Service planning is one of those tasks which, though not completely enjoyable, must be done. When I was on vicarage, almost thirty years ago, we (the pastor and I) would give the organist our hymns by the Wednesday preceding a Sunday service. Though it worked for that congregation, it really didn’t give anyone a chance to think through the way that one Sunday is related to the next.
Once back from vicarage, during my fourth year at the seminary, Dr. Donald Deffner assigned us the task of doing a full year of sermon texts, titles, and themes. I expanded this to include the hymns, readings, and service information. With the exception of 1997, which was lost during a move from one database manager to another, I’ve got the service plans going back to 1992.
When planning services, I start with the place within the liturgical or church year. The first half of the year — Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Pre-Lent, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday — are pretty straight forward. After all, each of these divisions have a well known theme. In Advent we look for the coming Christ, and in Epiphany He is revealed. The twelve days of Christmas are about His birth and the effect that birth has for faithful Christians (there are three martyr days directly after Christmas Day), while Lent is about Christ’s suffering and death.
But what about that long season from Trinity Sunday through the Sunday of the Fulfillment? Dr. Luther Reed, in his book on the liturgy, identifies four major themes during this half of the church year.
The first theme is the “Call to the Kingdom of Grace” during which we discover the marks of the Church, her confession of faith, and the use of the Means of Grace. The second is “The Righteousness of the Kingdom” which focuses on Christian living. The third is “Aspects of the New Life of Righteousness.” Here the readings focus on Christian perseverance in the face of difficulty, and Christian warfare as we deal with the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh. Finally, the church looks at the end times, which brings us back to Advent.
With the overall context of the Sunday, we look to the theme of the readings for a given Sunday. More often than not, the Introit and Collect for the Sunday also build on the theme of the readings. Only as we find that emphasis can we begin to determine the theme for the sermon. The hymns also reflect that theme so to give one coherent message.
As for the hymns, there are many good hymns in each of the Lutheran hymnals available to us, The Lutheran Hymnal, Lutheran Worship, and Lutheran Service Book. Unlike some pastors, I do not draw hymns from outside sources. If the congregation has chosen to use the Lutheran Service Book, the hymns come from that hymnal. Though there are many good hymns outside of the hymnal, I hesitate to bring them into the service because that can open the door for music of lesser theological quality.
My goal is to provide the organist and altar guild with the service plans for at least eight weeks in advance, typically covering a complete liturgical season (or more). This gives them a chance to plan for service music, paraments, and the like.
So, that is service planning in a nutshell.