Worship Whiplash: Learning the Art of Transition

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We’ve all been there. The service begins with a joyful call to worship and prayer. The band plays the opening song, upbeat and full of praise. As the service continues, the worship leader intentionally leads the congregation through songs and scripture, the moment quietly comes to a prayerful close…

…and up hops the pastor to enthusiastically remind the congregation of the church rummage and bake sale coming up next week!

Whiplash.

In a moment the congregation is ripped from a time of communion with the Lord and into a litany of announcements. I find this all too common in many church worship services. Transitions become low on the totem pole of priorities in service planning in favor of focusing on the main elements and fitting everything into a one hour and fifteen minute service.

I was an elementary school music teacher for one year. (It was clearly not my life calling.) One of the things my supervising teacher emphasized to me was this: “Practice your transitions. If these are smooth, the rest will fall into place.”

When you’re working with 24 six-year-olds, it’s important to know your next step well before you get there so you know how to get from point A to point B without losing them! We can obviously give our congregations much more credit than a classroom of first graders, but there is a key lesson to be taken from that classroom: when you are leading a group of people, transitions matter.

Why do transitions matter?

Did that pastor who jumped up to announce the rummage/bake sale have intent to snap people out of a moment? Likely, no. But it is likely that he or she looked at a flow-chart of the service, saw what his or her part was, and took little notice of what was preceding or following. In doing so, this created a moment of disorientation for the congregation.

Communication regarding transitions is vital, especially when multiple people are involved in leading the service. Taking an extra ten minutes during the week to talk through all the elements of the service with all who are involved is absolutely worth it.

Transitions are about hospitality for the congregation. When we as leaders clumsily move from one piece of the service to another, it becomes a distraction. The focus moves away from engaging with God and on to the awkward pause. When done well, transitions aren’t noticed. So rather than leaving the congregation fidgeting in the uncomfortable moments, or being yanked from a quiet moment to a loud video, we need to take the time to examine the worship service and imagine what the experience will be like as a whole.

Here are a few practical things we can do each week to prevent worship whiplash:

  1. Worship leaders:
    • Communicate with your pastor! Let him or her know your plans musically, so he or she has an idea of what the atmosphere will be when the baton is passed.
    • Be intentional in your song and scripture choice each week. Rather than choosing songs that seem to musically fit well, focus on the lyrics and the overall message that is being conveyed. Does it make sense without the music?
    • Personally prepare any verbal transitions between songs/scripture. Brief, focused words to give exhortation or explanation can be immensely helpful and truly enhance the time of worship. Wandering, unprepared words will not!
    • Practice transitions from one song to another with your worship team. Be specific about musical transitions including which instruments will play and what chord progression will be used. Include any spoken words or prayers in this rehearsal to give your team a sense of where the worship time is headed.
    • Be sensitive to the movement of the Holy Spirit.
  2. Pastors:
    • Communicate with your worship leader! Looking at a flow-chart will not give you all the information you need to know. You may look at a song and know how it is usually played and assume it will be the same. Your worship leader might have other ideas. Talk to make sure you’re on the same page.
    • You may need to make a transition from a quiet prayer time to an announcement about a bake sale. Consider ways to make that announcement in a pastoral manner that is aware of what the Spirit may be doing in that moment. Is the rummage/bake sale for an upcoming youth retreat? Perhaps you could turn the announcement into an opportunity for prayer!
    • Be sensitive to the movement of the Holy Spirit.

Notice I mentioned communication for both the pastor(s) and worship leader? This should be a non-negotiable every week. If this is not already a weekly practice, make it a priority to carve out time for all leaders involved each week to meet.

Most important is our sensitivity to the Holy Spirit. These moments of transitions between elements are prime for keying into what God is doing in that place. By preparing, we will be equipped to move with the Spirit.

What can you do in your planning this week to ensure smooth transitions in your worship service?

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Kristen Pence is a worship leader, consultant, and teacher. She most recently served as Director of Music and Worship Arts at Greenville Free Methodist Church. Kristen earned a Bachelor of Music Education from Greenville College and is finishing her masters degree from the Robert Webber Institute of Worship Studies. Kristen was an adjunct professor for Worship Ensemble classes and has also had the privilege of leading worship at a variety of conferences, schools, and churches. She and her husband, Kory, live in Indianapolis, IN.

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