Over the 20+ years I’ve been involved with church production, I’ve worked with a great many worship leaders. During that time, it’s become clear that there is a continuum that worship leaders tend to fall on; one that I call Predictable to Unpredictable. On the predictable end of the scale, the worship leader will develop a plan, then faithfully execute that plan each service. It’s not that the Spirit doesn’t move them—in fact the Spirit is deeply involved in developing the plan—it just happens earlier in the week.
The unpredictable WL will sometimes have a form of a plan, but usually it’s a bit of a moving target. I’ve worked with some who come up with a song list a few hours before the service, and will sing the song differently each time. They live completely in the moment, and expect everyone to follow along.
It’s important to note that one is not better than the other. The styles are vastly different, and how we as technical artists prepare for each style has to adapt. This is also a continuum; most fall somewhere in between, not at the edges. And when I say predictable, I mean from a production standpoint. The idea is that those of us in the booth either know (or can at least predict) what is going to happen, or we will be on our toes the whole service waiting to see what’s going to happen next.
Our church is a good case study of this lately. Our former worship leader was quite predictable. I had worked with him for four years, which led to a great deal of trust and non-verbal communication between us. I could look at a set list and have a really good idea how he would approach the song. That led to one approach to preparing for the weekend. Our current WL is nearer to the unpredictable end of the scale. The song order is pretty set, but the verse-chorus oder is more like Parlay. She might talk a the beginning, or the end or not at all. And it might be different each time. That requires a different approach to preparing.
So here are some thoughts I’ve put together over the years of working with the WLs all up and down the spectrum.
For the Predictable:
Automate More, Refine More
When I know what is going to happen, I can use automation to handle a higher number of changes. I’m not afraid to change FX settings during a song, for example, because I know when and where it’s going to happen. I will usually program more lighting cues, and really lay out ProPresenter exactly how it’s going to go.
We’ll even break into the per-slide transition times in ProPresenter to further refine the presentation. Lights will be timed exactly to builds, and I’ll work really hard on getting my FX just right because I have several opportunities to make them just right (and because I remember how we did it last time, so I have a good starting point).
Shoot for Excellence in Execution
I love the thrill of knowing we nailed the cues during a service. Yes, I know the goal is to create an atmosphere where people can connect with God; I get that. But the technical artist in me still loves to pull off a technically excellent service—one where all the lighting, audio and visual cues were in perfect sync with what was happening on the stage.
And when you get there, there is nothing distracting anyone from the message. The service just seems to flow effortlessly, which frees the congregation up to worship and hear from God.
For the Unpredictable:
Keep Your Options Open
When the WL sings the song slightly differently each time, there is no sense in going crazy trying to put together an arrangement in ProPresenter. Just keep all the slides on the screen and go where they go. You really have to know the song, read the cues, and pay attention, but you can still do it. You might need to cut down on lighting cues, or even busk it, just coming up with a bunch of looks and picking whichever feels right at the moment.
In audio world, you’re likely to automate less and have more things on VCAs so you can change more quickly. I haven’t put my vocal FX on a VCA for a long time (haven’t needed to), but recently did because I kept getting burned when my WL would start talking at the beginning of a song after the snapshot brought the FX up.
Hold Production Values Loosely
It’s tough to nail the cues when you don’t know what they are. It’s really tough for your volunteers to perfectly execute when things are changing on the fly—remember, they don’t do this for a living. So we have to back off and do the best we can.
My friend Van often coaches his audio students to not worry about creating the most technically perfect mix. Instead, he pushes them to create a mix that feels good. If we try to overproduce a loosely defined service, we will be a distraction—mainly because we’ll keep having awkward transitions that didn’t time out right. But when we loosen it up and roll with the tide, it will feel much better.
Both Are Challenging
As I said, neither style is better than the other. Each presents it’s challenges to the production team. If we fail to adequately prepare for a predictable WL, we will look like we don’t know what we’re doing. If we can’t be flexible with the unpredictable, we will create distractions. Each style demands it’s own approach, and our systems and processes will reflect the style.
Of course, if you have both styles at your church and they alternate, you have yet another challenge (I’ve been there as well). That demands extreme flexibility on your part and requires you to put a lot of thought into how you best handle both. But that time is well spent as you will be able to help create better services for your church; and then everyone wins!