Worship Service Planning Book

By now, if your church is planning worship on New Year's Eve or Day, you have at least marked the date on the calendar. However, it may be that the plans have not actually been made. This article offers some perspective on what such a gathering might be and some resources and suggestions to consider.

First, why would you gather the faith community on New Year's Eve? The competition is stiff. Most folks have already got parties planned or have set some other way of creating a connection to the world's hunger for festivity. Or they have concluded that the best place to be on such a night is at home, safely tucked away from the crowds and drunk drivers.

One of the most challenging and useful disciplines required by collaborative worship planning, and captured in excellent detail in this book is the creation and maintenance of a service planning calendar. Maintaining such a calendar has the potential to produce a huge variety of healthy spin-offs within the weekly worship services and beyond. 'The WDS materials have made our worship services flow much better. We've learned to plan as a team rather than each person planning individually. We've used several worship series and we've designed a couple of our own as well. It's well worth the cost of admission to have access to all of the materials.'

Indeed, why should the church try to compete?

Well, perhaps competition with the world's party is not the point. Maybe the point is that Christians, too, mark time; and New Year's Eve (or Day) is a good time to look back and forward with eyes of faith in company with one another and with God.


What will be the character of such a service? covenant making or prayer for the new year?


Methodists have a long tradition of making covenant with God at the new year, although most do not currently practice covenant making in the rigorous way of the early Methodists. Our hymnal has the vestiges of the covenant service in the prayer that begins, 'I am no longer my own, but thine.' ('A Covenant Prayer in the Weleyan Tradition,' 607, The United Methodist Hymnal) Wesley's journal entries give us a glimpse of the size of gatherings and the sense of the powerful work of grace.

Sun. JANUARY 1, 1775. — We had a larger congregation at the renewal of the Covenant than we have had for many years; and I do not know that ever we had a greater blessing. Afterwards many desired to return thanks, either for a sense of pardon, for full salvation, or for a fresh manifestation of his grace, healing all their backslidings.
— John Wesley's Journal, Works of Wesley

Sun. JANUARY 2, 1780. — We had the largest congregation at the renewal of our covenant with God, which ever met upon the occasion; and we were thoroughly convinced, that God was not departed from us. He never will, unless we first depart from him.
— John Wesley's Journal, Works of Wesley

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Sat. JANUARY 1, 1785. — Whether this be the last or no, may it be the best year of my life! Sunday, 2. A larger number of people were present this evening at the renewal of our covenant with God, than was ever seen before on the occasion.
—John Wesley's Journal, Works of Wesley

Covenant Service or Intercession?

Covenant making: At the heart of Christian devotion is a sense that we are not our own, but that through God's claim upon us in Christ through baptism, we are God's servants. From time to time, Christians need to make a solemn renewal of the covenant, lest we hold back from God what we once gave to God but over time have hoarded for ourselves. The early Methodists adopted a form of covenant renewal and found that New Year's Eve or Day was a very suitable time for this. The introductory material in The United Methodist Book of Worship (288) suggests that, ideally, the service of covenant renewal should be held only once in the year.

I take that to mean there may be other times for the church to celebrate and renew the baptismal covenant (Baptism of the Lord, Easter, Pentecost, and so on); but that a thoroughgoing, 'in-your-face' (I mean that respectfully) kind of covenant renewal called for in the 'Covenant Renewal Service' (UMBOW 288) has such gravity about it that Christians cannot and should not do it more often than once a year.

This is one approach to the New Year observance in Christian practice. Another approach is that of holding the whole creation before God in prayer.

St. Paul calls the church to 'make the most of time.'

Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 5:15-20, NRSV)

Intercession for the world: We believe that all time is God's time and that we are to intercede for the world. The ministry of the church in holding creation up to God is at the heart of what it means to be a priestly people. In the services of the baptismal covenant, the congregation welcomes each neophyte/newly baptized person 'to share in Christ's royal priesthood' ('Baptismal Covenant I,' The United Methodist Hymnal, page 37.) As the world turns from one year into the next, we remember and know of the bane and blessing of the past year and anticipate the hurt and hope of all peoples for the coming one.

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I invite spiritual leaders to make a distinction.

New Year's Eve or Watch Night services may be covenant renewal of the Wesleyan sort, or they may be gatherings for prayer and observance of the passing of the year and intercession for the world as it begins a new chapter. Covenant renewal is rigorous and requires preparation of the people, as well as means of sustained support and accountability afterward. There is no such thing as 'covenant renewal lite.' To do that is to demean the heart of our tradition and to render it pabulum for the soul. A covenant renewal service is not a seeker's service. A lot of people can play touch football on Thanksgiving afternoon. Only the physically conditioned and fully accountable can play professional football on Thanksgiving afternoon. Lord have mercy on those who go the way ofGeorge Plimpton!

