The foundations of my Christian faith were laid in mid-20th century fundamentalist churches. For introducing me to Jesus, I am grateful. However, over the years I have had to cast aside and recover from some of the other teachings I received there. One of these is the judgment that “liturgy” is a dirty word. Liturgical worship was purported to be dry, meaningless formality, as opposed to worship in spirit and truth.

What I’ve grown to realize is that our church had its own liturgy, which could just as easily be either dry, meaningless formality, or worship in spirit and truth, depending on the intentionality of the leadership and the hearts of the worshipers. In fact, the historical liturgies have much to teach us, no matter the style of our own worship practices.

What, then, is liturgy? The Greek word leitourgía, I am told, means public work or work of the people (civic or religious). Various aspects of worship are more or less work for various worshippers. Singing, praying, listening, confessing, giving, committing; each may flow easily for some and require great effort for others.

But corporate worship…whether in historic, traditional, free or other forms…is the work of God’s people. It is the sacrificial offering of our minds’ attention and our hearts’ affection in response to who God is and to all God has given us. It is a divine dialogue between God and God’s beloved children.

Sermon Quotes on Worship

As worship planners (liturgists), it is our privilege and responsibility to lead this divine conversation in such a manner that God is glorified and God’s people are edified. Worshipers must be invited and engaged, not entertained. They are not an audience; they are ushered INTO an audience with the King of kings and Lord of lords.

The liturgy we design, whether prescribed, recommended, or freely created, gives a united purpose and established expectations for those who gather. It provides riverbanks (sometimes waterfalls or beaches!) for the flow of a congregation’s worship life. And, of course, it must allow for the unexpected troubling of the waters when the winds of the Spirit blow!

Whether you serve in a faith community that practices a historic eucharistic liturgy, one that centers on a sermon bookended by two set lists, something in between or something new and innovative, I invite your consideration of some of the questions that follow.

With Whom do You Share the Road?

A new road sign has emerged in recent years as both traffic congestion and climate change have become of increasing concern. It appears where citizens are encouraged to choose cycling over driving, but dedicated bike lanes are not feasible. It is called a “sharrow,” a blending of “share” and “arrow.” It is usually painted on the road surface as a bicycle overarched by a double arrow, and indicates that drivers and cyclists are to share the lane. 

Most churches have at least two people giving input into worship planning, usually a pastor and a musician. Often, one has the run of the road and the other has to ride defensively or, at best, stay in their (bike) lane. Whenever possible, I would suggest sharrow as a preferred alternative.

One, though trained as pastor and theologian, may also have musical or other artistic insights and gifts to share. The other, though trained as a musician or other artist, may well have sound theological insights and/or pastoral gifts.

I urge such partners in worship planning to humbly recognize each other’s gifts and find the richness of shared creativity and leadership. Though the pastor most likely must have the final word, nothing good can come from one lording it over the other or, conversely, from one resenting the leadership responsibility and authority of the other.

All this being said, if the road is wide enough to accommodate a dedicated bike lane and both driver and rider find joy and fulfillment in staying in their own lane, so be it!

I’ve tried to restrain myself, but in homage to the beloved camp song I have to sing, “Sharrow, Sharrow! Oh, baby, let the worship flow!” Forgive me.

Interior of church

Have You Worshipped With One or More Congregations From Another Tradition?

Having planned and led worship during nearly 38 years of ministry, I am painfully aware of the tunnel vision that can easily develop. We’re busily about the work we’ve been called to. We’re deeply invested in our local congregation. There is always more to do than there are hours in the week. Our families are already paying too high a cost. How can we possibly make time to worship with another congregation? But myopia has its own high cost. 

Another teaching from my earliest church experiences that had to be jettisoned was the belief that we were the only ones who got things right. Other denominations were all apostate for one reason or another, and we were to stay far from their doorsteps. More recently, my limited but transformative visits to other churches have helped me cast off those blinders. From the reverence and depth of Episcopal eucharistic liturgies to the freedom of body, voice, and spirit in Pentecostal congregations, each of my experiences with other worship forms has broadened my understanding of worship, deepened my love for my siblings in Christ and enriched my own approach to worship design. 

