QUESTION: Either by habit or by preference, I find myself structuring our worship sets in a very similar pattern. We usually start with upbeat songs, transition into mid-tempo selections, and then close with slower songs to prepare the congregation for the sermon. Is there one best way to format a worship set?
REGI: This is a terrific question that helps us reflect on why we do what we do.
Moving from upbeat to downbeat to “set up the sermon” is a very familiar approach, but it reflects a particular theology of worship: the idea that everything in the service is designed to highlight the sermon and the accompanying evangelistic appeal.
This approach evolved--particularly in evangelical churches—from the idea that the congregation’s response to the preaching of the gospel should be the focal point of a church service. For many evangelicals in revival-based traditions, music creates the emotional and spiritual setting where people respond to the message. Many of us grew up in churches where Sunday mornings were measured by how "good" the sermon was and how many people came forward at the invitation. It never occurred to us that the reason we make disciples is to make worshipers. We mistook the means for the end.
This is in contrast to liturgical churches where structured music, congregational prayer, scripture reading, sacraments, and preaching are all part of an act of unified worship engaged in by the congregation. And because liturgical churches tend to follow a specific calendar, there is a real sense that—every Sunday—believers all around the world are focusing on the same verses and themes as they collectively bring their worship “works” to the Lord. For the liturgical worshiper, the entire service proclaims and responds to the gospel story. It’s not music and then offering and then communion and then preaching and then invitation. Rather, it’s all worship. Not just worshipful but full of worship.
Over the past several decades, a different definition of “worship” has emerged (or perhaps re-emerged). To these churches, the main point of God’s people gathering together is not just to respond to an evangelistic appeal or to proclaim the gospel through the liturgy. Rather, they believe the goal of worship is for the congregation—believer and non-believer alike—to experience the manifest presence of God. Lyrics like “Holy Spirit you are welcome here—come flood this place and fill the atmosphere” are typical of this perspective. The aim is to be immersed and transformed by God’s glory because he created us to worship him. Pursuing the experience of God’s presence permeates mainstream, evangelical and liturgical services as well--but obviously not to the same extent as in charismatic and Pentecostal churches.
Evangelism. Liturgy. Experience. Although these motives are not mutually exclusive, the songs we choose and the way we sing them reflect our reasons for gathering together. So...
- If your church is particularly interested in winning converts, then music is primarily a tool in your tool-kit.
- If your church is particularly interested in celebrating the gospel through “the works” of its ministers and congregants, then music can be a sacred means to that end.
- If experiencing the manifest presence of God is your goal, then worship is an end in itself.
So back to your question of when to sing what kind of songs.
The answer is that it depends on what role you believe music plays in the kind of worship service the Lord is leading you to plan.
I do believe that we’ve become too programmed and predictable. It’s very tempting to always start the service with a certain tempo and end it with another. At some point, we should remember that familiarity breeds contempt or—worse— indifference. Instead of beginning by asking “What works best?” perhaps we should start by asking what do we want to have happen...and why?
When we do this, we can be intentional and yet still leave room for spontaneity. We can be repetitive without being redundant. We can be more concerned with the goal as opposed to the tempo or style. We can be more authentic and less manufactured. We can surprise our congregation and delight our Lord.
And we may even surprise ourselves!
For more than 15 years, Regi Stone has served as Discover Worship's creative heart. With more than 230 published songs and a dozen CD's to his credit, he has performed in hundreds of churches and led worship thousands of times. His Worship Weekend events equip and inspire local worship teams around the country. For more about Regi's music and ministry, go to registone.com.
--For more helpful articles about church music and worship service planning, check out www.discoverworship.com and these articles:
- The Critical Importance of Church Choirs
- 3 Steps Every Choir Director Should Take Now
- Improving Your Choir by Building the Blend
- 5 Things to Remember for Your Choir Rehearsal
- What's Better: Traditional Church Choir or Worship Team?
- 3 Ways to Cultivate Spirit-Led Worship
- How Often Should We Introduce New Congregational Worship Songs?
- Leading Worship Through Song List Curation
- 5 Tips to Grow Your Church Choir
- The Wrong Key (and How to Find the Right One!)
- Is It Too Loud? (Accompaniment vs. Worship Emersion Culture)
- 8 Simple Hacks to Prevent Last Minute Choir Music Panic