A checklist for planning gatherings

We might define the church service as: “The primary time when we gather in praise, prayer and the special presence of God and his angels, to hear him speak through his word, remember his gospel promises through the sacraments, and be built up in faith to serve him in the week to come.” (Heb 12v18-29) This makes leading services an awesome task.

This checklist is not exhaustive or set in stone, but intended to be a help so that we might lead more ably. In every decision the key factor is what will most glorify God and edify the congregation (1 Cor 14v26).

There is a need to be aware of what must remain fixed because of practical reasons: Eg. Notices are missed if at the beginning and distract if at the end. Younger kids need some sense of corporate worship comprising song, Bible and prayer before they leave. When younger kids leave there needs to be an item allowing parents time to drop them off and return. Normally prayers and interviews need to come before the sermon whilst older kids are in so that they benefit. If they come after, there needs careful thought on when the older kids leave and what they receive from the service.

(1) Read and pray through the passage being preached. This is the centre.

(2) Liase with the preacher over how the service might best lead to this in preparation and from it in response. There should be a logic to everything that is done: Eg…
     1) Would confession, creed, video, poem, reading, extra prayer time, interview or sharing of encouragements work well at some point before the sermon or after it?
     2) Would an extended time of praise work better at some point before to prepare us with a sense of God’s majesty or grace, or afterwards as a way of giving thanks or committing to service?
     3) If before, would the extended praise time work better before or after the prayers?

(3) Consider what items of prayer could be used in addition to the intercessions. Eg.
     1) Do you want to include a set confession, lead it yourself, include it in your opening prayer, or just give people private time for it?
     2) Do you want to give people a time for open response in prayer, praise, the sharing of Bible verses? When? And how will you encourage people in that?
     3) The Lord’s Prayer is the only set prayer we try to use pretty much every week. Where would it work best in terms of its content? Near the beginning when children can say it to set the service up? Structuring or summing up the intercessions? At the end as a concluding prayer? Before or after receiving communion?
     4) Would any other set prayer or prayer of response from the historic church be useful?
     5) What final blessing/doxology will sum up the main message and send people out in reliance on God?

(4) Consider what songs would be most beneficial?
     1) Are they true, and do they reflect a breadth of Christian truth so far as it prepares for and responds to the passage being preached. Eg. Magnifying God as Trinity for his character, his works as creator, his deeds throughout Bible history, his purposes in Christ, the work of his Spirit, the calling of the church, the hope of the future etc?
     2) How do they fit within the logic of the various items of the service? Eg. Preparing for or responding to confession or prayers or Bible readings etc, or in having a more extended time of singing in setting the context for meeting with God, or in responding to him.
     3) Do they reflect the stylistic preferences of the congregation the Lord has drawn to your church?

(5) Consider whether the congregation could do with some silent reflection? Eg. To settle and focus at the beginning, after kids have gone out, before confession, after readings, after the sermon etc.

(6) Rather than introducing other Bible passages, consider whether there a way of quoting part of the passage being preached at one or two other points in the service: Eg. In your opening prayer, in calling us to worship, in assuring us of forgiveness, in introducing songs or prayers, or as a reminder before we leave.

(7) Ensure the shape and content of the service upholds rather than underminds the gospel. Everything the leader says or doesn’t say teaches something: Eg.
     1) Do your introductory words or prayer remind the congregation that we draw near to God the Father only through the work of Christ and by the Spirit (Eph 2v18)?
     2) Does the location of any prayer of confession follow a reminder of God’s holiness or our sin, whether in songs or words said? Does it lead to a reminder of God’s grace and our service in songs or words said?
     3) Is there a way you can word the call to confession or communion that assures believers they do so in a place of grace, challenges unbelievers of their need, and signals to nominal Christians the importance of sincere hearts?
     4) In leading communion, how can you briefly remind people of how it represents the gospel, how it moves us to look to Christ in faith, and how it expresses our fellowship with him and with one-another as a foretaste of the fellowship we will have in his kingdom.
     5) Is there a way of clarifying that any challenge to obedience or service is a joyful response to God’s grace and salvation rather than an attempt to merit it.

