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.

The Holy Spirit Knows Things in Advance

I was once talking with a worship leader who never picked out his set lists in advance during the week. He would show up to church on Sunday morning, “see how the Holy Spirit led him”, and pick his songs at the last minute.

It was as if the Holy Spirit didn’t know on Monday what he would be doing on Sunday. This may be true of humans, but it certainly isn’t true of God. God, in his sovereignty, knows all things. What may be hidden from us is not hidden from him. For me, this past weekend was a supreme reminder of that truth.

Late Saturday night, a dear man in our congregation who had served as our senior warden (an elder-like position in an Anglican church), and been a great encouragement to me and countless others over the years, tragically died as a result from complications from heart surgery. This particular surgery is successful 99% of the time. This was one of the 1%.

I didn’t hear the news until about 30 minutes before our service. This wasn’t nearly enough time to change any of the songs, and thankfully, because of the Holy Spirit’s leading, I didn’t need to.

Our pastor announced this news to our congregation after a few opening songs, and it was a shock to people. He wisely reminded us that because of this man’s faith in Jesus Christ, he was now a part of the company of heaven, gathered around the throne of God, worshipping at that very moment. And, he said, if Mike could somehow be aware of what was going on on earth, he would tell us to “get on with the praise”. With this, our opening time of singing continued.

Here are the three songs we then sang. I picked them all the Monday before.

1. Revelation Song
Focusing us on the unfathomable greatness of God, seated in on the throne, surrounded by “rainbows of living color, flashes of lightning, rolls of thunder”, with all creation singing “praise to the King of kings”.

2. Before the Throne of God Above
Reminding us that before this awesome throne of God we have a “perfect plea”, Jesus, because of whom “no tongue can ever bid me thence depart”, and “I cannot die”.

3. All to Us
Reminding us that Jesus is all we have now and forever, closing with the truth that “when this passing world is over, we will see (him) face to face, and forever we will worship. Jesus you are all to us”.

These songs provided a powerful way to respond and process the news of a tragic death in light of the good news of the Gospel.

And I can take no credit for choosing them intentionally for this purpose, since I obviously had no idea what would take place just 12 hours before our service. But God did. One gift of being led by the Spirit is that we can trust him to lead us in the path of wisdom, even in choosing songs. The Holy Spirit led me, six days in advance, to choose songs to help the congregation respond to an event that none of us would have ever predicted.

Having said all this, there are certainly times I’ve prayed over something, chosen a set list, felt a great peace about it, and then at the very last minute or during the service itself, because of the leading of the Holy Spirit, made a change. God moves in mysterious ways and we can never presume to have it all buttoned down in advance. That’s foolishness.

But, it’s equally as foolish, if not more so, to think that things are hidden from the Holy Spirit, therefore to get the latest updates from him as he becomes aware of current developments, we can’t plan in advance. Pray and plan. Pray and plan. But be willing to lay the plans down if and when you need to. 

The Four-Legged Stool of Discernment

Learning how to discern the leading of the Holy Spirit during a time of corporate worship can be challenging. It’s a bit like learning to walk. You start out a bit wobbly, and even after you’ve “gotten it”, you still trip over yourself from time to time.

To lead worship in a Spirit-led way simply means to lead in submission to the sovereign will of God at every turn, as much as we know how. Our planning is good and necessary, but God’s plan is better. And as much as we seek to be led by the Spirit in our planning, we still can’t be arrogant enough to know in advance exactly how God is going to move. Only he does. And so when the service begins we offer our planning up to him and ask him to bless and use it – but also to guide us and lead us by his Spirit to follow his sovereign will.

And this can be hard. So much goes into a service, and so much is going on during a service, that there are all sorts of pressures and competing voices in our head that make it hard to know the Holy Spirit’s leading. He doesn’t usually announce his promptings on a billboard or with a bullhorn. So we doubt whether what we’re hearing is the Holy Spirit or our own preferences. We stick with safety. We wonder what could have been. Or we go the opposite way and follow every whim that comes into our head and we lose all sense of order.  How does a worship leader discern the direction of the Holy Spirit during a service? I like to think of it as four-legged stool.

1. What does God’s word have to say?
No matter how strong the urge, how great the song, how many people agree, or how cool an idea, the Holy Spirit won’t lead you to do something that conflicts with the infallible word of God that he inspired. God’s word is authoritative and can be trusted to lead you in the right direction.

This is particularly applicable when you feel prompted to say something, or lead people in a spontaneous song, or some other form of verbal expression. If it doesn’t fit with God’s word, then it’s not God’s leading. The lyrics to the songs, the words you say, the expressions and articulations you encourage, and the atmosphere you cultivate must be in conformity with God’s word or else you’re in conflict with the leading of his Spirit.

2. What do you hear?
God gave you ears for a reason. You’ve got to use them when you’re leading worship to discern where the Holy Spirit is leading.

Listen for the sound of unified, enthusiastic singing to provide a confirmation that you’re on the right track. Conversely, listen for the sound of distracted talking, confused melodies, or ho-hum singing to tip you off that the Holy Spirit might be nudging you to adjust your leading.

See, this isn’t all rocket science. The Holy Spirit might not declare his promptings on a billboard, but he’s also not trying to make things difficult for you. Listen. Your ears won’t tell you everything – as sometimes even what you hear can deceive you. But your ears are one very important leg of the stool.

3. What do you see?
Likewise, God has given you eyes. Look at the people you’re leading. Open your eyes. Turn the house lights on. Look around the room. What do you see?

