On Planning and Leading Corporate Worship: A Guide for Pastors and Worship Leaders
Building a theology of corporate worship is challenging, because it requires us to exercise a great amount of humility and diligence in our study of Scriptures.
If we want to avoid the pitfalls of stuffy traditionalism and trendy relevance, we need a rich grasp of what the Scriptures teach about worship and how God’s people worship together.
As a starting point, it’s important to note that there is no “order of service” provided in the New Testament. We don’t get specific details about how our gatherings or services should be structured.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t make decisions carefully. Our corporate worship will be more or less rooted in the Scriptures, depending on how deeply we are rooted ourselves in what God says about how we should worship Him.
But this goes back to the earlier point about this requiring both diligence and humility.
It requires diligence, because we will soon discover that the answers do not come easily on topics like this. Remember, there is no divine book of cue cards. And it requires humility, because we will have to constantly fight the tendency to read our own preferences and ideas into our study.
Although there is no single passage in the Bible that gives us an outline for planning corporate worship, there are principles, examples, and instructions that give us everything we need to develop a biblical philosophy of worship and to engage God’s people in worship.
The goal of this post is to lay out this information in a way that will help you make thoughtful and creative decisions each week about your times of corporate worship.
The word “liturgy” is commonly used to describe the order of a church service, but whether the word is used or not, every church has some kind of liturgy. It might be formal or informal, rigid or flexible, modern or traditional. But it’s always there.
Every pastor and church has preferences and beliefs that form a philosophy of corporate worship, even if nothing is ever put down in writing.
Our prayer should be that this view of corporate worship is informed and shaped by the Spirit and by the Word.
So here’s a quick map of what we’ll cover in this guide:
- First, we’ll look at the 8 essential elements of corporate worship, each with a short description and some references showing where we find it in Scripture.
- Then, we’ll look at 12 biblical themes that bring these elements of worship to life in the worship of the church. This section will include short examples of how these combinations might be reflected in worship.
- And lastly, we’ll look at how to put all of these pieces together to communicate and reflect the beauty and glory of the gospel.
8 Biblical Elements of Corporate Worship
Through specific instruction and examples, the New Testament gives us a fairly comprehensive list of the essential elements of corporate worship.
Acts 2:42; 1 Timothy 2:1
There is more prayer in the average church service than people realize. For example, many songs and hymns are actually prayers. Some prayers should obviously be given spontaneously. Others should be written beforehand, or at least outlined with specific themes and requests.
1 Timothy 4:13; 1 Thessalonians 5:27; 2 Timothy 3:15–17; 2 Timothy 4:2
The service should not just have selections from the Scripture. It should be Scripture-driven. God’s Word should give shape to the service. The truth of God should be declared, expounded, discussed, and applied. It should be prayed over, meditated upon, and responded to. Everyone in attendance should know that your church takes the Word of God seriously and that you expect them to take it seriously too.
Acts 2:42; Acts 20:7, Acts 20:20
Corporate worship has a unique and powerful place in the life of a believer. God has created us to enjoy deeper joy and transformation in a congregation of worshippers than we could in private devotion. The community of faith consists of gospel-rich relationships between brothers and sisters in Christ who are fighting sin, pursuing holiness, and lifting up Jesus.
Ephesians 5:19; Revelation 5:9–13; Revelation 15:3-4; Romans 15:5-7
God’s people have always been a singing people. Throughout Scripture, singing is a way for believers to make God known to the world. Great songs and hymns give us words to express the truths we already believe. They remind us of truths that we have forgotten. They help us feel them more deeply and see them more clearly. And they help us communicate those truths to others in fresh and powerful ways.
2 Corinthians 9:11–15; Hebrews 13:16; Romans 12:13; 1 Corinthians 16:1–4
If you want to make the offering part of your corporate worship, you will need to lead the church through it. Give people something to reflect on during the offering. Help them see their offering as a response to God’s extravagant generosity. Even if they are not giving tithes or offerings, they should see their attention and reflection as offerings that are pleasing and acceptable to the Lord.
1 Timothy 6:12; Hebrews 13:15; 1 Corinthians 15:1-3; Ephesians 3:21
Look for regular opportunities for God’s people to play an active roll in the service. At the end of the Scripture reading, some churches have the reader announce, “This is God’s Word,” and the people respond, “Amen!” Maybe you can ask people to write out testimonies that they can share with the church. Print a responsive reading of Scripture in the bulletin. Ask the congregation to stand for the reading of the sermon text and read aloud. Those leading corporate worship will need to help the congregation respond throughout the service. That response might be a time of silence, prayer, or repentance. It might be group discussion, Q&A with the pastor, or 1-on-1 counseling after the service is over. The goal is to cultivate active participants, not passive attenders.