(8) Prepare what you are going to say in full text or note form: 
     1) Write link sentences to clarify for the congregation why an item is being said/sung etc. The leader should never simply say “and now we are going to sing X” or “say Y.” People need to know why.
     2) Be brief in whatever you do say. You cannot say everything and mini-sermons will switch everyone off. Sometimes you could say a few sentences to introduce a number of items that then flow one into another. Remember the Lord is the ultimate leader and will lead each person as he determines.
     3) Consider writing in full your opening prayer of invocation and any prayer of thanksgiving before communion. This is not to be less spiritual as you will prayerfully prepare them. But such prepartion enables you to thoughtfully set the tone for the service or Lord's Supper in a way that relates to the theme of the service itself.

(9) Plan the service including any verses or prayers will help to bring things home. What follow is intended to be a help. If you click on the grey titles below you will access examples of bible verses or prayers I regularly use.

Preparation for meeting with the Lord

The important first words any guests here. These could begin with a few words from scripture, or a "grace, mercy and peace..." from one of Paul's letters. But in many contexts within the UK a simply "welcome" is more natural, followed by an explanation of who you are, and how the service works for the sake of newcomers.

Opening doxology or call to worship.
These begin reminding the congregation of God's character and work as the reason for their praise, or hearing his call to come and worship him. These verses could be read to begin the welcome or before or as part of the prayer of invocation.

Prayer of invocation.
The doxology or call to worship might be included in or followed by a "prayer of invocation" that praises God as creator and redeemer, acknowledges we come close only by his grace in Christ, and that asks him to be at work in our hearts so that all we do is acceptable to him and edifying to us. The invocation may also include a prayer of confession for sin if one isn't included later. Although examples are given in the link above, I would recommend prayerfully scripting an entire prayer of invocation tailored to your service so that it rightly sets the context for it.

Meeting with the Lord

The Lord's Prayer.
By urging prayer that our Father "give us this day our daily bread," Jesus implies this is a prayer to be said every day. And it has been said in corprate gatherings ever since the times of the first Christians. It could open the service as something familiar to guests, and be followed by the "prayer of invocation" as above. It could be used as a structure for intercessions, or conclude them. Alternatively, it could come near the end of the service as a way of committing oneselves to the Lord for the coming week.

Trustworthy sayings.
Found in the NT, these seem to have been an early form of declaration. They might be used on occasion at any point in a service where they bring home a truth being considered.

Corporate confession has biblical precedent both in Nehemiah's day (Nehemiah 8-9) and in the Lord's Prayer that asks "forgive us our sins". It commonly contains three aspects.

1. The introduction.
These are words said by the leader or taken from the Bible that help the hearer reflect on how they have sinned and their need of God's merrcy.
2. The prayer.
Prayers that have common usuage throughout the historical church can be helpful for continuity, and usuing only a small variety of prayers useful for people getting to know and truly feel the import of their words. A prayer could be crafted from pertinent Bible verses.
3. The assurance.
Bible verses can be used to affirm that all who truly repent can be confident of God's forgiveness.

These are an important sign of God's life at work in the church. The best place for them is when all adults are in so they are not missed, and in a way that doesn't disrupt the flow of engagement with God. We find placing them before prayers helpful as they can then be prayed for.

Hebrews 10v24-25 calls us to "encourage one-another." The interview can be a great help in this. As people share what the Lord has taught them or done for them, or how they are seeking to work out their faith, the congregation are challenged and instructed by their example. If people are given warning a time of open sharing could be included. But usually interviews need planning so that the interviewee can prepare what they say and make the most of the time. It is best to keep interviews short if there is a lot included in the rest of the service.

General prayers.
Paul writes to Timothy about the importance of intercessions. These could be drafted in a way that elaborates on the phrases of the Lord's Prayer, or prays in decreasing circles for the world, the nation, the church and one's prarticular church. I've attached some written prayers that might on occasion prove useful. We shouldn't think including such set prayers is somehow less spiritual. After all, songs and hymns are scripted and so set. However, if they are old prayers it is important the language is updated so that they are understood.

Prayers around the sermon.
A "prayer for illumination" is commonly said before the readings and sermon asking the Lord to open and enlighten hearts and minds. Following the sermon an extended prayer, praying its sentiments home is appropriate by the preacher - especially if a lay person has led the intercessions.

The NT commands the singing of "psalms, hymns and spiritual songs." Psalms are difficult to sing with modern arrangements, but where possible it is good to include them as they are God's own worship book and cover topics and emotions other songs rarely cover. Otherwise, the best songs that are singable, reflect biblical truth, and that bring home the logic of the service should be chosen.

