Three Maxims For Planning Congregational Worship Services

by Cody Barnhart March 1, 2021

I’ve asked my friends and myself this question more than I can count: “How do I make our services feel more . . . congregational?” The answer often escapes me, forcing my church to take theological risks or make stylistic compromises—ultimately deemphasizing the “congregational” aspect of the church’s worship.

Us worship leaders have a habit to renege and make addendums to our services that leave us unsatisfied. We throw our people bones when they beg for one, yet we wonder why we feel as if we’ve neglected our duty to guide people in worship. We squeeze corporate-ness into the margins, yet we ask why the body feels disconnected. Content to maintain the status quo as long as we fill all our volunteer slots in Planning Center, we begin to wonder if our churches’ worship will ever feel, well, worshipful again.

Below, I want to offer three maxims for planning your worship services that will encourage you to take heart and make your worship services more Christ-focused and (hopefully) more congregational.

The church is not a corporation, but it is corporate.

Regrettably, churches everywhere define success by worldly metrics—how many people attended, how much money was given, or how many people we’ve baptized this year. This attractional philosophy can creep in even within a gospel-centered tribe when we ask how many people agree with our philosophy, how many people care about theology, or what percent of members are plugged into small groups. Though these are all good questions, the metrics by which we’re measuring end up positioning us in yet another attractional model of another breed.

When we talk about corporate worship, however, we ought to primarily talk about that sense of “togetherness” that happens where two or three are gathered in Christ’s name (Matt. 18:15–20). We need not be concerned with the metrics of American corporations to be concerned with our corporate worship. As you set your church on the trajectory of congregation-driven worship, take heed to explain to those who may not understand or agree with your philosophy that you’re not just making an effort to “attract younger people,” or change the style of music to be in line with what’s trendy at the moment. The goal of a truly congregational worship service is not to bend a knee to the prevailing philosophies of the day but to bend a knee to King Jesus alongside hosts of other believers.

Don’t let gospel-centeredness become a mere measuring stick of a new set of corporation-like metrics. We can sugarcoat the gospel-centered movement to make our congregations adopt it, but there will come a day when another philosophy may take hold and undermine such a strong-armed approach. True gospel-centrality doesn’t mean everybody looks the same in theology or in practice—it means he who believes differently than his neighbor sees how the gospel unites him to them regardless.

The object of our worship is not creativity or giftings but God who is Creator and Giver.

Some of the pushback I’ve heard against congregation-focused worship is that it fails to highlight peoples’ God-given gifts, like singing, stage design, or other creative arts. I’m unwilling to say choral specials or Christmas dramatizations are necessarily sinful/unbiblical, but I’m growing convinced they run a greater risk of doing harm than doing good in the pursuit of Christ-centered worship. The more produced a segment of the worship service is, the more likely it is to cause distraction than stir our affections toward Christ. It’s simply logistics: the less there is that can go wrong, the fewer opportunities there are for distraction.

Additionally, an argument that accuses congregational worship of focusing too little on an individual or group’s gift set is an argument that actually advocates the very model it’s accusing. The object of our worship is not the creative process or our particular gifts and talents; the object of our worship is the God of the gospel who is the Creator and Giver of all things good.

If we want to maintain God as the center of our worship services, we must be diligent to plan everything around Him. This isn’t a stylistic argument. It isn’t the young trying to upheave the old. It’s not about the color of the lights or whether or not we should have an organ. It’s about refocusing on what we give primacy in our services. If we believe the primary goal of the worship service is to worship the Triune God of the Bible, we need to prune our liturgies and service structures so they reflect this. As you assemble your weekly services, consider the ways you are communicating your priorities. A helpful exercise would be sketching out a minute-by-minute reflection on your previous service, categorizing the service into “participatory” and “non-participatory” elements of the service. You might be surprised how much time your congregation is spending alone.

In all things, plan pastorally.

I actually don’t have a pastoral role at my church. When I was hired, I had already asked our pastor to forego even considering placing me in a pastoral role so that I had time to grow up a few more years, grow in love for the people here, and get involved in our ministry without much formal authority at the onset.

Even still, I’ve chosen to approach my position of Director of Music and Media with a pastoral bent, and here’s why: When you start messing with peoples’ stuff, like music, you’re messing with the things that are oftentimes most important to them in the worship service. Whether or not these things should be most important to the Christian isn’t the question—it’s simply the reality that music is frequently one of the most personal, identity-driven factors in someone’s decision to join a congregation. A worship service is a place where people feel safe. When major changes are afoot, peoples’ walls will often go up and resistance will appear more easily. Don’t waver in your obedience to Scripture just to scratch itching ears, but don’t try to bring truth without love before your church either. Clint Pressley talks elsewhere at FTC about being a barometer for the “threshold of being able to tolerate” change.[1] Your duty is to construct the worship service in such a way that people know Jesus deeply and love him even more so. This means your duty is to be sensitive—pastoral, even—as you make changes to the service structure, song selection, or instrumentation choices.

A word for non-elder worship leaders

Let me take a brief moment to talk to those who, like me, aren’t elders at their church but are leading worship every week and are “the worship leader.” Zac Hicks describes our work this way: “Please don’t waffle any longer in the untruth that the pastoral work is all being done by the individuals with ‘pastor’ in their title. You may not have that heading on your business card or online profile, but that doesn’t change the fact that your work is inherently pastoral.”[2] Hear me clearly state that in every decision you make, you should be submitting to the leadership and direction of the elders (or senior pastor) of your church. Work closely with them. You are not a pastor if your church hasn’t entrusted you with a position of eldership; you are, however, discipling, teaching, or guiding the flock, even if you do so without knowing it. You have a unique responsibility to steward your position well. Plan your services with a pastoral heart. Grow in gentleness and love for the people entrusted to your soul care, and ask your elders to help you do so.

[1] I first saw this video referenced in Jared C. Wilson’s book The Gospel-Driven Church. You can watch the interview here:

[2] Zac Hicks, The Worship Pastor, 14.