Planning a church service is important. First Corinthians 14:40 says, “Let all things be done decently and in order.” When Paul wrote that, he was speaking specifically about what believers do when they assemble for the services of the church.
To provide for orderly and meaningful services, it is helpful to prepare a written “Order of Service” for each participant, including what will happen, step by step, and who will be involved. Here are some suggestions and ideas for planning and ordering services that will be honouring to the Lord and a blessing to the people.
One or two caveats are in order. Your regular services may well be quite different from what I describe here–either far more formal and liturgical, or more informal and free-wheeling. I’m writing about the kind of services I’ve attended and led for many years. Not all the suggestions may apply to you, but I believe that some will.
The other thing is the need for flexibility. We may have the best planned service ever–and planning is important. But we always need to leave room for the Lord to take things in an unexpected direction. Perhaps a word of testimony reveals the need for special prayer, and we are led to take some time in the service for that. Whatever the case, plan, but be willing to make changes as needed.
On the other hand, I’ve heard individuals boast that the singing and other aspects of the service were such a great blessing that they never got to the sermon…for weeks on end. This is bad. God’s command is that we “preach the Word!” (II Tim. 4:2). It is the preaching of the Word of God that He uses to bring sinners to the Saviour (Rom. 10:13-14), and mature Christians in the faith (Col. 1:28). If your services are so “flexible” that the proclamation of the Scriptures is pushed aside, you need to rein in the flexibility!
With those qualifying thoughts, here are a few things to consider.
1. The Service Needs a Theme.
Some church services lack focus. Singing a bunch of nice hymns or choruses, and reading a few Scriptures is easy enough. But it takes work to develop a theme. You’ll be successful if most of the members of your congregation can tell you, on the way out, what the main point of the service was.
Building a service around a theme takes time and effort. It might even require a meeting of the people involved, to discuss what is to be done. (For example, the pastor, the choir director, the song leader, the instrumentalists.) But it is worth it, in terms of the increased impact of the service. It will more clearly communicate God’s truth.
2. Choose Who Coordinates the Service.
It is probably best to have one or two people who are customarily responsible to lead the services. It could be the pastor, or it might be the director of music, or someone else. While various ones will be taking part, week by week, you do need to develop some continuity and consistency.
3. Clearly Identify the Participants.
The Order of Service given to participants should identify who does what, and when. (You won’t likely need as much detail in the order of service you print in the bulletin.) Those taking part need more information.) Note the person leading each particular item to the left. We read from left to right. So the first thing that hits your eye should be who is taking part.
4. Develop an Efficient “Style” for the Outline.
Develop a clear and concise style for your order of service, and stick to it, if at all possible. (That is much more difficult if you have many different people leading, week by week.) When the format stays the same, those taking part get to know what to expect and what to look for. This does not keep you from having variety within each service. It has to do with the formatting of the page, and how the various items are listed.
5. If You Use More Than One Song Book, Identify Which You Mean.
Some churches have two different hymnals in the pew, or a hymn book and a chorus book. If you will be using both in a service, you should identify these clearly. It may not be enough to say “chorus” or “hymn” since the two books may contain both.
6. How Will the Service Begin?
Are you accustomed to a “Call to Worship”? If so, make it that. Call upon the people to worship and praise God. Do you normally have an “Invocation” (a prayer which invokes or calls for God’s blessing on the service)? You should have. And see that it does that. Normally, your first hymn will be brighter and a little faster paced than those used in more meditative moments in the service. Start will a good, strong song of praise.
7. What About Special Numbers During the Offering?
It is sometimes done, but it is not ideal. If a soloist is singing, it is a distraction to have ushers moving down the aisles and plates passing to and fro. If each item is important enough to include, it is worthy of our full attention. (Are we doing two things at once to save time? Or rushing through, just so we can get home faster?) Decide for yourself what you’ll permit.
And I’m not a fan of the term “Special Music” in the order of service. Everything in the service should be as special as we can make it. What about labelling musical presentations “Ministry in Music,” reminding the congregation that it is a ministry, not entertainment?
8. Instrumental Music Can Make the Movement of People Less Distracting.
An instrumental number when the offering is received, or children are heading for Children’s Church, is perhaps not as distracting as having to concentrate on words. (And there is a great deal of music written for a sacred purpose that has no lyrics.) If there is a movement of people to take place get to know how long that will take, and plan instrumental numbers accordingly. It is sometimes awkward if music is too brief for what it was intended to accompany.
