Nancy Dibelius describes how to establish a focal point for worship that is rich in symbolism in A Quiet Pentecost. She explains how to develop a particular theme and then bring it to life in a symbolic way. This process can be used for specific events or retreats, as well as for developing the worship theme. The process works in a conference room or a sanctuary:
The first step in designing worship is to explore and understand a theme; find a way to incorporate the theme into your own rhythm of life and prayer. Before you can invite others into a space where the experience becomes real, it must first be real for you and your journey. If you are developing a retreat or special event, have a clear theme. If you are developing a worship center for corporate worship, work with the pastor and worship team to understand the theme for worship. If there are key ideas for the sermon or prayers or hymns already developed, work with these, as well. As you think on these themes or the scriptures for worship, choose one or two focal ideas that uniquely embody the theme for you and let these become part of your daily rhythm of prayer and reflection. Once you have lived with the theme for a while, lift up your experiences in prayer.
Once you have chosen a scripture, read through it several times; in your imagination, what do you see, what do you hear, what do you smell, what is there to touch? Make a list of these things and then go back to the scripture, hymns, and prayers, looking for additional sights and sounds and add them to your list. Has some clear visual emerged? Consider the space in which you will be worshiping. How do you transform that space so that it is inviting and becomes holy space for others? After you have a sense for the way in which you wish to transform the room, think about how to accomplish it. See the image in your mind. Consider everyday materials that could be used to turn the vision into reality. Start your own collection of what I refer to as “holy hardware”—fabric, candles, candle-holders, crosses, pitchers, bowls, stones, worship-related objects, etc. If you are doing this for the first time, try it out. Find a place similar in size to the space you will be using and actually lay out the room as you have imagined it. Walk around in it and rehearse what will happen there. When you are satisfied, draw a sketch or take a photograph, make a list of the materials you have used, and be sure you can reproduce it easily.
Now that you have a visual for the room, consider details. If you are using an altar, how will you design a worship center for the altar? How will you coordinate the altar with the larger visual for the room? Consider colors, texture, objects that will represent key symbols, sounds, smells, and things to touch. Don’t overdo; sometimes less is more. If you end up with too many symbols, congregants will not focus on the key symbol; they will be distracted. Be sure that you understand why you are using a specific symbol.