From Slavery to Deliverance: A Storytelling Service

Sometimes we think that music is absolutely necessary for a worship service. This Sunday, however, our musicians (all five of them) were going to be out of town. So I wrote a storytelling service. Because I ended up being here (after all), I did add some very simple a cappella singing – but otherwise this is primarily a spoken word service. Andrew is preaching on Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, and on our celebration of communion – as a part of his sermon series on Eating with Jesus. The service brackets his sermon with the telling of the story of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. The style of writing is designed for an oral presentation – so keep that in mind as you read. The service is designed for two primary voices (one voice reading the italicised text), but a third could be added to lead the congregational responses.
If you wish to use this service in your own church, please contact me first.


This story begins like countless other stories. A young mother. Frightened. Afraid for her child. Afraid for herself. What makes it different is not her circumstances. Countless mothers have given birth in slavery. Countless mothers have had the pains of childbirth amplified by the knowledge that their child was not their own. Was owned, even at birth. And that the child’s owner could do whatever he or she wanted with that baby – could have it dashed against the rocks. Could have it thrown into the Nile.

“A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”

No, what makes this story different is not her circumstances. Too many, throughout history, and still, have been in the same position. What makes this story different is the promise of God. “I am” he says. “I will.”

“I am the Lord; I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians, I will deliver you from slavery, I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, I will take you as my people and be your God.”

I am.

I will.

Beginning with this child, hidden by his mother. Beginning with this child, picked up out of the reeds by Pharoah’s daughter, raised as Pharoah’s grandson. A slave, raised as the grandson of the King of Egypt.

His sister, thinking quickly, asks Pharoah’s daughter if she needs a Hebrew woman to nurse the child she has found. She runs to get her mother. And so the child is raised as the grandson of Pharoah, but also as the child of his own mother, as an Israelite—stories and traditions whispered to him, as he nuzzles at his mother’s breast.

Straddling two identities, Moses grows up and begins to notice the plight of his people. He begins to notice what God had already seen. He begins to feel the concern that God is already acting on.

But Moses’s concern turns to anger inside him, building to a crescendo. He turns that anger upon those who raised him. When he sees an Egyptian foreman beating an Israelite slave his anger bursts. And he kills a man.  Maybe he expected to be lauded as a hero by his own people. Instead, they responded with fear.

“Who made you ruler and judge over us? Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian?”

News of the murder reaches the ears of Pharoah who, perhaps realizing that this act proclaimed Moses’s loyalty to the enslaved Israelites rather than the ruling house in which he was raised, tries to have Moses killed. Moses flees for his life—into the desert.

Congregational Response: Slavery

Leader: We are all enslaved, like the Israelites—although we may not know it.

People: Free us, Lord.

Leader: We are slaves to ourselves.

People: Free us, Lord.

Leader: We are slaves to sin.

People: Free us, Lord.

Leader: We are slaves to the desires of the world.

People: Free us, Lord.

Leader: We are slaves to our own selfish desires.

People: Free us, Lord.

Leader: We are slaves because we do not seek the freedom that is offered to us—but prefer to dwell in slavery, perceiving it as safety. Teach us to see our bondage and to cry out to you.

People: Free us, Lord! Lord, have mercy!

SING: Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy on us.


So Moses flees. But his mother must have taught him something. When he sees some shepherd girls being harassed as they try to water their sheep, he drives the thugs away, and helps the seven daughters of Midian to water their flock. Not only does this result in a safe haven for Moses in the desert—it results in a wife. Midian gives his oldest daughter, Ziporah, to Moses in marriage.

For a long time, Moses lives as a part of Midian’s family—taking to himself a third identity. A third nationality. Maybe, after a while, he begins to forget his people. He begins to forget their suffering. But God doesn’t forget. I am, he says. I will.

“I am the Lord; I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians, I will deliver you from slavery, I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, I will take you as my people and be your God.”

One day, while Moses tends his father-in-law’s flocks, he sees a wonder: a bush of fire. The flames shoot up from the ground, but do not consume the bush on which they feed. Moses draws closer. And God says:


“I’m here.” Moses answers.

“Do not come any closer, Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.”

Moses hides his face in fear. He has forgotten his family. Lost his identity. But God knows. God knows who Moses is. God knows who he belongs to. And God begins to speak. He speaks of hearing the cries of his people—of his concern for them. Of his desire to bring them to a good, rich, productive land where they can dwell in peace and plenty. And then God says something else.

