, the spiral service, and the alternating service. The following details of each come from his work.
In the unified type of service, every item centers on a specific theme. That is determined by the theme of the pastor's sermon for the meeting. The one idea dominates throughout the event. It determines the musical prelude, the worship songs, the pastoral prayer, the Scripture reading, and the benediction. Variety comes into the meetings of the congregation with the selection of different themes from Sunday to Sunday. These include evangelism, spiritual growth, missions, worship through financial contributions, and the like. The theme for the morning meeting might, for example, be "Christian contentment" with the evening service being "Christian militancy."
The unified service is no doubt the most commonly used of all. It seems particularly fitting for special occasions, such as Christmas, Easter, or Mother's Day. Indeed, many may follow its pattern without ever having studied it. Not infrequently, pastors will draw attention to the wonder of the Spirit's guidance in meetings. They may explain that neither the worship leader nor the choir director knew the theme of the sermon, yet all emphasize the same biblical truth in their selections. It is certainly a beautiful thing to witness that kind of Spirit-arranged unity in a Christian meeting. By the same token, it should be no less appreciated when it is done by the prayerful design of those in charge of the service! It definitely serves well to fix a particular theological truth in the minds of the worshipers.
The spiral type service seeks to begin at the lower level of the people as they start their worship. Its aim, then, is to gradually raise them to the mountaintop where God is. The various aspects of the meeting start with a focus on man as a sinner, then move on to Christ as Savior, and finally continue on to pardon and victory. Thus in the spiral type service, all ideas harmonize and work toward a climax.
Blackwood calls his third type of worship plan the alternating service. As the title suggests, the various parts of the assembly alternate from man and his needs to God and His supply, from the human to the divine. The two ideas stand in contrast to each other throughout the meeting. Man sends up prayer and praise, and the Lord sends down mercy and pardon. The attention of the worshiper in the pew shifts from the weakness of man to the power of the Spirit for service.
Of these three types of services, probably the unified is the most often used in non-liturgical congregations. Rarely would they employ the spiral pattern, and seldom would the alternating type of service fit their style of worship.
Churches given to more liturgical practices often follow a general order of service in crafting a specific plan for a worshiping congregation.
Blackwood credits Wieman with the suggestion for a three-fold general order of service. Its three phases include "exposure" to the divine, "diagnosis" of the human, and then the desired "adjustment." This fits into the scholar's description of the spiral type of service discussed above.
For many, a general order of service with five components follows the pattern of the worship of Isaiah when he was called to preach. It begins with "vision," as the prophet was ushered into the presence of a holy God (Isa. 6:1-2). He saw the Lord "high and lifted up." Then comes "contrition," as the man of God reported, "‘Woe to me!' I cried. ‘I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips'" (v. 5). Following immediately is the corollary "absolution" to complete the second aspect of the meeting. Isaiah said, "Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, ‘See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for'" (vv. 6-7). If one rearranges the events of the passage in a logical order, "exaltation" comes next and almost automatically. The prophet joined the angelic beings declaring, "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory" (v. 3). All of this prepares the way for "instruction" and challenge. Jehovah inquired, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?" (v. 8). One is not surprised to find the final aspect of Isaiah's encounter with Jehovah to include "consecration." He responded to God's call, "Here am I. Send me!" (v. 8). Following the surrender of the prophet, the Lord added further words of instruction (vv. 9-12).
Gaines Dobbins offers suggestions for a seven-fold general order of service. The first phase he terms "recognition," with its focus on acknowledging the presence of God in the sanctuary. The second is "inspiration and aspiration," where believers seek after the Lord in response to the inspiration of congregational singing. In the third, "communication," man engages in the pursuit of God through prayer, and the Lord responds as Scriptures are read. Dobbins calls his fourth phase "dedication," with its opportunity for worshipers to offer a part of themselves as they present a financial offering to Jesus. In the fifth, "illumination," the pastor preaches the Word. He or she ends the sermon with the sixth, the "invitation." Next is the final and logical step of "reception."
These three general service plans all follow a logical order. Indeed, the second and third are but an elaboration on the first.
While having a general pattern for a worship service is helpful, obviously in approaching a particular meeting one must devise a unique order of service for that assembly. One could, of course, just "let things happen" as they often do in the gathering of some congregations. Even those who tend to frown on having a formal order of service, however, usually at least make mental plans for the different events in the meeting. Whether a minister makes written plans or just mental ones, the following elements are usually included.
Technically, the plans begin with determining the type of service for the upcoming meeting. Assuming that this will be a unified worship time, one must also select its theme. The minister will then share that information with appropriate personnel in the church, including such persons as keyboard ministers, choir director, worship leader, and orchestra director.
