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.

Discuss.

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 https://thinkingworship.com/workshops 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.