The Freedom of Long-Term Worship Planning

For much longer than I’d like to admit, I lived in the weekly tyranny of song selection. Monday morning would come, the upcoming Sunday would again be approaching (they have a way of doing that), and I’d be back where I was a week earlier. I’d put together a list, look at the Scripture readings and sermon topic for the coming week, consider anything special coming up (baptisms, communion, etc.) and try to find the right balance.

Oftentimes, I’d look at the upcoming readings or sermon, and realize that the *perfect* song was a song I had just used a week earlier, so I couldn’t use it again. Bummer.

Similarly, I’d realize that a particular song would work great as a sermon response, or as a service closer, but the congregation didn’t know it. If only I had taught it for a couple of weeks before. Bummer again.

And on many occasions I’d realize that I was going back to my favorites too often. Or we weren’t cycling through enough of the wonderful hymns that my congregation knew. Or we weren’t going back to new songs quickly enough to reinforce them. This weekly cycle I was stuck in wasn’t good. But it was all I knew. And it was how I thought I could stay “fresh”. And it was awful.

A couple of years ago I tried something that was new for me, which was to plan out the song lists for the upcoming four months of services. In August, I would plan out of the songs for September through Christmas. In the weeks after Christmas, I would plan out the songs through Easter. And in the weeks after Easter I’d plan out the songs through the summer.

This would require a lot of time, and several days of locking myself away in my office and not doing much else besides thinking about the upcoming services. It was tedious and a bit grueling, but I noticed several things began to happen.

I introduced new songs more strategically. I wasn’t repeating the same songs too often. When I needed the *perfect* song, I could schedule it and make sure people weren’t sick of it. We were cycling through a broader repertoire of hymns. And I wasn’t living in the weekly tyranny anymore.

Now when Monday morning came, I could look at what I had prayerfully planned months before, and see if it still felt right. I might make some small changes, rarely some major changes, but most often, I was happy with what was planned, and I was freed up to do other things. And when I would hear a new song and think “we’ve got to introduce that!”, then I could look ahead and see where it would make the most sense to include it, even if it meant bumping something else off of the list.

My process looked something like this (keep in mind I serve in an Anglican/liturgical context, and we sing about 291 songs per-service):

1. Choose the opening hymns
2. Choose the closing hymns
3. Choose the song that goes in between the readings
4. Choose the opening song(s) of praise
5. Choose the last song of communion (we usually like this one to be an upbeat song of celebration)
6. Choose the first two communion songs, trying to weave them together and build towards the closer.
7. Choose the call to worship (sometimes these are congregational, sometimes they’re choir pieces, and sometimes they’re instrumental, varying from contemporary to classical).

As for the offertory, which is usually a choir/band piece, my colleague Andrew and I usually map all of those out for the entire ministry year by the time we get to August. We’re just about done with that process as I speak.

This kind of long-term planning did not come naturally to me, and seemed unrealistic to me for a very long time. But now that it’s become the norm, I find that I enjoy no longer living in the weekly tyranny, and that I’m freed up to be spontaneous when I need to be.

Most of all, I’ve been freshly amazed at the wisdom of God and his kindness in helping me plan songs months in advance that will end up ministering to specific people or responding to certain current events in ways that there was no way I could have foreseen. He has a way of doing that.

9 thoughts on “The Freedom of Long-Term Worship Planning”

  1. Hi Jamie,
    Great word on careful advance planning! Did you also know the sermon topics four months in advance? Is it important to you to relate some of the songs to the sermon?

    1. Preaching topics, not very far out. Scripture readings, I get 3 – 4 months out. Partly because I make sure they’re emailed to our volunteer scripture readers. So I can pick the song that gets sandwiched in between readings. In our services the sermon is followed by the creed.

  2. If your church is using a lectionary, planning the music of services several months ahead of time is not that difficult. Presumably the pastor is also following the lectionary in choosing the text for his sermons. It is also a common mistake to think that every hymn and song in a service must echo the theme of the sermon or even the theme of the lessons. Betty Pulkingham pointed thus out back in the 1970s. If you try to tie everything to the sermons, you wind up with a service that is overly didactic but not very worshipful. The purpose of the music in the service is not to set the stage for the sermon but to release the people into the praise and worship of God. What is more important is that the hymn or song fit the place in the service where it is used. The opening songs should draw the people together as a worshiping assembly and help them enter into God’s presence. If you are not using a psalm between the first two lessons, the song used between them should either serve as a reflection or response to the the first lesson or link the two lessons together, act as a bridge. A gospel acclamation–a simple alleluia–is the best way to introduce the gospel reading. The gospel reading should be followed by a profound silence. The hymn, song, or special music at the preparation of the table may echo the theme of the lessons or act as a response to them, or prepare the people for the Lord’s Supper. I always used simple hymns or songs during the communion, hymns and songs that people could sing as they went forward to receive communion. I sought to capture in song the joy of the redeemed going to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. A profound silence should follow the communion. A joyous song of praise or thanksgiving should flow out of the silence. We sometimes used a medley of worship songs during which people received prayer and anointing by our prayer teams. The final hymn or song should be upbeat and send the people rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit back into the world. I found a helpful guide in planning music for services in the songs in the Revelation to John. I sought to give the people a foretaste of what Revelation tells us it will be like gathered around the throne of the Lamb, of Him who was slain.

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