I encourage you to seek the blessing of your church leadership to prioritize some time each year to visit other churches and/or participate in worship and arts workshops or conferences from other traditions. You and your congregation will be the richer for it.

Unity: holding hands and praying together

Are You Giving Voice to the Whole of Scripture?

If you serve a church that follows the lectionary, either weekly or at least in certain seasons (Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, etc.), you already receive guidance from the prescribed/recommended readings. If instead of the lectionary, the pastor provides sermon text, title and/or a summary of the expected sermon content in advance, study that text, listen for what God may want to say to your congregation through it and explore what complementary texts might be read or sung during the service (Old Testament, Psalms, Gospel, Epistles).

There is power in the simple, public reading of scripture. Not every word has to be expounded upon to achieve the Spirit’s transformative purposes. Obtain and use a lectionary for your own reading, study, and meditation. You’ll be reminded of the wisdom, challenge and wonder that is unveiled in the whole of scripture.

Are You Designing Corporate Worship Opportunities that Cover All the Bases?

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from my exposure to more formal liturgy is that there is much more to the divine dialogue than love songs to Jesus and a sermon. 

  • God is the One who initiates and extends an INVITATION. Begin by reminding worshipers that we love God because God first loved us; that God is seeking those who worship in spirit and truth; that God stands at the door and knocks, desiring to come in and sit down at the table with us. Worshipers arrive from all corners and dimensions of life’s experience. Help them all hear God’s invitation clearly.

  • Reminded of God’s loving invitation, we respond in PRAISE TO GOD. Sing it out! Read a psalm—from scripture or newly composed; read it with heart and a single voice, responsively or in unison. Use the creative gifts of your congregation to sing, paint, dance or otherwise shout God’s praise. A caution here: check to see that the large majority of your songs and hymns are about and directed to God, secondarily about or to us, the gathered people of God, and much less about me. This is corporate, not private worship.

Calls to Worship on Singing
  • Reminded of God’s holiness, we humble ourselves in CONFESSION of our sin. We have not fully loved God with heart, soul, mind and strength, nor our neighbor as ourselves. Is it too big of a shock to the system to include confession every Sunday? Start with once a month.

  • Use a unison confession from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship or some other source (or consider TPW’s prayers of confession) Write one that admits our local, relevant and current guilt that flows from our lack of love for our neighbors, especially those not like us in one way or another. Sing a song of confession. Or go crazy and give space for a time of SILENT confession. Yes, I said SILENT! Our discomfort with corporate silence speaks volumes about our inner lives and should be examined.

  • Hear the ASSURANCE OF GOD’S FORGIVENESS. We hear God say, “I forgive you. I cleanse you. I make you new.” Give God thanks, and as God forgives us in Christ Jesus, let us forgive one another. Say that to Christ’s church!

  • PASS THE PEACE. We are a kingdom of priests. One of our privileges is to be the voice, the hands, the loving eyes of Christ to one another. Take “greet your neighbor” to another level. Encourage worshipers to look one another in the eye and say, “May the peace of Christ be with you,” with the appropriate response being, “And also with you!” Or find your own riff on that theme. Remind folks that the peace of Christ is shalom, a full and complete health, wholeness and well-being.

  • THE WORD OF THE LORD! This pronouncement or one like it, in liturgical tradition, follows each reading of scripture except the Psalm. And the people respond, “Thanks be to God.” Whether or not you adopt this exact pattern, find ways to engage the congregation in active reading and hearing. Read in unison or responsively. Use a modern language translation or (gasp!) even a paraphrase.

  • The more scripture, the better. A word to the preachers among you: giving opportunity for more reading, singing and praying…the divine dialogue…may require your self-discipline regarding sermon length. Two thoughts about this: 1.) observe the power and effectiveness of the 18-minute TED Talk, and 2.) consider the wisdom attributed to many, but probably first written by Blaise Pascal in 1657, “I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.” Your time in preparing a concise and well-crafted sermon will be vastly multiplied in the time gifted to your congregation for worship. 

