- a time,
- a place,
Sometimes, a very detailed form-of-service already exists, and you just have to carry it out. There are planning templates for a number of different types of service here.
And sometimes, when there's an experienced leader and no "extras" like music or readings, a detailed structure isn't needed. Eg The minister gives a welcome and sermon, then invites everyone to pray as the spirit moves them, and then ends the service when everyone is ready.
But there are situations when a more detailed form-of-service is needed, and you don't have a suitable. This may happen if you are organising a prayer-service for a multi-denomination group (eg in a mixed-faith workplace, blessing a new community centre, an ecumenical Taizé service), a non-denominational wedding or funeral.
This article explains one general format or form-of-service for church services, and suggests options for each stage. There is an accompanying planning template, too.
What happens in a church-serviceAnything is possible - but often a typical church service has these stages
- Readings and Response
- Ritual action
Other stages may be added to meet the goals of the service and the needs to of the people who attend, and sometimes there will be ritual actions before the readings as well as afterwards..
The WelcomeBefore the service starts, people begin to arrive at the location, and most likely either talk to other people already there or sit and wait.
In some traditions, there is a period of singing together ("praise and worship" time) before the official service starts.
Usually the minister or service-leader shows that the formal part of the service has started by giving a greeting to the whole group.
It may be useful to gather people together and focus them on the service by singing a hymn or reading something aloud together, or perhaps listening to a piece of music.
The minister or service leader may read an "opening prayer" or "call to worship" to signal the move from "gathering together" to praying together.
Readings and ResponseThe usual format for this part of a church service is for people to listen to a reading, and then to respond to it in some way. This may be repeated several times, if there are multiple readings.
One common format is:
- A reading from the Old Testament or other religious writings
- Everyone sings a psalm or other hymn
- A reading from the New Testament or other religious writings
- The leader gives a sermon or testimony based on the readings that have been shared, explaining the relationship between the readings and the purpose of the service.
- Everyone is invited to a time of prayer, either personal or shared.
- The leader concludes the time of prayer.
The conclusion is optional: sometimes it may be better to simply go straight from the readings / response into the ritual action section.
Planning this part of the service involves choosing the readings and psalms or hymns, and choosing people to read/play/sing them. And of course asking an appropriate person to prepare the sermon or reflection.
Ritual ActionA "ritual action" is effectively a second part of a church service - but there may be one or more of them in any service, and sometimes they happen both before and after the Readings / Response times.
Ritual actions may be especially appropriate if the people attending are from church-backgrounds which emphasis learning from both Scripture and Tradition, and are therefore used to "church" being "more than than just readings": to them, a service without some ritual often feels strange and incomplete.
The basic structure for any ritual action is:
- Instruction - telling people what they need to do, or setting the scene (may be as simple as saying "Lets stand and pray")
- Doing the action
Some possible ritual actions are:
- A procession - the leader and some key people walk from the door to the altar
- Lighting a candle - or having everyone present light one
- Writing a prayer on a piece of paper and placing it in central place
- Venerating a cross or other holy opject
- Listening to a small group present a drama or piece of music]
- A symbolic meal of bread and wine - or even an actual meal
- Placing a flower or other object on the coffin (for funerals)
- Signing the wedding register
- Having everyone line up to individually spend a moment in prayer beside the person who the service is for, or some symbol of them
- Unveiling a headstone
- Sprinking the congregation with water
- An altar call
- Promising to take some specific action once the service is over
- Giving an offering - either of money or some other items
- Saying a well-known prayer (eg the Our Father) together
And of course there are many more possibilities.
The best rituals identify an action or objects which have has deep meaning for the people who are attending, and highlight this in some way.
The conclusion could be as simple as the leader reading a special prayer, or closing a curtain, or applause - depending on what makes sense to "end" the chosen action.
Planning this part of the service includes
- Choosing what, specifically you will do and who will do it and when
- Getting the equipment you will need (eg candles, bread, etc),
- Possibly practising what will happen.
Farewell / sending forthThe final section is to help people psychologically move from being "in a church service" to the service being over. It may include any or all of:
- A blessing from the leader / minister
- A closing prayer
- Singing a final song
- A procession out of the building
- Invitation / instructions for what will happen next
Planning this part of the service includes choosing what hymns, blessings or prayers to use, and finding out what information needs to be given out.