Waiting Until the Song is Really Finished

There are two extremes when it comes to leading songs in corporate worship. One extreme is to spend too much time on a song and sing it for so long that people are sick of it. Another extreme is to plow straight through each song and hurry along without any consideration of whether the Holy Spirit might be giving different directions.

I shared some thoughts a few months ago on how to protect against the first extreme. Today I’d like to offer some encouragement to you if you seem to experience the latter problem (i.e. plowing through songs) instead.

As a worship leader, I notice this on my worship team when I hear the rustling of pages behind or beside me when we’ve finished the last verse or chorus of a song. I know that my fellow musicians are just trying to be ready for the next song, but many times they’re jumping the gun. I’m sensing the Holy Spirit directing us to linger on the song for a while, to go back and do a certain section again, and when I start to do that, my team isn’t with me. They’ve moved on before the song was really finished.

I notice it in myself too. I can get in a hurry when I’m leading, or get anxious, or be so focused on how we did it in rehearsal, that when the last verse or chorus of a song is done, my mind and my fingers and my heart have moved on. We launch into the next song and miss an opportunity to respond to God’s leading.

So I’m guilty of it, my worship team is guilty of it, and if you’re a worship leader, then you’re guilty of it too. Sometimes we have good reasons to move on quickly (i.e. honoring our pastor’s request to keep to a certain time), but most often we don’t have a good reason at all. We aren’t paying attention to the Holy Spirit’s leading.

Stop talking and listen
One way to be really bad at having a good conversation with people is to be thinking about what you’re going to say next as opposed to listening to what the other person is actually saying. The same principle applies to worship leading. Of course we know what song comes next and we’re thinking through how we’ll get there, but are we listening to the Holy Spirit at all? Sadly, sometimes the answer is no. Effective worship teams and worship leaders learn how to lead/play/sing while at the same time listening to the Holy Spirit.

Practice spontaneity
If you lock all your arrangements down 100% at rehearsal, then you probably will need to plow through it during the service. There are times this is necessary, and the larger your team (i.e. if an orchestra is playing with you) or the more complex your situation (i.e. a video is accompanying the song) the more likely you’ll need to stick with the script. But I hardly ever tell my worship team that we will absolutelydo a song a certain way. I might say we’ll most likely or almost certainly do it a certain way, but I try to resist locking everything down too tightly. Rehearse well and talk through how you’ll most likely do things. Leave yourselves some wiggle room, practice being spontaneous, and talk through how you’ll cue them to where you’re going. They’ll get used to it.

Don’t try to squeeze in a ton of songs
If you have 20 minutes and 5 songs, then there’s not really any room for lingering. 4 minutes each and you’re done. Picking too many songs for a certain amount of time usually results in plowing through them. Pick 4 songs instead and then you have 5 minutes for each one. Or try picking 3. You might not take 20 minutes, but maybe you will. You’ve left some space and some freedom for not having to rush through the songs.

Learn to savor
When I eat vegetables, I eat them as quickly as I can. This is because I hate vegetables. But when I eat a really good steak, I savor it. I eat it slowly. I don’t want it to end. I’m sad when I’m done with it. Why would I rush through a meal that I love? What’s the hurry? Well, maybe dessert, but you get my point. Worship leaders and worship teams that savor (or “enjoy”) God’s presence, will be more able to sense his leading.

As an aside, this is why monthly or bi-monthly worship team gatherings are such a necessity, and why having an unhurried time of singing and “practicing the presence of God” at those meetings will benefit your team immensely. If you’re learning to savor God’s presence and discern his leading when you’re not up front, you’ll be more comfortable with it when the weekend services come.

See it modeled
Some things can be taught and other things need to be caught. If you aren’t comfortable arranging songs loosely or throwing in unplanned repeats at the leading of the Holy Spirit, I would encourage you and/or your team to see it being modeled. The Sovereign Grace Worship Conference is a great place to see this and learn how it can be done effectively. Or find other worship conferences or worship leaders who seem to “get” this.

Few things will hinder you more as a worship leader than being in a hurry. The major reason why a lot of worship leaders hurry and rush through songs is because they’re afraid that if they leave space, or even a few moments of silence, people in the congregation will get impatient or start looking around at each other like the worship leader has no idea what’s supposed to happen next.