“So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”

Moses thinks to himself: “No way is that going to work out.” He bows his head and, in mock humility he begins to plead with God: “Who am I, God, that you would send me to the Pharoah? That you would ask me to bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

“Who am I?” He thinks. “A murderer. A man without family. A man without strength or position. A man without words.”

I am, said God. I will.

“I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”

Moses thinks harder. “But what if I go to the Israelites and tell them that the God of their fathers – of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—spoke to me, and they ask me your name?”

Are you my God,” he thinks?

I am, says God.

“Tell them,” says God, “that I have watched over Israel. I have seen what is done to them by Egypt, and I have promised to bring you up out of Egypt.”


“The elders will listen to you, Moses… here is the plan.” And God tells Moses that he will strike Egypt with his hand. That after God’s display of might, the Pharaoh will beg the Israelites to leave. That the Egyptians will send them away with gifts so that God’s anger will not continue to rain down on them.


“I see… but what if they don’t believe me?”

What if you are not I am. What if you will not. What if, what if, what if…

What is that in your hand?

My staff?

Throw it on the ground!

Moses shrugs and does as he is told—and then jumps back in fear as a snake suddenly writhes at his feet.

Pick it up by the tail.



Cautiously, pulling back his hand in alarm every time that serpentine head weaves closer to him, Moses reaches out and closes his hand around the snake’s tail. His staff is once more in his hand.

This is so that they will believe. Now. Put your hand into your cloak.

Moses hesitates. He doesn’t want a snake in his cloak. Slowly, he reaches his hand in and, when nothing happens, pulls it out again. He jumps and holds his hand away from himself. It’s white with leprosy. If he could run from himself he would.

Now put it back in your cloak.

Put his infected hand inside his cloak—next to his heart? Slowly, staring into the fire, Moses does as he is told. When he pulls his hand out again he sighs in relief. It’s clean.

If they don’t believe the first sign, they may believe the second. If they don’t believe the second, take some water from the Nile and pour it out in the dust. It will turn to blood on the ground.


“Sorry. Sorry, Lord… but I’ve never really talked much in front of people. No one has ever called me a leader. I… I’ve already made a lot of mistakes. I’ve always been slow of speech—and you haven’t changed that.”

Moses. Looking for a miracle for himself. If he was to be called by God, then surely God would make him fit for the task by changing him into the very image of eloquence so that he could talk the Israelites and the Egyptians around his little finger.

“Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.”

I am. I will. But through you. I will help you. I will teach you—but I will not change you.


“Sorry. Sorry, Lord… but couldn’t you send someone else?”

Congregational Response: Calling

Leader: Like Moses, we are called. Like Moses, we are hesitant.

People: Help us, Lord.

Leader: We are frozen by fear.

People: Help us, Lord.

Leader: We see only the difficulties ahead of us.

People: Help us, Lord.

Leader: We see only our faults.

People: Help us, Lord.

Leader: We do not want to go where you send us.

People: Help us, Lord.

Leader: We do not want to speak to those you wish us to speak to.

People: Help us, Lord.

Leader: We are called by you, but we feel unfit, unprepared, and unable to complete the tasks you have set before us. We forget that it is your strength by which we go. That you have promised to be with us. That you have created us. That you knew everything about us before you called.

People: Help us, Lord. Lord, have mercy on us.

SING: Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy on us.

A Hurried Meal

Moses goes. All his protests cannot dampen God’s call. He goes. But his brother Aaron performs the signs before the elders of Israel. And the elders fall on their faces and worship God when they hear that he is concerned about them and has heard their cries.

But when Aaron and Moses go to Pharaoh, Pharaoh gets angry. He makes the work of the Israelites harder. The Israelite overseers come to Moses and Aaron in anger, and Moses cries out to God: “Why, Lord, why have you brought trouble on this people? Is this why you sent me? Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble on this people, and you have not rescued your people at all.”

“Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh: Because of my mighty hand he will let them go; because of my mighty hand he will drive them out of his country.”

I am, God says. I will.

“I am the Lord; I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians, I will deliver you from slavery, I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, I will take you as my people and be your God.” – Exodus 6:6-7

Moses reports this to the Israelites, but they turn away from him in discouragement. God tells Moses and Aaron to repeat his message to Pharaoh. And they go. And Aaron performs the signs. Pharaoh’s heart, however, is hard. He cannot humble himself. He cannot admit that anyone could have more power than himself. And so, the plagues begin. The river turns to blood, and the people have to dig drinking water out of the river bank. Frogs pour across the land: in kitchens, in beds, in ovens. They die in courtyards and houses and fields—but Pharaoh will not let the Israelites go.