Appearing first in the order of service is the prelude. Generally, the organ, piano, or orchestra plays as the people gather in the sanctuary for worship. In the unified type of service, the musical selections should reflect the chosen theme of the meeting. Dobbins suggests that the "prelude should do more than drown out the noise of the entering congregation; it should be a reminder of the purpose of their assembling and should set the mood for the service."
The purpose of the processional is simply to allow those who will participate in ministry during the meeting to locate themselves in a convenient place so as to be near the front of the sanctuary when the time comes for each to minister. The most informal processional involves the pastor simply leaving the aisles and the hand-shaking to step up behind the pulpit and say, "Let us begin our service." The opposite end of the continuum is a highly formal processional such as that at the commencement activities of a university. Many congregations follow something between these two extremes.
In such an approach, the choir enters followed by the ministerial team. The pastor leads the other ministers in the processional. This order is particularly important when a guest speaker is present. Although pastors might conclude that they should allow the guest to go first, that could create confusion for the visiting preacher. Accordingly, the pastor should lead the way, acting somewhat as an usher. When they arrive at their chairs, the pastor indicates which one the guest is to occupy.
It is traditional for the person who will deliver the sermon to sit in the middle of a row of chairs. After introducing a guest speaker, the pastor should step aside to allow the guest to move to the pulpit. In returning to his or her chair, the pastor should be careful to walk behind the guest.
Pastors should set a good example of appropriate behavior in the sanctuary by their posture and actions. Nolan Harmon offers helpful suggestions as to how the minister should sit on the platform. Pastors should avoid the following: Talking to those on either side during the service; gazing vacantly into the distance while others minister; smoothing the hair, arranging a tie, or in other ways putting the finishing touches on one's appearance; conspicuously chewing gum; lounging in one's chair as if relaxed at home in a rocker; loudly blowing one's nose (especially if the mike is open!). The best posture is sitting up straight with both feet flat on the floor, one slightly ahead of the other.
The call to worship serves to draw the people's attention to worship and helps them to recognize God's presence in His house. Various approaches include the worship team or choir singing such a call, the reading of an appropriate psalm from Scripture, congregational singing of something like "The Doxology," or even the reading of an appropriate poem. Dobbins advises against making the call to worship merely a ritual. For example, he warns, "Repetitive singing of the same call to worship tends to become meaningless except as a signal that the worship service has begun."
The invocation, the opening prayer in a meeting, should be brief and in keeping with its purpose. That aim is to invoke the blessing of the Lord on all the events during the period of the assembly.
Selection of songs for congregational worship should reflect the theme of the meeting. In addition, it should use various music styles in order to accommodate all members of the worshiping body. This takes into consideration the culture of the area where the church is located as well as the ages of those who compose the congregation. Balance between hymns and choruses as well as between traditional and contemporary modes of music should be the goal, regardless of the personal preferences of the music director.
Routine announcements may well be printed in the bulletin so that they need not be read in the service. Human nature seems to require, however, that the more important ones be read to the congregation. To avoid the distraction of announcements, some give them at the beginning of the meeting. Making this a regular practice, though, may have its own drawbacks, causing some individuals to get into the habit of entering the sanctuary five or ten minutes late so they will not have to listen to what they consider a boring waste of time.
Many churches refer to the prayer that usually comes next in the service as the "pastoral prayer." Though others may lead in this time of petition to God, no one knows the people better, nor can anyone pray more effectively for them, than the pastor. Pastors should remember that they pray representatively rather than privately. They should focus on the needs of the congregation rather than their own personal needs. Further, they should avoid using this prayer time for preaching purposes. In addition, they should refrain from "vain repetition" of the Name of God. Using a human being's name as a "filler" in a conversation would be tedious or even offensive to the person. God certainly deserves no less consideration.
Though most pastors would probably not write out such a prayer, enough planning should go into it that it is an orderly petition, rather than a wandering, almost incoherent one. Mentally noting the specific elements in the Lord's Prayer provides for that, even if at the unconscious level (Matt. 6:9-13). The prayer that Jesus taught His disciples to offer includes an address, praise, petition for heavenly things, petition for earthly things, confession, petition for personal spiritual blessings, and some closing adoration. With such a structure in mind, one can offer a sensible prayer even extemporaneously.
Although some Scripture is usually read in connection with the sermon, ministers will be more disposed to include Bible reading at additional points in the worship service when they realize that several in any congregation may never read the Scriptures for themselves. Since the purpose here is that the people hear the actual words of the Bible, the passage selected for reading need not always correspond to the meeting's theme. Indeed, a pastor might read one of the shorter books in its entirety over a few Sundays by following a sequential plan. Qualified readers may share this responsibility with the pastor from time to time. Such a reading of Scripture generally includes little if any comment.
Dobbins's suggestions on this part of the service are worthy of note. He writes, "The reading of the Bible should be as if the living God were present speaking his living Word. Careless Bible reading is inexcusable. Nothing that the minister does should receive more careful attention than his reading of the Scriptures. The passage which he reads should have been read and reread, with key words underscored. His pronunciation and enunciation should be natural and correct."
