Worship Leaders--You're Killing Us!

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 singing out as the worship leader leads. 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, keep in mind that 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; band, worship leader, vocalists, tech 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, and how what we do affects others. 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, and none of the control to determine when that time is. 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 are super-easy. Thankfully, some of the newer versions of the software have gotten easier. Even so, making changes to the songs on the fly is a challenge. If you're planning on changing the way the song is sung, it's best to communicate that clearly to the presentation people early in the process so they have time to not only make the text change, but to ensure the formatting of the song remains consistent.

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, and the list goes on. At Upper Room (and many other churches I know) we try to put the song order together before Sunday to make rehearsal time more productive. But consider the challenge when we 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 when the presentation operator gets to the computer and sees that he has only a verse, a chorus, a bridge and an ending defined. Now, all the words may be in the computer, but they may not be called the same thing. In that case the above order could just as easily (and correctly) be written as:

V, Ch, Br, Inst, V2, Ch, End

How can this be? Simple—older versions of presentation software gave us 4 labels. So we had to figure out how to get a dozen part "types" into four labels. So the person who originally put the song in the database combined the pre-chorus and chorus repeat into a chorus. It works fine, until the worship leader wants to repeat the chorus without repeating the pre-chorus. This could be accomplished by simply creating "chorus 2" and using that instead. But can you tell from the first order what gets repeated? Not without a chart.

The woman who has been leading worship at Upper Room while we search for a permanent leader is quickly becoming my favorite worship leader because she supplies me with full-length charts of every song each week. If it's anything more than a simple verse & chorus song, she'll lay out every word she plans on singing, in order! This 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 this practice, 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. That way, 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 that to the best of our ability. What I don't support is 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, a few thousand, or more 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.

I can hear some out there saying, "But it's all about what the Spirit moves me to sing!" And that's great when you're in your car. When you're leading people in worship, it's not about you. And it's not about me. It's about leading the people of God into worship effectively and without distraction. When you're not singing what's on the screen because you went off script, the people get confused and the mood is broken. To be fair, presentation operators screw up too, but I'll tackle that in another column.

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 a challenge. 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 tiny 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 and second to last word 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 tries to figure out what to sing next. If the operator can only follow, the song will be broken at each slide break.

This is why it's so important that the worship leader and presentation operator being 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. To be fair, we 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!

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