Worship leaders need to be more creative

As I have repeatedly written in some of my more recent books, ministers need to rediscover their role to be creative liturgists. And not only ministers, but also their worship leaders. As Australians Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch commented after a world tour, churches:

tended to be invariably dull and rather predictable. They had a disturbing propensity to look feel and act in basically the same way. They sang the same basic songs and followed the same basic order of service in their corporate worship.

What is more, in my experience many of the leaders of these churches do not give any thought to the structure of the service. They have no understanding of liturgy. In this regard let me quote a distinguished General Secretary of the Baptist Union, Ernest Alexander Payne, who died 44 years ago this week and was the only Baptist minister ever to be awarded a Companion of Honour from the Queen. In a book co-authored with Stephen Winward he wrote:

We must avoid on the one hand the dangers taught us by history of an inflexible and fixed liturgy which leaves no room for the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, we must avoid that ‘squalid sluttery’ and uninspired disorder which comes from disregarding the traditional pattern and forms of Christian worship.

To be fair to my Anglican friends, Dr Payne was writing at a time when almost all Anglican churches followed the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. With the advent of Common Worship published in 2000, there is much more scope for variety, although even then the overall structure of Anglican worship needs to be followed. However, to return to Dr Payne, he would be astonished that in the Sunday services of many churches, with no connection with any denomination where there are liturgical norms, there are no prayers of intercession. Similarly in many such churches the Lord’s Prayer is never said. Indeed, in some of these churches the Lord’s Supper is celebrated once a month at the most.

However, in the New Testament,  there are five ingredients which are absolutely basic to Christian worship: viz. praise, prayer, scripture, sermon, and breaking of bread. In the first place in worship we praise God and give him the glory, not just for his creative power in creating a world of beauty, but also for his amazing love displayed in Jesus crucified and risen. Inevitably when we focus on God and what he has done for us in Jesus, we become conscious of our own unworthiness and sinfulness. Adoration and thanksgiving inevitably lead to penitence.

Worship therefore needs to include prayer. There need to be prayers of confession together with the assurance that God forgives those who are truly penitent. The congregation also to be able to say the Lord’s prayer given by Jesus to his followers. In addition worshippers need to intercede for others.

Worship includes readings from the Old and New Testaments Scriptures, and not as in some churches just one very short Bible passage. Along with the Scriptures there must always be a place for the sermon when God’s word is expounded and applied within the context of the lives of the congregation. The length of the sermon is debateable. The evangelical scholar F.F. Bruce used to say with tongue in cheek that sermons need to be no longer than 20 minutes, but if preachers have nothing to say then 40 minutes is needed!

Finally,  the ‘breaking of bread’, otherwise known as the Eucharist or Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper or the Mass, is also part of Christian worship.

Within these fixed parameters worship leaders need to be creative, to prevent people being bored by worship, and at the same time not to let people feel that worship is always an enjoyable experience. There are times when an encounter with God is painful so that with Isaiah we cry out “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isaiah 6.8).

Worship therefore should be a multi-facetted experience. In the words of William Temple, a former Archbishop of Canterbury:

Worship is the submission of all our nature to God.
It is the quickening of conscience by His holiness;
the nourishment of mind with His truth;
the purifying of imagination by His beauty;
the opening of the heart to His love;
the surrender of will to his purpose –
and all of this gathered up in adoration,
the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable
and therefore the chief remedy for that self-centredness
which is our original sin and the source of all actual sin.

If worship therefore is to come alive, then worship leaders need to be much more creative.


  1. Morena Paul,
    I read this with mixed feelings. I hear where you’re coming from yet as you know I’m a relatively recent “convert” to a liturgical format, and would struggle enormously if I was to return to my Pentecostal and Baptist days!

    The comment by Frost and Hirsch re church services being “invariably dull and rather predictable” reflects , in my opinion, a concession to a consumerist mindset where worship is “all about me” rather than being all about God. The logical conclusion to all this is the entertainment-based mega church that I worked for some years, where the liturgy was called a “run sheet” – a term from the television entertainment industry – and came replete with up-to-the-second time slots and choreographed movements.

    I appreciate your qualification of Dr Paynes statement, nonetheless “inflexible and fixed liturgy which leaves no room for the Holy Spirit” betrays his free church background and an apparent ignorance of the Spirit’s ways and movings within consistent, repeatable liturgical forms. In this regard I’ll finish with a wonderful comment on liturgy by C.S. Lewis:

    “I think our business as laymen is to take what we are given and make the best of it. And I think we should find this a great deal easier if what we were given was always and everywhere the same.

    To judge from their practice, very few Anglican clergymen take this view. It looks as if they believed people can be lured to go to church be incessant brightenings, lightenings, lengthenings, abridgements, simplifications, and complications of the service. And it is probably true that a new, keen vicar will usually be able to form within his parish a minority who are in favour of his innovations. The majority, I believe, never are. Those who remain – many give up churchgoing altogether – merely endure.

    Is this simply because the majority are hide-bound? I think not. They have a good reason for their conservatism. Novelty, simply as such, can have only an entertainment value. And they don’t go to church to be entertained. They go to use the service, or, if you prefer, to enact it. Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best – if you like, it “works” best – when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice… The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.

    But every novelty prevents this. It fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about worship is a different thing from worshiping. The important question about the Grail was “for what does it serve?” “Tis mad idolatry that makes the service greater than the God.”

    A still worse thing may happen. Novelty may fix our attention not even on the service but on the celebrant. You know what I mean. Try as one may to exclude it, the question “What on earth is he up to now?” will intrude. It lays one’s devotion waste. There is really some excuse for the man who said, “I wish they’d remember that the charge to Peter was Feed my sheep; not Try experiments on my rats, or even, Teach my performing dogs new tricks.”

    Thys my whole liturgiological position really boils down to an entreaty for permanence and uniformity. I can make do with almost any kind of service whatever, if only it will stay put. But if each form is snatched away just when I am beginning to feel at home in it, then I can never make any progress in the art of worship.”

    — from Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer

  2. Thanks Paul – I always love the William Temple quote and in fact used it the Sunday before reading your article. I would be interested to hear more about the ways in which worship leaders could be more creative. I am having a focus on worship in the autumn – and encouraging the development of worship teams. Could I use your article in our magazine? (attributed of course!)

  3. Rather late coming up with my comment, I’m afraid! I certainly do agree that there is a need for ministers to be more creative – I feel our services do not address my needs, or those of many others, at a deep level, although I’m aware that we have quite a lot of new , previously unchurched people – hence a certain simplicity may be thought to be necessary. It’s good to have a wide spectrum of people , but it’s important somehow to address the needs of all! I think this could be done by full use being made, for example, of the material gathered by our URC minister for digital worship, Andy Braunston. He uses services created by the most experienced and imaginative ministers and makes them available for use by all ministers / lay preachers/ worship leaders who may not have the time or the background to prepare them themselves, with full permission to adapt prayers, sermons etc as they feel appropriate, and also suggesting a wide variety of hymns/ songs for selection. Some of the material comes from the Iona community , drawing on the long experience of worship there and including songs by John Bell.
    As far as liturgies are concerned, I think they do have a place. The Christian headmistress of a school where I taught used a rather lovely liturgy regularly at Friday assemblies because she thought it important that the girls remember some words repeated often, even when in later life other experiences of worship were forgotten.

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