9. You Could Note Times When the Congregation Will Stand. Sometimes it helps to note those. (This is not for the order of service for the congregation, but it might be helpful for those taking leadership, for accompanists, and so on– especially if you do not always stand for the same things.)
Get to know your congregation. For many people, an hour or more sitting on a hard pew is difficult. A change of position is helpful. But please don’t say, “We all need to change our position, so let’s sing a hymn.” No need to mention that. It treats the hymn as merely an excuse for physical exercise, which is not right.
10. Hymn Stanzas Omitted or Sung Unaccompanied.
In the Order of Service for service participants, you could include added information about what will be done with the hymns.
You do not need to sing every verse of every hymn, every time. Nor should you always drop the third stanza, which seems to be the practice of some. Consider your theme. Focus on those stanzas that will support and amplify the theme.
Another thing sometimes included for the instrumentalists is verses that will be sung more slowly or more quickly. You might also indicate verses of hymns that will be sung unaccompanied. Then it is not necessary to announce the latter. You simply make a quick signal to the instrumentalists, to remind them, and proceed. If enough people in your congregation can sustain a part, encourage them to do so–particularly when there is unaccompanied singing. It can be a beautiful experience.
11. When Can Late-comers Be Seated?
It could also be useful to note times when latecomers can be seated. That would be helpful for the ushers to know. It could even go in the order of service printed in the bulletin. People should not come walking in during prayers, the reading of God’s Word, or special ministry in music. (Coming in during the singing of a hymn is not ideal either, but the volume of sound at least covers the shuffling and confusion.)
Encourage folks to be on time. Given that we all need time to prepare our hearts for worship, arriving any later than 5 minutes before the service is to begin could be considered late! To model the correct behaviour, why not try having the pastor and other participants arrive on the platform well before the service begins, where they can engage in silent prayer for God’s blessing on the service.
12. When Should You Give the Announcements?
One of the great evangelical wars is fought over what to do with announcements. Some say, “If they’re printed in the bulletin, that is enough. We should respect the intelligence of our people and expect them to read what is there.” However, people are human beings. They may not read the announcements. Or they may read them and forget them. Or they may not understand them or realize the importance of a particular item.
Sunday morning, in many churches, is the time when most of our people are present. It is the best time to communicate with them. You likely need a church bulletin, with announcements for the week in it. But even if you have a church bulletin, you need at least some announcements given from the pulpit. So here are a few tips on how to do it:
a) Highlight and amplify some of what is there in the bulletin. Do not simply read it all.
b) Add any announcements that may have missed the bulletin. But watch out! That can get out of hand. If five people come to you just before the service with announcements to be read, you will need to do something about that. There should be a deadline for things to be put in the bulletin and for things to be handed to you. Educate people to get announcements in on time.
c) I dislike the practice of asking from the pulpit, in the middle of the service, “Does anybody know of any announcements?” Do your homework ahead of time. Don’t distract from the atmosphere of the service with such a casual, disorganized approach.
d) It may be helpful to have various people give announcements. This can provide variety. It can also give different ones experience in speaking to a group. However, don’t overdo it. Use this occasionally, and check the announcement carefully beforehand, to be sure the person will not ramble on for ten minutes.
e) You will need to decide where to put the announcements in the service. Generally, announcement time is less formal and has little worship focus. You have two basic options–the beginning of the service, or somewhere in the middle.
Either place the announcements near the beginning, before you get into the worship time. Or, place them in the middle, after a period of worship, as a kind of breather, or change of pace. It depends somewhat on what you are used to. (And it may not be a bad idea to vary this from time to time.)
If some are in the habit of wandering in late, and the announcements are being given, they may miss them, and they will distract everyone around them and those folks will miss them. Also, if we put the announcements at the beginning, they generally follow an organ (or instrumental) prelude. The purpose of the prelude is not just to have some nice music that people can “chat” to, or file in to. It is to lead people into worship. That means the worship time has already begun, and you are interrupting it with announcements at the “beginning” of the service. Early announcements tend to devalue the prelude.
On the other hand, if they are in the middle of the service, they can perhaps be related to a time of sharing and family prayer afterward, because often there are things in the announcements to be prayed for as well. Your choice.