Tell Aaron, ‘Stretch out your staff and strike the dust of the ground,’

And a great swarm of gnats flies up. But Pharaoh won’t listen. So instead of gnats there are flies. On everything. In the eyes of the animals, underfoot. In every house, including the palace. Every place in Egypt was covered, except where the Israelites lived—but still Pharaoh does not yield. And so, Egyptian livestock sicken, while those of the Israelites remain well. And every single Egyptian horse, donkey, camel, cow, sheep, and goat dies—but still Pharaoh resists.

“Take handfuls of soot from a furnace and have Moses toss it into the air in the presence of Pharaoh. It will become fine dust over the whole land of Egypt, and festering boils will break out on people and animals throughout the land.”

And then there is hail, so not only the livestock, but the crops are decimated. And there are locusts that eat every bit of green that remained standing. And Pharaoh’s officials plead with him to let the Israelites go. “Egypt is ruined!” They say. But still Pharaoh’s heart was hard. So God blocks out the sun. But it still isn’t enough.

And so the worst happened. Moses told Pharaoh:

“This is what the Lord says: ‘About midnight I will go throughout Egypt. Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn son of the female slave, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well. There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt—worse than there has ever been or ever will be again. But among the Israelites not a dog will bark at any person or animal.’ Then you will know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel. All these officials of yours will come to me, bowing down before me and saying, ‘Go, you and all the people who follow you!’ After that I will leave.”

Then Moses, hot with anger, leaves Pharaoh.

Surely this warning would be enough.

But no.

And so God begins to prepare a meal for his people. They are to take a lamb, one for each household, and roast it over a fire. Smaller households are to share with each other. After each lamb is slaughtered, some of the blood is used to mark the top and the sides of each doorframe in which a lamb is eaten. They are not to leave their houses during the night. They are to eat the roasted meat with bitter herbs and bread made without yeast. None of it is to be left till the morning.

This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover.

So they huddle in their houses. Sandals on. Staff in hand. Cramming food into their mouths. Children do not need to be hushed. Adults try to stop themselves from peering around at the doorway in fear. They eat as much as they can fit in their bellies—preparing for a long hungry journey. And they wait.

The blood, God said, was a sign. And the Spirit of God passes by the houses of the Israelites and leaves them unharmed. And they are ready to go when the wailing begins.

It was a day, God said, that Israel would remember forever. It was a meal, God said, that was to be forever repeated. A lasting ordinance. A celebration of God’s great work of deliverance. And blood was the sign.

During the night Pharaoh summoned Moses.

Up! Leave my people, you and the Israelites! Go, worship the Lord as you have requested. Take your flocks and herds, as you have said, and go.”

So the meal did not last until morning after all. And the haste was warranted. The Israelites pack up their bread dough—there is no time to add yeast and let it rise—and they leave Egypt.

Congregational Response: A Hurried Meal

Leader: Like the Israelites, God has prepared a meal for us. Like the Israelites, we learn the meaning of the meal only as we eat it.

People: Feed us, Lord.

Leader: We know now that you have heard our cries.

People: Feed us, Lord.

Leader: We know now that you have been concerned for us.

People: Feed us, Lord.

Leader: We know now that your deliverance is at hand.

People: Feed us, Lord.

Leader: We know now that, although you have delivered us, our journey has just begun. Feed us, that we might have strength to complete our journey. Teach us to understand the meal that you have prepared.

People: Feed us, Lord. Lord, have mercy on us.

SING: Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy on us.


Luke 22:7­-20



And so the Israelites leave. Along with their livestock, their goods, and a considerable amount of gold and silver thrust on them by Egyptians eager to see them go. But even then, Pharaoh pursues them. Realizing they had lost their primary source of free labour, Pharaoh and his army set out after the Israelites. Trapping them against the Red Sea.

The Israelites are terrified. They cry out to Moses: “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!”

How many more times would they say this? God’s deliverance does not always work the way we think it should.

Then Moses gave perhaps his greatest and most eloquent speech—he had learned something at last:

“Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”


They had been delivered out of Pharaoh’s hand, but had very recently come to view God’s deliverance as a fragile thing. Slaves for generations, they are still learning to trust that God is with them. I am, God says. I will.

