REAL Commitment: Worship Planning Makes Space for the Spirit
Creating powerful worship experiences is more than a job for third-year MDiv Darin Arntson—it's her passion. To her, designing dynamic experiences that move a congregation and invite the presence of the Holy Spirit is critical to attracting more worshippers from her generation.
"As a young adult, I realized that my peers had disengaged from church," the California native recalls. "I wondered what would happen if we had worship that spoke to my generation, that motivated them." Arntson sensed that if people really felt the Spirit moving in worship, it would compel them to stay.
"When we’re in worship together and sing songs as a community, it's formative for people. Being able to feel the Spirit in those movements is incredibly powerful,” she says.
But worship like that doesn’t happen by accident. It takes intentional planning. And this is where Arntson puts her passion into practice as the leader of one of Candler’s worship planning teams.
Before the first candle flickers or the first notes of the voluntary sound in Cannon Chapel, students on a worship planning team have been hard at work designing the service with spiritual impact in mind. Each semester more than 30 students from diverse worship traditions—United Methodist, Baptist, African Methodist Episcopal, Episcopalian, Lutheran and others—serve on these teams to plan Candler’s multiple weekly services: worship every Tuesday and Thursday morning, Evensong on Wednesday, and Holy Eucharist on Friday.
As a team leader, Arntson sees her role as facilitating the conversation that occurs among team members, the preacher and the Scripture passages during planning sessions.
“As we plan, we ask questions of the text and the community,” she says. “Each service speaks a message, and that message is supported by the visual and musical elements the planning team selects.”
When planning a service, the team reads all of the lectionary texts and asks the question, "What is the text really trying to say?" Other questions follow as the group's exploration of the text continues: What themes stand out among the texts? What words jump out at you? How are the psalms mirroring what's being said in the gospel? What does the community need to hear?
The answers to those questions lead the team as they select prayers, responsive readings and hymns.
"In choosing these things, the question is 'Why this?' An element is never chosen at random or because we think it's catchy. Each component needs to serve a purpose," explains Arntson.
When the components unite to form a cohesive worship experience, congregants are led seamlessly from one part of the service to another, creating a powerful memory for those in attendance.
A service that stands out in Arntson's memory is one her team planned around a text from Romans, chapter 8, about the Holy Spirit interceding for humans with sighs too deep for words. Since seminarians are surrounded by words, says Arntson, “it’s comforting to know that when words aren’t enough, when they fail us, the Spirit stands in the gap and lifts our prayers to God.” Highlighting that message and making it real to worshippers was the team’s goal.
In planning that service, the students used different tools in their toolbox to accomplish their goal. For starters, they reconfigured the worship space so one of the liturgists could read a passage from a balcony located behind the congregation. Since the congregation couldn't see the reader, it felt like the words were floating through the space.
"The words came over our heads, towards the preacher," Arntson recalls. "It added to the feeling of the service embodying the text."
Another tool plucked from the toolbox was the creative use of silence during the service. During the prayers of the people, there were intentional long pauses between petitions so worshippers could silently add their own. And near the end of the service, the concluding hymn, "Spirit of the Living God," was sung a capella, in keeping with the quieter nature of the service.
All of these elements supported the main Scripture about the Holy Spirit interceding, says Arntson. "There was a lot of intentional inviting of the Spirit to be with us, and the Holy Spirit was really palpable in the space. None of us expected the service to be as powerful as it was."
The worship planning skills Arntson has developed at Candler have already passed the real-world test. She has applied them in two internships, including an eight-week stint as the pastor and worship planner at a church in San Diego. Working within that congregation, Arntson saw the value of knowing how to work with a team and having the confidence to use a variety of resources to plan a service.
Arntson says she’s thankful for the extensive worship planning experience she’s had at Candler, and she believes that experience will serve her well as she moves toward ordination as an elder in The United Methodist Church.
"When I came to Candler, I was looking for the best way to do worship, thinking that there was one formula that was best for all people. But there isn't necessarily one way to create the most inviting space for the Spirit. Creating a meaningful worship experience comes from knowing the congregation and offering something that feels authentic and challenging for them, something that honors the community and the diversity of community. That’s something I’ve learned here that I’ll use the rest of my life."