While the "flow" of a service certainly cannot produce worship in any of its above-mentioned dimensions (only the Holy Spirit can do that), the lack of flow in a service can certainly interfere with true worship. Flow in a service simply mean that the mechanics of the service donít draw attention to themselves, and thus distract from a proper focus on God Himself.
A worship service of course consists of a variety of elements and parts; the trick is to avoid an awkward sense of repeated starts and stops. To draw an analogy: the cars of a train may have different functions-- engine, box car, tanker, caboose-- but all are linked together and are heading in the same direction. So also should the various elements of a service have a feel of connectedness; our goal should be to minimize unnecessary distractions so that our focus can be on God-- the One we have come to worship.
Avoiding Impediments to Service Flow
Lack of Continuity
It is admittedly difficult to link service elements in a convincing way if there is no common content or thematic links between them. Songs, readings, and other elements which bounce from one theme or attribute of God to another may indeed have God as common focus; but beyond that, little continuity is given to help the worshiper focus, reflect, and respond on a specific aspect of Godís character.
Many liturgical traditions have something of a built-in flow, but even some of these do not escape giving the impression of a lot of different things simply strung together, arranged sequentially with little connection between them. Free church worship often errs even more in this direction: since there is not as tight a traditional structure into which the service elements fit, those elements can seem even more disjointed and unrelated.
However, there is the opportunity, in both liturgical and free church forms, to construct thematic services, where a theme (e.g., the love of God; Christ the King; etc.) is carefully woven through the parts of a service, and the music, readings, and other elements are all chosen to reflect that theme. This gives an organic unity to a service and thus enhances the sense of logical flow.
Lack of Planning
The absence of flow and connectedness sometimes stems from a lack of attention and planning given to the whole service and how it fits together.
This was illustrated to me rather starkly a couple of years ago when I saw a televised worship service from a prominent, very solid church. The choir anthem was a rousing rendition of "When the Saints Go Marching In;" but it was followed immediately by the Scripture reading, which began, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" (Matthew 23:13) Hardly what could be called a smooth transition! It was painfully obvious that there was insufficient communication between those responsible for the different parts of the service, and that various elements had just been "plugged into" the framework with no consideration given to the bigger picture.
Effective service flow takes time and planning, but the results are well worth it-- and the worship of God deserves attention to eliminating jarring transitions and the resulting distraction they cause.
Too Many Instructions
We need to give our people credit-- almost all of them can read!! There is simply no need to announce everything in the service just before it happens, especially if that information is given to the congregation in another form; yet this is one of the most common roadblocks which worship leaders set up in the path of a smooth-flowing service.
If a hymn or other song is listed in the bulletin as the next thing to be sung, then why give the name and/or number verbally? (Assuming, of course, your usher corps is efficient to see that every one gets a bulletin!) If a song text has just been flashed up onto the screen, most people will figure out that they are about to sing that song, with out it having to be verbally announced as well. If the people are to stand at a particular point, the worship leader can invite them to rise by using hand motions-- verbal instructions are again not necessary (and especially not if there is an indication in the bulletin that the people are to be standing for that part of the service-- if such markings are regularly used, it will become instinctive to the people over time to stand at the proper time).
It must always be remembered that worship is a time to address and respond to God. It is not a time for jokes or cutesy comments, or even to compliment the congregation on its singing; all this distracts from the main focus.
It is even possible to sing rounds (e.g., "Behold What Manner of Love;" "You Are My hiding Place;" "You Are My All in All") without interrupting the flow of the service. Often arm gestures by the worship leader are more than adequate to communicate to the congregation which half is to come in and when; if verbal instructions are necessary (for instance, when the congregation needs to be divided into three parts (e.g., for "Father, I Adore You"), these can easily be handled at the beginning of the service (during the announcements, etc.) prior to the actual beginning of worship.
Speaking of announcements, they are sure flow-killers! They also have no place in worship per se. Many churches are finding alternatives to verbal announcements during the service (e.g., projecting on a screen or a wall before the service, or sending a weekly mailing); but if verbal announcements are deemed to be unavoidable, at least put them at the very beginning or at the very end of the service, so as not to interrupt the flow of worship.
Communicating information concerning the life of the local body is important, but care should be taken to not let this vital fellowship function detract from the even more important, vertical focus of corporate worship.
I am serving for the second time in a church where no offering is taken in the service-- rather, offering chests are made available at the entrances to the sanctuary for peopleís gifts. There are various arguments for and against such a arrangement (for example, pro-- Giving remains a strictly private matter between the believer and God; con-- Giving as an act of public worship is lost). But aside from these considerations, there is a very pragmatic benefit in terms of worship flow: for when there is no offering to work around, lead into and out of, and to provide music during, it really opens up the first part of the service and affords the worship planner a longer block of time to use for thematic development and worship flow.