13. Those Taking Part Should Be on the Platform.
There are exceptions to this, but not many! It saves the delay and distraction of people parading back and forth. (One exception to having all participants on the platform is when you have verses of Scripture read from various parts of the sanctuary, for effect.)
Some feel it is best if they remain there for the whole service, including the message. It eliminates a lot of coming and going. (If you follow this practice, educate those on the platform to remain still, and look pleasant and attentive!)
Minimally, those particpating should step up onto the platform during the hymn prior to the time they take part. They can leave right after, or during the next hymn, whichever seems less confusing.
14. Keep “Introductions” to the Beginning of the Service (or the Announcement Time).
It is best not to introduce participants right before, and thank them immediately after what they do, during a more formal service (a worship service)–though opinion varies on this.
If the person is known to the congregation, and a member of the congregation, he or she likely does not need to be introduced–beyond maybe an identification in the bulletin. If the person is a guest, he or she can be introduced and welcomed during the announcements.
To say, “And now, Miss McDonald is going to come and sing for us. Let’s give her a warm welcome [clap, clap, clap],” is distracting Then, after she sings, to say, “Thank you, Sarah; that was beautiful,” puts the focus on the person and the performance more than the message.
That orientation is even strengthened further by applauding for a special number afterward. We wouldn’t normally think of applauding a sermon! And a solo is (or should be) God’s message to us as well. Save your applause for a secular concert! (Or, if the person is a guest, introduced during the announcements, a round of applause then is appropriate as a way of saying “Welcome!”) To applaud after a number says, “Well done! Good performance!” and that is not where the focus of our attention should be.
Suppose Sarah McDonald were going to sing, People Need the Lord. Just before, you might use a congregational hymn such as Rescue the Perishing. Then this comment might segue into the solo: “There is a needy world out there. And maybe sometimes we forget that those people we rub shoulders with each day desperately need to know Christ in a personal way.”
Next, Sarah steps to the microphone and sings, without further comment. Then, after the solo: “Yes, people do need the Lord. Let’s pray that the Lord will make us more sensitive to those in need, this week.” That would segue nicely into the pastoral prayer, if that were next.
15. Plan to Test Amplification Equipment Well Before the Service.
Amplification equipment as a relatively new phenomenon. A century ago it was unknown. Even thirty or forty years ago it was not the major concern it is now. It has value if it can help us to get the gospel out more clearly to more people, but it is not good to let electronic gadgetry intrude on the worship of God.
We’ve all seen gospel groups that have tons of equipment on the platform and insist on fiddling with knobs and buttons during their numbers. That has no place in a worship service. It is an ego trip and a distraction. Sound equipment should be as unobtrusive as possible.
And if you are going to be doing something a little unusual–with multiple mikes, a video, etc.–the time to experiment is not during the service, or even two minutes before. And if you have a soloist who will be using taped accompaniment, check it out in advance and get the balance right, and the levels right–and the selection right!
16. You Can Use Several People–But Don’t Overdo It.
It is possible to use several people in a one-hour service, doing different things. But do not feel that you need a different person for each item. All the coming and going can get quite confusing or distracting. It is better to save a few of those willing people and use them another time. On a related matter, you may want to group items that will be handled by the same person, where possible. That also lessens the traffic.
17. Use Hymns Creatively.
Below are just a few thoughts. For more, check out my article 30 Ideas for Promoting Hymn Singing.
a) Consider using hymns, occasionally, for congregational readings–perhaps even responsive readings, depending on the hymn. Not all the hymns have to be sung.
b) Or, you might try having the choir sing, or simply an instrument play a hymn, while appropriate pictures are projected.
c) Or, you could use one verse (or the chorus) of a well-known hymn as a chorus, without asking folks to turn to it. Another idea that works well is to append a familiar chorus to a hymn on the same theme, without prior announcement. (One in the same key works best.)
d) On occasion, you might tell a bit about the author of a hymn, or how it came to be written–especially if this relates to the theme of the service.
18. Be Creative With Responsive Readings.
With responsive readings, consider varying who responds to whom. It does not always have to be the pastor and the congregation. Try men and women, try one side of the sanctuary alternating with the other. Or, the choir and the congregation. Variations like that add interest without distracting.
