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How to Plan and Lead Worship

worship-outside“Help!  I have to plan worship for (youth camp/conference/event) and I don't know how to do that!”

Have no fear, a resource is here!  This was written especially for youth and young adults who are responsible for planning and leading worship.  It's not quite a 'step by step guide' but almost.

Whether this is the first youth service you are planning or the 20th, this resource will hopefully give you some new ideas and guidance in the process.

A Guide to

Planning and Leading Liturgy and Worship

This resource has been used by a number of different camps and youth programs in various places across Canada. Hope it is helpful for you in your worship planning whether at camp, at a youth conference, youth service or a special event.

Why do we worship?

· We gather to practice the presence of God

· To remember that we’re part of a community that is being formed by God.

· To offer a visible witness to a world that has lost its way.

(the above is taken from “Following Jesus” by Harold Percy)

So what is Liturgy?

Liturgy is a Greek compound word that means the “a public service performed by a citizen” (leitourgia). Within the Christian community, it has come specifically to refer to the actions of the minister and people gathered together for public worship, or actions reflected in the worship. So for example, some common liturgies used by the church are eucharist liturgy, liturgy of marriage, funeral liturgy, confirmation liturgy. These are usual ones, but you can also write your own liturgy!

Liturgy, then, is the way we organize our communal gatherings to give expression to

the identity,

the ministry and

the mission of the people of God.

Identity: Every group has a particular identity. Every liturgy has a particular occasion (camp opening, Easter, baptism, evening worship at camp). Is it the first time the group is meeting together? Is it the last time they’re meeting together? Are they celebrating a certain season in the church year? Who are we who are gathered? Why are we here?

Ministry: How are we called to follow God? What does that mean for us? What is happening in the life of the community that we want to give particular attention to?

Mission: What we do in worship must also be reflected in our lives. To quote a line from a worship song: “Worship and work must be one”. We can’t say we love God but turn around the next moment and speak badly of or hate our brothers or sisters (from 1 John 2:4-6). . What does God’s love, dwelling in us, compel us to do? Does it compel us to respond to injustice? Does it compel us to respond in love to seek for peace between people, or seek reconciliation with someone with whom we have had a disagreement? Does it compel us to respond by gathering to pray for a person, a situation we’re worried about, or an event? The answer is yes to any of these suggestions. You can’t include everything in one worship service but you should consider what is happening in the context of the mission or the overall vision of the Christian community or event you are part of as you prepare a theme for the worship you are planning.

What should we include in worship?

Here are some elements that can be included in worship. The four basic elements to structure worship could include:

1) Gathering the community

2) Hearing the word

3) Responding to the word

4) Sending forth

1) Gathering the community.

During the gathering of the community, we draw together and enter a peaceful place of resting with God and one another. If there is a theme of the worship, now is the time to tell people what that is, what inspired you or how you hope the community can grow through this worship time.

examples: “Today’s theme is living and working in harmony. Let us spend a minute in quiet and be aware of the Spirit’s presence with us .”

or “we gather together today to remember to be grateful. Our worship will focus on saying thanks to each other and to God for so many gifts.”

or “our sharing has been about making choices in our lives. In our worship, we will invite God to be part our how we make those choices

After some silent time, you can offer a prayer for what you want God to do through the worship time:


“Creator God, we have come together to spend some peaceful time with you and with each other. Thanks for every person in this community. We pray that we will continue to accept each other, learn from each other and be grateful for one another’s presence. Help us to do those things when it is hard for us to see past superficial things and little conflicts.”

or another alternative

“God of many blessings, help us to have grateful hearts, in good times and hard times. Thanks for all gifts. Help us to recognize your gifts and blessings to us, even when they aren’t obvious.”

When writing this prayer, try to speak ‘from the heart’. If you want to use a pre-written one, or something from the prayer book or BAS that is fine, but read the words carefully and reflect on their deeper meaning, rather than just saying “this one’s fine!”

Another way of gathering the community is with a song, a silent gesture of welcome (cross arms, join hands), a spoken word, one to another. In a multi-faith community in India, they greet one another at the beginning and end of worship by holding their hands “prayer style” (palms together) up by their face and saying “shandti” (“peace”) around the circle.

Other considerations are: What is happening in the life of the community group? Are there particular concerns or problems or issues within the group that need to be responded to sensitively? What transitions are people experiencing?

At a youth conference or in a camp situation, where worship happens frequently during the week, there is a great temptation to try to be “new and exciting” every time we gather for worship. Good worship doesn’t have to be new or dramatic to be effective. The best worship experiences are often ones which address or speak to the present, in-the-moment lived experience of the participants.

2) The Word.