Relax. They aren’t going to think that. (If they do think that, it doesn’t make any difference, by the way.) Take a few moments, or even longer, and before you move onto the next song, listen to whether or not the Holy Spirit is telling you to go back. These can be some of the sweetest times of corporate worship, so let’s try to avoid plowing through them if we can.

6 thoughts on “Waiting Until the Song is Really Finished”

  1. I’ll admit to being guilty of this, but I’ll also say that leading worship is not a full-time thing for me. I help out as needed and try to be mindful of things like this. When leading, I’ll generally try to plan these out more in advance than anything else to fit the message and such. If I were doing it more regularly than not, I’d definitely be trying to learn all of the above because I don’t do spontaneity well. 🙂 Definitely bookmarking this for the future in case I do start leading worship semi-regularly.

    Sadly, we tend much more the opposite way – “Let’s sing this chorus again after 6 times through.” There comes a point when it feels more like vain repetition than worship and gets distracting, but I’m pretty sure that’s more me than the general congregation.

  2. YES! Dude this rocks.

    You said, “Practice Spontaneity.” This is a great point – also for Peter’s comment above. I’ve tried to communicate this idea by saying, “plan on being spontaneous.” I think I’m good at spontaneous – but what i’m not naturally good at is leading the rest of the team through it. I was spontaneous one service and they all just STOPPED PLAYING and I was on my own (that sounds crazy but that actually happened).

    So in my next rehearsal, I told everyone one “road map” of the song (the order that I intended to do it for the service). But secretly, I prepared a second road map that would be a little more spontaneous (going to the Bridge another time or something). Then I practiced the “spontaneous” road map when nobody but me knew what was going on. This not only helped loosen up the team and encouraged them to “flow with it,” but it helped me lead better. I learned how I needed to communicate things to everyone; I learned how to give effective voice cues and how my left shoulder and hip can communicate a million things to the drummer. I PLANNED to leave the plan. And then I told the team to be ready for whatever.

    I don’t want to hijack, but I’d like to extend this bit further. It is for this “spontaneous” reason that I rarely will do LONG song introductions like on the CD. I want the freedom to talk or pray between songs, and if the next song’s introduction is a perfectly shaped 16 bars – that’s a lot more difficult! (Plus I think the familiar intros on songs cause the congregation to start worshiping the SONG rather than Jesus. Think about the applause that occurs on a CD when the intro starts in.)

    My takeaway from this is the # of songs. That was a good word. I’m going to start cutting some songs outta there. I loved this: “You might not take 20 minutes. But maybe you will.” Great perspective. Who cares if I’m short on time? (I know a few people that will be glad:/).

  3. Great thoughts on this, Jamie!

    Practical questions:
    What consideration do you give to having the slides match where you are in the song? What software do you use/recommend?

  4. So, if my lead pastor sent me a link to this post… do you think he is trying to tell me something?

    Actually I am guilty of plowing through the songs sometimes. Thanks for the post.

  5. Hi Jamie,

    Thanks so much for this post!

    For someone like me who’s not leading with an instrument in hand, are there some good ways to control the flow in between songs for the times when I’d want to linger in the moment for a bit?

    Sometimes I wish our keyboard player could read my mind, lol. And I’m not sure how to communicate with him if I want us to hold some place…

  6. @Cyrus:

    If you’re between songs, want to linger, and you don’t play an instrument… here’s a good “fail safe.”

    Tell your keyboard player to play a I-IV progression repeating. In the Key of D, that’s D-G. In E, that’s E-A, in G, that’s G-C. In A, that’s A-D. Just have him do 4 counts on each beat while you talk, pray, read scripture, or be silent or whatever.

    So that’d look like (in the Key of G)
    GGGG – CCCC- GGGG – CCCC (repeating)

    … that’s a very very basic transition to just keep things “linger-ish.” There are a million other more complicated and more pretty things to do, but this is a good, basic, easy, all around safe way to “linger.”

    And Cyrus – read my post above. I suggest you discuss this plan with the keyboard player (and/or band) and then PLAN to be spontaneous during rehearsal.

    And to your specific point – I would work out some sort of hand signal for the keyboard player to know that he oughtta “keep it going.” The more you do this stuff in rehearsal, the better they’ll follow you and the better they’ll get at it.

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