The hallmark of any successful sports franchise is its meticulous preparation. Winning coaches and players speak of the relentless drive to prepare for every game, regardless of the opponent or setting. How often have you heard of a team losing to an inferior opponent because they were looking past them to next week’s game? Success means there is no such thing as an “off” day.
Many pastors, musicians and media staff also live for the big event. These leaders desire to be successful in the collective goal of connecting people to God, recognize the value of meticulous preparation and see the potential of designing worship in teams. Yet, these same groups often fail to create worship experiences that transform lives because they forget the details of preparation.
Success comes in the details. In worship, as in sports, the first step is to evaluate the process. A weekly worship design team meeting should be more than a calendar-sharing session. Ideally, the team is designing a worship event where lives are transformed through the creative presentation of the Gospel. Each worship element is not pre-determined but developed together as a group.
Every church, regardless of congregational size and worship design team experience, can learn something from a self-evaluation process. The are a number of details to cover.
Frequency: How Often to Meet
The first detail is how often the team meets. While worship styles vary wildly across regions, denominations and congregational sizes, there seem to be only a few basic models for planning. We’ve outlined three popular methods below with some notes. This is not meant to be a comprehensive list but a starting point for figuring out your church’s own unique solution.
1. Single team meeting weekly
This is perhaps the most common model for designing worship in a team. A weekly worship team can be staff, volunteer or a mix of the two. There is a set weekly time, either during the workday or in the evening. It is recommended that this design team time and day remain generally the same each week. For example, Tuesdays at 2:00 p.m. might work well with an all-staff team. Evenings will probably be better if volunteers are involved.
In some ways, the weekly meeting is an easier model, particularly in terms of facilitating the logistics of planning. Small church planning structures, which are often highly relationship-driven, rely on ongoing communication between the preacher, music leader, and other staff or volunteer team members. This communication happens face to face during the meeting, but also, and sometimes to a greater degree, takes place outside the team meeting via e-mail and telephone.
Weekly meetings are also arguably easier in terms of managing interpersonal dynamics, because the team has more interaction with each other. This presumably leads to stronger relationships. (Of course, a high level of team interaction can have the opposite effect, but in our experience, the more often a team meets the better its member relationships form and maintain.) If team members have sufficiently flexible schedules to do weekly meetings, the overall nearness of the team will likely be much stronger just because of the frequency of the gatherings.
More likely than not, teams that meet weekly are going to be staff. Understand that for many staff members, the idea of another meeting isn’t something that will be relished at first. Be proactive about making the meetings uplifting, casual, creative and fun. If done right, design team day will become the highlight of the week.
2. Multiple teams meeting weekly or on rotation
Although weekly worship planning has its pros, one of its cons is that it can become exhausting, especially for volunteers who have busy lives outside of the team. Burnout can happen pretty fast. Having multiple teams sharing the worship design burden can be a great solution to this problem.
In this model, several different teams design worship. For example, there may be four teams, each meeting once a month with the paid staff (usually a pastor, a music person and/or a media specialist). The paid staff come to every meeting and help to carry out the individual services. Planning could be for the upcoming week, or it may be for several weeks ahead.
Usually this method of planning includes a mix of preacher, music leader, and key technical and creative volunteers. It might also be made up of an all-staff team. The worship producer is the link and becomes highly important to keeping continuity between teams. Teams that don’t have a producer in place should add one before moving forward on this method.
The length of these meetings can vary, but ideally, they are around two to three hours. It is not necessary to determine every single song, prayer and creative element within the group meeting time, but deciding the overall creative (theme/metaphor) direction for the service and an order of worship should be the goal. Individuals outside the meeting can then carry out specific tasks.
Churches who preach in series, use the Revised Common Lectionary or follow standard liturgy may find this method particularly useful, since the structure of the church calendar can facilitate planning ahead. However, such a structure is dependent on a preacher who plans ahead.
3. Single team meeting once every few weeks or monthly
If filling one good team, much less a whole bunch of them, seems like an enormous task, consider using one team, but spreading the meetings out to once or twice a month. This third common model may be the most realistic model for small and mostly volunteer-based teams.
The overarching goal in this model is to set the creative direction for several services at one meeting. When teams come together, the view is like a lens kept on wide-angle. Meetings are for brainstorming themes, metaphors, songs and other creative elements for upcoming services. Only devote an hour or so to each service, hopefully less. Using this model means that more creative decisions are made outside of the meetings by individuals communicating via email, text and telephone.
As you put your team together or restructure your existing team, keep in mind the things that can deflate the team. One detractor to morale often comes from looking at the way other successful teams prepare. At most large church conferences, the official playbook reads: a) worship is the primary event of the congregation, so b) it is due the most resources, and c) if given adequate resources, it will produce a growing church. In other words, act like a big church in the approach to worship design, and eventually you’ll become a big church. This may or may not be true. Examples may be cited either way. Even if it is true, however, not every congregation seeks to become a clone of its most frequently modeled megachurch. Enjoy the freedom you have to discover your own indigenous structure for designing worship!
Agenda: How to Meet
Let’s be real: Agenda is not a very popular word with creative people. It usually ranks somewhere near the bottom of the list between handcuffs and sunrise. The word itself belies its intent. An agenda is simply a guide for how to meet. To make the most of our time, we need to establish a regular process for our team meetings. Successful sports teams don’t begin practice without a game plan in mind, so you shouldn’t either. As with frequency, various solutions exist according to the gifts and the needs of each individual team. Here’s one sample model for your worship design team:
1. Small group development/prayer (10-45 minutes)
Focus your initial attention on nurturing and developing Christian community within your worship design teams. The sense of safe space and “what is said here, stays here” is crucial to fostering creativity and modeling life as the body of Christ to the congregation.
