As worship designers, we try to think about putting all the elements of a gathering together so that they fit. Every church does this at the most rudimentary level when they sing "Silent Night" on Christmas Eve and "Christ the Lord is Risen Today" on Easter Morning. Most churches will not end the service with a "gathering" song, nor begin their church service with a "sending" song. The content of our music--and by extension, the rest of what we do in worship--should exhibit some internal coherence within the service and some external coherence with the season or occasion.
But what happens if we are more intentional about the internal and external coherence of our worship design? This is something we value and appreciate from the pulpit: most pastors will seek to organize their sermons well, perhaps outlining three interpretive points and turning to application at the end (internal coherence). And most embark on sermon series, either topical or exegetical, or alternatively follow a lectionary that reflects the Christian calendar (external coherence). So why would we not think to do this in all elements of our worship gathering?
When I am planning worship, I find it most helpful to think as the gathering (the service) as a narrative, a story to be told. When I lead a creative team, my question is, "What story are we telling?" Storytelling, after all, is how God communicates with us in Scripture, how Jesus teaches those who have ears to hear. Next, I often consider three more detailed questions: "What story are we telling," I follow by asking "where do we start?" "where do we need to be in order to hear the message of the sermon?" and "if we hear that message, what would our response be?" (This is assuming, of course, that there will be a sermon. In our recent Good Friday gathering, we did not have a sermon per se, but a series of texts and reflections.)
This is more than just finding songs to fit a theme, though that is an important step. It is about orienting songs, words, and actions toward a focal point in the gathering, and orienting our gatherings toward a focal point in the season or series. It is structuring our worship with spiritual awareness and purpose.
Designing narrative worship also must be a process of submission, like any creative process. Madeleine L'Engle talks about this creative process in Walking on Water:
If the work comes to the artist and says, "Here I am, serve me," then the work of the artist, great or small, is to serve. The amount of the artist's talent is not what it is about....When the artist is truly the servant of the work, then the work is greater than the artist....When the work takes over, then the artist is enabled to get out of the way, not to interfere. When the work takes over, then the artist listens.
But before he can listen, paradoxically, he must work. Getting out of the way is not something that comes easily, either in art or in prayer....We must work every day, whether we feel like it or not, otherwise when it comes time to get out of the way and listen to the work, we will not be able to heed it.
So it is with designing narrative worship. We must learn to listen to the particular story that God would have us tell. Unfortunately, we don't often do a good job of listening at a church. One church I'm familiar with always starts with a fast song, and gradually gets slower. To them, you have to start a service with something flashy, exciting. And fast = flashy and exciting. And then to be ready to hear the message, you need something reflective, emotional, introspective; and this, to them, obviously calls for a slow tempo. This rigidity doesn't lend itself to a narrative aesthetic, or rather, it lends itself to only one narrative. And Jesus didn't tell only one parable. The Bible doesn't only one gospel, it has four.
Another example: I remember hearing an organist who always did some sort of modulatory interlude between the third and fourth verses of the hymn, raising the key a half-step, and pulling out all the stops. When we get to the fourth verse of "Crown Him with many Crowns," and we sing "Crown Him the Lord of peace, whose power a scepter sways/ From pole to pole, that wars may cease, and all be prayer and praise," we don't want to sing this like a Sousa March. If we listen to the story of this hymn, we will hear that the reign of Christ culminates when the lion lays down with the lamb. And our music should reflect this.
Narrative worship can only happen if we learn to listen, to pay attention not just to the moral of the story, but the contour and structure of the story as well.
Where does this story start? Dispair? Complacency? Thankfulness? Anger?
How do we get from that start, to the place where we can hear God's word to us today? Where we are open to the possibility of something transformative? Does it require confession? Brainstorming? Silence? Movement?
And what is different now that we have heard? What has Christ made new? What captives has he freed, what mission is he sending us on?