“I am the Lord; I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians, I will deliver you from slavery, I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, I will take you as my people and be your God.”

The angel of God and the pillar of fire and cloud, which had been guiding the Israelites into the desert, move between Israel and Pharaoh’s army—giving light to one, and only darkness to the other. And so they spend the night. And as the Israelites try to quiet restless animals, and lull their children to sleep, Moses stretches his hand out over the water, and all night long, God drives back the waters of the sea. And, in the morning, the Israelites coax their animals through the sea on dry ground: a wall of water on their left and on their right.

“The Lord is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation. He is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him.”

Pharaoh’s army is defeated in the sea, and Israel continues on her journey through the desert—toward the promised land. They do not go quietly. They complain the whole way. They do not live happily ever after.

But their story of deliverance echoes through time until, one Passover, a lamb is prepared. A lamb that will bring God’s final deliverance—to all his people. A lamb that is slain, to bring us life. To bring us freedom. Freedom from ourselves, freedom from sin, freedom from the desires of the world. True freedom to grow into people who are eager to answer his calling, and who will obey his voice, strengthened by the meal that God has prepared.

Congregational Benediction

People: Lord, you have freed us from our captivity. You have called us to follow you and to do your work. You have strengthened us with this meal. Teach us to live in the joy of your freedom. Amen.

Why Bono and the Band Are Some of the Best Worship Leaders of Our Time

Bono and The Edge on June 1, 2011, in Edmonton

When I attended my first U2 concert a little over a year ago, I was startled to discover midway through the concert that I was praying aloud. Three weeks ago, as I again experienced U2 360, this time in Edmonton, I had the same experience of vacillating between a rock concert and a worship service. I’ve been to a lot of concerts, some Christian musicians, most not, but no matter how much I enjoyed them, I don’t think I ever felt like praying out loud – I definitely didn’t do so.

(Big aside: I realize that, in calling U2 worship leaders, I’m raising all kinds of “worship of what” flags for you. I know that not all fans of U2 are Christians [a brief survey of the crowd in my immediate vicinity on June 1st would have told me that, if I didn’t already know], and Bono obviously did not lead 65,000 people to Christ at Commonwealth Stadium on a warm Wednesday night in Edmonton. Now let’s move on.)

I’ve spent much of my time between June 1st and June 21st wondering why U2 concerts sometimes, if not always, become worship experiences (and getting way too fascinated by set lists, thus delaying this post almost inexcusably). Here’s what I have come up with: 5 reasons Bono and U2 are some of the greatest worship leaders of our time:

  1. FAITH: The band clings to Christian faith, as can be seen in their lyrics, in their music, and in the way they use their music and their fame. I have heard all the arguments about lifestyle, mistakes made, hoarding wealth, and buying into superstardom – to some extent I sympathise with these arguments. I don’t feel any need defend the band’s behaviour, but I think it’s fair to say that they have clung to Christ through the maelstrom of fame. It may be a beleaguered faith, a limping faith, a faulted and pock-marked faith – but it is faith nonetheless. And which of us, honestly, can say that our own faith is smooth and pristine?
  1. PREPARATION: U2’s set-lists are carefully crafted. The band never hesitates, never misses a beat – the audience is pulled from song to song through one beautiful transition after another. And these transitions are not just musically smooth, their content adds deeper layers of meaning to surrounding material, and provides fresh perspective on old songs. I don’t have space to dig into the details of set-lists, but after my research I am more convinced than ever that an incredible amount of time and effort goes into the planning of a single U2 concert. The audience is guided carefully from start to finish, and by the end of the concert they are no longer in exactly the same relationship – to each other, to the band, or to the world – as they were when the concert started. To phrase it with a more liberal spreading of cheese: Bono and the band take the crowd on a journey.