After intentionally gathering, the worshipping community listens and responds together to the Word of God. Early Christian liturgies would probably have used a selection of readings from the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) and then some story telling on the good news of God in Jesus. As Christian scriptures were written, these were also included into the liturgy of the word. In church, the normal pattern is to have readings from the Old Testament, the New Testament and a selection from the Gospels (gospel means “good news”) which are also part of the New Testament. You may choose to have one Bible reading and another selection, such as a poem, a song, a reflection or some other writing if it is meaningful to the theme of worship that day. Avoid the temptation to only use things like “Chicken Soup for the Spiritually Baffled Soul” or whatever. It’s frustrating and sometimes pointless to go to a Christian worship experience, particularly camp or youth events and find that the only reading is from a Dr. Seuss book (yes, it happens). You can certainly use other readings alongside, but if indeed it is Christian worship, other readings should not replace the reading from the Bible. Yes, we have used “One Fish, Two Fish” in a skit about community, but it didn’t replace reading about community in the New Testament.

If you don’t know what is in Christian Scriptures (the Bible) or where to find something that relates to your theme, well – get reading! In your own Bible you may wish to read a bit from the New Testament some time each day. If a particular passage strikes you and you think to yourself “hey – this would be good to use for….” then use a post-it note or make a note to yourself inside the back cover. You won’t know what’s there for you to use if you don’t take time to read it. Talk to your leaders or your minister for ideas on where to find a relevant scripture reading for the day, or for your theme. And, for God’s sake, Read It!

Here’s some ideas to get you started:

· Live in love, live in gratitude: Colossians 3:12-16

· Encouragement: Philippians 4:4-9

· When people are angry at each other: Ephesians 4:25-32

· Enabled by the spirit: Ephesians 3:16-21

· How to work for peace: Romans 9:9-21

· Don’t just listen to good words, Do it!: James: 1:19-26

· Living in truth and light: I John (the epistle, not the gospel) 1:7-11

· Love God, love other people: I John (same one) 4:7-12 or 16b-21

Keep it short. It is hard to take in everything in a long reading.

3) Response to the Word

Positive Spreads – Unbelievable Returns And Strike Rate

The Word continues with a reflection on the readings chosen. This is sometimes called a sermon or a homily. It can just as easily be a group discussion, a creative response, a period of silence (don’t use silence as a cop-out for the work of coming up with an intelligent and reasonable thought!), a dramatic presentation or short skit. Don’t be afraid to just talk about why you chose the passages, poems or stories. Perhaps everyone in your group could say a sentence or two about what the passage means to them, or a particular word or line that speaks to them about something that is happening for them.

“In the bible reading, it says … and that reminds me of…..“

“I chose this passage because…..”

“It is hard for me to… reading the words……helps me to……”

“These words made me think about how I……”

“We invite everyone to try to…..”

“We invite you to think about how….”

The reflection on the word is a time of teaching and sharing, and should not be used as an opportunity for grandstanding opinions, expressing discontent with others, or personal confessions. Yes, they’ve all been done in the public pulpit in our churches, but it is not right.


After the Word, prayer is offered. You can use a form already written but you can also be creative and develop your own. Don’t be afraid to use your own words in prayers to God. It is God who listens. Prayers can also be “free form” in which people can voice their prayers, thanksgivings, joys, and concerns.

Remember, prayer is:

to God…

about something…

for a purpose…

ideas for prayer:

pass something (candle, special rock) around the circle. As each person holds it, they say something they are thankful for. “Thank you God for….” or “I am grateful to God for….”

do the same, except have everyone say the name of someone they want to pray for. They can add something about that person, if they want. “I pray for John my priest for courage and strength” or “I pray for my parents for a safe holiday” or “I pray for my sister Jen, cause her best friend is moving away”.

If you are using this form of prayer in the context of your youth group, or other youth gathering, you need to know that in this form of prayer, young people will often bring forward concerns or personal burdens that they find difficult to share with the group at other times. “I pray for my grandmother who is dying of cancer” or “I pray for my mom and dad because they are getting divorced”.

NOTE: When a prayer like this is offered, you as a group leader can appropriately respond (later) by saying something like “It sounds like you are worried about your grandmother…do you want to tell me about her?” Make the invitation, let them know you are open and available but then let them take the lead on initiating a conversation. Young people who find camp or youth group a safe and trusting place often bring out their home concerns and a good pastoral (caring) response can be really helpful. Sometimes it can be hard for a child or young person to talk about difficult things at home where everyone might be caught up in the same situation.

The Sacrament

In the liturgy, the sacrament is one of the ways we enact our response to God. It might be the Eucharist where the community shares in the bread and wine to remember Jesus’ love and sacrifice for us. Not every service has to have communion but it is still possible to have a sacramental action. A sacrament can be described as an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Imagination needs to be used to discover what for this group would be an outward and visible sign of the grace (gift) that they are celebrating. You don’t need to do a sacrament every time you have worship; in fact, if you are doing worship daily, then a new sacrament each day starts to get a bit contrived and lose its’ meaning.