Romans 16:16; 1 Peter 5:14; Romans 15:5-7
These time of welcome normally include announcements about upcoming events, and they should be planned out in seconds, not minutes. Many churches struggle with what to do with announcements, but if used correctly, they actually serve an important purpose. They put a human face on the church, and they reveal the culture, values, and character of your congregation. Consider having ministry leaders give their own announcements, and encourage them to share how God is using those ministries to serve and help others. You might also follow the announcement with a few of short prayers, asking God to use the upcoming events and activities to build up the church and glorify Him.
1 Peter 3:21; 1 Corinthians 11:24-34; Matthew 28:19
There are two ordinances that God has commanded the church to observe: baptism and communion (or the Lord’s Table). These ordinances don’t need to be part of the service every week, but they should be regular and vital parts of your corporate worship.
You may choose to include other elements in your corporate worship, but the 8 example above should definitely be on the list. And most of them should be a weekly priority.
Now, here are 12 ways to take those essential biblical elements of worship and bring them to life in your weekly services.
Speak: “Welcome to church today. Let’s prepare our hearts for worship. You are here to meet God. This means that anything can happen. Ten years from now, you might look back on this day as the day that God opened your eyes to a life-changing truth. Are you ready for that? Are you hoping for that?”
Read: Romans 8:19-28
Oh that day when freed from sinning
I shall see Thy lovely face
Full arrayed in blood-washed linen
How I’ll sing Thy sovereign grace
Come, my Lord, no longer tarry
Bring Thy promises to pass
For I know Thy pow’r will keep me
Till I’m home with Thee at last
Speak: “The God who created everything has invited us into His presence. He could rightly demand perfection from us. He could issue a list of tasks for us to accomplish first. Instead, Jesus offers this welcome: ”Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.“ Today, we gather as weary, broken, and imperfect people who have been redeemed by God. Let us stand in the freedom we have been given and worship our God together.”
Read: Psalm 100:1-5
All the redeemed washed by His blood
Come and rejoice in His great love
O praise Him! Alleluia!
Christ has defeated every sin
Cast all your burdens now on Him
O praise Him! O praise Him!
Speak: “Take a minute to praise and adore your God. Use this moment of pure silence to worship Him today. Think about the words that we just sang together. Think about who God is and what He has done for you. Ask Him to open your heart and make these truths come alive in your soul.”
Read: Psalm 46:6-10
Behold our God, seated on his throne
Come, let us adore him
Behold our king, nothing can compare
Come, let us adore him
Speak: “Father, you are abundantly generous, and you have given us gifts that we do not deserve. Forgiven, adopted, loved - all because of the gracious work of your Son. Every good gift we enjoy in this life is from you. Yet we have ignored and neglected you. We have failed to thank you for your kindness to us. Forgive us for our forgetfulness and ingratitude. Give us eyes to see your work in our lives. Give us undivided hearts filled with joy and hope. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.”
Read: Psalm 51:1-10
Behold the man upon a cross
My sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice
Call out among the scoffers
It was my sin that held Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished
Speak: “There is so much suffering and loss in this world, Lord. Along with all of your creation, we long for redemption. We long for the day when you come to restore all that has been broken by sin. We weep, O Lord, for what we have lost. We grieve because we have been hurt by others and because we have hurt others as well. Comfort us with the promise of eternal satisfaction and joy, and give us compassion for those who are hurting around us. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.”
Read: Psalm 130:1-5
Do you feel the world is broken?
Do you feel the shadows deepen?
But do you know that all the dark won’t stop the light from getting through?
Do you wish that you could see it all made new?
Speak: “We know the sorrow of our sin, but we also know the sweetness of God’s gracious pardon. The light of God’s truth will never uncover what He is not willing to cover again with His grace. So come boldly to the throne of grace. Come with confidence, not in your own worth but in the abundant mercy of God. He is ready and willing to forgive.”