    Bono breaks the stage/audience barrier

  1. CONNECTION: I have never seen anyone connect with an audience the way Bono does, and I’m speaking specifically of Bono now (it’s hard to imagine Adam, for example, fully engaging with the crowd). Bono throws himself, heart and soul, into each concert he plays and, for that span of time, he belongs to that crowd. There’s no other way to describe it. I was privileged, for my first two U2 concerts, to be right in the pit, 3-4 people back from the stage, front and center. It was a great location from which to observe the extent of Bono’s relationship with the crowd. He is so connected that he will shift in mid-stride to keep up with the audience. Because of this, he lingers when the crowd needs to linger; he moves on when the crowd is done. He connects personally with individuals in the pit: pointing and waving at people, looking people in the eye, singing to people rather than at them. He connects with the wider audience by playing to the cameras. He is constantly finding unique ways to break the barrier between stage and audience: swinging out over the crowd, throwing things into the pit, using bridges and 360 stages, and pulling people up on stage… (it embarrasses me to say this, but his connection to the crowd is such that I am personally convinced that he winked at me during the concert on June 1st). By connecting intimately with his audience, Bono ensures that they not only watch the concert, but feel that they are participants.
  1. ATTENTIVENESS: Bono is not only connected to the crowd, he seems extraordinarily attentive to the Spirit during his concerts. I know there is no way I can establish this as fact, beyond a shadow of a doubt, but here are my observations. At times, during a concert, Bono will simply stand with his eyes closed, sometimes with his arms in the air, sometimes with his lips moving. Almost inevitably, this signals a change. The band will continue playing the same chord progression and, after a brief while, Bono begins to sing something different, repeating a phrase of an earlier song, or one he just finished, or the upcoming song, or something else entirely. He sings in a slightly irregular rhythm, or changes the melody just slightly. The crowd quiets, and becomes more attentive. And then something shifts. I have no other words for it, and cannot describe it more concretely than that. Sorry. I can merely say that I am convinced that, in those moments, Bono is seeking and receiving the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
  1. RESPONSE: Whether or not you like U2’s blatant promotion of social justice (some would say bullying toward), you have to admit that the band puts together a pretty strong call to action. Every audience at a U2 show expects and receives a great experience. Every audience leaves feeling pumped up. And absolutely every audience knows what they are expected to go out and do after the concert. Make the world a better place. Give the future a big kiss. Get involved.

So… why do these five elements make U2 one of the best worship bands of our time?

  • FAITH every worship leader/band should have. That’s a given.
  • Good PREPARATION, is essential (read my rant on the topic). U2’s careful attention to transitions helps to guide the congregation from one song to another, from one part of the service to another.
  • Bono’s CONNECTION with the congregation ensures that congregation members are involved as participants rather than merely as audience.
  •  By being ATTENTIVE to the Spirit as he leads, Bono is able not only to shift with the congregation, but to move them according to the Spirit.

But what I’m most impressed with, and what I feel is most lacking in our worship leading – what U2 does successfully over, and over, and over again – is to lead their audience in a RESPONSE. They consistently answer, strongly and clearly, the question: now what?

All too often in our worship services we are content to sing one more song of praise and then “dismiss” the congregation – as if school is over for the day. Even school children get homework.

What is the point of a weekly worship service? To encourage one another, yes. To hear the word of God, certainly. To teach and be taught, no doubt. But what we so often miss is that a worship service should send people out. Should call people to do something.

Not every person at a U2 concert comes away with a deeper love for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Some people there will inevitably be worshiping other gods (perhaps Bono or the band; perhaps the god of social action or left-wing politics). But every single person will leave knowing the answer to the question: “what now?” How many people will leave your service this week knowing what difference the word of God, the people of God, the Spirit of God, the three-personed God should make in their daily lives? How many people will leave your service this week having been called to love God and neighbour with the choices they make? How many people will leave asking “now what?” and how many will have the answer, and therefore be equipped to fulfill God’s mission in the world?

June 1, 2011, Edmonton

Rant 1: “Just Throw a Few Songs Together”

A couple of months into my first job as music director of a church, I called a guest preacher to ask about his text and the substance of his message for the upcoming Sunday. “Oh I don’t know,” he answered. “Just throw a few songs together, it’ll be fine.”

Thus begins the first post in a series I will simply call my “rants.” My former housemates used to (more than) occasionally roll their eyes and say “here comes the rant,” when they recognized one of my triggers. I will refrain, in these posts, from digressing into my standard rants about things like Hertz Rent-a-Car, land use policies (or lack thereof), and dog owners who think their dog is God’s gift to everyone. Since this blog is intended to be focused on worship theology, I will limit myself to worship-associated rants. I will also do my best to write as I see it, rather than censoring myself to avoid ruffling feathers. Feel free to air ruffled feathers in your comments.

(Never use Hertz Rent-a-Car.)

