This article is culled from a series of workshops in several locations sponsored by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship during the fall of 2005.
This past August I led a group of students in worship outdoors. With a pond beside us, green grass below us, and a blue sky above, we worshiped Christ as Creator and Redeemer. At the end of our time together, I dismissed them joyfully with these words: “Go out into this day enjoying God’s creation, especially Jesus Christ the Son.” The students began walking away, but I stood still. Did I really say that? Fortunately no one had wandered too far. “Wait up, everyone!” I called. “I just sent you into this day with heresy! Jesus is the Creator. He is not a part of creation! Enjoy God’s creation and Jesus Christ the Son.”
It’s amazing how one small word can communicate something so completely unintended. It goes to show just how powerful our words in worship can be. They can foster understanding or cultivate confusion. They can inspire or frustrate. They can make a visitor feel welcome or unwelcome. They can help the congregation focus on the purpose of worship or get everyone bogged down in mechanics. This is why it is so important that we spend time considering the words we speak in worship, especially those “in between” words.
“In between” words are those little words and phrases that welcome guests, introduce songs, and prepare us for prayer. Scripture readings, sermons, and songs take up most of the time in worship, but often the transitions we use in between them make all the difference for encouraging full participation. In fact, when we don’t think about the words we say, we can end up communicating messages that are inhibiting, inaccurate, or even hurtful.
Consider these actual lines spoken by worship leaders:
- “Men and women sing the first line together. Men sing the second with the children. Women sing the first and the third. Then everyone finishes it up.”
- “Well, I guess that now we have to have the confession of sin.”
- “I didn’t really prepare for this next part of the service.”
- “We really haven’t had time to rehearse this, but oh well.”
- “OK, let’s see what is next. Well, next we will say the creed.”
- “Isn’t this more fun than in a traditional worship service?”
- “Wasn’t that song great? I’ll bet they don’t sing that way at the church across the street!”
- “Our secretary messed up again, and the song number in the bulletin for this part of the service is wrong.”
These comments illustrate that worship leaders sometimes say something very different than what they really mean. They are utterly confusing. They suggest that worship is routine. They mock another church. They signal that worship is not all that important. They blame someone else for a mistake. None of these comments focuses on the meaning or purpose of what is happening. As such, they are barriers rather than enablers of worship.
A Better Way
How do we avoid speaking transitions that inhibit rather than empower our worship? Begin by asking a few discerning questions: Are my instructions about the mechanics as concise and clear as possible? Does the transition link two acts of worship, showing how they are related? Does it avoid being pedantic or preachy? Is the tone warm and inviting or cold and inhospitable? Are there especially poignant lines in a song or hymn that you could highlight in your introduction?
Consider these examples:
- “Some of us gather for worship this morning with great joy. Some of us gather with tears. Our opening song is based on a psalm that expresses both joy and pain.”
- “Next, we state precisely what we believe, using the words of the Apostles’ Creed. These words are printed in your worship folder. If you are visiting with us today, we would be happy to explain the joy we have because of these statements. Simply ask one of the greeters at the door at the end of the service.”
- “The sermon ended with a call to confession. Our song of response enables us to do just that.”
- “Know that you are forgiven and be at peace” (following the assurance of pardon).
Here’s an analogy for worship leadership. Imagine yourself as a guide in an art museum. You assume that the visitors have an interest in art and are eager to engage more fully in the paintings and sculptures before them. You want the art to speak for itself, yet a few simple words can unlock various meanings for the viewers. Then imagine leading the visitors to another room. Let’s say you’re in the Impressionist section, but you’re viewing a different artist. As a guide you make a brief connection between the two artists, yet distinguish them. Again, you let the art speak mostly for itself. In a similar way, worship leaders guide the congregation on their journey through the service, empowering them to engage fully in each element and inviting them to move consciously from one element to the next. The words that lead from one part of the service to the next are key tools that help in this task.
Here are several guiding principles to writing and speaking “in between” words. You may have additional principles of your own.
- Ask who is speaking. Keep in mind the nature of each worship action—that is, who is speaking to whom? Are we speaking to God? Is God speaking to us? Are we addressing each other? Here’s one way to welcome a congregation to worship: “Welcome to the worship of the Lord. It is our privilege to be before him together. Our conversation with God is built on the very powerful eighth chapter of Romans today. God has great things to say to us, and we certainly will want to respond.” Our “in between” words can prepare and enable the congregation to enter into a meaningful dialogue with the Lord.
- Prioritize hospitality. How can an introduction encourage people to participate actively? Generally, words of invitation are more enabling than words of instruction. “I invite you to turn to . . .” “Please stand and lift up your voices with joy as we sing . . .” These invitations make space for people to enter into the worship action. Hospitality is particularly important at the opening of the service, during the time of confession, and prior to a prayer of intercession.
