How to maintain a flow of worship

Chief Allan Hewey from Maine emailed us asking for advice on keeping the worship momentum going. He was particularly looking for some practical tips to keep the congregations’ focus heavenward.

This is a really interesting question and in unpacking it we need to consider how different churches approach this – it can be a very “culturally created” approach. For instance, the Vineyard and Soul Survivor will have typically an intensive worship time where the musicians will flow fairly seamlessly from one song to the next with very little in terms of spoken word or discernable gaps. Contrast this with a Baptist church where we were recently teaching. The (non musician) worship leader would introduce a song with almost a mini sermon, or certainly a verbal reflection on the lyrics. The band would then play and the worship leader would then verbally reflect again on the words, perhaps within a prayer before introducing the next song.

Either approach, and the many options within that spectrum can be equally helpful or unhelpful. It depends on what works culturally, and what is helpful to your congregation in drawing them closer to God, much of which will depend on what they are used to. We all tend to fall back on the familiar so it might be helpful for worship leaders to deliberately try a different approach from time to time perhaps learning from other church styles. Remember that people take time to adjust to change so you may need to try it a few times for people to get used to.

The key thing is to be aware of what you are trying to achieve. For many, a ‘time of worship’ is really like a musical based mediation where the act of engaging with a song’s lyrics helps people focus their thoughts, desires and prayers towards God and disengage from the myriad of other things going on in their brains. So therefore would repeating a verse of a song become boring or actually help people get a hold of the lyric? Would a prayer between a song help articulate people’s worship or distract them from participating? Would a faster song help them release the joy they are feeling towards God or would it make them feel like they are being ‘wound up’ when they want to be still and listen? Would silence allow people time to prayer in their minds or would it be uncomfortable? Would playing very loud put people off or cause them to move, dance, sing etc in an abandoned way? Would reading out a liturgy together with as much gusto as the congregation could muster be releasing and help people get excited about their faith or would it be cheesy and awkward? Would segueing between songs bring excitement as worshippers discover the songs meaning in a fresh way or would it make the whole set feel like one long boring, mid tempo song? Would reading a poem help bring a sense of community offering or would peoples minds wander as they couldn’t join in themselves?

For any of these the answer could be either depending on your congregations demographic, what they are used to, how often change is introduced, whether a different artistic expression seems new or clichéd, even the time of the day and how awake they feel!

So therefore don’t be afraid to try new things, but also don’t assume that an expression that went well last time will work every time. So you do need to look, listen and try to intuit how the congregation is responding and act accordingly – the job of the artist! But don’t be afraid to have a go! Mix it up; see how your congregation responds. Try to help them come off autopilot and realise that TODAY we are worshipping. Just don’t fall into the rut of doing something because ‘that’s what we always do here to worship’

Let’s look at some practical tips:

You can use different song tempos and speeds to help people engage – choose songs that flow well from one to another in terms of tempo or mood – Any sudden changes can throw people – which may be exactly what you want to do.

Say you don’t have the most technically competent band, they all need to have a chord chart, and are all quite nervous of improvisation and moving seamlessly from some to song. What can you do to help?

Firstly, you will need to work out and practice the segues in advance, its less likely to go wrong if you are following a formula that’s been rehearsed. Yes, it may not feel very “spirit led” or improvised, but it will be a chance for your novice musicians to learn and develop. The crucial thing here is to rehearse again and again, the junctions between the songs. They are the tricky bits so rehearse them lots more than you run through the full song.

In terms of keys it will help if you choose songs in the same key, or a key that you can flow easily into.

Some advice on keys:

  • You can choose a song selection where the keys increase (get higher) to give the set a sense of lift and momentum.
  • Conversely you can drop a key (hymns often lend themselves to drop a tone for a verse and then come up again – this works well for a hymn like Crown Him with Many Crowns where you create a nice sense of tension and release).
  • Dropping or raising a tone and singing with more gusto will add nicely to your dynamics and flow
  • Moving in fifths, for instance moving form a song in E to a song in B, feels quite natural, however the skill if you are keeping playing (i.e. not stopping) is to modulate into the new key so that your congregation have a sense of the new root note. There are lots of ways of modulating into different keys but an easy way is to use what is called a 5-1 cadence – this means that whatever key you go into you play the fifth chord in the new key just before you start on the root chord. So, for instance, in the Key of E if the song finished with the chords A B & E, and you wanted to go into the key of B, you could play A, B E then play the fifth in the key of B which is F#maj and then the B – this will give an audible cue that the song has modulated into a new key.

Four words of caution:

  • The first chord in the song is often but not always the root note! Go to our article from April 2007 for advice on working what key a song is in.
  • If you are changing songs into new keys to better suit your flow, then do make sure that a) your musicians are all aware of the new key and b) that the top and bottom ranges of the song are still singable. And do check them out in advance, even if they are singable, not all songs work well in every key
  • If your intention is to move seamlessly from one song to another, its not going to work if you are needing to put a capo on or wait for your keyboard player to hit the transpose button – so make sure you can all play in the key its written inIf your musicians are using chord charts, make sure they have them laid out side by side on their music stands so you are not interrupting the flow scrapping through reams of paper.

One other suggestion on helping with flow is to introduce some “bridges”. There are sections of songs (such as the chorus from the Hillsong song The Stand) which dovetail well into all sorts of other songs. Again, just adjust the key of the bridge song to suit the original. You could bring in elements of old hymns – the chorus from Oh Come All Ye Faithful perhaps. These are well used examples but keep your ear out for sections that you could lift to bring new life to another song. And take notes from other worship leaders you may see at conferences – those song choices and sequences can feature in your future set lists too.