Calls to Worship on Singing
  • AFFIRM OUR FAITH! Even if it isn’t every Sunday, find occasions on which the family of faith joins hands and voices with followers of Christ down through the centuries and around the globe, speaking together the words of one of the great creeds…the Apostles’ or the Nicene being prime examples. Or…given prayerful consideration and theological reflection…find other words, sung or spoken, through which to express our unity in faith.

  • WE LIFT OUR PRAYER TO YOU. LORD, HEAR OUR PRAYER. All of corporate worship is prayer, another word for the divine dialogue. But, remember to include prayers of petition and intercession. Lift up the needs of individuals, the local church, the community and the world. Follow the instruction of Jesus, who taught his disciples how to pray.

  • Pray together the Lord’s Prayer or find instruction in it about how to formulate other prayers that articulate the real concerns of those gathered. Especially be mindful of “Thy kingdom come, THY WILL be done on earth as it is in heaven.” My narrow upbringing taught me that somehow extemporaneous prayer was the only way.

  • I’ve since learned that words carefully crafted, even centuries ago, can both faithfully express the desires of our hearts and enlarge our hearts to pray more deeply and in ways that are even more aligned with the will of God. Again, check out the resources available in the Book of Common Prayer, the Book of Common Worship and other prayer volumes. 

  • GIVE THANKS WITH A GRATEFUL HEART. Explore with your congregation the difference between praise and thanksgiving. Then, search for ways to express true thanks to God for all God’s many gifts, including our sisters and brothers in Christ.

  • OBSERVE THE SACRAMENTS. Since various denominations and fellowships have different approaches to these, I’ll leave it to the words of Jesus, “DO THIS in remembrance of me.”

  • SEND WITH A BLESSING AND A CHARGE to BE the Church, extending the grace, mercy, justice, love, and peace of Christ into homes, neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces.

  • This list of the bases to cover is not exhaustive, but I hope you get the idea that corporate worship can be a true conversation between God and God’s gathered people, especially if we facilitate it as such. A valuable byproduct will be that worshipers learn to carry each of these elements of worship into their daily prayer lives.

Calls to Worship on Singing

Finally, Are Your Worship Gatherings a Flowing Conversation?

  • As you plan for one portion of your service to move to the next, always consider what will facilitate a natural flow. Ask these questions: What may God be moving us to be or do at this point in the service? What are we most likely to be wanting to say to God or to one another? What will our emotional state be at this moment, and how can we move forward without a jarring change of mood or direction?

     

  • This flow also requires careful consideration of the lyrics and mood of songs and hymns chosen. I am NOT talking about just alternating fast songs with slow songs or shaping a manipulative arc of songs to assure a particular emotional response. I am suggesting a very intentional awareness of the natural flow of the divine conversation.

  • After all the careful planning and preparation, I always feel the need for a pre-service prayer that humbly asks, “Lord, may we be open to…even watching for…the surprising movement of your Holy Spirit to speak or accomplish something among us that we could not have planned for!”

I hope one or more of these questions will be of help as you faithfully perform the critical and formational ministry of crafting corporate worship…whether or not you ever say “LITURGY” out loud! 

P.S. There are many who have written more extensively on this subject. I’ll commend one to you now, as I’ve just read it myself: Honest Worship, by Manel Luz. I think you’ll find it to be a deeper dive into many of the concepts I’ve discovered over the years and shared with you here. 

Dan Korneychuk is a liturgist, choral/orchestral conductor and leader in Christian worship and the arts. He has served congregations from a variety of traditions: Evangelical Free, Evangelical Covenant, Friends (Quaker), and Presbyterian (PC/USA).

Having retired from full-time ministry in 2022, he seeks to reflect upon his faith journey and the current crisis facing the Christian movement in the USA, and to explore a reimagining of what it means to faithfully follow Jesus in the 21st century.

Don’t Miss

The Latest From Our Blog

Check out articles, featured illustrations, and book reviews on all different topics related to ministry.

How You Can Prep for Pentecost

How You Can Prep for Pentecost

This was originally posted on May 12, 2016 on https://huffpost.com Pentecost Came Like Wildfire I'm lying on an ice pack early this morning, doing my back exercises and listening to Pray as You Go, a tool for meditation, with monastery bells, music, and a Bible...