Thematic worship.

We generally have thematic worship at Middletown United Methodist, which means that we have a focusing theme around which the entire service is centered. As in many other congregations, we usually preach by sermon series, which allows us to be responsive to the needs of the church. Planning series also lets us be deliberate about having some Sundays throughout the course of the year that are teaching sermons, some that call the church to mission, some that are practical how-this-scripture-changes-my-daily-life sermons, some that inspire the church to hope or compassion, etc.

For an example of a recent series, in the 4 weeks leading up to the 15th anniversary of September 11th, 2001, we had a series titled “The Decline and Fall of Israel.” This was a primarily a teaching series. We learned about the time recounted in the Old Testament when God’s people demanded to be led by a king, to be a monarchy rather than a theocracy, and in the Sundays that followed we saw the parallels between the people of Israel and the people of God today, exploring what we could learn from their story. Next Sunday, we’re beginning a 3-week series titled “I’d Rather Not Talk About It,” where we’ll address mental health issues including addiction, anxiety, depression, and suicide. We’ll be talking about the roots of these issues– and why the answer is not, “well if you just had more faith, you wouldn’t be depressed.” We’ll look at what scripture says to us, and what the church can do to support those with mental health struggles.

The way we do things, each week of these series is tied to a passage of scripture, and the day’s theme is derived from that scripture, (because the Word is why we come to church), and focused by the larger context of the series. When it comes to worship planning, I take the scripture and the contextual focus, and that drives the details of the service.

This type of worship organization is different from Anglican services, like you might find in the Episcopal church, for example (or in Anglican-leaning UMCs), and it’s also different from Roman Catholic services. Those are typically lectionary-based worship services, rather than thematic. There are prescribed scriptures for each Sunday in a 3-year cycle, and that’s what’s read and preached upon. There’s a comfort because it’s predictable, and theoretically you’ll read through most of the Bible over the course of those three years. It provides a structure for the preaching pastors as well. Perhaps my favorite part of a lectionary system is that I’ll hear the same Word that my parents hear in their church 650 miles away, and we can talk about the different directions our pastors took for their sermon meditations.

I’ve known some churches that split the difference: they follow the lectionary readings, and choose a scripture from those specified for the day, upon which they’ll base the sermon. That becomes the theme that focuses worship that day.

Both systems have their positives and negatives. While our series system gives us the freedom to choose series that speak to the church and select scripture that best supports that, lectionary-based churches require their preaching pastors to speak to the church what it needs to hear within the structure of prescribed readings. However, in a series system, a church must ensure that 1) the series selected are faithful to the theology of the church, and 2) the scripture isn’t being manipulated to serve a series when it shouldn’t be. There’s a risk to leaving the lectionary system if your pastors aren’t convicted to uphold the doctrine and theology of the church, because those things are reinforced in the lectionary system, but they need to be asserted in a series system.

At MUMC, thematic worship engages the congregation, so that’s what we do. This past Sunday our worship was centered around Isaiah 43:1-7, and I’d like to share what we did as an example of a tightly thematic worship.

Welcome & Announcements


Prelude: “All Creatures Of Our God and King,” a jazzy SSA version arr. Tom Fettke

Call to Worship, based on John 21: 15-19

Children of God, do you love the God who hovered over the face of the deep and called all things into being?
Yes, you know that we do.
Then feed God’s children.

Children of God, do you love the God who was revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ?
Yes, you know that we do.
Then take care of God’s children.

Children of God, do you love the God who breathes new life into us even as we gather this day?
Yes, you know that we do.
Then feed God’s children.

Opening Hymn: UMH #158, Come, Christians, Join to Sing


Apostle’s Creed

Gloria (sung, UMH #70)

Greeting & Passing of The Peace

Choir Anthem: “Be Not Afraid,” by Craig Courtney, (a setting of Isaiah 43:1-4)

Pastoral Prayer & Lord’s Prayer

Hymn: in 8:30am, UMH #77, How Great Thou Art / in 11am, “10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord)”


Offertory: “Restless,” by Audrey Assad, sung by a youth



Scripture reading: Isaiah 43:1-7, The Message translation

Sermon: “I Am With You.”


