The Art of Worship Planning

Post Author: Ashley Goff

Church of the Pilgrims Advent wreath 2010

Several years ago my colleague, Jeff Krehbiel, went on a three-month sabbatical. While Jeff was gone, Pilgrims wanted to have their own enriching three-month experience. We created a sabbatical planning team to plan not just congregational endeavors but worship. Together, we explored the lectionary texts, the meaning of sabbatical, and came up with the theme of “connections and clarity” for the sabbatical season. All of these elements came alive in worship during the sabbatical. While still maintaining our loyalty to the Reformed Order of Worship, our planning process opened up our imagination, courage, and curiosity to what is possible. We sang new songs, congregants told stories on connections and clarity, we created more spontaneous moments of sharing, and we explored new ways of engaging with each other during worship.

Our planning process paid off and we were hooked.

Now our planning process looks something like this: Four to six weeks prior to the upcoming liturgical season, Jeff and I invite six to eight Pilgrims to plan worship. The planning group always includes me, Jeff, our Music Director, Rob Passow, and our Elder for Worship, Jean Stewart. We intentionally include long time members, new members, and those who aren’t members but have been worshipping with us for some time. We send an email that includes a link to the lectionary texts to the upcoming season and any other relevant links or an article. We are clear in the email we are asking them for a one-time commitment of planning on the specific evening. (This planning process has replaced the typical standing worship committee. The ever-changing worship planning group is our “worship committee.”)

We ask invitees to read the lectionary texts prior to the evening and choose one that stands out to them for any reason. That’s all the prep work we’ve realized is needed. Less is more.

At the planning evening, we first ask folks to share memorable moments in worship for them in the past few months. We move on to exploring music with Rob who teaches us a few songs which we sing together. We move on to unpacking the lectionary texts. Each person shares which text they picked and what stood out to them— an image, a phrase, a word, the social context.

We scribble down all the thoughts on newsprint, taking time to identify patterns, connections and contradictions. After exploring the text, we share what’s going on in the life of Pilgrims, in Washington, DC, in our culture and world-at-large. How do these texts speak to our life right now? We scribble down more thoughts on newsprint. We stand back, take a look, and see what we’ve come up with. Then we ask, “how do we make these experiences come alive in worship?” followed by “what have we experienced lately in worship that we want to keep, what do we want to stop doing for now?”

Both are crucial questions to the process. The questions focus on keeping actions in worship that are meaningful to us right now, breaking through unquestioned habits done in the name of nostalgia rather than relevancy. Our worship planning has evolved in participant’s confidence and questioning. Both confidence and questioning involve risk taking. Do the Advent candles have to be purple? Can we build a wailing wall for the sanctuary? Can we worship without the lights? Can we have communion with no words spoken? Can we have fire in worship?

These questions arise because we’ve created a permission-giving environment to plan worship. This doesn’t mean we are void of discomfort, tension, or anxiety in our planning process. But we learn to live with these feelings as we come face-to-face to express our trust in the stories of faith.

For me, the ultimate comment came at the end of our recent Advent planning. Our Elder for Worship, Jean, started off her idea sharing with “this is a wild idea but…..” I don’t remember how Jean finished her idea. I was struck by her use of the word “wild.”

Wild worship. Wild worship means we create worship where people can experience their own individual and collective power and grace, where worship is ever-changing for the sake of the ever-present need for justice and liberation for the planet which God so loves.

Professor of Worship at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, Janet Walton, remarked in a worship class if worship is the same week-after-week, if worship never changes, it reflects our view on the world. We don’t want the world to change. If we seek transformation, connection, fluidity, and social change for the world then our worship must be of that same nature.

When we get “wild” we can experience of what change feels like, looks like, smells like, and tastes like so we learn to take risks for the sake of justice. That means pushing through age-old, conventional, status quo driven boundaries of worship. Pushing through boundaries means we sing new songs, we engage the Biblical stories in multi-sensory ways, and the sacraments are authentic, ancient expressions of grace within. Wild worship breaks through social and ecclesiastical norms so we can embrace the hope and possibilities of the Commonwealth of God, so we can learn what it looks and feels like to take a stand.

