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.

How Often Should I Introduce New Songs?

How often worship leaders should introduce new songs is an incredibly important question.

Someone recently wrote and asked me this question and here’s how I answered:

Week one: Teach Song A

Week two: Do Song A again somewhere in the service. If it’s a slow song, do it during communion or at the end of a set. If it’s an upbeat song, do it first thing, and ease into it.

Week three: Teach Song B.

Week four: Do Song A again. Do Song B again somewhere in the service where it fits.

Week five: Don’t teach anything new. Give people a break.

Week six: Teach Song C.

Week seven: Do Song A or Song B again. Repeat Song C again somewhere in the service.

Week eight: Do one of the three new songs you’ve taught. Don’t teach anything else.

So in the course of roughly two months, you’ve taught 3 new songs, and repeated each one at least twice. This gives you enough experience with the song to know whether it’s a keeper, whether it should be put on the bench, or whether it should be canned.

Out of those three new songs you’ve done in two months, two might stick around in your repertoire. More realistically, out of three new songs, only one will really become a regular song. There are exceptions, of course.

As I look back over a year, usually I’ve added 6-8 solid new songs to the repertoire. Another 4-6 are in the repertoire but still needing some time to simmer. Another 4 – 6 songs are put back on the shelf.

Adding too many new songs overwhelms a congregation. Not introducing any can deaden them. Find the right balance for your congregation of building their confidence by singing familiar songs, and spending some of that capital you’ve earned on stretching them with new songs.