Read: Ephesians 2:1-10
Behold Him there, the risen Lamb
My perfect, spotless Righteousness
The great unchangeable I AM
The King of glory and of grace
One with Himself, I cannot die
My soul is purchased by His blood
My life is hid with Christ on high
With Christ my Savior and my God
Speak: “For grace and provision in the coming week, we look to you. For the life-giving gifts of your word and your truth, we are thankful. For the joys of life shared with family and friends, we praise you. For the grace to live in grateful humility, we look to you. For the many small blessings and beauties that surround us, we are thankful. For the displays of your majesty in the world, we praise you.” [“Every Moment Holy”, Douglas McKelvey]
Read: Psalm 9:1-2
Your blood has washed away my sin
Jesus, thank You
The Father’s wrath completely satisfied
Jesus, thank You
Once Your enemy, now seated at Your table
Jesus, thank You
Speak: “We gather today to worship the One who knows our hearts and our needs. Some of us come anxious, lonely, and suffering. Some of us come rejoicing, hopeful, and healthy. But all of us come because we know that He hears us and cares for us. Have you come with burdens today? Plead with Him for strength. Have you received blessings this past week? Thank Him. Then, pray for your brothers and sisters who are discouraged today. We are a family, and our Heavenly Father has given us the task of bearing each other’s burden.”
Read: Matthew 6:9-13
Speak, O Lord, as we come to You
To receive the food of Your Holy Word.
Take Your truth, plant it deep in us;
Shape and fashion us in Your likeness,
Speak: “Do you know what happens when we are forgiven by God? We are at peace with Him. No condemnation. No fear of every being cast out or forgotten. Through the sacrifice of Christ, we have been brought into God’s family, and we are kept secure by the power of His grace.”
Read: Jude 24-25
When I fear my faith will fail, Christ will hold me fast;
When the tempter would prevail, He will hold me fast.
I could never keep my hold through life’s fearful path;
For my love is often cold; He must hold me fast.
He will hold me fast, He will hold me fast;
For my Saviour loves me so, He will hold me fast.
Speak: “We gather as God’s people in grateful fellowship to share the blessings that He have given us through His Son. We share the gifts of God’s life-giving Word. We share the gifts of His blessing and provision. And we share the gift of salvation and forgiveness. May the rhythms of our prayers and songs today draw us closer to Him and closer to each other.”
Read: Ephesians 3:14-21
Behold the Lamb who bears our sins away,
Slain for us - and we remember
The promise made that all who come in faith
Find forgiveness at the cross.
So we share in this bread of life,
And we drink of His sacrifice
As a sign of our bonds of peace
Around the table of the King.
Speak: “God has poured out His grace on us. He has given us life and hope. He has given us His Son. We now have the privilege of investing our possessions, our hearts, and our lives for His kingdom. We take the grace He has given us, and we extend it to others. We take our hearts, and we pour them out as witness of His infinite worth. And we spend our lives serving the one who had made us sons and daughters.”
Read: Philippians 1:9-11
O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer
Gracious Savior of my ruined life
My guilt and cross laid on Your shoulders
In my place You suffered bled and died
You rose, the grave and death are conquered
You broke my bonds of sin and shame
O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer
May all my days bring glory to Your Name
Speak: “As you go out into this world, you are called to be a witness of God’s marvelous grace. Serve others as those who love Christ and long to make Him known. Go and walk in the freedom and joy that He has purchased for you.”
Read: Matthew 28:18-20
May you go in the love of your Father God
May you go in the grace of Christ
May you go in the power of the Spirit now
To bring Him glory with your life
On the most basic level, your service planning might simply be combining these elements of worship with specific themes and then using them into your times of corporate worship.
But of course, you’re doing something more than putting pieces of a puzzle together.
As you plan and order your services, you are shaping the beliefs and devotional lives of the people in your church. You are putting words in their mouth through the songs and readings. You are shaping their view of God, themselves, and the world through the preaching. It is a holy and weighty responsibility.
If you’re struggling with how to plan the rhythm and flow of your gatherings, it might be helpful to use the gospel story itself as a guide. This is something that churches have been doing for centuries.
In his book, “Christ-Centered Worship”, Bryan Chapell puts it this way: "We should not ignore the wisdom of church forebears just because it’s old, or automatically reject it just because we didn’t think of it. We consider the history because God does not give all of his wisdom to any one time or people."
He goes on to show how the parts of a service can re-tell the story of redemption.
We remember the sacrifice of Christ and thank Him for the grace He has extended to us (Assurance, Thanksgiving).
We enjoy the unity that we share together as brothers and sisters in Christ (Communion, Comfort, Fellowship).
We take the freedom we have in Christ and commit to glorifying God with our lives (Commitment, Consecration).
And we are dismissed as God’s church scattered into our communities to fulfill His mission (Blessing, Commission).
Together, all of the parts of our corporate worship reflect the truths of the gospel. They shape our thoughts, affections, and wills. And all of this spills over into our everyday lives.
How we lament, confess, pray, sing, and worship on Sunday shapes how we do those things during the week. How we worship on Sunday shapes how we worship during the rest of the week.
If you’re interested in reading further on the topics of corporate worship and service planning, these books would be a great place to start: