You can never really know for sure – until the service is actually underway – how your congregation will respond during a time of corporate worship. Try as we may to predict what songs will really “work”, or when we might need to say something, or how the Holy Spirit might be prompting us in unplanned directions, we can’t be 100% certain until we’re in the middle of it. And even then it’s not always so clear!
But while it’s unrealistic (and unwise) to assume we know how people will respond to certain songs or at certain points, worship leaders can (and should) anticipate how the congregation might respond. Let me give you a couple examples.
The beginning of a service
When I start off a service with an upbeat, celebratory, loud song, it’s a relatively safe prediction that the congregation – having just come in from a stressful morning, family dynamics, parking the car, dropping the kids off at Sunday school, finding a seat, and devoting little (if any) time to preparing for worship – might need some encouragement.
If this prediction is wrong, and from the very first beat most people seemed engaged and enthusiastic, then I’ll just be grateful to God for a miracle! But since there seems to be a pattern of the congregation displaying a bit of that deer-in-the-headlights look at this point in the service most Sundays, I should plan ahead and think through how we can arrange the song, what I could say, or what Psalm we could read to help people respond with more understanding. I’m anticipating how the congregation might respond, so that I’m ready in case I’m right.
Singing a hymn (or an older song)
It’s always a temptation for us to tune-out at certain point when we’re singing on Sunday mornings – especially on songs we’ve sung for years and years. Whether it’s a hymn or just a song we’ve sung for a long time, it’s a safe bet that when you launch into “Amazing Grace”, a good number of people will be singing on auto-pilot. Maybe not, but probably so. When I’m planning a service and preparing to lead an old song or a hymn, I’m going to anticipate that this might happen, and think through what the best way to help keep people engaged would be.
The longer you serve a particular congregation, the more accurately you’ll be able to anticipate how they might respond. But with experience and, most importantly, the help of the Holy Spirit, as you plan services and choose songs, you’ll be able to prepare for teachable moments, transitions, words of encouragement, instruction, and specific arrangements that will serve the congregation more effectively.
Every Sunday presents different dynamics (late-Summer or mid-snowstorm), every church is different (formal/liturgical or charismatic), and every group responds in different ways (a small group in a living room or a thousand people in an auditorium). No worship leader, regardless of how long he or she has been leading, can ever know in advance exactly how all these different dynamics will come together.
But the same Holy Spirit who is at work in the midst of corporate worship is also at work in your planning and preparation. He will often give you a hunch about what’s coming up – and it’s usually a good idea to prepare for those hunches just in case.