- Be brief. Is an introduction only as long as it needs to be? This decision will depend on the service. Some are thin, in which case you can take more time for introduction; others are full, and too many words can bog down the service. The culture of the congregation and the spirit of the week will also affect the length of your words. Here are three different ways that Scripture, in this case Romans 8:1-11, could be introduced illustrating different lengths:
- “The apostle Paul knew the Lord and he knew God’s unending and measureless love. Paul testifies to his experience of God’s love for him through Jesus Christ in Romans 8—a chapter we turn to in order to hear God speak to us about our freedom in Christ, our adoption as God’s children, our hope of glory, and our identity as conquerors. We begin our journey through this passage with the first eleven verses. Hear the Word of the Lord.”
- “Because of the love of the Lord we have life through the Spirit. We read about this life in Romans 8:1-11.”
- “Now hear the Word of the Lord from the first section of Romans 8; the first eleven verses.”
- Remember children. How can “in between” words be inclusive to children? Use simple language. For example, “In our prayer of confession we say to God, ‘We are sorry for not being good children.’ Let us pray.” Keep in mind that children have wonderful imaginations. Before reading a Scripture passage, invite the congregation to imagine a scenario: “Close your eyes and think for moment about what it will be like to see the face of Jesus. Now listen to these words from Romans 8:18-27.”
- Teach, but not too much. Concise spoken transitions that subtly teach about worship can help worshipers engage more deeply with God and with each other. Here’s an example of a transition between Psalm 84 (“How lovely is your dwelling place . . .”) and the hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”: “We have access to the glory and beauty of God because of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. When we come to God, we come because of Jesus, his Son.”
- Have the end in view. Keep in mind the theme and goal of the service as you plan transitions. Be careful not to preach the sermon before the sermon—or after the sermon—but strive to connect your words to the theme, thinking about where you want the service to end up even as you begin. For example, if the sermon was about dedication and keeping commitments, you might introduce the prayer of intercession this way: “We’ve been thinking about ourselves and our own commitments. As Christians grow in love they broaden their concerns to see and care for the needs of others. So let us gather up all the concerns, needs, and cares of others and lift them up for God’s attention and care.”
- Pay attention to tempo and rhythm. Services need a balance of energy and rest. There are times when “in between” words do not need to be spoken, perhaps during an exuberant time of praise; other times when we need to speak our words slowly, allowing the congregation to pause and consider. Again, tempo and rhythm should be determined by the service for the week and by the culture of the congregation.
- Use gestures. Nonverbal gestures can complement your words: a smile during welcome, bowing your head in prayer, and a hand to your side in invitation to sing. Well-placed gestures can also eliminate the need for words, especially with respect to sitting and standing.
- Be pastorally sensitive. Even during times of enthusiastic praise there are those who are experiencing deep hurt and pain. Acknowledge these not-so-visible needs of heart and spirit in your transitions. Once again, consider this introduction to a psalm: “Some of us gather for worship this morning with great joy. Some of us gather with tears. Our opening song is based on a psalm that expresses both joy and honest pain.”
- Plan movements. Worship planning isn’t complete until decisions have been made about where and how we move.
- Explore the richness of worship biblically and theologically to inform and enhance the language of your transitions.
- Write out transitions, but feel free to take notes with you or leave them behind as you feel comfortable.
- Practice your transitions audibly ahead of time.
- Provide basic reminders to all who speak in worship, perhaps in the form of a simple notecard for new leaders with instructions like the following:
When speaking in worship ...
- Don’t instruct people what to do next; instead invite them to participate in the act of worship.
- When introducing a song or reading, give a foretaste of the next text, or refer to the preceding one.
- Let people know how each act fits into the dialogue of worship and the theme of the service.
- Attend to the emotional contours of the service—what’s happening in your heart and in the hearts of the congregation.
- Write out your transitions ahead of time. Even if you speak extemporaneously, you’ll do better if you’ve worked out a written version ahead of time.
- Are “in between” words written for worship in your congregation? Who writes them?
- What problems have you encountered? What discoveries have you made?
- What experiences with worship leadership have blessed you?
For Worship Committees
The Worship Sourcebook (Faith Alive Resources, 2004) is a wonderful resource for those who lead worship. The sections “Words in Worship” (pp. 21-23) and “The Holy Spirit and the Task of Preparing and Leading Worship” (pp. 26-28) are especially helpful. Available from Faith Alive Christian Resources, 1-800-333-8300; sales@FaithAliveResources.org; or www.FaithAliveResources.org.
Questions for Discussion