St. Louis

Presbytery moderators and vice moderators from across the country at the Mid Council Leaders Gathering in St. Louis began the day October 14 learning the basics of planning worship.

“I like to think of worship as an organic, dynamic thing — like a tree that is rooted, growing, bearing fruit for the world,” said the Rev. David Gambrell, associate for worship in the Office of Theology and Worship of the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA), in a plenary session on “Worship Responsibilities of a Presbytery Moderator.”

“Worship should have an organic flow,” Gambrell said. Planning worship “should not just be about checking off boxes.” Leading worship is “not just reading words on a page.”

Above all, “worship is about God,” Gambrell told listeners.

“There are lots of wonderful sidelines to worship — we may learn or experience something new — but if worship isn’t first and foremost about glorifying God, we are missing something.”

He also cautioned: “We must be constantly vigilant that worship doesn’t become a platform for other agendas.”

Gambrell described worship as a corporate act (done in community) and a transformative experience, noting that a worship service “shouldn’t just confirm what we already know.”

He said worship is about time, space, and matter. “This always reminds me of Star Trek, but it’s true,” he added. “Worship is about big cosmic things.”

In other words, worship planners should take into account the liturgical calendar, the civic calendar, and important things going on in the world. They need to think about the worship space, about the use of the pulpit, font, table, and about the symbolism of material elements such as bread and wine.

“We believe that God is everywhere and that we can worship God anywhere,” Gambrell said. “A space that is reverent invites us to glorify and honor God. But that doesn’t have to mean stained glass windows and an organ.”

Among the other guidelines offered by Gambrell:

  • Worship leaders should model full participation — “not checking their text messages or sermon notes” during the service.
  • Be mindful of the need for teaching or explaining parts of the liturgy, but “don’t overdo it. Sometimes just immerse yourself in the mystery of what’s happening.”
  • “In all of our thinking about words, we sometimes neglect silence.” Incorporating periods of silence gives worshipers “time to reflect, to sink into the work of the Spirit.”
  • Music should be integrated with all of the liturgy, especially the Scripture readings. “Don’t just choose your three favorite hymns.” The music should not be a performance, seeking only to call attention to itself.

Gambrell also gave a preview of the 2018 Book of Common Worship, which is scheduled to be published by May 2018 in print, e-reader, and web-based versions.

The new book will have about the same number of pages as the current book, Gambrell said. Noteworthy items in the book include selected Spanish-language services, commissioning services, rites for conclusion of service, and liturgies for a variety of special occasions in the life of a congregation. A “Mission in the World” section provides resources on such themes as ecology and social justice.

Gambrell said he particularly appreciates that there is one service for ordaining ministers, ruling elders, and deacons in the new book. Combining the former book’s three separate services into one “shows we really do have one ordination liturgy for everyone,” he explained.

Gambrell cautioned moderators to be sure they secure the necessary permission for reprinting copyrighted music and other worship materials. He pointed them to useful resources for worship planning, including resources from the Presbyterian Association of Musicians ( and the Revised Directory for Worship, approved by the 222nd General Assembly (2016).

The Moderators’ Conference is one of three events running concurrently just before the October 15–17 Mid-Council Leaders Gathering (formerly called the Polity Conference) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).