Planning Worship Like Ron Howard

by Greg Stovell

I know… I know.

Ron Howard?


Those of you that are over 40 will probably ask what the freckled red hair kid who hung out with cool-man Fonzie on the Happy Days set has anything to do with worship.

Others will recognize him as an influential film director for decades who set his mark in the film industry with blockbusters like Backdraft, A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13, Cinderella Man, and the Dan Brown-based series: The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons and Inferno.

The question still stands, though, doesn’t it? What does the director of Inferno have to do with teaching church staff and volunteers about worship planning?

Apparently, a lot. Enough to change my preaching and worship planning ministry.

A few years ago, I came across a documentary series entitled, “The Directors.” It was compiled by the American Film Institute and features the work and technique of some of today’s most successful filmmakers. In this series, you will find work of Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, Martin Scorsese, James Cameron and of course, Howard.

In that series, Howard speaks on how he goes about putting together a movie. He begins alone in his office, with a large stack of index cards. On the first card he will write the end scene of the movie (it’s always a good idea to start at the end). On the second card, he will write the beginning (or one of the possible beginnings) of the movie.  The rest of the cards on the stack are reserved for every possible scene, plot twist, monologue, dialogue, action scene, title sequence, etc.

After a few hours — or days — he will end up with a desk full of a thousand possibilities, but no movie.

And that’s when the magic starts.

Howard will then engage in a ballet of index cards moving and rearranging them into a sequence which flows cohesively from beginning to end.

Once arranged, leaving most of them scattered out of the sequence, he ends up only with version one. The editing process continues as reviewing the sequence, Howard pulls a few scenes out, inserts others, changes the opening, rearranges the dialogue, etc.

When the process is complete, Howard ends up with a short stack of cards and a solid blueprint for a movie, way before the first actor is hired or the first camera is switched on.

This process has become invaluable to my preaching ministry.

Instead of index cards, though, I’ve become addicted to Post-It Notes when I coordinate the necessary planning. I will normally begin with 60 to 70 notes with possible beginnings, stories, quotes, theological statements, sermon points, transitions, newspaper headlines; a serious Post-It mess.

Next, I write a sermon purpose statement, or SPS. The SPS is a single sentence of what I prayerfully perceive is the objective of the sermon.

I cannot stress enough how crucial the SPS is in the process. This single sentence serves as a Post-It magnet, attracting only that which serves its purpose, and rejecting anything that doesn’t support it or moves the congregation toward the very last Post-It Note in the sequence.

This narrows the number of notes in the sermon from 70 to a very workable 25. The rest of the Post-Its, no matter how good they may be, end up in the cutting room floor (or very literally, on my office floor) ready to be used at a later date.

I believe the same technique applies to worship planning.

On our planning desk, we will have one single Sunday worship theme, surrounded by many other Post-It Notes (or sometimes index cards) representing a collection of 20 possible praise songs, a reading or recitation of Scripture, a transition package, a sermon, a testimony, an interview, the offering, a prayer, a second century litany of commitment, communion, baptisms, announcements, words of welcome, silence, an artist working on a large canvas, a potter’s wheel, creative set pieces, a creed, interpretive dance, and a myriad of ways to read, sing, pray and proclaim God’s word.

How does one make sense of such a mess of possible worship elements?

Take a lesson from Howard, and begin the worship element ballet. Move and rearrange the cards or notes. Toss a few away, add a few more.

Constantly check them against the dominant theme. Keep the whole process in prayer.

Don’t think about “building” or “putting together” a worship service. This is more about art than engineering. You may end up with a very different form of worship, which radically departs from the formula you are used to. That said, you can be sure it will be a creative, cohesive, faithful sequence.

Some of my colleagues argue that it is best to have multiple points of connection to the Biblical text on any given Sunday morning.  That to have a single worship focus is limiting the work of the Spirit and does not honor the diversity of God’s people. There’s something to be said about that.

Two experiences come to mind, however.

Five years ago, I attended worship at a neighboring church. The music was great. The prayers were solid. The sermon was without a doubt Bible-based. And yet, the different elements of worship had little, if anything to do with each other. The sermon’s title was something like “10 ways to have God-honoring relationships,” and to tell you the truth, I don’t remember any of the 10.

It was a good experience, but it lasted maybe only a few days.

On the other hand, I vividly remember a worship service with a different congregation that I visited nearly 20 years ago. Every element of worship called us to stand firmly planted in the faith, when we find ourselves in the face of adversity. The sermon recalled Biblical instances of people standing firm against impossible odds as they waited for God to come through.

Toward the end of worship, we were shown a famous photo commonly known as “Tank-man.” It shows a Chinese male student along the north edge of Tiananmen Square in the center of Beijing, standing up to a column of tanks on June 5, 1989. It was a powerful image, skillfully placed, in a carefully crafted worship service where everything worked together beautifully.

As I said, I remember that 20-year-old worship service perfectly.

There is something to be said about the value of a well-crafted, clearly-focused worship experience.

Sunday is always just around the corner. Even the most gifted and inspired church leaders begin their planning with a proverbial stack of blank Post-Its or index cards. Their empty desk is full of promise.

In the end, we all pray the result of many hours of careful planning is faithful, Biblically solid, exciting, transforming, practical, divinely inspired, and blessed.

Unfortunately, Ron Howard can’t help you with any of that. And yet, he is a master of laser-like focus, cohesiveness, and flow. Any worship planner would do well to learn from one of the best planners, who continues to show that expertise as a filmmaker.


Essential reading for worship leaders since 2002.


Get the latest worship news, ideas and a list

of the top CCLI songs delivered every Tuesday... for FREE!