The phrase “Worship Design” has become a popular way to describe our process lately. I love how this points to a more holistic approach and how so many great analogies like filmmaking and architecture are being used to describe worship design. These three principles go beyond analogies and start to define the process objectively. I’ll follow up with three more tomorrow, but these give us a starting point.
1) Start from the final impression and work backwards
The first question I like to start with when working with a teaching pastor on a worship design is, “What is/are the primary thoughts you hope people will have in their minds as they walk to their car?” If the answer is a long list of things, we have an issue. If the thoughts are long and meandering, we have an issue. If none of the thoughts include questions to wrestle with, we have an issue. Granted, not every truth can be reduced to a catchy thought, and I’ve had more than enough cheesy one-liners used to describe complex truths. But the more defined a target is, the better our chances of hitting it.
Once the final impression is clear, it becomes the filter through which every decision is made during the design process. Does this element get us closer or farther away? If it takes us farther away but is essential to the service, how can we minimize the detraction? When we look back on the experience, the discussion is filtered through the same lens. Did we achieve the final impression we hoped for?
2) Remember the trinity
The trinity of worship design is “Look Back, Look Forward, Be Present.” The concept is simple, but the discipline is hard to maintain. Meaningful design involves a constant process of looking back and considering past designs, and looking forward to future designs. These looks are both near and far. Meaningful change can only happen when we consider both the immediate and the distant. For me, these two pieces of the trinity are easier than the third, “be present.” Letting go of the past and future to experience worship as it happens is a discipline I am yet to master. Too often I experience worship as an out of body experience where I am present, but removed, as if I’m purely taking notes for future debriefs and planning. Does the need for objectivity have to rob us of our ability to be moved?
3) Find balance
The issue of balance in worship design is both subjective and often neglected. There are forces that push and pull against one another within our designs that effective designers are always aware of, even if they are beyond their control. These are things like the timeless vs. the timely, expected vs. unexpected, logical vs. emotional, spoken vs. unspoken, questions vs. answers, and interactive vs. passive. There are extensions of these balances like tradition vs. innovation, beauty vs. truth, and Eastern vs. Western, which is a balance of how time is suspended (Eastern) versus how the experience progresses through narrative or another path (Western).
The word balance doesn’t mean these things are exactly equal within a given experience. This doesn’t mean a 50/50 split. Balance simply means that designers need to be aware of the interaction between these opposing forces both within a single experience and over the course of a season. How much do we infuse our worship experiences with beauty, the unspoken, questions, stillness, and the unexpected versus relying upon logic, the spoken word, supplying answers, and a scripted progression through expected steps?
As I said, these three principles aren’t a complete list. What principles would you add? Be sure to check back tomorrow for part two of my list.
After spending several years overseeing worship arts programs at large churches in Los Angeles and San Francisco, Dr. Mark Aaron Humphrey is now the chair of the music department and the director of C3: Conversations About Christianity + Culture at the University of Mary Hardin Baylor in Texas where he lives with his wife and two young boys.