Seven ways to integrate worship into the congregation’s life and ministry

Healthy communication and collaboration between worship leaders and leaders in all aspects of congregational life expands ministry.

By Nathan Bierma and John Witvliet

The last 30 years have brought unprecedented expansion of the kinds of people who plan and lead worship. For centuries worship services in most traditions were led exclusively by ordained priests or pastors, along with a lead cantor or musician.

Today, no matter what your tradition, the people planning and leading your church’s worship might include artists, praise team members, children’s ministry specialists, dramatists, elders, deacons and others. More people are involved in making decisions about more aspects of worship than ever before.

This change has fueled remarkable creativity. Artists who used to be ignored by congregations are now designing banners, bulletin covers and computer-projected images. Young children who used to be seen but not heard are now reciting memory verses in worship and seeing their drawings appear on bulletin covers or media presentations. Junior high saxophone players and high school drummers who used to only listen to congregational singing are now leaders in praise teams and instrumental ensembles. At its best, our era of worship leadership is one of broad participation, ownership and collaboration.

Dangers to be considered

As with any change, there are also dangers. Will our democratized approach lead us to set aside things that would be good for us in favor of things we like? Will our planning become disconnected from our preachers? Will we be tempted to worship innovation and creativity themselves, rather than God?

In the first place, churches can identify these concerns and develop wise responses. They can design training programs for volunteers to get them all on the same page. They can examine their worship planning process to balance constancy and innovation. They can check their lines of communication to make sure that preachers and worship leaders are communicating effectively. The best practices in worship planning today stem from healthy communication and collaboration among increasingly diversified and decentralized planners.

A second step is to foster healthy communication and collaboration not only among worship leaders, but between worship leaders and leaders in all aspects of congregational life. When that happens, worship is not just one program or one part of your ministry, but gets integrated into other aspects of your congregation’s life, including pastoral care, education, hospitality, social justice, evangelism, prayer ministries and church administration.

In our work at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, we regularly hear from congregations who are trying to do exactly this. They’re imagining and experimenting with innovative ways to integrate worship into their ministry as a whole. They’re realizing that people want worship to have some traction outside the sanctuary, and want their weekly ministries to have some meaningful connection to their worship services.

Some brainstorming results

Many of the ideas we hear and offer are still at the brainstorming level. Some, in fact, won’t work well in certain contexts and circumstances, but are useful to mention simply to start a conversation of ideas. Here are some of the possibilities we’ve heard and shared in our discussions with worship leaders:

  • What if a musician reviewed her congregation’s church school curriculum to look for excellent age-appropriate songs to go along with key lessons, recorded them for families to use at home, and then used those hymns and songs in worship services?
  • What if a pastor offered annual teaching sessions on the meaning of worship for each age group in church school?
  • What if musicians considered every wedding and funeral an opportunity for specialized pastoral care and composed or selected a simple arrangement of a song for each event, dedicated it to the families, and — when possible — used that arrangement again in worship near the anniversary 
of the event?
  • What if a worship team selected a song or worship-related piece of artwork for the congregation’s pastoral care ministries, to be sung or shared in every visit in homes, hospitals, nursing homes and prisons?
  • What if a social justice committee selected a hymn or song to accompany every advocacy letter it asked its congregation to sign, to show that the church’s advocacy for justice is not merely legal, but also doxological (since our protest against injustice is rooted in praise)?
  • What if an evangelism committee designed an after-school music program to draw members of the local community into the church? In an era when many schools lack money for the arts, music and arts education may become an especially effective way for congregations to reach out to their communities.
  • What if a church administrator asked a worship leader to work with each committee and ministry in her congregation by selecting a worship “theme song” for each committee, and then gather the theme songs into a small collection for worship? A collection of ministry theme songs could even come to function as a congregation’s expanded mission statement — one resembling not a corporate memo, but rather a collection of doxological and prophetic poetry.

The point is to foster genuine collaboration, to keep worship rooted in real life, and to permeate congregational life with a spirit of worship. When it catches on in a congregation, an integrating approach to worship ministry can attune leaders to the needs and gifts of individual members, but also ground them in a vision of the congregation as a whole.

What these teach us

These approaches to integrating worship and congregational life can teach us a great deal. Church educators can remind us how worship forms and disciples us. Pastoral care experts can teach us how public prayer, music, art and preaching work to comfort, challenge and sustain us during life’s mountaintops and valleys. Evangelists can show us how worship leads us to look outward to the needs around us. Social justice advocates can help us realize that our praise of God is not a neutral expression, but rather a prophetic cry against the idols and injustices of our age.

This is an area where small churches can teach larger ones about the value of integrated congregational leadership. In small congregations, the lead pianist is often a church school teacher, prayer group coordinator, evangelism committee member and back-up janitor. Larger churches can benefit from specialization — it helps to be able to ask a person or committee to focus primarily on one area of leadership — but many small churches can show us healthy ways for a congregation to live, minister, and worship in harmony.

In some churches, this approach to integrating worship and congregational life could even redefine some conventional job titles. Rather than hiring a music director, what if a congregation posted an ad for a “steward of music in congregational life,” as a way to shift its focus from musical performance to healthy musical practices throughout congregational life?

Cautions to integrating

Churches might also see some great dangers in efforts like these. Integrating all these areas of congregational life could lead to a utilitarian view of worship — the idea that worship is good only if it accomplishes something for another ministry. Instead, we need to begin with a robust theology of worship, a vivid awareness that worship is primarily a communal gathering for a public dialogue with God. Our ministries and congregational life flow from this encounter with God, not the other way around.

Another danger is that integrating worship and ministries could lead to more work. The goal is just the opposite: to share the work and make your existing efforts even more beneficial for the whole congregation’s ministry. Over time, collaboration can divide the work and energize workers. Leaders are busier than ever today, and we should always be looking for ways to increase synergy and decrease needless busyness.

How would this approach work in your church? Which one of these specific ideas is most realistic and helpful for your congregation? And how could you improve on that idea to meet the needs of your local congregation or community? What group, committee, staff member, or ministry group hasn’t discussed worship lately? How could their ministry both strengthen and be strengthened by worship?

Nathan Bierma is communications and research coordinator for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship ( in Grand Rapids, MI. John Witvliet is director of the institute and associate professor of music and worship at Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary.


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