Planning a Worship Service

PlanningWorship SymbolsWailing WallSermon Themes

Tips for Planning a Service

Worship is the way we gather to celebrate our common faith. In worship we talk to God about who we are; in worship we discover who God is calling us to be. When there is violence in our world, we need to be talking about it to God in worship.

We can encourage the church to talk about violence against women in our worship services. Many congregations regularly pray for governments, for homeless or hungry people or for those who suffer from war. We can also pray for those who have been raped. We can pray for women who have been assaulted by their partners. We can pray for children who have been sexually or physically abused. We can pray for men who have or are assaulting women and children. We can pray for support workers in counselling centres, health facilities and shelters. We can pray for governments to make wise policy decisions and to protect the vulnerable. These prayers remind the congregation that we are called to work to end violence against women. See Section B: Resources for examples of prayers that you can use.

It is important to pray not as if these problems are out there in the world. Instead, pray knowing that there may be women in your own congregation that are suffering. “We need God’s help…” not just “They need God’s help.”

Many congregations have found it helpful to devote one worship service a year to the context of violence against women. This Sunday is often close to December 6, commemorating the murder of 14 women in Montreal in 1989. The Women’s Inter-Church Council of Canada provides free worship resources for this service. Consider helping to plan such a worship service in your own congregation. Alternatively, you might want to organize an ecumenical or inter-faith service in your community.

Unfortunately, too often there are tragedies in our communities where women or children are brutally murdered or abused. Worship services can provide a space for people to grieve after these events. Alternatively, there may be a new shelter or transition house opening in your community; a worship service can celebrate the hard work a community is doing to try to end violence and provide spaces of healing.

We worship God through monetary offerings in the context of worship. Designating the offerings from a worship service to a shelter or program for women sends a strong message to the community about the priorities of the church.

In planning services, try to use inclusive language for God and people. Recent decades have seen a flowering of many resources that are inclusive. We have provided a few elements that you could use in planning your own worship service. Resources for worship can be used without permission if they are spoken in a worship service; if you wish to duplicate and distribute these resources, you will need to say that you found them on this website.

In choosing music for a service you will want to look for hymns from your hymnbooks that talk about God’s tenderness, Jesus’ compassion, the call to liberation and freedom. Where possible, choose hymns with inclusive language for both people and God. Be sensitive to the words of the hymns, so that they do not contradict the message you are trying to convey in the worship. For example, a hymn that talks about Jesus helping us bear our cross may not illustrate the point that women can leave abusive relationships.

In planning a worship service, it is helpful to pay attention to the heaviness of the content. Most people come to church to hear “good news”. Special services consisting primarily of lament are fitting and appropriate, as long as people are aware of the content of the service ahead of time. Regular services should usually include an element of hope. How does God inspire us, comfort us, call us?

For prayers and litanies, see the resources section of this website.

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Symbols in Worship

Worship is something that we do with our whole body, and it involves all of our senses. Long after the words are forgotten, a visual image can remain fixed in people’s minds. An altar table that reflects the theme of the service can be a powerful addition to the worship experience. Symbols in worship are most effective if they are simple. You may find several ideas appealing, but choose one idea and go with it. Too many symbols are confusing and distracting.

Themes of brokenness and healing
  • Display three similar clay pots on the table. One is broken into several large pieces, one is broken but repaired, one is whole.
  • Display cloth that is ripped, with edges that are obviously frayed and jagged. Put this cloth next to a patchwork quilt, because it shows the beauty that can come even from torn cloth.
Themes of bondage and deliverance
  • Display two plants. This works best if you choose plants with stems that are bendable and fairly tall, like a small tree seedling. At the beginning of the service, have a very large rock crushing one of the seedlings. Part of the service can involve removing the rock from the seedling.
Themes of mourning and hope
  • Candles can be used as a symbol of mourning. The service can begin with lit candles, which are extinguished as you think of lives that have been lost to violence. If this is not a service of mourning, but a regular worship service, it may be important to balance this symbol with one that brings hope.
  • Candles can also be used as a symbol of hope. As different victims of violence are named, a candle can be lit in their honour. You can involve the congregation in lighting candles, by having tealights or other candles on the altar, and inviting participants to come and light a candle in memory of someone they know who is affected by violence. The candle can be a symbol of their commitment to pray for this person.
Theme of thankfulness for the work that has begun
  • place five loaves of bread and two fish on the altar table (use real fish). Make sure you display them so people can count the loaves and see the fish, so they get the biblical connection! This symbol is a powerful scriptural reminder that God can multiply our small resources to meet the needs we have.
More resources:

