March 17, 2015

By Phil Maynard

Creating Powerful Worship Experiences

(Part 3 of an 8-part blog series)

Clarifying the Destination

It is difficult to know if we have successfully arrived at our destination without first having a clear concept of where it is we are headed. And likewise, it’s difficult to get everybody else to the same destination unless everybody has agreed on where we’re going.

To quote the great Yogi Berra, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll wind up somewhere else.” Worship is no different. It’s not uncommon for worship to end up somewhere other than where we intended, but it’s even more common for the congregational worship experience to end up nowhere in particular because there was no clear destination in mind to begin with.

For congregations in transition this can be a tense dialogue, because 1) Worship is worship, and how can one kind of worship that brings glory to God be any more effective or meaningful than any other kind (framed often in the “turning worship into entertainment” complaint) and 2) There is a long history and tradition of forms and elements of worship and a panic that any kind of rethinking of worship means throwing out all of what has come before.

The purpose of this particular blog is not to advocate for any one particular style or approach to worship, but to reinforce the truth that the conversation needs to happen in good faith and worship leadership needs to define where it wants to go. Ignoring the needs of changing congregations and avoiding honest conversations about worship issues does nothing to strengthen faith families or honor God. Worship styles should honor the gifts and needs of particular congregations and communities (with an eye towards connecting fresh disciples to the worship life of the church).

So, step one is to fully understand the identity of your worship service – or the identities of multiple worship services for many churches. What connects most strongly with those who worship? What misses the mark? This can be done in a variety of ways with a variety of tools (surveys, focus groups, one-on-one conversations). What is the strength of your worship experience? What would you like to change? What sense of God, spiritual growth skill, or challenge to be a better disciple do you want people to walk away with? (You might know a great gospel bluegrass tune, a classic hymn, a funny movie clip, and a breath-prayer exercise that all focus on grace, but do all those things really fit together cohesively in the same service?)

Once you have thoughtfully considered these questions, the worship team you have assembled can figure out a goa /destination and the waypoints that will be required to get there. And you have to have waypoints (landmarks) to judge your journey against, or you’ll never have any idea if you are on the right track. One is reminded of pilots who lose all sense of their bearings and crash because fog obscures the horizon (like the tragic demise of JFK Jr.).

Clear communication is essential. There are a lot of near-misses (or almost successes) in ministry because the leaders thought that they were on the same page. It’s like the time you told your friend to meet you at Starbucks at 10:00 a.m. for coffee, and you both showed up on time but at two different Starbucks.

This kind of unintentional miscommunication most often happens because the communication involved is strictly verbal. There is good communication in the room together (or over the table at Starbucks once you all got to the same one) but nothing is written down. That doesn’t work because

  • People forget.
  • People hear different things.
  • In the absence of clearly written directives, people hear what they want to hear.
  • People don’t know what they don’t know.

Even on the most well-intentioned worship teams, filled with mutual respect and sincere collaboration, bad communication produces incohesive or incoherent worship experiences. It is very important to write things down. As Edgar V. Roberts noted, “Unwritten thought is incomplete thought.” Writing follow-up documents for meetings, one-on-one conversations, and brainstorming sessions provides a clear roadmap for the journey, and such documents give a natural framework for people to ask questions and suggest modifications.

It’s never been easier to create easily accessible planning documents and make them available for everybody on the team. More and more churches are using cloud-based platforms for worship planning (such as planning center online) or free cloud-based programs through Google, Microsoft and others to store documents that can be edited and modified in one location that is used by all leaders and creators.

Use this disciple of writing things down throughout the whole planning spectrum (long-range, mid-range, and immediate planning) and the more you can get written down earlier, the more rich, clear, and complete your worship experience will be. Likewise, confusion and stress will be noticeably reduced. A long-range document looks ahead to the upcoming worship series (many weeks or months in advance), providing general themes and weekly synopses, as well as identifying scriptures, song suggestions, and brainstormed ideas for experiential elements or creative interpretations. If your church’s creative people know what’s ahead (clearly articulated through writing), they can be on the lookout for inspiration. A mid-range updating of documents pokes leaders to be sure they are on track in planning and begin to answer some of the questions left open by the long-range document. Short term planning docs finalized a week ahead give specific details to worship leaders and those who have prep responsibilities for services (ever stood up to read a scripture passage from The Message to find that what’s behind you on the screen is NRSV?). A finalized, detailed “cue sheet” is also a great tool for actual use during worship services (particularly if you have multiple services and multiple musicians, leaders, and techs) – it serves as a functional guide to manage the minute details of seamlessly running a service so that the focus is on the worship itself.

By the way, no journey is complete without a nostalgic look back and a sharing of the stories of what was glorious what went comically awry. Every worship team should have a built-in process for evaluating what worked and what didn’t work as well as planned in the worship experience. That’s how we thoughtfully grow. This is not the relentless, ongoing self-critique that we sometimes fall into during and between worship services on Sunday (the notorious whispering of worship leaders during worship). Monday is soon enough for evaluation. Let worship be worship in the moment, not a technical exercise. Let’s get all our detailed planning out of the way early, so that the time we spend with our congregations during worship is truly a time to give ourselves over to the Holy Spirit.

That’s the ultimate destination.

What are your experiences with the worship journey going painfully (or comically) awry? And what have you learned about strong communication skills for keeping your team headed in the right direction? Share in the comments section.