Having just said I would be happy to ruffle a few feathers, I’m now going to offer a caveat or three before I launch into this first rant:

  1. I believe strongly in the work of the Holy Spirit. Certainly the Holy Spirit can move powerfully through a few songs “thrown together.” Certainly the Holy Spirit can move powerfully as I plan with little or no information about what the rest of a service will look like.
  2. I realize that preachers are perhaps not used to the types of questions that I ask before planning a worship service. The response of “just throw a few songs together” is sometimes given because a preacher feels I’m asking for information he or she can’t provide at the moment, rather than because the preacher feels that worship should be planned in this way.
  3. Although I have heard the above words far too frequently there are, of course, a myriad of preachers (and others) who place a high value on congregational worship, and who have an astute sense of the time and effort that goes into planning a worship service.

Alright. Caveats over – gloves off.

My biggest concern about “just throwing a few songs together” is the underlying assumption that this is all worship is. It is a dangerous and potentially damaging assumption. As stated in my post on Subliminal Liturgy, gathered worship forms our congregations (thinking of the service as a whole now, with music acting as one part of that whole): it forms our behaviour inside the church and outside; forms the way we think about God; forms the way we think about the world; forms the way we think about ourselves. If we treat any part of our gathered worship lightly, we are in danger of shaping our congregation passively (at best) and negatively (at worst). There is nothing in scripture that leads me to believe we are to treat the worship of God lightly or casually.

So “throwing a few songs together” implies a dangerous attitude toward worship, but – if I’m honest – it’s the implied lack of respect for worship leaders and the work they do that gets under my skin and rankles. It takes hours and hours to research/write/deliver a sermon. I know this to be true because I’ve done it myself. Most members of a congregation will affirm the amount of time it takes to preach a good sermon. What drives me absolutely batty is that those same understanding individuals, and often the pastor as well, while agreeing that the sermon is a time consuming and important task, think it’s a matter of minutes to put together the rest of the service. Choose a few of your favourite songs; throw them up in the air; see how they land; and then just get up there and play. (Note to readers: Please congratulate me on my forbearance in not using strong language here.)

It generally takes me 10-20 hours to research (yes, research)/plan/practice/lead a service. Other worship leaders will take more or less time, depending on their process and (sorry if this sounds overly frank/harsh) on the value they themselves place on the act of gathered worship, and on the task they have been given. Since I realize the above estimation of time may be surprising to some, and therefore will demand some justification, I thought I’d share my planning process with you.

How to plan a worship service in 10-20 hours:

  • Speak to the preacher, generally asking four questions: what text are you preaching from; where do you plan to start; where do you plan to finish; and is there any specific response you feel this passage requires from the congregation.
  • Read the passage and its context several times, preferably aloud.
  • Work through a mini-exegetical process focusing on the following questions: how is the original audience led up to this point; what is the text communicating; what does the text say about God; about the church; about us as individuals; what kind of response does this text demand from God’s people?
  • Spend time in prayer, asking God to reveal his word both in the text itself, and through the Spirit (speaking a particular word to a particular congregation at a particular time).
  • Begin to pull songs – anything that rests briefly on, leads to, or provides response for the thoughts and ideas that are now circulating.
  • Spread songs out and begin to group them, tracing themes and working through how a congregation might be led up to the particular word of God that will be preached. Keep in mind the standard elements of the service which must be included (congregational prayer, announcements, kids message, offering, etc.), and note which songs might provide an opportunity for the congregation to respond fittingly.
  • Begin to play through some of these groupings, determining how songs fit together musically and thematically. Note where additional transition might be needed and how songs can be fit together in such a way that they add meaning to each other.
  • Consider additional elements: write a spoken liturgy or prayer; determine what participation children will have in the service; determine if there is an additional biblical text that compliments the sermon text, or adds an additional layer of meaning; examine transition points to determine how best to lead the congregation through them (scripture, prayer, liturgical reading, musical shift, etc.)
  • Write out an order of service, complete with who will be leading the various elements, and how they will fit together.
  • Practice the service as a whole to ensure timeliness, to affirm that the service will assist people to move from one place to another (rather than simply circling a theme), to map out any difficult musical transitions, and to match musicality to meaning.
  • Ensure that details are in place: correct words available to congregation; necessary participants on board; ensure participants are informed of their part in the service and how it fits into the rest; ensure that all needed objects (music, decorative elements, readings, additional instruments etc.) are printed out/gathered.
  • Practice with others (if there are additional musicians), paying special attention to transitions and tone.
  • Lead congregation through the service.

