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“The Order of Worship: Narrative Flow”

  • “The Order of Worship: Narrative Flow”

3D cover no shadowIn this excerpt from my new book, Think Like a Filmmaker, we’re going to explore how the four-fold pattern of worship provides a solid and inclusive framework for all the elements of today’s worship experiences. You’re invited to use the reflection questions at the end as you reflect on the flow of your own worship.

This is an excerpt from Dr. Marcia McFee’s new book [Think Like a Filmmaker © Marcia McFee, 2016]. Find out more HERE.

Screenwriters, directors, and editors all have to be keenly aware of the structure of the story. This creates a common journey that gives shape and form to the decisions needed to put it all together. The ancient storytelling device called the “hero’s journey” is one of the common building blocks for storytelling in film that mirrors our own stories of growth, challenge, and discovery as humans. One description of the stages of story in film is: 1) the set-up, 2) the new situation, 3) progress, 4) complications, and 5) the final push. Not all screenwriters use the same verbiage to describe this structure, but all teachers of screenwriting sound the same clarion call—you have to have a structure within which to create a flow of narrative that makes sense. Christian ritual has a structure, and no matter what style of worship or denominational tradition, this ancient four-fold pattern not only grounds us historically, but it makes a lot of sense. The worship pattern of gathering, proclaiming, responding and sending forth mirrors the rhythm of human interaction—our coming together, sharing stories of life, responding to those stories through our actions, and moving apart to continue living our lives, having been moved and formed by our time together.

Gather – The gathering part of the pattern is the threshold, the moment of entry into a different mindset, the moment we acknowledge that we are community gathered, and we are introduced to the journey upon which we embark together. Think about all we do to prepare when we host a dinner party at our house. We take special care to be ready at the appointed time, to have the house feel inviting, perhaps with a special decorative theme to celebrate something special, and to have music playing in the background that sets a mood. As leaders, we want the space, the sounds, and the preparations to be just right as people enter. It is true in most things, including worship and film, that first impressions are long-lasting.


“There is a critical period when a movie begins, the first five or ten minutes, when audiences haven’t yet labeled it. They have suspended judgment while they decide what they are dealing with. This is a crucial time for a filmmaker, for here he or she must define the expectations the viewers will carry throughout the film. Here the audience takes its cues for pace, for tone, for what to accept as ‘real.'” (Jon Boorstin, Making Movies Work, p. 56)

The “threshold moment” concept that I teach originated from hearing filmmakers tell me just this—that the first minutes of the film give us cues about the rest of the experience. Setting the tone at the beginning is crucial for how we experience the rest of the story. Too often in worship we don’t introduce the storyline at the beginning, and therefore anything that happens before we have any clue about the message will not benefit from having had our minds “set” toward the story. Threshold moments give us a frame of reference and send us powerfully into the story. Threshold moments in my designs usually include a theme song, the synopsis for the week. and another spoken piece—opening prayer, call to worship or affirmation—all tied together with the musical thread. Then the typical order of worship such as an opening hymn would begin.

Proclaim – Having gathered together, we move to the purpose of being immersed in the story, in the message. The question to consider while preparing for this moment is “how will we offer the story in this particular moment in a way that weaves together what we hear, what we see, and what we do? Elements in this section can include many forms of proclamation. This is where I place a time with the children. Rather than always being a “children’s sermon” that functions more like an age-appropriate mini-sermon, I consider whether one of the scriptures or readings might be presented in a creative way utilizing the children as participants.


This section is where readings will be presented—hopefully in a diversity of ways determined by the ideas generated by verbal and dramatic artists. I will often include a congregational song that weaves itself among the readings, the content and dynamic of which will help us to hear the verbal components more fully. Anthems or music presented by ensembles and bands may be included in this section. If they are, my preference is to title these “The Word in Song” rather than “anthem” or “special music” in order to help the congregation see these as one more way that the Word will come alive. All forms of proclamation of the story, whether they be music, dance, drama, video, or a typical sermonic form, reside in this section.

Response – Here is our opportunity to offer ourselves in many ways having been moved by the message we’ve just experienced.  Determining what kind of form the prayers of the people will be offered during the series—such as intercessory or pastoral or whether the Lord’s Prayer will be spoken or sung—is part of the editing process. Repeating the same form within a series is a way to have continuity and familiarity as well as set the “feel” for a series. You may have found a song in the resource-gathering process that can bookend or weave during the midst of the prayers. We offer our gifts (offering) during this section of the four-fold pattern. Ritual actions such as baptism, communion, or other interactive opportunities, such as going to stations, are made rich by their relationship in response to the Word proclaimed.

Sending forth – The fourth movement comes when we have been inspired by the message and are sent into the world to live the message. Who are we as a result of what we’ve experienced? The closing songs, blessings, and words of dismissal underscore the message we’ve heard and send us out as transformed people, ready to “go and do likewise” in the world. The Light of Christ heads out of the doors and we are compelled to follow, taking our own renewed passion to make the world a better place for all people. These closing elements help define our identity, remind us of the overarching message, and instill in us the courage we need to go into the world as disciples. A congregational sung refrain after the benediction is a terrific way to bring a final word and add emphasis and focus to a series’ message.

Questions to Ponder:

Find a copy of last week’s order of worship. How do the elements of your worship service fit into the four-fold pattern of Gathering, Proclaiming, Responding, and Sending Forth?

Why is flow important in worship service?

Stay tuned for next week’s post, the last in our series of material from Think Like a Filmmaker. In our final post, we’ll be taking a brief look at how changes in worship can spark some challenging conversations, all of which can ultimately come to rest in the spirit of radical hospitality. If you’d like to learn more about Think Like a Filmmaker, visit the book’s website HERE!

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