If the meeting is held during a workday, this time may be limited to 10-15 minutes, with mutual sharing and prayer. If in the evening, the team may consider a longer small group time prior to worship planning. The less frequently the team sees one another outside of the meeting, the more critical this step is.
We have worked on some teams that took small group development seriously. Others assumed that because they met regularly and were all Christians, they’d automatically take on the nature of a small group. This is not necessarily the case.
One team Len worked with only met once a month. Since the team took the small group covenant seriously, they would spend 45 minutes to an hour over dinner, sharing personal life stories and struggles and prayer, before ever moving to the work of worship.
2. Debrief time (10-15 minutes)
Taking a few minutes to evaluate what has just happened in worship can be very instructive. This may entail comments from each team member regarding successes and failures from the previous Sunday or Sundays. It may also be a focused discussion on ways to improve a single aspect of the worship process.
Len worked with one church that had a tendency to drift toward discussions of problems with sound during this period of the meeting. Every week ended up as a gripe session over such topics as dropped wireless microphones or missed cues, in spite of the fact that the team agreed such discussions weren’t very helpful. The team finally solved their sound problem by buying an egg timer. Each week in the meeting, when the debrief stage began, a team member would pull out the egg timer and set it to 10 minutes. When the buzzer sounded, all debriefing, including the weekly sound discussion, was done.
3. Word (10-20 minutes)
With debriefing done, the preacher lays out the basis for the upcoming worship experience.
A warning: This is a difficult art to master. We have seen many preachers, used to operating as a lone ranger, develop too much while getting used to the team process. Let’s create a sample preacher called Rev. Dunn, who comes to the meeting with core and supplemental Scripture texts, main points and illustrations already noted. Pastor Dunn has the notes pre-written and has already passed them out as a Word document outline via email, supposedly to foster creative thinking. Or even worse, the team receives the notes orally in detailed fashion, in a way that doesn’t foster openness and discussion.
Occasionally, too much works. When creative people look over the pastor’s notes and come prepared with notes about themes, titles, metaphors and creative elements, it can jumpstart an open discussion. In our experience, however, this is rare. More often, the result is squelched creativity. People often treat the notes as a final copy rather than a draft and are unable or unwilling to offer or accept changes or modifications. There is still much power in the printed word to create a sense of finality.
Rev. Dunn’s model is only likely to work on a veteran team operating with a high degree of mutual experience and trust. Even then, it can undermine creative potential.
Others, wanting to utilize the creativity of the team, bring too little. In this scenario, the preacher (let’s call this one Rev. Dunno) comes to the meeting with, well, nothing, save a general hunch about a direction and maybe some potential texts that match the season, series or Christian calendar. Rev. Dunno understands the power of the creative team, but he provides insufficient direction on which the team can brainstorm. The result is often brainstorms that are only brain mists, or even brain sunshiny days. There is little creative traction, and the team suffers through long periods of awkward silence.
Both Dunn and Dunno miss the potential of the team. Good team worship design happens under the thoughtful direction of a preacher who is capable of providing a core Scripture, general reflections, and even a personal illustration or two. This preacher, though, knows how and when to open up discussion, talking a little but not too much, and then asking questions to elicit helpful feedback.
4. Brainstorm (30-60 minutes)
The previous stage, Word, and this stage blend together on good teams. For example, as the preacher shares reflections on a Scripture or a story, someone in the room makes a mental jump that reminds me of a movie I saw recently.
Pastoral, theological, cultural, visual, artistic and technological discussions intermingle during this time, which is the most exciting part of the process and the reason most people sign on.
This time may last up to an hour or more. There might be periods of silence and periods in which everyone has something to share and is equally passionate. Creativity can be both quiet and fierce. Do not fear this process. Embrace it, and let it run free. The more openly the team allows itself to think, the better worship will be.
The brainstorm process is so vital, we will focus on it more in an upcoming article.
5. Decision (10-20 minutes)
Brainstorming eventually reaches a point of diminishing returns. This point is usually obvious; it is when a series of good ideas begins to be followed by much worse ideas.
When this happens, it’s time to look for consensus on the main idea of the service and its theme, metaphor and goals.
On the main idea, consensus is vital. Does everyone in the room agree on what the upcoming worship service is about? Can the theme be articulated in a sentence or two?
What is the primary means to communicate the theme? What is the primary visual metaphor? The title? Is there a collective goal for the service, such as an offer of salvation or a call to action on a specific mission project? The more the team can agree on these details, the clearer the service will be. A tiny degree of confusion at this point can blossom into full chaos later, so be careful.
The decision stage may or may not include a specific order of worship (see Frequency, above). Teams that cannot make time for decisions within the meeting time can charge a member with this task for later distribution via email.
6. Rinse, Lather, Repeat (optional)
Some teams have the set goal of designing multiple services in one meeting. For these teams, the next step is to start over at #3 with a different text, hopefully following a break.
7. Administrative (10 min)
Place all housekeeping tasks at the end of the meeting when everyone is ready to go. This ensures that they don’t take over valuable planning time.
Being intentional about how often you meet and how you meet can make all of the difference in how your team’s season ends. If you want your team to experience more wins than losses, take the time to figure out when and how you should prepare for the big game. Remember, team development is a process, and the most important thing is how those in worship see Jesus through our performance during the big event.