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The "In Between" Words: How to keep fellow worshipers tuned in

As worshipers move from one element of the service to the next, they need help to understand what they are doing and why. Verbal transitions help them stick with the worship dialogue between God and gathered people.

Call it a Homer Simpson moment. You’re leading worship and have just said something—without thinking—before a song or offering or prayer. Like Homer, you’d shout “D’oh!”…but that would only make it worse.

Here are two consolations. First, you’re not alone. Real people have said these things while leading worship:

  • Well, I guess now we have to have the confession of sin.
  • Okay? Let’s see what’s next. Well, next we will say the creed.
  • Our secretary messed up again. The song number in the bulletin is wrong.
  • We haven’t had time to rehearse this, but…
  • Let us rise together and say the Apostles' Creed, as printed on the inside front cover of your hymnal…. (Seconds later, the visiting pastor realizes his mistake.) Oops, that’s not the real creed. It’s a paraphrase for singing. So…

The second consolation is that following general principles will help you do a better job with those “in between words” in worship.

And those in between words do matter—unless your congregation has a standard liturgy that flows very well unannounced. It’s true that Scripture readings, sermons, and songs take up most of the time during congregational worship.

“But it’s often what’s said in between that makes all the difference in welcoming guests, introducing songs, and preparing us for full participation in prayer and worship,” says Heidi De Jonge, a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church. 

Convey the big picture

Planning what to say as you link together parts of a worship service starts with stepping back. Think first about your theology of worship, De Jonge advises.

At heart, worship is God’s people, gathered in God’s presence, to carry on a conversation with God and each other.

Some worship planners think of each worship element as a conversational direction represented by arrows. God talks to us (downward arrow) in Scripture, the sermon, and the assurance of pardon. We respond (upward arrow) in confession, song, prayers, and offerings. And sometimes we exhort fellow worshipers (two-way horizontal arrow), shaking hands or hugging while saying “The peace of the Lord be with you.”

Well worded transitions help worshipers remember they’re in a conversation. “The key is to teach, but not too much, and without sounding like you’re teaching,” says Howard Vanderwell. He and Paul Ryan, both resource development specialists for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, give workshops with De Jonge on the in between words.

As you plan transitions for a specific service, think as well about your aim or goal for the service, so that your in between words support the sermon theme.

For a service based on Romans 8, Vanderwell followed the prelude with: “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. He has great things to say to us, and we certainly will want to respond.

“We begin by praising him for the fact that his love to us is from before the creation of the world. Let us express that in song…”

Consider the worshipers

If worship is a dialogue, then make sure everyone feels part of it. Just as ad libbing may inadvertently sound flippant or even hurt people, well worded transitions make people feel welcome. Little phrases like “song 52 in the red hymnal” or “the second collect on page 346 of the prayer book in your pew” help visitors keep up.

The most important places to prioritize hospitality are the call to worship, the intercessory prayer, and confession. “Confidently assure people that God welcomes them with overwhelming love and mercy,” Vanderwell says.

Even if your services include a children’s message, try to connect with kids during at least one transition. This could be as simple as complimenting them for how they sing.

Some worshipers arrive feeling stressed, sad, or mad—plus feel bad for feeling this way in church. You can free them to worship by introducing a song or prayer with this formula, “some of us are...and some of us are…,” filling in the blanks with opposites.

Pay attention to mechanics

Value brevity. Your words before an adult baptism may amount to a couple paragraphs. More often a sentence or two is enough. Repeating a short phrase—such as “God’s grace is an amazing surprise”—throughout the service makes an impact.

To end a Calvin College L.O.F.T. service focused on quiet lives of mature faith, Paul Ryan began the sending portion by saying, “Jesus sends us out into the world as his witnesses. In Matthew 5 he uses the images of salt and light.”

As the words of commission, Matthew 5:13-16, were projected, Ryan and other instrumentalists played the intro to the final congregational song, “Thuma Mina/Send me, Lord.”

Planning out your transitions helps you balance worship’s tempo and rhythm. “People come to church for freshness and stability. There are certain phrases that the human psyche and spirit gain strength from when heard week after week,” Vanderwell says.

However, a service conducted at the same emotional pitch throughout will wear out (or bore) people. You might introduce a rousing song in a hearty voice but quietly and slowly invite worshipers to “let these Bible verses sink into your soul.”

Ask others to tell you which gestures and facial expressions help and which distract. Hands work as well as words do to motion people to stand, sit, or begin singing.

God gave us distinct personalities, so there’s no single “correct” way to word transitions. What matters most is that your words help worshipers understand and stay with the congregation’s conversation with God.

Like many people who become worship leaders, Chris Moore was busy with work and family life. But when Shiloh Community Church in Orleans, Michigan, asked for volunteers to help start a contemporary service, he made time.

Moore leads a praise team responsible for one weekend of services per month. After the minister gives him the sermon theme, Moore and his team choose songs, rehearse weekly, and lead the worship.

