Creating Worship: The Art of Simmering


What makes an effective worship experience? We know that God works and moves in our corporate worship gatherings in whatever way He chooses.  But there is a human element of planning on the front end; how do we put together the puzzle pieces in order to do our part to create worship opportunities?

Whenever I sit down with another worship leader to collaborate on a set list for a worship service, I realize how subjective and unquantifiable my planning process is. I wish it were as easy as selecting five of my favorite songs and putting them in whatever order I like, but it is not.  More than once I’ve had to smile while trying to explain my opinions and decisions the long way ‘round: why, no, we can’t actually do that song this week because there is a wedding on Saturday and a Sunday School open house on Sunday. What? What do those things have to do with God’s children gathered to offer worship?

Ah, the things they don’t teach you in worship leader school.

So what is a good process for creating an effective set list? As much as the logical, linear part of me resists admitting it, I don’t have a point-by-point process for this. Instead I have a need to simmer… to marinate… to allow a few questions to flutter around me as I consider creating a specific worship experience.  I’ve noticed these flutterings I need answered gather around three main ideas, which, it turns out, combine to guide my decisions while working on a worship plan.

These three ideas are: ‘Story’, ‘Who’, and ‘Time’.

Of course, each of these are multi-facted, and one could write for hours trying to describe how they all interact.  Instead I share with you a little sketch that attempts to depict the process of holding the many facets of these three ideas together while planning worship. I give you… the worship planning funnel (click on the image to see it full-size).

All worship experiences are not the same; it is the interaction of the story being told and the people involved that make each situation unique. And because-in my situation-we’re working within a contemporary worship framework involving lots of musicians, the ‘time’ factor has great influence over what we are able to do. Can the elements of worship support a theme like God’s sovereignty? What about the theme of Biblical requirements for church elders? Am I leading a group of new Christians I don’t know, or am I leading my own youth group for the fourth time in two days?  Am I working with musicians who don’t know each other, or a close-knit group of friends? Do I have three weeks or three minutes to figure this out?

Effective and responsible worship planning requires that we pay attention to these factors all in an attitude of prayer and discernment. When I take the time to hold these questions together I get a clear picture of the context of the worship experience I’m creating. After I have this picture in mind, I can turn to selecting songs and creating flow and crafting musicality.  But I, at least, have to start with this picture of context and the difficult, yet necessary, art of ‘simmering’.