Closing Hymn: UMH #369, Blessed Assurance.


Postlude: on the tune SPANISH HYMN

This Sunday was not part of a sermon series. It was originally set as Children’s Sabbath, but for logistical reasons we had to postpone that celebration. Before the change in schedule, however, in the spirit of Children’s Sabbath I had been preparing the choir anthem on the text from Isaiah 43. When we changed plans, that scripture became the thematic tie throughout the service.

Let’s walk through this order, why we did, what we did, when we did it.

Overall, we started the service with a broad theme of praising God, and gradually narrowed it down piece by piece until the scripture reading and sermon hit the specific theme of the Isaiah text.

  • The prelude was by our women’s vocal ensemble. It always goes well in our church to do a song everyone knows, but in a different groove with lots of energy. In the worship order, it called everyone together and focused us on why we were there– to gather with all of creation to praise God!
  • The Call to Worship, only spoken in the 8:30am Traditional service, is a responsive setting of the text from John 21, and was also legacy from the Children’s Sabbath liturgy. I kept it because of how it felt following the prelude. The prelude song was a call for everyone to lift their voices in praise, and the CTW affirmed the next step- if we love God, we have a commitment to care for God’s children.
  • From the beginning up to this point, through the hymn, Creed, and Gloria Patri, we’re setting the stage with a broad engagement of praising the trinitarian God. The choir’s anthem is when we get down to specifics. The anthem is the first concrete statement of exactly what kind of praising we’re doing this day. God has called us by name, we are precious in his sight, and we don’t need to fear the rough waters because God has promised to be with us through it all.
  • The hymns are in the prototypical congregational singing roles of gathering, meditative, and sending forth. The first hymn brings everyone together, lifting their voices as one, which centers us as a community coming together to encounter God. It’s a ramp-up to the day’s theme. The middle hymn at 8:30am, How Great Thou Art, takes on a slightly different tone coming after the choir’s anthem sharing the passage of Isaiah 43:1-7– as does the middle hymn in the 11am service, 10,000 Reasons. Singing “my God, how great thou art!” means something a little more profound after we’ve heard the assurance that God knows our name, loves us, and will be with us always. And following a sermon on this Isaiah text, Blessed Assurance becomes a call to share our story with the world as we’re sent out from worship, thanks to the assurance we have that God is with us.
  • The offertory song, Restless, is a contemporary statement of what we hear from Isaiah (youtube link above.) When sung by a youth, it has a certain innocence that highlights the lyrics. And from one verse to the next, it mirrors our worship: we begin by singing to God, who dwells in our songs of praise, and we implore God to speak to us through the Word this morning with words of hope and grace.

You dwell in the songs that we are singing,
Rising to the Heavens, rising to Your heart.
Our praises filling up the spaces
In between our frailty and everything You are
You are the keeper of my heart

And I’m restless, I’m restless
‘Til I rest in You, ’til I rest in You.

Oh, speak now for my soul is listening
Say that You have saved me, whisper in the dark.
‘Cause I know You’re more than my salvation
Without you I am hopeless, tell me who You are
You are the keeper of my heart

And I am restless, so restless
‘Til I rest in You, ’til I rest in You, Oh God
Let me rest in You.

After the offertory, we settle in for the scripture reading and the sermon. With all of the various pieces leading up to the sermon, the ground was well prepared, turned over, fertilized, and ready for a receptive hearing of the Word and the pastor’s meditations on that Word. In her sermon, she spoke of hope, of the wonderful truth that we have all been called by name, and she connected the scripture from Isaiah with the story in Mark of Jesus calming the rough waters. It hit exactly the tone of comfort and certainty in God’s presence and love that we had been building in the service.

By the time we reached Blessed Assurance, the church was ready for an energetic affirmation of all that we had heard, and we were eager to lift our voices in song as we took this assurance with us out into the world.

What do you think? Do you prefer thematic worship, or lectionary-based, or both? What parts do you think would work in your church’s context? What might not work as well?



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