Worship Leaders, You’re Killing Us – guest post from Mike Sessler

Worship Leaders, You’re Killing Us – guest post from Mike Sessler



The scene repeats itself over and over again every weekend–perhaps even in your church. It’s worship time, and the band is rockin’. The congregation is completely caught up in the worship experience. Eschewing hymnals as old-fashioned, the words are projected on 2 large screens above the stage. As the worship leader looks out over the worshiping throng, he (or she) internally reflects on the goodness of God, and decides to repeat the verse. Suddenly the congregation appears confused and stops singing. About halfway through they start up again, but the mood of the moment is obviously broken. What went wrong? That darn presentation computer operator messed up again! Or did they?

Now before we go any further, I should acknowledge that I’m a techie. I’ve been a volunteer tech and a staff technical arts director for a combined 2 decades. Still, I’m all about being a team player. I really try to not differentiate between the band and the tech team when referring to the worship team. In my mind, we are all the worship team. Together we are allowed to lead God’s people into worship. Unfortunately, we don’t often spend enough time learning about each other’s roles. It is in that spirit that I write today’s post.
I would argue that the presentation operator’s job is one of the most stressful in a worship service. They have all the responsibility of ensuring the right words are on the screen at the right time, yet no control to determine that time. Should the worship leader deviate, they have less than a second or two to find the right part of the song and get it to the screen. It’s a huge challenge and responsibility.

It’s not a Word.doc
I think one of the most common misconceptions of worship leaders is that the software used to put the words up on the screen is a lot like Word and that changes should happen almost instantaneously. Thankfully, some of the newer versions of the software have gotten easier. Still, it takes both effort and attention to detail to alter the wording or order of a song and make sure it retains the proper formatting, slide order and contains no spelling errors (would you believe that some presentation software still doesn’t spell-check?).

Understand too–this is not about a resistance to changing the way a song is entered in the computer. It’s not that big a deal to change it–we just don’t want to hear about the change in passing as you leave the stage 5 minutes before the doors open. It’s far better (for you and us) to work it out early in the day and communicate clearly.

Communication is Key
Presentation software is like a database. It pieces together parts of songs in the right order and presents them on cue. It’s brilliantly simple in concept. However, the challenge is trying to decide what parts to present when. Songs can have all kinds of parts; verses, choruses, bridges, pre-choruses, refrains, tags, endings. Normally, I put the song order together before Sunday to make rehearsal time more productive. But consider the challenge when I get an order like this:
V, Pre-Ch, Ch x2, Br, Inst, V2, Pre-Ch, Ch x2, Br x2, Tag, End

Looks easy right? Except there is no indication of what words go with those parts. My favorite worship leaders supply very detailed charts that include not only the order (which we call the scan), but also clearly define each part of the song. Some songs are very obvious–How Great Thou Art for example; four verses and a chorus. Others are slightly more complicated–Crowder’s Make a Joyful Noise; try to figure out which part of that song is a bridge!. Having a clear chart completely eliminates the confusion of simply supplying abbreviations because regardless of what a part is called, we can make sure the words are in order.

I highly recommend clear charts, at least until you have a solid book of songs that both the tech team and worship leader are comfortable with, and all parts are well defined. I spent some time in the youth department of my last church putting together a song list that matched the worship team book. After a while, we could use shorthand and not get burned.

Stick to the Script
I fully appreciate that sometimes the spirit of the room dictates that you add an extra repeat of the chorus, or throw in an alternate ending for a song. There are times when people get wrapped up in the song and it makes sense to keep singing it. I support that and want to accommodate an organic style of worship. What I don’t support is worship leaders not bothering to actually learn the song and stick with the order you gave us. I’ve worked with worship leaders in the past whose song order, let alone verse/chorus order could be considered a guide at best. This might work great when sitting around in a living room with a dozen people, but when there are a few hundred (or a few thousand) people trying to worship God and the only thing they have to go on are the words on the screen, it’s a recipe for disaster.

You might be thinking, “What’s the big deal? It’s all on the computer, follow along!” Two problems with that theory. Problem 1: Presentation software is generally pretty linear. It’s designed to move through a song in order. It’s possible to go back, but it’s easier in some software than others. To go back, first the operator has to figure out where you went. Are you repeating verse 1 or 2? The bridge or pre-chorus? Then he/she has to scroll back (or look at thumbnails) and find the part you’re repeating, and once found, fire the slide. Depending on how many lines of the song are on the screen at once, by the time the operator figures out where you are, you could be somewhere else.

Problem 2: The presentation operator should be leading the lyrics, not following. Good presentation operators will change slides somewhere in the space between the last two words on a slide. This puts the next set of words up before anyone has to sing them. This style of “leading” ensures there will be an uninterrupted flow of worship, not punctuated by fits and starts as the congregation waits for the next section of the song. If the operator has to follow, the flow will be broken at each slide break.

This is why it’s so important that the worship leader and presentation operator are on the same page to effectively lead the congregation together. Worship leaders, if you’re willing to plan ahead and communicate effectively with us, we can work together to create engaging, powerful and immersive worship times. The more information the presentation operator has at their disposal, the better the experience will be for everyone.

As a suggested best practice, what we do is have our worship leader check through the lyrics with the presentation operator before soundcheck. By then the tech has ordered the slides according to the scan (which I get on Thursday, and verify the proper labeling of sections for each song). Minor changes can happen at point and both leader and technician know the plan. If, during the service, our worship leader feels the need to repeat something or change it up, he’ll call it out before he goes there. A simple “Sing Glorious One,” during a quick 2 bar break gives the operator time to find the right slide and get it on the screen.

To be fair, we technicians need to do our part, pay attention and make sure the right words are up at the right time. But like I said, that’s another post! Thanks for reading.

This is a guest post by Mike Sessler, a Tech Arts Director and creator of an incredibly useful website full of info and insight into the technical side of worship. Mike has created a page just for Musicademy readers with links of posts he thinks you will find helpful so do click through and have a read.

Mike will be contributing new posts from a tech perspective in the future. If there are particualar areas you would like him to cover, please post your comments below. And do let us know what you think of this post too!