Now obviously very few churches are going to go that route; but let it be said that the offering can indeed be a part of worship and be a worshipful time. Care must be taken not to treat it as a necessary evil or an interruption, but as much as possible to connect it logically to the other parts of the service.
Some churches put the offering after the sermon and make it an integral part of a time of response to the proclamation of Godís Word. Certainly that aspect of a grateful response to God should be maintained, regardless of at what point in the service the offering occurs. When special music is used while the offering is taken, try to plan so that the song is related to the theme of the rest of the service; this takes extra planning with and guidance of the soloist/ensemble, but allows for a much better flow with the rest of the service, instead of the miscellaneous number usually plugged in at this point. A choral anthem or even congregational singing, related in content to the rest of the service, may also be used.
Few outward things can distract from the flow of worship for individual worshipers more than the relentless stream of latecomers making their way down aisles and along pews. There seems to be no solution for the thoughtlessness with which many such people blithely trample on the worship rights of those who have shown up on time.
However, Some steps can (and should) be taken to minimize the consequences for prompt worshipers. Ushers become especially important here: they should be carefully instructed to keep latecomers out in the foyer until certain minimally disruptive junctures in the service. At our church, once the announcements are over and worship has begun, the ushers know to hold people until such a point as the congregation stands to sing; then those filtering in are a little less obvious and obtrusive. If people must be let in at other points in the service, the ushers should proactively seat these people, directing them to seats at the back, or sides, or near other entrances, or in the balcony-- wherever there will be the least distraction.
In our church, the choir leaves the loft before the sermon so that some can go on to their Sunday School classes, while others join the congregation; the ushers reserve a few rows in the back of the sanctuary for choir members (and their families) so that they can slip in as unobtrusively as possible after the pastoral prayer and as the sermon is beginning.
Many non-liturgical churches face a pre-service atmosphere consisting of rather riotous and boisterous visiting over a barely-noticed organ prelude or other instrumental introit. One way which we have found effective in quieting the congregation and prompting them to prepare their hearts for worship is to start with a loud, full prelude, following which one of the elders comes to the pulpit and invites the people to give their attention while he reads a Scripture passage which introduces the them of the service to come; after the reading the organist continues with a softer prelude, and the congregation normally remains quiet and has the opportunity to mediate on the verses just read, in preparation for worship.
The Worship Leader
The worship leader is in a position to either enhance or detract from a sense of flow and focus on the Lord in worship. As mentioned previously, the person leading worship must be careful to avoid "patter" and extraneous verbal instructions; in addition, gestures used in leading the music should be judicious and appropriate so as not to draw attention to themselves and distract the worshipers.
At the same time, the worship leader is in a position to positively influence service flow and (more importantly) the worship of God. A strong personal walk with God and spiritual preparation for leading in worship will put the leader in a position to not only lead worship, but also to model worship up front. Carefully chosen and Spirit-led remarks can help to invite the congregation into the Lordís presence for worship, can give focus to the worship theme, and can communicate something of the serious nature and enormous privilege of drawing near to God; other remarks may be helpful later on in the service as well, as long as they are sincerely God-centered and prayerful in tone. The worship leader can also use hand gestures and facial expressions to communicate affectional nuances, as well as to skillfully guide worshipers through transitions and the flow of worship. Hand gestures should not be overdone, and are rarely necessary throughout entire songs-- usually they are only needed (and only noticed!) at the beginning of the song, at phrase endings and beginnings, and at the end (for cutoffs).
Enhancing Musical Flow
The flow of a service is tremendously enhanced by having a musical texture in which one musical number naturally flows into the next without a lot of empty space in between. These musical links can be accomplished in a variety of ways.
The Choir or Worship Team
The group serving as worship facilitators and prompters up front play a crucial role in weaving a seamless musical fabric.
Photocopy all their music. Provide a packet for these musicians containing, in order, all of the songs to be sung, so that they can turn quickly and easily from one to the next. This is quite legal as long as the church owns copies of the originals (hymnal, chorus book, etc.) in sufficient quantity to cover the number of copies needed. The members of the choir of worship team can then mark their copies in rehearsal as to repeats, which verses to sing, whether unison or in parts, etc.
Alternate between choir/worship team and congregation. While the choir or worship team serves primarily to support and strengthen the congregational singing-- this should indeed be the main function of any choir or worship team, since the most important musical group in any church is indeed the congregation (cf. Ephes. 5:19). But there is also a place for the leading group to occasionally sing by itself. This can provide a breather for the congregation (which is not as accustomed to singing non-stop for long periods of time); in addition, it may provide an opportunity for the members of the congregation to think about and respond to the truths being sung about, in a way and on a level which would be much harder to maintain while singing. The choir or worship team can also bring songs into the mix which fit the theme of the service quite well and have very good texts, but which are simply not known to the congregation (or at least are not sufficiently familiar to them to allow for effective participation).
