Charting The Musical Course
Planning Culturally Relevant Worship Services
For me, planning worship is an adventure. It’s sitting in the war room with the charts and maps, knowing where we want to go and charting the course to get there. Just like battle planning we must consider specific things, such as, terrain and how to navigate around within the specific location that we’re in. I hope you’re starting to make the connection. I find that most worship leaders are very familiar with the tools, very talented musically, know where they want to go, but tend to ignore the specific place where God has planted them. We can choose great worship songs and design a great experience, but is it relevant to YOUR PEOPLE, those who God has placed in your congregation and in your community.
The First Things
When I talk with worship pastors across the nation I eventually get around to asking questions about the culture of their locale. I’ve been somewhat shocked at what worship leaders don’t know about the context in which they minister. Now, in all fairness, most church leaders admit that they have been ill prepared for the task at hand; however, if we really love people and wish to minister to them we have to know who they are, how they think, and how they relate.
Several years ago I left my home in Northern California and relocated to Tucson, Arizona, where I had accepted a position as worship pastor. My wife and I were very excited, as was the church; however, the honeymoon ended quickly and I was engaged in numerous conflicts that sucked the life out of me. We were only there for one year, but it was the hardest year of our ministry. Looking back, I was planning and leading “my way” without taking into consideration my new context and culture.
Although my church background was casual, I couldn’t relate to how casual this church was. (At that time, shorts and sandals on the platform was a little over the top for me). When I arrived I didn’t take the time to learn the “culture” of the new community in which I was now ministering. I led worship and planned services differently than what they had been used to. The reality was that I was still planning services within my cultural mindset of Northern California. One example of this was “Rodeo Sunday”. OMG! You’ve got to be kidding me! About a month in advance I was informed that I was to plan “country music” for a Sunday service because the rodeo was in town that weekend. Instead of seeing what other worship leaders in the community were doing, I dismissed this immediately. No way could God be honored by such a fiasco. I planned as normal, finally getting the pastor to agree that this wasn’t something we should be doing. I was very wrong and burned many bridges.
Another way we do this is when we decide to change the focus of our services. I was part of a church once that had very expressive worship. We felt the need to be more “in-step” with our community; therefore, the pastor began to shift his preaching style and our music to a more “seeker-sensitive” approach. We worked together, designing a worship experience that would both honor God and relate to our community. One day we realized that no one was visiting our church, therefore we had no seekers. Seeker services only work when seekers are there. We were frustrating our people by planning worship for a group that did not exist. The first thing to consider when planning worship is to know the people in your church and community.
You mean Jesus died for People?
“Jesus died for people, he didn’t die for music!” This is closely related to the last point. Do you know who God has called you to reach? This will affect the way you plan your music. Although I don’t think that we should have the court of public opinion dictate how we plan, I do know that people like what they like. It’s okay to stretch them a little, but let’s not be constantly irritating our congregation. One church that I’ve worked with has a large population of folks who have been hurt in church. These folks are sensitive to manipulation and just want to encounter God with no BS (Baloney Sauce). To meet their needs, the worship pastor must consider who they are when planning worship. I know this is a general statement, but it’s vitally important. Know your church, know your community, know the people that God wants you to reach.
Preparing for the Voyage
It’s easy to fall into the trap of just choosing songs. Let’s talk a little bit about the tools and the charting process. Before I set sail I get everything out to help me plan the voyage. Here are the things that I consider.
Know Your Destination
The reality is that no one would consider embarking on a journey without some sense of where you are going. When I plan worship I have a clear point of destination that I am shooting for. Questions I ask are: Is there a theme? Is there a season to acknowledge; such as holidays, church year, mission month etc? It never ceases to amaze me that we can come up with a focus, purpose, and destination for staff meetings, business meetings and lunch appointments, but when it comes to our most important meeting of the week, the main public event, where we gather together to worship the creator of the universe, we don’t consider outcomes before planning. Now, of course, we’re not in charge of the real outcome. God is responsible for that; however, that does not free us from doing our best and having a destination, or goal, in mind as we plan.
Check Coordinates with Mission Control
Again, I acknowledge that God is ultimately in control, but I am referring to communication with your senior pastor. Know what he is going to be speaking on and see how you can design worship around that. Now, it’s not always going to fit, however, it’s a starting point. This will not only help you reach a destination but will also go a long way in building relationships with the “mission coordinator”. This is not always easy, because you must get on the right frequency to communicate. A few years back, when email was still cutting edge technology, my pastor (who was somewhat of a computer geek) got an email address. He could never find the time to meet with me or drop a note about the sermon, but when I tapped into his geek side and emailed questions to him I got responses right away. Every week I received information on his sermon title, passage of scripture, his central thought, stories he may tell, mood of introduction and conclusion, special events in the service and other related ideas and information. What works for one pastor doesn’t work for all, but if you get a little creative, you can find a way to get this information.
Break Out The Charts & Maps
Now that you have a clear view of your destination, get out all the tools. Here you can list your resources, choose music and decide what musicians would be best, etc. We all have our favorite planning tools and now that we have a good solid idea of where we’re headed we can use them to their fullest. This is my favorite part of the process, planning the adventure on a weekly basis.
Take The Scenic Route
One last thing to note before we set sail is that it’s good to take different routes to your destination. You can easily get in a rut by taking the same trip over and over. Experiment, be creative, and think outside the box. There are always new ways to communicate the message. Maybe it’s time to change up an old song, go into a worship chorus right out of special music. Here is where your tech team can really make an impact. Are there lighting effects that can be used, use pictures instead of words on the overhead, effects added to vocals that you normally don’t use? Try something new. The more that you can do to help your congregation remember the service, the higher the impact and the greater chance you’ll actually make it to your destination.
In closing I want you encourage you to make the worship experience personal. As I plan services I’m not only on a journey in the planning process, but in worship as well. I always run though the songs in my office and enjoy a personal time with the Lord. I find that the better I am prepared, the more personal worship becomes for me and for the congregation. If I’m going to step on a ship, I am more relaxed if I know the pilot is prepared for the journey, and that’s evidenced by the way he pilots the ship. If I’m prepared, my worship leading is more personal and the congregation enjoys the journey.
Know your people, think outside the box and ask God to help you as you chart the musical course in your spiritual community.