Some examples of sacramental or symbolic acts that could be used in worship are:

· Washing feet or hands of one another as a sign of servant leadership (John 13:3-15)

· Passing a bowl of oil or water to anoint people’s foreheads or hands as an affirmation of the love and blessings of God on us (or when people renew their baptism covenant). (1 Samuel 16:13 and Matthew 3:13-16)

· Placing a rock on a pile of rocks as a sign of covenant (promise) making (Genesis 31 44-49 or Joshua 4:3-7)

· Everyone brings a symbol of themselves and places it on a table with others around a candle and a cross to symbolize our gifts to God and God’s presence in our lives. (Matthew 5:23-24 or Luke 21:1-4)

· Lighting a candle to indicate that a prayer has been said on someone’s behalf (or say someone’s name as you light the candle).

· Using flowers or candles for each person present to remind us that God calls us to bloom where he has planted us, or to be the light of the world. (Matthew 5:14-16)

· Everyone bringing a piece of different coloured clothing to create a “community rainbow” made up of all our individual gifts, strengths, weaknesses, hopes and colours.

If you do have some kind of sacramental act, make sure that all the worshippers understand completely what it is you are doing and why. It is appropriate at the beginning of the worship to explain what the sacramental act means before you do it. That way, people can more fully enter into it as a worshipful action rather than just a confusing or seemingly pointless moment or ritual. Don’t assume they will “get it” just by doing it.

We once had an ‘Earth Day’ liturgy where worshippers were invited to go out to pour a cup of water on the dry ground as a symbol of our mission to care for the earth. The organizers forgot to mention why we were doing this, and there were a lot of confused people with glasses in their hands, wondering why they were pouring out the drink they’d just been handed. I heard more than one youth say to a friend “what was the point of that??” as they came back into the worship space.

4) Sending Forth

The dismissal, or, an action or words of sending forth in this sense is really a commissioning. Perhaps people can commission each other. Creativity and imagination are called for to make the dismissal a genuine and authentic act. Some kind of ending is required. For instance, one deacon dismisses the congregation this way:

“Our worship is ended but our service is just beginning – go into the world rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit” (meaning of course that we are called by God to serve one another and be servants in this world).

In summary:

s Be intentional about planning.

s Simple is usually the most effective.

s Involve other people in the planning and leadership. Get help where you need it from others.

s Be creative, but don’t do too much just for the sake of novelty.

s Remember, it is worship, not a show. The aim is to draw closer to God and to each other.

s Don’t get lazy about it, or wait until the last minute. A lazy approach to worship planning generally means you’ll end up with boring or meaningless worship and it does not honour God. If you or a group you are part of leads worship, set aside a time in your day to plan it–well in advance in case any preparation is needed (“quick, go find 20 candles and a bucket of sand!”).

s Use a theme – try to keep the liturgy cohesive.

Tip: don’t just assume a ‘cool prayer’ or an ‘awesome song’ will work in another setting, just because it was effective in another time and place. I attended a rather fractured and disjointed liturgy once, where members of a group threw together their own particular “highlights” of youth services they had been to in the past in different places. So, we had a huge high energy action song, followed by Taizé music, followed by a rambling spoken poem/prayer, followed by a skit which had nothing to do with any of the previous things. Weirdest worship experience of my life, and I can’t say it brought me closer to God – it felt like a liturgical ’greatest hits’ or talent show!

After it is over Evaluation

What helped you/others to worship?

What got in the way of having a worshipful experience?

What would we like to do differently next time?

Sometimes a really good idea doesn’t work just because of the setting, lighting, outside noise, or the need for a microphone.

Don’t get discouraged; try again. Find out why it didn’t work – maybe you shouldn’t do it again or maybe you just need to make some adjustments. “I loved the youth service but I couldn’t hear them,” is a comment we often hear from older members of the congregation.

Beware of people who say, “Oh we tried that and it didn’t work so we’re not going to do it again.” It’s usually a sign that there hasn’t been an appropriate evaluation.

The most frequent cause of “flops” is the small details – light (or lack of it!), wind, acoustics, lack of resources (such as words for a song). Think about your location, what you need, what the environment will be. Think about the life of the community in which you are worshipping – a lively celebration might not be the optimum tone after an experience of intense discussion or quiet reflection. How will people be feeling, do you think, at this worship time? What has the group experienced together that day? How can we best hear and respond to God in that kind of space?

Written by:

Judy Steers

Program Director – “Ask & Imagine” Youth Theology Program

Huron University College, London, Ontario

(with input from Rev Stephen Murray, diocese of Niagara and Rev. Sue Baldwin, Director of Field Education, Huron University College)

Judy Steers

About Judy Steers

Judy Steers is the Coordinator for Youth Initiatives for the Anglican Church of Canada. Since 1999, she has also been the program director of the “Ask & Imagine” youth theology and leadership program at Huron University College. Her ministry has included camping ministries, consulting and teaching, parish ministry and she is a trainer with Godly Play Canada. Whenever possible she engages her passions for singing, drumming, outdoor adventure, off-the-wall ideas and whimsical creativity into her life and ministry working with teens and young adults, including two of her own.
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