All in all, a musical dialogue between the congregation and the musical worship leaders can be very effective, and is a wonderful use of the trained musical forces beyond the standard anthem or special number.
Connective tissue. The choir or worship team can also maintain and enhance service flow by leading musically into a hymn or other song: a refrain or verse may be sung by way of reminding or refamiliarizing the congregation with the melody. This is a good way to build into a full hymn; for instance, the refrain of "Blessed Be the Name" sung over a pedal dominant can serve as an effective introduction for the hymn.
Smooth segues from one song to another may also be facilitated by the group up front: if the following song is in the same key (or in a different key with the first melody note the same as the note the previous song finished on), the group can support and enable moving right into that song with no instrumental introduction; it can also help to reinforce a new key for the congregation after a modulation. In such situations, it is often better to have the group begin in unison, in order to clearly guide the congregation into the melody, before moving into parts.
Transitions and introductions. The organ and/or piano, or other instruments used, can play an important role in facilitating the flow of a service by providing musical transitions and introductions to connect different songs. It is probably best to write out many of these unless the accompanist is particularly adept and in good synch with the worship leader; certainly the leader should at least specify the length and character of the transitions and introductions desired, so that the musical forces can be comfortably guided into the next musical number.
When a hymn is introduced while the congregation is turning to that hymn in a hymnal, the introduction should be carefully planned to be long enough for people to have time to locate the page, yet not so long that they end up waiting too long to start singing. Introductions should also be chosen to give the congregation quick recognition of the melody-- whether by using the first and/or last phrase, the end of the verse before the refrain, or some other combination of measures which will give the people a sense of the melody and of the harmonic flow; this is especially important if the introduction is leading into a verse other than the first verse of a hymn.
Introductions may be left out altogether if the key, or even just the melody note (see below), is the same between the previous and the following song; in such cases, the instruments can simply help to provide a smooth segue into the next song. For example, "Fairest Lord Jesus" can move quite simply and beautifully into "My Jesus, I Love Thee" (or vice versa) if both are done in Eb.
Smooth modulations. Accompanying instruments of course play a key role in enabling smooth transitions into a new key. These modulations in turn add a sense of progression or building to the musical fabric (and sometimes they merely serve the pragmatic purpose of moving to the key in which the next song is written).
There are plenty of helps available to aid in crafting smooth modulations (unless, of course, oneís accompanists are good at doing this on their own); for example, there is a modulation key in the back of Wordís Songs for Praise and Worship (Worship Leaderís Edition). Simple modulations include those up a half step or whole step, easily prepared for by a passing flatted seventh tone in the bass to a dominant seventh chord of the new key. Another example would be a modulation down a fifth (or up a fourth), which may be easily accomplished by adding a flatted seventh to the tonic chord of the old key, thereby forming the dominant seventh chord of the new key.
As mentioned before, a common note between the last melody note of one song and the first melody note of the next can facilitate an "instant" modulation which is easily picked up on; for example, singing a verse or verses of "Fairest Lord Jesus" in F, then repeating the final melody note as the beginning melody note (on the third of the scale) of "Jesus Is All the World to Me" in Db.
With practice, other more distant modulations can be crafted to sound natural and smooth; in modulating between songs or between verses of a single song, it is often good to use melodic material from the songs involved, in order to bring an organic unity to the flow.
Stringing a series of songs in a haphazard range of different keys can likewise detract from a sense of continuity and flow. While a common key should not be the main organizing principle in putting together a series of songs (as the "Key Index" in the back of some recent hymnals might suggest), yet a smooth progression of keys should certainly be kept in mind as songs are ordered and put together.
A different key for a song than what is found at hand may provide for a smoother transition from another song; in that case, the worship planner can take advantage of the various resources available for locating or producing songs in other keys. The Hymnal Reference Manual and The Chorus Reference Manual from SoftRay Resources (P.O. Box 5345, N. Charleston SC 29406; phone 803-554-5130), available in both software and hardcopy formats), indicate in what keys particular songs appear in various hymnals and chorus books. Computer notation programs have also made it easy and quick to input a hymn or chorus or accompaniment and then print it out in whatever key is needed.
It should mentioned as well that a different key for a song may also serve to put it into a more singable key for the congregation-- the flow will certainly be aided, and another possible distraction eliminated, by a more comfortable singing range for the participants.