Scriptural songs.
Alongside the psalms, which might be sung, there are other scriptural songs of rich gospel truth that it is a shame for the church not to be edified by. They could be said by the leader, by the congregation, or by both antiphonally. The gloria is included as in God's providence it has had much prominence in church history and still does within the universal church.

Open response.
This is a period when the congregation are encouraged to speak out pertinent Bible verses, or prayers of praise or intercession that the Holy Spirit might bring to mind. This flows most naturally from a song, interview, Bible reading or sermon. It is possible during this time that someone might speak out in tongues. The leader should ask if anyone has an interpretation, and if not, move on. Alternatively, someone might state God has told them something for the church. We think any prophecy would usually come via some visionary experience. But whatever moves someone to speak, the leader should encourage the congregation to weigh what is said, and ask the elders if they want to comment. As elders our conviction is that God may still grant the supernatural gifts described in the NT, but because their outpouring was a particular way of crediting the apostles as founders of the church, we cannot necessarily expect them to be as prevalent today as they were then.

Other items.
These might include a video that brings home one aspect of the service, a performed song, a poem, a quality drama, a famous set prayer or collect, or something else. The key thing is that enhances rather than detracts from the worship and bringing home of God's truth.

Creeds or affirmations of faith.
These can be used whenever the theme warrants it, bringing home the faith as the reason for the gathering, for assurance after confessing sin, as an expression of strengthened faith after the sermon etc. The danger with having one too often is that it becomes rote. However, we always have one before communion to stress the faith that unites us with Christ and each other.

These are in some sense more devitional declarations of faith. Like the creed they could be used in any context that fits, but we always include one before communion as a way of acknowledging the presence of Christ by his Spirit, and our fellowship with all who are his in heaven and earth.

Concluding the meeting

Closing doxologies or blessings.
These are summary prayers that relate to the theme of the service and conclude it with a sense of praise toward God and of leaving to serve him in response. A verse could be sued on its own or said to end a spontaneous final prayer applying what's been considered. A prayer for God's blessing is called the "benediction."

The Lord's Supper.

This generally has up to five elements.

1. Explanation and warning.
Explanation is given as to who should partake and how they might do it. But warning may also be given that those who are not truly repentant should not receive because this could be to eat and drink judgment upon themselves. We usually follow this with the saying of a Creed or affirmation of faith from scripture as a way of affirming the faith that unites us with Christ and his people, and an acclamation from the book of Revelation as a way of acknowledging we worship alongside all in heaven, and in the supper have a foretaste of the coming kingdom.

2. Words of institution.
Take from Jesus or Paul these remind us that communion is instituted by Christ and that we take and eat at his command.

3. Prayer of thanksgiving.
Just as Jesus gave thanks, so the minister gives thanks for the bread and wine, together with all they symbolise, also praying that the congregation would come rightly and benefit accordingly. Although sample prayers are included, I think this is best prayerfully scripted in the light of the service theme.

4. Words of invitation.
These are sometimes said to exhort believers with weak conciences not to stay away, but to come on the promise of grace, and take and eat through faith.

5. Post communion prayer.
This is a prayer of response, thanking God for his grace received through faith, and praying people would respond by living for him. As the service usually ends that way, this is more optional and could come as part of the final prayer of the service.

An example structure.

A sample normal service:
  • Welcome
  • Lord's Prayer
  • Prayer of invocation that includes an opening doxology or call to worship
  • Song magifying the character and work of God as Trinity
  • Kids slot
  • People greet each other whilst parents take children to groups
  • Notices
  • Interview
  • Prayers
  • Extended time of singing three songs
  • Time of open prayer and response
  • Readings
  • Sermon ending with prayer by the preacher
  • Confession of sin
  • Song
  • Closing doxology or blessing

A sample communion service:
  • Welcome
  • Prayer of invocation that includes an opening doxology or call to worship
  • Song magifying the character and work of God as Trinity
  • Kids slot
  • People greet each other whilst parents take children to groups
  • Notices
  • Interview
  • Prayers
  • Song
  • Readings
  • Sermon ending with prayer by the preacher
  • Time of extended praise in singing two songs
  • Time of open prayer and response
  • Lord's Supper including: explanation, creed, acclamation, words of institution, prayer of thanksgiving with confession of sin, words of invitation, receipt of communion
  • Lord's Prayer
  • Song
  • Closing doxology or blessing