Prayers for Survivors: A Liturgy in Protest of Sexual Violence

Liturgy for a Survivor of Child Sexual Abuse

Remembering Victims of Domestic Violence and Abuse

Liturgy of Healing from Abuse for Women

Worship to End Domestic Violence (World Council of Churches)

Worship Resources for Domestic Violence Awareness Sunday

Domestic Violence Worship Service

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Wailing Wall

The Wailing Wall in Jerusalem is the historic place for the people of Israel to bring their pain and their prayers to God. In your congregation, a ritual could be offered in which the participants are given the opportunity to bring their pain, their grief, their sadness, and their concerns about abuse to God by means of a symbolic wailing wall.

This would work best in a service for people who have an understanding of violence against women. It would need to be carefully adapted for a Sunday morning service, as it might be very moving for some, and threatening for others. It would work well for a group of people who have studied violence against women in a workshop.

Hand out sheets of paper to the participants. Invite them to reflect on a word, phrase, situation or memory that has caused them grief or sadness, and then to write it down on their piece of paper. There is no need for them to name anyone specifically or reveal anything personal. Indicate that the group will be praying over these concerns once they have been put up on the wailing wall.

Invite them, one by one, to come forward and attach their paper to blank wall you have designated as a wailing wall. If they wish, to read aloud what they wrote. Pause after each one for quiet reflection or personal prayer.

After everyone who wants to has participated, have someone lead a prayer for the concerns expressed on the wailing wall and for all those who suffer violence and abuse at the hands of others. The reading of lament Psalms might express the collective pain: Psalm 55, 56, 57, 59, 69.

Allow time for the participants to experience their feelings fully and to grieve. A musical interlude can be effective during this time.

Be careful not to move away from the pain too quickly; however, do not let the ritual end in despair. Music or readings from the scriptures or from secular writings which offer hope, affirm God’s presence with us even in our suffering, articulate our longing for peace and harmony, or celebrate what is beautiful and good would be appropriate to conclude the ritual. (This resource was adapted from a resource called  Fire in the Rose, “Resources for Worship and Study”)

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Sermon Themes

Breaking the Silence of Abuse

As Christians we have often been reluctant to acknowledge that abuse happens in our homes and churches. We have closed our eyes to what is happening in our communities. These scriptures illustrate that God’s people have always struggled with violence. These biblical stories can help us in naming violence in our own lives:

Judges 11:29-40

2 Samuel 13:1-19

Psalm 55:1-15, 20-21

John 8:31-32

Suffering, Abandonment, Hope

These texts demonstrate the range of emotions that survivors may feel. The journey toward healing involves intense pain. It can involve feeling abandoned by God. Caring people can become a source of hope; the church can become a safe place for pain to be expressed and healing to occur.

Psalm 22

Psalm 27

Isaiah 25:4-5

Romans 8:31-39

The Church’s Response to Survivors of Violence

These texts demonstrate that Jesus honours the pain of people. Jesus’ healing power is demonstrated by his compassionate non-judgmental response to suffering.

John 4:4-14

John 9:1-7

Luke 8:40-48

Luke 10:29-37

The Church’s Response to Those Who Have Committed Violence

Responding to people who have committed violence is one of the most difficult challenges the church faces. Our tendency might be to avoid or to shun those who have offended, or to minimize what they have done and move to quick forgiveness. These biblical texts emphasize naming offences as sin, holding people accountable for their actions and challenging them to repent.

Matthew 18

Galations 6:1-10

(adapted from MCC Domestic Violence Worship Resources Book)

More sermon ideas:

Sermon Outlines on Domestic Violence

Troubling Texts – Sermons

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