Meter and Tempo
Again, these should not be the major determinants in the selection and ordering of songs; but at the same time, some attention should be given to preventing awkward juxtapositions and too many changes of meter and tempo. Instruments can help to make smooth transitions between various meters and tempos.
Sung and Silent Responses
There are times in a service when things have built to a point where there is a definite need for the people to respond (e.g., after a powerful and worshipful choral anthem). This can be awkward in congregations where applause and such responses are not seen as acceptable in the cultural milieu of those bodies; some avenue of response is needed, yet the options are limited. This can be frustrating for the people, and may tend to inhibit their sense of worship and service flow.
There is a simple solution (one for which I am indebted to my former pastor), one which is acceptable in every church environment. Let the congregation sing in response! This is always an acceptable response. With out further announcement or ado, let the instruments launch right into the introduction for a song (the number or text for which is found in the bulletin, or projected onto the screen) immediately after the powerful anthem, etc.; no awkward pause should be allowed in between, during which people might start wondering whether and how to respond.
On the other hand, the particular point in the service may call more for a quiet response. In such instances, prayer is of course also an appropriate response. That can certainly be silent prayer, too: the idea of service flow does not necessarily mean that every minute must be filled with sound. All too often we shy away from silence in our services (not to mention in our lives). Silence can be a very powerful carrier of the peopleís worship; indeed it allows for Godís work in the heart, and for the response of the heart to His working, to an extent that may not be possible if there is any musical or other auditory activity going on. Let us not shy away from building times of silence into our services.
The term inclusio is used in biblical studies of a passage which is framed and set off by the authorís use of the identical (or nearly identical) word or phrase both at the beginning and at the end of the passage; a familiar example is the phrase "Praise the Lord!" found at the beginning and end of each of Psalms 146 through 150.
A similar use of musical elements can help to bring unity and continuity to the service (or to a section of it); for example, using a particular song at the beginning which then returns at the end. An effective example of this is to start with a verse of a hymn, which returns later in its entirety; the first instance can even be done in a slower, more reflective, chorus-like way, then the service be allowed to build towards a majestic rendering of the whole hymn.
On a somewhat smaller scale, returning to a song after two or more intervening songs can likewise help to foster a sense of continuity and help to round off a section of the service.
Other Unifying Elements
If care and forethought is given to its preparation, the bulletin can help the flow of a service. Providing the texts of all songs sung (whether by the congregation or not) will help people to follow, participate, and enter into the progression and content of the service. Also, giving the texts of songs and responsive readings (in a bulletin or on overheads) enables the worshipers to move easily from one service element to the next with having to flip through a lot of pages in a hymnal or chorus book), and there is less need for instrumental "filler" to accommodate the time needed for flipping. When doing an entire hymn, however, it is still advisable to have them turn to it in the hymnal-- besides saving bulletin space, it provides an opportunity for our people to be exposed to notated music, which is becoming too rare in our churches.
In addition, as previously mentioned, the more directions can be given to people in a written format, the less the worship leader will need to interrupt the flow of the service to give verbal instructions. Hymn numbers, where to stand, who sings what and when-- all of this and more can be easily communicated in print.
This author is a convinced advocate of thematic worship. The coherence of materials in a well-planned thematic service affords an organic sense of flow, connectedness, and progression. And worshipers are given the opportunity for sustained reflection on and response to the theme of the day in a way they would never have if the service skipped quickly from one idea, attribute, or subject to another.
Another aspect to keep in mind is the entire sweep of the service. A service can be more unified and powerful if it involves a sense of building to a climax: this can consist of a movement from soft to loud elements, from slow to fast tempi, or from seated worshipers to standing ones-- or any combination of the three. Of course, depending on the service theme, such a buildup may not be appropriate; in fact, the opposite may be called for, so that the worship ends on a quiet meditative note. At any rate, it is worthwhile to look at the service as a whole, instead of just a lot of little pieces put together; this sort of "macro-flow" can add a tremendous sense of unity and direction to a service, because the whole is sensed to be going somewhere.
Responsive and Other Readings
Responsive, choral, or unison readings can bring a marvelous sense of closure and power to a thematically developed service; because after singing and reflecting about a subject, the Word of God is then brought to the fore and Godís people hear and speak as it were the final Word on that subject. Service flow can be greatly enhanced by punctuating the theme in this way, since it pulls the other elements together around the central pillar of Scripture.
Of course, there could also be a lot said for having such a reading early on in the service by way of introducing the theme.
Obviously only God can make true worship happen. He is also much more concerned about the hearts of His people than He is about the mechanics of our services. However, the more we can do in our services to keep the focus on Him, in His incomparable beauty and majesty, and off of people and practices, the more freedom the Spirit will have to guide and direct us in our worship-- to the glory of the Father and the Son!