Regrettably, some consider the practice of asking for financial offerings to be beneath the dignity of Christian worship. Accordingly, they devise some other plan for financing the work of the Lord. In some cases that includes placing an offering box in the entryway of the sanctuary, so people may use the container as a place to deposit their gifts. Several passages of Scripture, however, make it clear that giving to God should be very much an act of worship; therefore, provisions for it should be a part of the order of service.
A good place to locate the ministry of special music in a service is just before the sermon. If placed there, it could accompany the offering activities. The choir, an ensemble, a solo, or some instrumental rendition may assist the congregation in the transition from earlier aspects of the meeting to the sermon.
Both the Gospels and the Book of Acts strongly suggest that preaching was central in the public worship of the early Church. It should still be given that priority in the meetings of believers today. While panel discussions, drama, and the ministry of music serve the people well during the time they spend in the sanctuary, none of them should ever replace the public proclamation of the Word of God from the pulpit. Though it obviously serves a practical purpose as well, most Protestant churches locate the pulpit front and center on the platform to symbolize the centrality of preaching.
The logical goal of any Gospel discourse is to have people respond to the message. To that end, the preacher extends an invitation at the close of the sermon. In it, he or she suggests specific ways that the hearers may apply the truths presented in the lesson. Thus the speaker urges those in the audience to come for the salvation, baptism in the Spirit, physical healing, or whatever has been dealt with in the discourse. After that specific initial call, the preacher may extend the invitation on a broader scale to those with any kind of need to respond to the grace of God more generally while in prayer at the altar.
Some ministers pronounce a formal benediction to close a Gospel meeting. One that is sometimes used is in the Old Testament and is referred to as the Aaronic Benediction. Reciting it, the pastor says, "The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace" (Num. 6:24). Another that is often employed is in the New Testament. The pastor says, "May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all" (2 Cor. 13:14). Many churches, however, bring their meetings to an end simply with a closing prayer.
Whether or not one composes a formal order of service, human nature is such that it requires a worship meeting to follow a generally known pattern. If that is radically changed, believers sense an uncertainty as to what is acceptable when in the assembly. That hampers them. They lose a degree of their freedom in worship. People are such creatures of habit that at least a degree of ritual serves them well. At the same time, they must constantly guard against a tendency to worship reflexively. Broadus wisely concludes that while "spiritual worship must have its externals," at the same time "it must subordinate those externals. Whatever externals it cannot subordinate it must discard, and the externals it does employ it must employ heedfully."
In summary, one of the major responsibilities of a pastor is that of planning for and conducting public worship, a responsibility equal in importance to preaching the Word of God.
Others, however, share in the duty to make preparations for worship. Every member of the local body of Christ, in fact, must personally prepare for the corporate worship of the Lord. For direction and guidance in preparing public worship services, pastors need to rely on prayer, Scripture, church history and tradition, and the good example and advice of ministers who have gone before. Pastors have a variety of types of services and general service plans available to them as patterns from which they can plan the specific order of service for a meeting.
The author by no means intends the articles in this series to promote a highly liturgical approach to worship. Rather, his prayer is that they may serve the purpose Paul stated in closing his discussion of public worship with the Corinthians when he said, "But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way" (1 Cor. 14:40).
Selected Bibliography for the Series
Blackwood, Andrew W. The Fine Art of Public Worship. Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1939.
Broadus, John A. "Worship." In Classic Sermons on Worship, ed. Warren W. Wiersbe, 11-29. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1988.
Coleman, Lyman. The Apostolic and Primitive Church. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1869.
Dobbins, Gaines S. The Church at Worship. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1962.
Guthrie, Donald. "Aspects of Worship in the Book of Revelation." In Worship, Theology and Ministry in the Early Church, ed. Michael J. Wilkins and Terence Paige, 70-83. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992.
Harmon, Nolan B. Ministerial Ethics and Etiquette, rev. ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1987.
Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible. Vol. 6. New York: Fleming H. Revell, n. d.
Martin, Ralph. Worship in the Early Church. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964.
. The Worship of God. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1982.
Palma, Anthony D. "The ‘Tabernacle' of David." Advance (Jan. 1994): 18-19.
Peterson, David. Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1992.
Peterson, Randy. Giving to the Giver: Worship That Pleases God, Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 1990.
Root, Mike. Split the Grape Juice: Rethinking the Worship Tradition. Joplin, Mo.: College Press Publishing Co., 1992.
Spurgeon, Charles H. "The Blessing of Public Worship." In Classic Sermons on Worship, ed. Warren W. Wiersbe, 31-43. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1988.
. C. H. Spurgeon Autobiography. Vol. 1. Carlisle, Penn.: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1962.