Planning Worship in the Real World
By Stefanie Kelly
(This article originally appeared in the Jan/Feb 2011 issue of Worship Leader magazine)
It was Saturday morning, before dawn, when I woke up to the sound of my cat coughing up what was apparently a very large fur ball. As I stumbled out of bed, hoping to conquer the inevitable stain before it set in, I turned on the lights—or rather—the dark. The power was out, and each second, critical to the longevity of our 30-year-old carpet, was quickly vanishing. To compound the situation, I had a radio interview in a little over an hour and had neither lights nor a functional flat iron to tame the bed head that was a result of my fighting the war on terror in my sleep.
I’ve felt that way a time or two on a Sunday morning—overwhelmed and frazzled when I had not adequately prepared for our services. The moments I’ve rested on my own laurels risked creating what I call a “man-made worship experience,” far less than what God desires. Mercifully, the Lord still blesses, but it is so much sweeter, redemptive, and transformational when I have taken just a few extra steps to be prepared for his presence.
Here are five questions I ask myself when I plan our worship set:
1. Am I connected to the Lord through prayer?
As one who helps the church experience God through music, it is critical that the worship artist is intimately connected with the creator. Because song selection is so important, much of my time is spent seeking God about which songs will speak personally to our congregation. Not too long ago, I attended a wedding where Richard, one of our youth leaders who was struggling with cancer, sang the most touching rendition of MercyMe’s, “I Can Only Imagine.” I had been restless all week about our offering song but it was that Saturday—in the final hour—that the Lord spoke. We revamped our set; Richard sang the offering, and that Sunday our congregation joined this precious believer in his fight against cancer. Today Richard is cancer free.
2. Am I connected to my congregation?
I am used to leading for multicultural churches, so I study everything: from the ii-Vs of jazz to Michael Jackson grooves, to Bach inspired harmonic movements. What fun to incorporate these techniques into our worship—sometimes all in the same song!
From the homeless to the wealthy, the former stripper to the Bible study leader, or the drug addict to the physician, I must read the souls of our congregation and interpret spiritual thirst in a musical way. Since some are reached by rock sounds, others by hip hop, Latin-jazz, or gospel, being a lifelong learner of a wide palette of musical styles brings credibility to your ministry and trust within your congregation. In this way, we modern-day Levites can be “all things to all people” (1 Cor 9:19), like the Apostle Paul.
3. Am I well connected to our musicians?
I sure hope so since the worship artist is also a mentor, a teacher, and a coach. To know our artists’ hearts promotes mutual respect and commitment, glorifying God and blessing us all along the journey. Being familiar with the skill level of our musicians enables us to play to their strengths. Staying close to our volunteers helps me put like-minded players together in settings where we can all be confident and at ease. I never made it at as a cheerleader in high school, though I incessantly tried, but now I cheer for our musical team as their advocate and biggest fan!
4. Am I connecting with excellence?
One of my favorite verses is Psalm 33:3, which says, “Sing to him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy” (NIV, emphasis added). Like our Father gave us his best in Jesus, I am inspired to give my best offering of worship to him. This is where the creativity makes its grand entrance. At the Rock we are blessed with volunteer string players who play for the local symphonies, so, often we will feature a hybrid of live strings with a DJ and a rhythm section. If your church only has a violin player, start small and write parts that are simple yet beautiful. Other musicians will be drawn in because there is a significant place for their art, and soon you’ll have your own symphony. (In the meantime, study up on your arranging chops and encourage your musicians to “woodshed”!)
5. Am I connecting our worshipers to an accessible encounter with God?
My first rule of thumb in making this final connection is that I am always mindful of the melody. No matter how far I take my arranging liberties, the melody is never compromised. With original tunes, I make sure my melodies and lyrics are in harmony so our people don’t have to guess at the phrasing. In addition, the flow of the service should make sense and be well rehearsed. Usually five last-minute prayers before five songs is a giveaway that I am scrambling to fill up dead space. On the other hand, deliberate testimonies with heartfelt prayers may give the drummer time to start the click or allow the guitarist to change instruments, all while leading the worshiper into a meaningful place of contemplation and reflection.
Finally, let us connect the dots: preparedness as a worship artist begins by anchoring ourselves in a relationship with the Lord, listening for his voice. The music will follow; our congregations will worship. Oh, and about the fur ball, you ask? Well—after a few bumps in the dark, the dawn broke and the stain was lifted. Joy eventually came that morning. Hmm … sounds a lot like a song to me.