If you're a worship leader, one of your major responsibilities is planning worship gatherings, whether you’re a scheduling junkie or not. The only remaining question is, “How?” Here are two basic approaches to planning worship gatherings for your church.
Long-range, Trimester Planning
In this approach, the worship leader plans worship gatherings for one year, usually following a trimester schedule of three four-month blocks. The worship leader selects congregational hymns, choir anthems, small ensemble songs, and participating musicians, and then assigns them to each service in a given trimester. Although some valiant worship leaders (may they be blessed above all others of their kind) plan out the entire year using the trimester approach, others plan only 1-2 trimesters in advance while keeping major events like Christmas and Easter in mind. Generally speaking, this approach works well for churches with larger musical infrastructure (i.e. choir, orchestra, Christian school, etc).
Trimester Break Down: JAN-APR, MAY-AUG, and SEPT-DEC.
Strengths & Weaknesses
Although this approach involves a heavy time commitment in initial planning, it requires fewer hours of planning on a weekly basis. Once the questions of “who," "what," and "when” are answered, the rest of the year is focused more on implementation and fine-tuning.
This approach gives a high-level perspective of songs chosen and musicians utilized. For example, it protects us from repeatedly choosing the same songs, ensuring that every song worth singing has a place in at least one of our worship gatherings. It also permits the leader to select musicians that need more 'runway' to prepare a song, instead of choosing only advanced musicians who can be ready at a moment’s notice.
In contrast, this approach's weakness is limited adaptability. I deliberately chose the word ‘adaptability’ over flexibility because a trimester plan can have a certain degree of flex to meet a congregation's specific needs. For example, a funeral can’t be predicted, but when a death occurs, there is flexibility to change a planned upbeat praise service theme to one that is more appropriate for suffering believers. Trimester planning can flex, but it has a limited adaptability to hone the message of every worship gathering. In other words, it’s a less ‘tailored' approach. Perhaps you’ve been to a service in which every song sung, prayer prayed, and comment made supported the proclaimed Word of God? You most likely walked out of the service with a very clear understanding of the Scripture. This type of sharpened, clearly defined worship theme is difficult to repeat using the trimester approach. Why? Well, many pastors don’t know what they will preach until one or two weeks before a scheduled date, and some just days before. A pastor may know his upcoming texts, but he rarely knows exactly what each text’s major thrust will be, though there are some exceptions. The trimester approach is like a 'one-size fits all' that can cover general themes, but it proves difficult to tailor the worship service to the message every Sunday.
Short-range, 1-2 Month Planning
In this approach, the worship leader plans gatherings 1-2 months in advance, intentionally tailoring them on a weekly basis to compliment the preacher’s message. For example, imagine a lead pastor preaching through the Gospel of John gives his worship leader his schedule of selected preaching texts (not message themes). The worship leader then examines the texts himself and chooses a theme related to the content 1-2 months in advance. Then, on a weekly basis, the worship leader meets with the lead pastor or pastoral team to specifically hone the upcoming Sunday’s theme. The pastoral staff has taken this approach at my church. On Wednesdays, we meet together as a staff to review the selected songs, scripture readings, etc for the upcoming Sunday's gatherings. (On a side note, there is a huge benefit to planning services as a team, though of course, the worship leader has to do the initial work of framing the service). This approach works well for churches with smaller musical infrastructure.
Strengths & Weaknesses
The major benefit of this approach is that it allows the leader a large amount of freedom to tailor the worship theme to each Sunday's message. This is the primary reason why I recommend this approach. It does, however, have certain drawbacks. It requires continual administrative maintenance to not only plan the upcoming Sunday's gatherings, but also the gatherings 1-2 months out. In addition, it has a limited high-level perspective which can distort song and musician choice. One has to work harder to make sure they are covering a wide variety of songs and using musicians with a diversity of musical talent. Naturally, this approach requires a fairly proficient core group of musicians. Perhaps this is a poor illustration for the musically minded, but think of this approach as a “hurry up offense” in football. The players have to be proficient enough to execute a particular plan on a moment’s notice.
Whatever Approach You Take, Do This:Before you plan, pray. As leaders, we must rely on the Holy Spirit to guide us with the Word of God. Certainly, there have been many times when the Spirit has used songs and words that may not have directly aligned with the preacher’s message, but that does not negate our responsibility to shepherd the congregation using the Word as our foundation. Remember, if you’re leading worship, you’re not simply trying to fill slots with music and musicians. Instead, you are endeavoring to use music as a tool to help your people become better worshippers.
Focus on the needs of your local church, remembering that those needs look differently from church to church. Some leaders may use a spin-off or blend of these two approaches, and that’s ok as long as you are focused on shepherding your congregation.
Finally, if you’re not called to be a shepherd but you've been asked to administrate the worship gatherings, commit to being in constant contact with your lead pastor. Talk with him about his upcoming message and ask him about the spiritual needs of the congregation before crafting the worship gathering.