Several months ago, with the guidance of Janet Walton, I created a worship reflection circle of alums from Union Seminary with the purpose of helping clergy re-charge and re-energize around liturgical work. It’s a group of seven women, across the denominational spectrums, who have graduated from Union throughout the past 15 years. We gather together once a month for a one hour conference call, facilitated by Janet, with a focused theme to shape our conversation.

The theme arises out of our own needs and experiences of creating wild worship in our own congregations. The first call we shared best and worst practices for worship. The next call we focused on Advent. During our last call we shared experiences of creating change and pushing through ecclesiastical boundaries in worship. Together we engage in the action-reflection praxis of liberation theology, affirming our passions for liturgy and its connection to social change.

Our next call – worship planning.

For me, these phone calls not only help me build relationships with some incredibly creative and powerful clergy women, but we inspire and affirm taking risks in worship for the sake of the Gospel. Together we go deeper, enlarge our own definitions of liturgy and ritual, and gain dynamic perspectives on worship. How has a relational, community inspired process impacted worship at Pilgrims?

It means we introduce new songs, especially congregational-led songs that allow us to sing in harmony together. We can put down our hymnal and let our song soar. It means bringing fire into the sanctuary, burning paper that symbolizes our need to refine our values and beliefs.

It means our children and youth read scripture, lay hands on those being ordained, and serve communion. It means our baptism liturgy takes 30 minutes of worship, squishing all of us around the font, sharing out loud our hopes and dreams for the soon-to-be baptized, renouncing what we believe to be evil, and bellowing out a statement of faith.

It means we baptize in the name of “God the Creator, Mother and Father of us all, in the name of the Son, incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, in the name of the Spirit, everywhere the giver and sustainer of life.

It means at the communion table there are three of us sharing the words of institution: me, Jeff and a church member. One Sunday Lydia Grund, age ten, shared in the sacred movements and words. It means after communion we have stations where people can join in a prayer group, write a prayer for our wailing wall, create a banner of hope for Haiti, a Mandala or create shapes with magnets on a table.

It means having themes for liturgical seasons like “Waiting for a World Made New,” “Welcoming the Stranger,” and “Witnessing the Bread of Life.”

It means critiquing Empire, the powers-that-be, and the social structures that oppress, defile, and disfigure who we are as created in the image of God. It means offering a liberating way of being together, practicing in-the-moment ways of being equal, compassionate, vulnerable, and powerful. When we started this type of worship planning at Pilgrims, we had no idea what kind of liturgical journey we were embarking on.

We are inherently experimenting with our life stories and the story of the movement of God. With this type of planning, you can’t expect what will come at the end, you can’t predict it. But as in the process of creating social change, we engage in a process of creativity and critique with an outcome yet-to-be seen or experienced. It’s wild worship full of integrity, intentionality, and experiences of change. It’s also a hell of a lot of work. And I love it.

Ashley Goff is Minister of Spiritual Formation at Church of the Pilgrims (PCUSA) in Washington, DC.

Image by: Church of the Pilgrims
Used with permission
6 replies
  1. Katie Z. says:

    We are shifting to this type of model instead of our standing worship committee this year! I am very excited to hear how it has worked for you and I will be using some of your process as we work our own way through the texts =) Thank you!!!

  2. Joanna says:

    Thanks so much, Ashley. I’ve also been trying to pray and think my way to a new way of planning worship. It’s always helpful to hear what works for others.
    And if you or Elsa are willing to write something up, I’d love to hear some of the ideas that come out of your next conference call.

  3. Ashley says:

    Thanks for the comments! Jennifer, I’m open to talking through your worship planning ideas if you need a sounding board.
    Let the good times roll!

  4. Elsa says:

    I’ve been thinking about the conference call which is moderated for you (and me) by Janet. I wonder if there wouldn’t be another way that this could be done through various clergy groups. It’s so wonderful to have a group of ycw excited about engaging in “wild” worship.

  5. Jennifer C says:

    Ashley, I love the heart-quickening excitement I feel when reading your pice. I’ve been playing around with ideas that include some of the elements of what you’re doing at Pilgrims (along the lines of seasonal worship planning)–it’s so helpful to hear, step by step, what you’ve done, and to hear some of the amazing things that have come out of it. Thank you!


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