“I struggled with stage fright, more with speaking than singing. I tended to mumble and pause as I tried to gather the right words in my head. Once I got nervous and told everyone to stand up for the offering—even though we pass the collection plate down rows,” he says.

These experiences built what he calls an “almost unquenchable thirst” for free or low-cost books and seminars on leading worship. In fact, the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship’s workshop on in between words came about because Moore asked for a seminar on public speaking after attending another Worship Institute event.

Moore says the learning he’s sought out in the last two years has made a big difference in how he understands and leads worship at Shiloh Community Church.

Lead worship as a dialogue

“The most powerful thing I took from auditing a seminary class is that worship is a dialogue between God and people. Before, I thought of worship as a time to hear about God and sing about God,” Moore says.

On their weekend, Moore and his praise team do a Saturday evening service and three on Sunday morning, the middle one billed as a contemporary service. Thinking about worship as a dialogue, not a music style, helped the team focus on their purpose.

“We see our job as leading people into worship by example. We’re not there to entertain. Our lives have to be close to God so we can enter worship with them,” he says.

Using phrases like “join with us” and “we’re here to worship with you” help reinforce the idea of being one body in conversation with God, who is the source, not the object, of worship.

The concept of worship as dialogue pushed Moore to change how he chooses songs and what he says between them.

“I started out thinking, ‘Well, I would like to do this song’ and ‘I’d like to do that song.’ Now I think about how songs tie in to the message and carry the flow of the service. Instead of having the congregation sing one song after another, I try to pick and read Scriptures that tie in to the song or message that comes next.

“Sometimes I say, ‘Think what these words mean in your life with God’ or ‘Let’s focus right now on what these words mean and why we’re here today. This is our conversation with God.’ It’s a calm, reasoned assurance,” he says.

Resolve spontaneity questions

It took awhile for Moore to begin planning out his transitions. “A big fear of mine was not being spontaneous, stifling the Holy Spirit. I realized that if I planned and rehearsed my words of transition, then I’d be free to change my words slightly during worship—because I know what my topic is. That’s helped a great deal.”

When his in between words directly quote the Bible, Moore types out the verses in large font on sheets of paper. He explains it’s easier to balance a sheet of paper instead of a Bible on his music stand.

Worshipers tell Moore that hearing brief Scriptures and insights between songs, or before the prayer or offering, helps them understand what comes next in the service.

Consequently, other praise team leaders at Shiloh Community have started to plan out transitions. Moore thinks the next step will be for praise team leaders to meet together, so they can coordinate their ministries and learn more together about worship.

“With every team choosing their own songs, there can be a lot of repetition week to week. The service doesn’t seem as fresh then,” he says.

Love your congregation

To get to know more members, Moore attends a range of church events, including monthly hymn sings favored by older members. Asking for feedback helped his team eliminate distracting gestures, try different songs, move the drum from center platform to behind a Plexiglas screen, and buy quieter drum sticks.

“Besides minimizing what might distract or offend people, we try to be pastorally sensitive. It’s important to stay in touch with the congregation so the words of songs and transitions mean something.

“People don’t always come in a great mood. One gushing praise song after another is not what everyone needs. Instead we look at what will best help worshipers get to know God better,” he says. 

Learn More

People who’ve attended workshops on the in between words say The Worship Sourcebook helps them word transitions.

Paul Ryan says new student worship leaders at Calvin College learn to invite people, not instruct them, on what to do next in 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 service theme. Attend to the emotional contours of the service—what’s happening in your heart and the congregation’s heart.”

Since Shiloh Community Church produces videos and DVDs of each service (for shut-ins and members who winter in warmer areas), Chris Moore and his team review their services so they can improve their worship leading. Consider doing the same at your church.

If you plan and lead worship, try visiting other churches to get new perspective and ideas on the order of worship and how to handle transitions.

Planning transitions is crucial in new churches, where attendees might not know much about worship and people often lead worship soon after becoming Christians. “We script and plan so transitions will be clear. We discourage people from reading Scripture and adding their ad hoc commentary. Over time, as they and we mature, there’s more freedom to ad lib. But we want everyone in the service to turn the corner—say from prayer to confession—together,” says Mike Cosper, a pastor at Sojourn Community in Louisville, Kentucky.

Start a Discussion

  • What do you think about the idea that worship is a dialogue between God and gathered people?
  • Identify the “in between word” phases of your worship. How much of your typical service is determined by a printed liturgy or prayer book? At what points in the service might pastors, music leaders, or other people insert words of transition?
  • What pros and cons do you see in being more intentional about scripting transitions in your services? Which medium—speech, print, projected visuals, and so on—would best help your congregation stay together as they move through a worship dialogue with God?
  • In what ways do you see your worship services as open to the Spirit’s leading? How does this openness play out in preparing for and carrying out worship? 

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to handle the in between words in worship?

  • Did you begin a new practice related to in between words as a result of visiting other churches?
  • What has worked best—or not worked well—in your efforts to train people in how to lead worship?
  • Can you share liturgical banner patterns, PowerPoint templates, or other visuals that help worshipers shift from one point to the next in your order of worship?