The other approach — a service of prayer for God's creation —is a gathering worthy of Christians, but it does not require that we engage in the same kind of soul searching, total self-giving to God that the covenant-making service requires. The service of prayer is an expression of our sense of living out our covenant for the life of the world, and it might consist of a weaving together of song, Scripture, and prayer. This is not to suggest that churches should choose the latter as a less costly option. I simply want to suggest that your church should do what it is prepared to do. (See Luke 14:25-33.)


Planning for Covenant Renewal:

  • Read the 'Covenant Renewal Service' (UMBOW, 288) through aloud and listen to your heart's and mind's responses to such powerful ritual and 'dangerous' prayer. Consider inviting other church leaders to share in this reading/listening experience. If you and they say, 'Whoa! That is pretty stout brew! We can't just go through that and go on as usual. Such total self-giving is something we need to prepare our people for,' then taking a year to get ready for it may be the best way to go.
  • If your congregation has a practice of holding the 'Covenant Renewal Service,' then move forward with plans for giving support to those who 'renew their covenant with God.' Covenant Discipleship groups,Walk to EmmausReunion Groups, or some other means by which those who make covenants can support one another in moving forward and not slipping back is essential.
  • Seeresourcesbelow for planning a 'Covenant Renewal Service.'
  • In all cases, prepare the people for a service that has roots in a time when sin was taken seriously, as was the atonement, and is potent in Christ's call to obedience and discipleship. Such services are the meats that demand good spiritual teeth and a hearty constitution rooted in disciplined living.

For a service of intercession for the church and the world:

  • Consider the resources you can bring to such a service. Will you have musicians? Do you have digital artists who can enhance the environment with sound and sight?
  • How do you want to engage the people in prayer for the world? Will you use formal or informal approaches? Will you make use of media, such as the projection of photos of people and places that are hurting, war-torn, economically or socially traumatized? How will you use music? Will you assemble a worship planning team so that you use a range of gifts and skills?
  • Plan the service. Make use of the Book of Worship's suggestions (294), the hymn suggestions on page 937 in The United Methodist Hymnal, and the suggestions on page 156 of The Faith We Sing: Worship Planner Edition.
  • Invite the congregation to make this prayer service a key event in their New Year's observance.


Covenant Renewal

  • For United Methodists, the official source of the 'Covenant Renewal Service' is The United Methodist Book of Worship, 288. This service follows our 'basic pattern' of worship and updates the language from the earlier texts of the service.
  • For online worship ideas, see the following possibilities: A service prepared by Leila M. Geist called the 'Owlah' Service.
    This service is a covenant renewal service focused on the Ten Commandments. It leads to praying 'A Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition' (The United Methodist Hymnal, 607).
  • Found at the Wesley Center Online of Northwest Nazarene University:
    Covenant Renewal Service adapted by George Lyons from the Pamphlet Written by John Wesley and First Published in 1780 (pdf)

    If you use this service, be alert to the language and adjust it for inclusiveness.

    Wesleyan Covenant Service Adapted from John Wesley by Jeren Rowel
    This service, too, should be adjusted for inclusive language.

Vigil or Intercession Service

  • Watch Night Vespers and Vigilby Dwight Vogel
  • 'A Celebration of John Wesley in Word and Song on the 300th Anniversary of His Birth'by Steve Manskar

This service of hymns and readings is based on Wesley's sermon on the Scripture Way of Salvation

The Character of a Methodist: A Service of Worship in Readings and Song
This article was prepared by Daniel Benedict, retired staff, Discipleship Miistries.

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Editor's Note: The following is a report on the practical applications of Nelson Searcy, Jennifer Dykes Henson, & Jason Hatley's book,Engage: A Guide to Creating Life-Transforming Worship Services, (Baker Books, 2011).

Are your church’s worship services less than the best they could be, due to the pressure of pulling them together at the last minute? Do your worship services seem to rush together in a blur as you struggle to produce them week after week? Is creating the services a stressful grind, rather than a joyful experience?

If so, one key practice will help you create better worship services: planning ahead. Advance planning is a powerful tool in the process of creating the kind of worship services God wants you to plan – those that help change people’s lives. Here’s how you can do that:

Cooperate with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is present in your church during every worship service, ready to change the lives of the people who encounter Him there. You can either cooperate with the Spirit by prayerfully creating an excellent worship service, or hinder His work by pulling together something uninspired just to meet your weekly deadlines. Decide to work with the Holy Spirit by seeking His guidance well in advance for every worship service you plan. Make your goal much more than just presenting information; aim instead to help people encounter God in ways that change their lives.

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Recognize the value of a planning system. It’s much better to use a planning system to create worship services than it is to create them spontaneously, since everything functions best in a system. God chose to organize the universe with systems, and the church is a system that functions best when all of its different parts work together well.

