Yesterday morning at my church we celebrated communion together. It’s always a challenge to lead the music during the portion of the service when people are coming forward to receive.
Every church celebrates communion a bit differently, but in our case, it’s a 15 to 20-minute long portion of the service when all 700 – 800 people either come to the front of the church and kneel at the rail, or go to stations spread around the back aisle. Lay Eucharistic Ministers (we call them LEMS – not to be confused with Lemmings) disperse around the room to serve the congregation. Acolytes hover to provide more bread and wine when those LEMS run out. Ushers prompt each row when they should get in line. Kids get rowdy. People are standing up, sitting down, and walking up and down aisles everywhere you look. This portion of the service is filled with distractions, and it would be easy for the music to become “filler” while people either wait in line to receive, or wait in their seats while every one else does.
How do you lead the music in such a way that helps people focus on God’s amazing grace and not the distractions all around them? A few thoughts:
Set the tone from the beginning
Starting off with a song that isn’t intended for the congregation to sing – whether it’s an instrumental piece, a choir anthem, or a solo – can send a message that music is being performed for their listening pleasure and the corporate portion of the service will resume momentarily. But starting off with a congregational song helps keep the congregation engaged and involved. It will serve the congregation if instead of passively listening to music and watching the clock, they are actively singing songs that focus on the good news of the Gospel and articulating thanksgiving and praise. Set this tone from the beginning. It’s certainly possible to do this with a song that isn’t congregational or familiar to everyone, and it’s a good idea to not do things the same way every week. But in general, people are more engaged when they’re singing than they are when they’re listening.
Model heartfelt singing from up front
At any given point during our communion services yesterday morning, anyone who looked around the room would have had a lot of activity drawing their attention. LEMS, ushers, acolytes, cute babies, lines up and down the aisles, etc. As a worship leader, I can’t do anything about those distractions. But I can make sure that when people look at me, they see someone who is not just singing songs and filling time – but someone who is genuinely singing from his heart. If the worship team models this kind of singing to the congregation it will help put the distractions in perspective.
Offer encouragement from time to time
While a statement like “let’s sing that third verse again and thank God for his unending mercy” sounds really simple, occasionally offering brief, gentle, and appropriate words of encouragement can wake people up if their minds are starting to wander.
Don’t rush the ending
Nothing sends a message to the congregation that communion music is “filler” like stopping whatever song is being sung – regardless of where you are in the song – once the congregation is all back in their seats. Instead of bringing a song to an abrupt end, let it continue, encourage the congregation to stand, and have an extended time of singing after everyone has received communion. There may be reasons why you have to wrap it up quickly, but if you have some extra time, don’t rush it. Too many Anglican/liturgical churches miss opportunities to draw out times of singing because of the seeming urgency of what comes next in the liturgy. Sometimes it’s OK to relax!
Learn to live with the chaos
There’s no way to serve communion to 700 – 800 people, or even 50 – 100 people without there being a certain level of chaos. Getting stressed out won’t do you any good. Leading in settings like this are opportunities for you to grow in the area of patience, and in your love for the congregation you serve.