STORYTELLERS: A PARADIGM FOR PLANNING AND LEADING WORSHIP

I have been planning and leading worship in a full-time capacity for just over eighteen years. It is an honor and a privilege. Personally, I want to steward my planning and my leading well so that in worship our people are bringing honor and glory to God; connecting with one another as the body of Christ; and understanding and engaging with their own personal lives, desiring to love God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength. It is my hope that this post will offer a paradigm for those who lead and plan worship each week - those who steward the story God is writing in the local church.

Because of the cherished influence of John Frame, I often think in triads. Frame's technical vocabulary of the normative, existential, and situational perspectives has shaped how I think and process so many different facets of life and ministry. Thus, I have a number of triads that serve as paradigms for me as I think about and share different aspects of worship.

In my book The Art of Worship: Opening Our Eyes to the Beauty of the GospelI described a triad that deals with the various roles of the worship leader. I discussed how a worship leader should be able to think like a theologian, labor like an artist, and shepherd like a pastor. 

As I lead seminars and workshops with churches or at conferences, I often share another triad as I discuss a philosophy of worship that includes leadership, theology, and context.

In recent years I have begun to articulate a new triad that guides some of the various aspects of worship. In this paradigm I see the role of worship leaders and worship planners as Storytellers, and on any given Sunday there are three stories to tell: God's Story, Our Story, and My Story.

Building upon Frame's perspectives, God's Story would be the normative perspective of this paradigm, focusing on the events of the life of Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit as past, present, and future realities. Our Story is the situational perspective that declares and processes what God is doing among us in our local context and congregation. Finally, My Story is the unique way in which God at work in each of our personal lives, bringing about sanctification, healing, and restoration.

There is an old Latin phrase championed by our Anglican brothers and sisters, lex orandi lex credendi. It is loosely translated as "the law of praying is the law of believing," or that "it is liturgy which leads to theology." Whatever your particular view of this phrase may be, it is true that the scriptures we read, the songs we sing, and the prayers we pray are all highly formative, shaping our faith and our beliefs. Thus, as worship leaders and worship planners, we need to make sure we are serving our people and stewarding our times of corporate worship well.

I want to take some time in this post to unpack this particular triad (God's Story, Our Story, My Story) and offer some reasons why it brings balance and richness to our worship services.

GOD'S STORY: CELEBRATING THE CYCLES AND SEASONS OF THE CHRISTIAN YEAR

The image at the beginning of this post is by Rini Simon, a young adult and artist at our church. It is an ink drawing which depicts the life of Christ - his role in creation, his birth, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, sending of the Holy Spirit, and future return and reign. This is the heart of God's Story. In worship we remember, recall, and appropriate these events and realities. We do this, in part, by following the cycles and seasons of the Christian year.


This liturgical calendar was created by my artist friend Barbara Lyon. It is a wonderful and creative way to visualize the seasons of the Christian year. 

During Advent and Christmas we retell and reorient ourselves around the reality that God put on flesh and walked among us. Throughout Epiphany we tell about his manifestation to the world. We recall the Magi who came to see him, his baptism in the Jordan River, and his transfiguration.

On Palm Sunday we sing and shout "Hosanna!" to the King of kings; however, we also remember the irony of this day as Jesus wept over Jerusalem for her blindness and hardness of heart. We walk through the sobering events of his arrest, trial, and crucifixion on Good Friday. We rise on Easter Sunday to celebrate Christ's resurrection and the hope of new life.

Though it is definitely the forgotten festival among many evangelicals, many congregations recognize the Ascension (either on a Thursday or the following Sunday) and the reality that Christ is now at the right hand of the Father interceding and advocating for his people. We remember the day of Pentecost, celebrating the coming of the Holy Spirit in power to the church. Pentecost is a time to remember the third person of the Trinity who empowers, comforts, fills, and guides us, the people of God.

Since 2005 I have been intentional about celebrating the Ascension at the churches I have served. In Augustine's day the Ascension was seen as the crown of all Christian festivals. Augustine declared that it was

"that festival which confirms the grace of all the festivals together, without which the profitableness of every festival would have perished. For unless the Saviour had ascended into heaven, His Nativity would have come to nothing... and His Passion would have borne no fruit for us, and His most holy Resurrection would have been useless."1

Our recognition and understanding of the Ascension is much different in our present time. Today, the Ascension goes by virtually ignored in the evangelical world. I think this is really unfortunate. In this book He Ascended into Heaven, Davies writes: 

"There are those who claim that the Cross is the heart of the Gospel; others that the Resurrection should occupy this position. It is not my intention to seek to displace either of these two by the Ascension, but to add the Ascension to them, so that this triad in unity is recognized as forming the heart of the Gospel."

I resonate with this statement wholeheartedly and long for the day when the Cross, the Resurrection, and the Ascension (this "triad in unity") are recognized as forming the heart of the Gospel.

In hopes of gaining a more robust celebration of both Ascension and Pentecost at my current church in Florida, I issued a Call to Artists on the theme, God Is For Us: The Ascension and the Outpouring.


The purpose was to invite the artists among us to engage with the event or the present realities of Christ's ascension or the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. In doing so, my hope was that all of our hearts would be encouraged and edified, and that our imaginations would be stirred by the advocacy of our ascended Lord and the power of the Holy Spirit.