Maybe I’m a bit of an anomaly. Maybe I take things a bit too seriously. But I don’t think so. I think we are intended to treat the worship of God with careful consideration, with respect, with joy, giving it the weight of our time and effort. Giving it the weight that it is given in scripture.

God’s set-up of Israel’s worship of him is not a brief and un-detailed “throwing together of songs.” It spans chapter after chapter of text. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that 1/3 of the Torah (first five books of the OT, Israel’s founding text and therefore ours) is concerned, in one way or another, with how God’s people do, do not, or should worship him. God’s set-up of Israel’s worship involves complex structures, rituals, and planning; involves careful attention to detail and joyful contribution of time, resources, and effort; involves careful reading of surrounding culture and avoidance of cultural worship practices that would lead God’s people astray.

Surely, then, our own worship, our own planning, should be more than “throwing a few songs together.” Not only can we do better than that – if we are to follow God’s ways with his people as portrayed throughout scripture – we must.


Subliminal Liturgy

A week or so ago Andrew (my husband) and I attended a “church planting boot camp” put on by the Evangelical Free Church of Canada (EFCC). The workshop was a helpful step back from our day-to-day work with a church plant just north of Edmonton – a good way to re-evaluate the church’s mission and goals, and re-assess our progress toward them. Upon returning to our place here, we found ourselves excited about deepening our engagement with the community in which our church is planted and – for the first time – I found myself excited about evangelism. These would be positive outcomes enough – but add to them that our congregation already seems to have latched on to the increased energy with which we returned. We had a congregational meeting this Sunday in which our congregation committed to a firm movement (with clearly defined first steps) toward community service and engagement. So first of all, a very sincere thank you to our three presenters, to our fellow classmates, and to the EFCC.

There was one thing, however, which I found lacking in the workshop. While there was a genuine sense of wanting to address the topic of congregational worship, and there were some good steps taken toward that, most conversation about worship centered on issues of style, of getting people in the doors, and of making it an experience to which people would want to return. These are important considerations, but they don’t address and consider the formative aspect of worship, an important concept to grasp for any congregation, but perhaps especially for a new church plant.

A few years ago I completed a paper on the ethics of Christian worship. Every ethics book I picked up, every anthropological paper I read said the same thing: a community is formed by its shared ritual actions. Some of these papers and books were speaking directly of the church, but many were speaking generally of societal groupings. The consensus seemed to be that actions consistently repeated as a group are formational not only for the group itself (forming the basis for identity and behaviour of the group), but also for individuals (forming the basis for individual identity and behaviour when outside the group).

Now I could take this information and write it off as a bunch of anthropological/psychological mumbo-jumbo (to use the professional term), but I find it difficult to do this when scripture so clearly tells us, again and again, that we are designed to be in community. Not only that, but we consistently see God setting up shared ritual actions for his people: from the time that Adam walked with God in the garden, to the instructions given for the tabernacle, to the ritual of the Lord’s supper established by Christ. Why is this? Might it be that God himself is concerned with forming us through shared ritual activity? And if this is the case, as I would argue it is, why oh why don’t we pay attention to the rituals and patterns we establish in our gathered worship?

Every church, every single one, whether it calls itself liturgical or not, has a liturgy: a set of actions its people engage in every time they meet. In non-liturgical churches, however, this liturgy is hidden, and therefore subliminal (below the threshold of our noticing). But this “subliminal liturgy” – whether or not we want to admit it’s there – is shaping our congregations and the individuals within them as surely as a river gradually carves and shapes a canyon.

We can talk about mission, vision, and goals. We can set them, and work toward their accomplishment. But unless our worship is consistent with them, they will stay out of reach.

As we moved through the church planting workshop, Andrew and I spoke together of the danger of our congregation developing an inward focus. Having taught workshops on the topic of subliminal liturgy previously (see for details), I realize that it’s time to really put the rubber to the road and see if this works. So this is what we will do. We will ensure that our “congregational prayer” is never limited to inside concerns; we will pray consistently and passionately for our little town each Sunday. We will choose at least one or two songs a week with a definite outward focus. We will consider carefully what outward response is required by each text we preach, so that we can guide the congregation into it. And we will try to end every service with a “sending benediction.”

Will it work? I think it will. I think it’s already beginning to.