You might also have various members of the congregation read or lead the responses–but do pick someone who is a reasonably good reader. And be sure to give them the portion to practice, ahead of time. (You should also check on what Bible version they will be using, if that is a concern.)
19. What About a Time for Silent Prayer?
Some congregations have a time of personal meditation just before (or just after) the pastoral prayer. The organ may play very softly a verse of a familiar hymn as each prays silently. (Or, total silence is worthwhile too.) This provides a time for personal response from each individual. It also helps to give the service a more reverent and unrushed feel.
20. What About Variations for Prayer?
Other variations for prayer include: kneeling to pray (in a church where that is not the common practice), asking several to lead in prayer, (or having a few take part with sentence prayers). You might also try praying in small groups, having everyone pray briefly (who wants to) with those seated near them. It is even effective to read a well-written prayer. There are lots of possibilities, but know your own people. Coming to church should not be a threatening experience in which they are afraid of what might happen next.
21. Will the Children Be Leaving the Service?
Some churches have all of the children to the front for prayer with the pastor, before they head out to Children’s Church (or Sunday School). They can come forward during the hymn just before they leave–and before the last verse is sung. Then the hymn can be concluded as they exit.
Occasionally, you might also want to include a children’s feature. But since they are going to be getting that kind of thing in their own program anyway, it would seem to take time from the service unnecessarily to make it a regular thing.
22. How Long Should the Service Be?
Knowing how much will usually fit in a certain time frame takes experience. And some begin to check their watches if the service goes five minutes past the hour. Others are used to services that go about 90 minutes. A few churches have services that run 2-3 hours, but that is relatively rare.
If the content is good, and people are used to it, or prepared for it, you can go longer. Generally speaking, an hour to an hour and a half seems about right, in our culture. If what is planned is going to take longer, you might be able to warn folks the week before, and at least when the service begins.
During a standard worship service of an hour and fifteen minutes (including special music, announcements, Scripture reading, a 30 to 35-minute sermon, etc.) you will generally have time to sing about three or four hymns. Translated into stanzas that’s 12-16 stanzas. It’s helpful to put it that way because you can count a chorus as a “stanza.” You may also be able to sing more hymns, if you only use a verse or two of some of them.
23. How Will You Close?
The closing of the service is important, as it is the time when there may be a response to the presentation of God’s Word. The pastor will know the concluding thrust of his message, and will likely want to have direct input into the planning of the closing. Sometimes, the closing hymn will be meditative and soul-searching. Other times it will be up-beat and lively, issuing a challenge. Be sensitive to the need. Here are some variations:
a) The message followed by a hymn and a closing prayer. The hymn is usually chosen by the pastor to suit the conclusion of his message. It may be led by him, or the song leader.
b) The message followed simply by prayer. (Usually by the pastor, at the conclusion of his message.)
c) The message followed by a hymn and prayer. Then the instruments play a verse softly, while the congregation is seated and prays silently. After that, a final verse of the hymn is played, with the volume and the tempo increased, signaling dismissal. (I have used this method often.)
d) The message is followed by a hymn of response and invitation. Those present are invited to come forward for prayer, if the message has spoken to them. If you can get your people accustomed to the idea, this is a great way to bear public testimony to our response to what God has said. Don’t just reserve it for salvation invitations. (In fact, that is the most dangerous use of the “altar call,” since we must deal with the impression that the act of coming forward is a saving work!)
24. What If Things Go “Wrong”?
No matter how well you plan a service, things sometimes get out of hand. Maybe you asked a fellow for a five minute testimony and he rambled on for twenty-five! Or there was an unexpectedly large crowd and it took twice as long to take the offering. Or, you had a baby dedication and the baby threw up on the pastor. Recently, I had a woman collapse in the service, and we had to await the parmedics!
Other times, it is simply that the Lord led differently from what you expected. You called for testimonies and people spoke so freely and so powerfully about what God was doing in their lives that you did not want to cut it off. Plan your service. Don’t just make it up as you go along. But, as noted at the beginning, be flexible with your plan. Alert your participants that there may be some changes along the way, as needed (hymns omitted, etc.).
25. Too Much of a Good Thing?
If you have a bunch of creative ideas to try in the worship services of your church, it is best to introduce them gradually, over a period of weeks, not all at once. Give folks a chance to try them, and become familiar with them. Too many new things in one service can be an unnecessary distraction.