Finding the heart of worship

By Nancy E. Hall

When I was starting out in ministry while still a college student, most of my focus was on music in worship. Later, as a seminary student preparing for pastoral ministry, my theological studies on the history of worship and sacred music broadened that focus. My music ministry evolved, then, as I came to understand and embrace the centrality of congregational song in the hearts of the people.

A wealth of resources exists not only for music but for other worship and liturgical materials, both in online form and in print. Yet I find that relatively few pastors, musicians and worship planners are aware of these tools. Many of us still rely on the tried and true — prayers, songs and hymns of generations past. This is not to say that these historic materials don’t have meaning and value today; many of them deserve to be a continuing part of our worship. But the canon on hymnody and liturgy has never closed: Words and music are constantly and thoughtfully being created, revised and shared — if we’ll just pay attention.

I invite you to consider a typical Sabbath worship service at your church. How long is it? During that time — often the only time your church family is in one place together during the week — what percentage of the service is given to just one or two voices (the pastor and worship leader)? How often does the congregation speak with one voice, through unison prayer or responsive reading? Are the musical selections singable, or is your congregation playing a passive role while the musicians or choir perform? Does the spoken word and music reinforce a clear word from God to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly? How often are creative or embodied arts included, such as dance, sign language, drama and visual arts?

Throughout my life as a teacher, pastor, musician and worship planner, I’ve become convinced that if the people trust and respect their leaders, if the congregation is given the chance to understand and participate in change, and if that change is introduced in a thoughtful and well-timed manner, the community’s worship can be steadily transformed — with the community’s blessing. I’m talking about the heart of worship: God’s word, the teachings of Jesus, and the continuing revelation of walking the Christian path in an increasingly challenging world.

Here, then, is a method for worship planning, week by week and season by season, that can both enhance and deepen your congregation’s experience as the Body of Christ.

  • Plan ahead. The arc or continuity of worship is significant. This means that the majority of what takes place in a given service has been planned ahead: What takes place is not a series of incidental episodes but a sequence harmonized around a theme or idea. At its best, such planning is intentional and open — attentive to the theme while leaving scope for the workings of the Spirit. Mindful planning brings freedom rather than confinement.
  • Start with the scriptures. Identify the passages for use in the service, and which ones relate directly with the preached word. If you use a lectionary, these scriptures are available months ahead of time. Many American Baptists exercise freedom in how to use a lectionary — seasonally, selectively or not at all. Many pastors choose their own scripture each Sunday. Some create sermon series based on a book of the Bible. Others identify a topic and draw on scriptures that speak to that theme. The main point is this: Allow the scriptural theme to be woven throughout the service, through the prayers and the music.
  • Collaborate on the music. Once you have your theme, make a list of possible songs for the congregation to sing. The people’s song has been integral to Christian worship for centuries for good reason. The word heard from scripture and pulpit can challenge and edify, but the words we take into our own mouths express our faith most fully. Work with the minister of music or choir director. Not every piece has to express the theme of the day or season, but the more harmony you can bring to the arc of worship, the better.
  • Use a variety of resources. Scour the indices of the pew hymnal. Look through any books of worship materials you own, as pastor or worship planner. Visit a website such as textweek.com, where you can search not only by the lectionary cycle but also by scripture passages. These will lead you to a wealth of commentaries, liturgies and prayers, hymn and song suggestions, materials for children, artwork on your theme, and more.
  • Frame the sermon. Since free church tradition gives the preached word central focus, consider how the sermon will be framed by the other elements of the service. Consider having the sermon text read and then followed by a musical selection that relates to that scripture passage. Following the sermon, plan a congregational hymn that strongly underlines the message and calls the people to commitment.
  • Consider how the service will flow. When you put it all together, assess the arc of worship from call to worship to benediction. Do all things work together for the good, for your theme? Are your transitions from element to element graceful and clear? Having a consistent order of worship helps, but you also want to be able to move things within the basic structure — and leave room for the Holy Spirit.

My best advice is this: Research and explore the ever-unfolding riches available for worship planning. Collaborate, bringing ministry staff and laity together to learn more about the possibilities for vital worship; go beyond your own practices and find out what other churches are doing. Try new things, not as gimmicks but as opportunities to enliven and deepen your congregation’s worship life. But always return to center, which is God’s word — whether by song, proclamation or prayer. Finally, be sure that you are always helping your people find their own voice, as worshipers and children of God.

This is our vocation, our sacred calling and our joy — not only for the Sabbath but for every day of our lives. As Clement of Alexandria wrote in the second century:

All our life is like a day of celebration for us;
we are convinced, in fact, that God is always everywhere.
We work while singing, we sail while reciting hymns,
we accomplish all other occupations of life while praying.
May it be so!

Abridged and adapted from Nancy E. Hall’s “The New Manual of Worship” (Judson Press, 2018), 319–26. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.


Open your hearts, open your minds: A prayer for Pentecost

Open your hearts. Open your minds.
Rejoice and be glad in what the Spirit is doing
in the world around you.
Wisdom shouts in the streets. She stands in the public square.
The Spirit is poured out upon all flesh.
The world is in need of listeners, my friends,
people to offer one another
the attention they so desperately need.
People need love, not programs.
People need someone to hear them,
not to tell them what to believe,
not to tell them what to think,
not to tell them anything except,
“I hear you, and I understand.”
Listening is an act of love.
— Tripp Hudgins

Selected from Nancy E. Hall’s “The New Manual of Worship” (Judson Press, 2018), 130.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.