You can’t tell everything from what you see. There will be people who stand there like statues who are actually deeply engaged with God. And there will be people who dance in the aisles and wave their arms around who have no idea what’s going on and whose hearts are far from God.

But you can tell a lot from what you see. If people just aren’t that into it, you might need to move on to the next song. If people are enthusiastically engaged, you might need to linger a bit longer before moving on. You’ll learn to read the room the more time you spend with them, and you’ll often find the Holy Spirit giving you cues based on what’s happening before your very eyes.

4. What do you sense?
When God wants to get my attention during a service, I’ll often sense it in my stomach. I’ll have an uneasy butterflies-in-my-stomach sensation that won’t go away and is an indication that the Holy Spirit is trying to get something across to me. Then I’ll try to focus as clearly as I can on what he might be saying. This comes in the form of a word, a phrase, an idea, a song, etc. It’s different every time.

And God speaks to us all in different ways. For some people it’s more of an intellectual thing. For others, like me, it’s more of a physical sensation. Don’t discount something you’re “sensing” and assume it’s just nerves. Maybe it is – but maybe it isn’t. Chew on it, think on it, and pray on it for a moment. Maybe even add a few empty measures into the song while you listen and discern.

Just seek to be obedient to the Holy Spirit’s prompting. It really is like learning to walk. You’ll get more confident as you go along, and even though you’ll still trip over yourself from time to time, you can move forward again once you’ve gotten your balance.

You Can Come to Me

This past Sunday afternoon I led about 30 minutes of worship in song at the beginning of an afternoon healing service at my church. These services usually have three elements: singing, teaching, and then an open-ended time of prayer ministry.

After we had sung two songs, I had an impression from the Lord that there were several people who, because of feelings of condemnation or fear, were reluctant to “draw near to God” (James 4:8). So I sang a spontaneous song, conveying God’s heart that people draw near to him through Jesus Christ. Several people asked me for the words afterwards, and I thought I’d share the song on here in the event that this is an encouragement to you.

Why do you stand far away from me?
Why do you stand in fear?
I have made a way for you to come to me
And I am waiting here

There is no sin I did not bear
There is no sin that I did not take to the grave
But I rose again, I rose again
And I am your risen Savior

And you can come to me
Yes, you can come to me
And my grace is free
Poured out on Calvary

Why do you stand under the weight of condemnation?
There is none in Christ.
Why do you look on the old things?
For I give you new life

And you can come to me
You can come to me right now
‘Cause my grace is free, freely given
Poured out on Calvary

Unending love, unending grace, unending mercy
For you
Free for you

You can come to me
I will wash you clean
Don’t stand far from me
Come close. I am here

Praying for Unction

Unction isn’t a word you hear very often these days, but maybe that’s not such a good thing.

Tullian Tchividjian, the pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, recently shared on his blog about how his “heart burns” for God’s “sacred anointing”, or “unction”.

While his post is written for preachers, I wanted to share it here because worship leading is another form of preaching. Every week, worship leaders have 15, 20, 30, or more minutes to point their congregations to the greatness and glory of God in Jesus Christ through music. So, read this post and where you see the words “preaching” or “preachers” – insert “worship leading” or “worship leaders”. May we all pray for God’s sacred anointing, his unction, every single time we get up to lead.


I’m a die-hard believer in unction. Unction is an old fashioned word which describes an effusion of power from the Holy Spirit as one preaches. It is the one thing preachers need above everything else. It is the accompanying power of the Spirit. This is what Charles Spurgeon dubbed “the sacred annointing.” It is power from on high.

In his book on the preaching of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Sacred Annointing, Tony Sargent describes unction well. He writes:

[Unction] is the afflatus of the Spirit resting on the speaker. It is the preacher gliding on eagles’ wings, soaring high, swooping low, carrying and being carried along by a dynamic other than his own. His consciousness of what is happening is not obliterated. He is not in a trance. He is being worked on but is aware that he is still working. He is being spoken through but he knows he is still speaking. The words are his but the facility with which they come compels him to realise that the source is beyond himself. The man is overwhelmed. He is on fire.

Oh how my heart burns for this sacred annointing, this unction! I hope and pray that preachers all over the world would spend much of their sermon preparation time begging God for this power on high. For, it is preachers who are borne along by the Holy Spirit that are used to effect a deep and sobering awareness of God and his truth that transforms.

In his book Lloyd-Jones: Messenger of Grace, Iain Murray writes:

Preaching under the annointing of the Holy Spirit is preaching which brings with it a consciousness of God. It produces an impression upon the hearer that is altogether stronger than anything belonging to the circumstances of the occasion. Visible things fall into the background; the surroundings, the fellow worshippers, even the speaker himself, all become secondary to an awareness of God himself. Instead of witnessing a public gathering, the hearer receives the conviction that he is being addressed personally, and with an authority greater than that of a human messenger.

Given the fact that the ultimate factor in the church’s engagement with society is the church’s engagement with God, my earnest prayer is that, for the sake of the world, more preachers would come to know and understand what Andrew Bonar meant when he wrote: “It is one thing to bring truth from the Bible, and another to bring it from God himself through the Bible.”

Please pray, dear friends, that God would annoint my mind and mouth on Sunday as I preach so that God’s people would hear from God. Please pray that God’s Spirit would so inhabit my words that everyone would leave worship tomorrow being able to say, “God was surely in that place.”

I can’t manufacture unction regardless of how well crafted my sermon is and how well prepared I may be. The biggest work must come from God.

So, come thou fount of every blessing and do for your people what I cannot. Amen.

Read Tullian’s post here.