Once the deadline for submission arrived, we had just over a dozen artists who participated and twenty different works that were on display for the two weekends of Ascension and Pentecost in May of 2016. The exhibit exceeded my expectations and was a successful event for our congregation through the means of community and creativity. 

In addition to these kind of events, I have also utilized many of the Lectionary-based resources available through books, journals, and liturgical planning calendars. I have found it creative and edifying to incorporate Lectionary readings and prayers within the flow of a worship service. Utilizing these resources throughout the Christian year is a way to tell God's Story and offer our people a healthy diet of Word and prayer.

In remembering these cycles and seasons, we tell the whole Gospel story, stirring our hearts, minds, and imaginations around the realities of our triune God. We are heeding the call to "let the message about Christ, in all its richness" fill our lives (Colossians 3:16).

OUR STORY: CONNECTING IN THE JOYS AND STRUGGLES OF OUR FAITH

During my years in vocational ministry I have served in four different local churches, spanning the east and west coasts of the United States. Each one has its own set of strengths and weaknesses. Each one has a unique role to play in God's kingdom and economy. I love the local church. Each and every weekend, it is my job to help tell not only God's Story, but also Our Story, the story of our local church. As worship planners and leaders we do this, from week to week, in a variety of ways:

- Commissioning a team going on a mission trip to Ecuador
- Interviewing artists about their work in a church art exhibit 
- Showing the pictures of a recent, city-wide outreach event
- Administering the sacrament of baptism to new believers
- Having students share about their growth in Christ
- Sharing video testimonies about people's faith journeys
- Spending time in prayer for our city, community, loved ones
- Hearing the stories from recovering addicts and alcoholics 
- Celebrating the new babies born in the past year
- Recognizing the various graduates among us in May

We can celebrate the various wins in our congregation - the places where we see God at work, bringing his kingdom through the different ministry areas of our church, both inside and outside of our walls.

One particular expression of Our Story that I believe our church is enjoying is focusing a portion of the service (about once a month) on the historic "Prayers of the People." The way I have led this recently is to guide our people through a litany of prayers for the church, the world, our community, and loved ones.

I utilize a printed prayer from the journal Call to Worship (Lectionary Aids Volume) and guide us through these petitions while leaving room for pause, silent prayers, and extemporaneous prayers as well. I believe this is helping our congregation think beyond just our own personal lives and consumeristic tendencies and is giving us eyes to a bigger story that includes global and local concerns, a heart for the city and for the kingdom of God. 

Again, going back to the idea of lex orandi lex credendi, the things we pray together in worship help form and shape our perspective and our worldview.

God is writing a unique story in every local church. We don't need to feel like we have to compete with the mega church down the street, or the hip church across town, or even the church in a different region of the country that just hosted a slick, national conference. 

It is not healthy to try to reproduce the story God is writing somewhere else. We should be concerned and engaged with the story God is writing in our local context and congregation. Part of our corporate worship should incorporate recognizing, celebrating, and telling our unique story.

MY STORY: BEING VULNERABLE ABOUT MY OWN BROKENNESS AND RESTORATION

Telling aspects of my own, personal story in worship is part of what keeps things real for me, and hopefully, for my congregation as well. While I don't think that leaders should work out their issues with their congregation as a form of therapy, I do think that everyone with the privilege of regularly leading some aspect of corporate worship should consider how vulnerable and transparent he or she is being from week to week.

When our congregation hears us describing our failures as well as our victories, I truly believe we are building genuine trust and relational capital with our people. We shouldn't come across as ministry professionals who have everything all together. We should convey, humbly and wisely, some of the ways we wrestle with fear, shame, pride, and self-centeredness. We, too, are in a progressive journey of sanctification.

Usually, for me, I try to refrain from sharing something personal and transparent every week; however, I do seek to regularly share from my heart about something real in my everyday life. This may come as I transition from the sermon into the closing song; it may be a brief word before leading into a prayer of confession or renewal; or it may be as I'm responding to a song we just sang or a creed we just professed together. There is no particular formula, but I do try to listen to and follow the Spirit's leading as well as my own intuition.

Part of the power and purpose of being vulnerable is to keep worship from becoming disconnected from everyday life. Hopefully, people find themselves saying "Me too!" as I share. In addition, sharing from our personal lives is a way of reminding our people that God is living and active. He is doing things in my life that reveal to me, on a daily basis, how desperate I am for his guidance and protection; how grateful I am for his sustaining power, advocacy, and intercession; how amazed I am at his beauty in the regular cycles of his creation; and how in awe I am of his grace, love, mercy and intimate presence in my life.

I am so grateful for the decision I made eighteen years ago to serve as a worship leader in the local church. Though she is flawed, she is the hope of the world. I count it a privilege to plan and lead worship each week - to tell God's Story, to celebrate Our Story, and to share a bit of My Story with the body of Christ.

Notes:

1. J.G. Davies, He Ascended into Heaven (Cambridge: James Clarke and Company, 1958) 170.

2. Ibid.

Comments

What a blessing you are to our congregation and to me personally. We artists feel life differently, I think, and it is refreshing to share your thought processes and life-victories through your reflections. I thank God for His putting you in our lives, and pray for the blessings He has yet in store for you and us together. I plan to meet more often with you on this site as we travel together along the pathways God chooses for us. Blessings and thanks. Betty Whitaker Jackson

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