In his recent article 'Is your ministry based on personal preference?' Greg Jones offers an insightful and crucial reflection on how to protect worship ministry from the subjective whims of leaders and congregation members. You don't want your worship ministry to become a glorified “by-request DJ service.” So how DO we establish our ministry on a firm footing? Greg offers some great suggestions; I'd like to share a further answer - allow the Word to lead worship - or to be more practical - make sure your preaching and worship ministries both flow out of the Bible.
How to do it
Allowing the Word to lead worship means in a very practical and concrete way giving God's Word the central place in your service planning.
To start, take the preaching text that your pastor will be working from for that given Sunday. If he's doing his job well, he'll be asking of that text 'What is God saying to us through this portion of His Word and how do I communicate this so these people will get it?' Your job is to take that same text and ask 'what is God saying to us through this text and how do I help these people to respond to it?' If you and your pastor can talk in advance about the first part - what God is saying - all the better.
From there, you might want to ask yourself some questions to explore the implications.
What does this teach us about God and His character?
Does the text call for a specific response?
What themes underlie the text?
Here’s an example using Psalm 51.
What does this teach us about God and His character? God forgives sinners because of His unfailing love (v. 2)
Does the text call for a response of some sort? Yes – an attitude of contrition and humility before God’s all-surpassing righteousness (v. 17). This calls for confession in the face of sin (vss. 1-5) and dependence on God in everything else (vss. 12-15).
What themes underlie the text? God’s righteousness, God’s intolerance of sin, the basis upon which God can hide His face from sin and blot out iniquity (Jesus’ sacrifice) (v. 9).
From there and focusing on the first two questions, choose music (and prayers and readings and drama) that will help you to develop and explore and respond to God as He is revealed in that text. In our example, the first points about God’s forgiving love and righteousness would probably dominate the first part of the service, with songs of confession and dependence serving as good responses after the sermon.
1. God's Word sets the agenda - When the Word leads worship, God sets the agenda. We all know that certain preachers and worship leaders tend to favour certain aspects of His character (His love, His holiness, His presence) while neglecting others (for example, His concern for the poor, His jealous commitment to His own glory). Assuming you have a robust preaching schedule that makes a serious effort to move carefully through Scripture, this method gives God meaningful authority to lead your service, as your choices will be dictated by what He has already said in the Bible.
2. God’s voice outweighs competing voices - When the Word leads worship, it guards itself against people saying ‘I didn’t like that song’ or ‘why don’t we sing such-and-such a song?’ If that happens, you can kindly point out to people that what they’ve suggested wouldn’t have helped the congregation to appreciate or respond to that aspect of God’s character and saving action that was revealed in the text/message. ‘Such-and-such’ a song may be useful down the line, but the guiding factor is not ‘how liked it will be’ but ‘how helpful it is in allowing the congregation to respond to what God has spoken.’
3. God’s purposes become your rubric in choosing songs – When the Word leads worship, you find yourself evaluating songs by different criteria. You will find yourself asking questions like ‘Are these lyrics faithful to the mood and message of Scripture?’ and ‘Does this help us to explore new aspects of God’s character?’ more than ‘do I like this music?’ and ‘is it up-to-date (hip? fresh?) enough?’
The goal is really to allow God to speak, and His people to hear and to listen, so what better way to accomplish that than to let the Word take the lead in worship.