Determine your philosophy of worship. Consider why you do things the way you do right now when putting together your worship services. Don’t make decisions simply out of tradition; instead be open to receiving new insights and fresh guidance from God. Keep in mind that your worship philosophy will drive the way you plan your worship services and help you measure how successful they are.

Keep the goal of repentance in mind. Remember that everything that happens during your church’s worship services should be designed to call people to repentance before God.

Work as a team. Invite other leaders in your church to offer their ideas during the worship service planning process. Working together, you all will be able to create better services than you ever could while working alone.

Strive for excellence every single Sunday. Every Sunday matters a great deal to the spiritual growth of the people who attend your worship services. Give your very best effort to producing each week’s worship service; offering anything less is a sin.

Start planning by setting the preaching calendar. Each worship service hinges on what your church’s pastor will be preaching on that particular week. So first decide on the topic to preach every week, and then develop the rest of the service around that theme. Plan your preaching calendar one year in advance, and pray for inspiration about which topics God wants you to cover in different sermon series of about four to six weeks long over the course of a year. Plan three different types of series: attraction series (those that attract new people to your church), growth series (those that help people grow to become more like Jesus), and balance series (those that balance out your calendar by covering important topics that don’t fit into either the attraction or growth series). Then plan to preach those various series at appropriate times during your church’s year (such as planning an attraction series for times like February, Easter, and after a new school year starts, when people who are new to your church often visit).

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Build the rest of the worship services around the preaching calendar. Plan the creative elements involved in each worship service around the theme of what topic will be preached that particular week. Be as creative as you can about how to include: music, a testimony, media, drama, and other elements (such as Communion, dance, lighting candles, writing prayers, etc.) in ways that will move each service forward well.

Engage people in your worship services. Help people pay attention to the worship and participate it. Give them clear directions, such as when to pray, and when to stand up or sit down. Don’t force them to talk much to people they don’t know; doing so will alienate introverts. Don’t put people on the spot to share their testimony or do anything else that hasn’t been planned in advance; doing so can make people anxious about what may happen next. Hook your listeners by delivering the most interesting part of your message during the first five minutes of preaching. End each service with something upbeat that’s designed to put people in a good mood when they leave the service.

Invite people to take the next steps after leaving your worship service. Determine what next steps you want people to take after each service, inspiring them to do more than just think to themselves, “That’s nice,” and then forget about the service’s message. Consider what you want people to know, feel, and do when they leave each service, and then plan how to encourage them to integrate the theme of each service into their lives.

Conduct a trial run of each worship service. Run through every worship service at least three days before it is scheduled for the weekend, so you can get feedback from others about what still needs to be improved and have time to make those changes.

Evaluate each worship service after it’s over.After every worship service, meet with your church’s leaders who help put worship together and ask yourselves: “What went right?”, “What went wrong?”, “What was missing?” and “What was confusing?' Take notes on the comments people share. Then assign someone to follow up on each change that needs to be made before the next week’s worship service takes place. Constantly keep making improvements so your church’s worship services will always be the best they can be.

Adapted from Engage: A Guide to Creating Life-Transforming Worship Services, copyright 2011 by Nelson Searcy, Jennifer Dykes Henson, and Jason Hatley. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, Mich., www.bakerbooks.com.

Nelson Searcy served as the director of The Purpose Driven Community at Saddleback Church before starting The Journey Church of the City in New York City in 2002. He and his 2,000-member church appear routinely on lists such as The 50 Most Influential Churches and The 25 Most Innovative Leaders. The Journey is a multi-site church with locations across New York City (http://www.journeymetro.com/) and Boca Raton, Florida (http://bocajourney.com/). His newsletter for pastors and church leaders, Church Leader Insights, now reaches more than 80,000 subscribers and continues to grow by hundreds each month. Searcy lives in New York City.

Jennifer Dykes Henson is a freelance writer based in New York City. She has served as a writer/producer and ministry consultant to organizations across the East Coast. Jennifer also worked with Dr. Charles Stanley as the manager of marketing communications for In Touch Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.

Jason Hatley is the pastor of worship arts at The Journey Church and has been a worship leader since 1996. Founder of www.WorshipLeaderInsights.com, Jason has spoken at the Willow Creek Arts Conference and The Purpose Driven Worship Conference, as well as seminars around the country. Currently, Jason serves at The Journey's newest location in Boca Raton, Florida.

Whitney Hopler is a freelance writer and editor who serves as both a Crosswalk.com contributing writer and the editor of About.com’s site on angels and miracles (http://angels.about.com/). Contact Whitney at: [email protected]to send in a true story of an angelic encounter or a miraculous experience like an answered prayer.

Worship Service Planning Template

Publication date: February 8, 2012