Worship: Time Limit?

We get lots of great questions, and here’s one…

NOTE: These are just my personal opinions and observations. Take that as you will…

(And I’ve changed the names to protect the innocent…)

– – – –

Hi Reid,

I’m a pastor in Bobtown (BobBob Community Church). My worship leader and I are working on tweaking things a bit and I had a question for you.

I know you guys normally do three songs, but is there any kind of time constraint on that? Recently at the Catalyst one-day event there at NPCC Andy made hte statement that we often make faulty assumptions when planning things (such as “all Christians want to sing for 30 minutes.” He then said he personally is good with about 12-15 minutes of singing/playing. I am kind of the same way – I love to worship, but sometimes going 20-30 minutes seems a bit long to me. It also seems like it becomes a kind of struggle between the worship leader and the congregation – e.g. we’re going to do this as long as it takes for you to “get into” worship. Do you know what I mean?

How do you feel about that (any of what I said)?

Thanks – Bob McBob

– – – – –

Thanks Bob…

Wow – that’s a big can of worms you’re opening there!

Before I give my opinion, let me give you some of my background…

I grew up at a very Charismatic church in London, Ontario, Canada, where I started to play for the Youth in the mid 1980’s and then for “big church” towards the end of the 80’s, through to the mid-late 90’s. And it was quite sizable, especially considering the size of the market and the fact that it was in heathen-land (aka Canada!). We had an attendance of around 3,000 – 4,000, with 4 services on a Sunday (9, 11, 4:30 and 6:30), with prolonged worship being a HUGE part of the evening service.

We’d often start at 6:30 and end somewhere between 8:30 and 10:00!! The musicians were terrific, and needed to know nearly 150-200 tunes just to survive as the worship time and alter call times were more often than not “lead by the Spirit”.

That usually meant we were given a list of the first 5 or 6 worship choruses, and it was anyone’s guess after that….

So trust me when I say that I understand where your Worship Leader is coming from – ’cause I came from there!!

Unfortunately, that was the mentality I carried with me when I went 800 miles south to attend Belmont University in the mid-90’s, and was shocked and appalled when I went to my first Baptist Student Union service. They had the audacity to plan out not only all the songs, but how many verses and choruses they were going to do!

What?!?!? Where’s the Spirit leading in that? I thought these were Christian music students, not blasphemous heathens!

Well, fast forward a decade and a half, and add to that a LOT of growing, and I have a much different opinion today.

Here’s what I (currently 😉 ) believe about corporate worship songs in a service: It’s all based on your mission, vision, and the lens through which you program.

Meaning, what is your agreed-on target audience and what is your agreed-on win? What is your desired end result?

Warning: This is tough. Even though we as a Service Programming and music staff all agree on our mission, vision and our overall goal on how we program, it’s still occasionally a battle ground.

Ultimately, a good leader will steer the flock (or staff) back on track to look at it though one narrow lens / mission / vision.

But what is your lens? Where is your heart? WHO is your passion – the Insider or the Outsider?

Are you focused on feeding mature Christians or nursing the unchurched / new believer?

Do you desire an extended time of outwardly emotional worship, or are you inwardly private and even uncomfortable with corporate singing?

There are so many questions to ask, and only AFTER you come to peace with the answers will you and your team be able to focus on your unwavering mission and vision, and to program your services through that lens.

For example, the church i grew up in had a mission and goal of being a “worshipping” church. That wasn’t bad by any means, and was actually great for my musical development. But it became obvious that the win was an emotionally-charged experience for insiders and marathon worship that – for me – actually lost its impact as the years progressed.

The end result, though, was service after service, year after year, each week’s alter call and time of worship became the new bench mark, and if the next week didn’t outshine the previous, then people’s hearts, anointing, and even jobs were brought into question.

It was exciting at first, but got tiresome and predictable over the years. And the pastoral staff kept fishing for the next level. I distinctly remember a pastor at the time saying, from the pulpit, “If you want more of Jesus, come down to the altar.”

Now correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s theologically impossible. Either you’ve accepted Him as your Savior or not. All or nothing.

As I watched the usual suspects flock to the front as though they were lining up for roll call, I knew in my heart that something was wrong. Terribly wrong. And that years of incredible, legitimate workings of the Holy Spirit were now being manipulated by desperate men with good intentions, but bad methods.  

So where is that balance? Where is the line between catering to the first time visitor and offering an authentic time of intimate worship for mature believers?

Aww, heck – I don’t know! And no one really does. Because the heart of a Christian and non-Christian are on polar sides of the spectrum.

So in the meantime, we use the hearts and minds that God’s given us and His Spirit than lives in us to agree – in a group – on how we believe (meaning feel at peace with) each service should unfold.

Sometimes that means more worship, and sometimes less. More often than not, a baptism (which includes a video testimonial and live “dunking”) ends up being far more powerful and effective than the worship set because we see real people telling their stories, and how Christ has impacted their lives.

We carefully balance all elements of the service to fit into 65 minutes. And not a minute over that. There are a TON of reasons for that, including transitioning the parking lot before the next service, not exhausting or taking advantage of our childrens’ environment volunteers, and the sheer fact that it makes inviting a friend extremely easy when you can tell them just what to expect.

That brings me to how we at North Point program a Sunday service. We do it with one person in mind – the outsider. Someone who has never been to church before, or (more commonly) has had a bad church experience in the past and has taken a courageous step to come back to anything with the word “Church” in the title.

But at the same time, we’re in no way afraid of doing “Christian” things content-wise. We just have decided not to do it in the stereotypical way.

There’s no preacher yelling at you or condemning you.

Now will he teach, encourage and challenge you? Oh, you betcha.

There’s not a Worship Leader singing a tune “as long as it takes to get the congregation to ‘get into’ worship'”.

Now are there 2 or 3 well thought-out worship songs lead by gifted Worship Leaders and amazing musicians? Absolutely.

We strive really hard, as the music department, to choose songs and Worship Leaders that help create an atmosphere within our 10-15 minutes of time that allows a mature Christian to enter into worship, yet still be palatable and authentic to the first timer / non-Christian.

Is that a tight rope to walk on? Yep. But we agree that unbelievers will be drawn to a real and authentic worship experience, and not a show, and certainly not hype.

Some personal concluding thoughts regarding time, or quantity of worship:

Having been both on stage and in the crowd, as a Worship Leader and sitting in the chairs, I can say that on average, the crowd / congregation will always poop out and grow weary before the Worship Leader does.

Trust me. That’s just the nature of this paradox.

Most WL’s and musicians are right-brained emotional feelers, and most folks in the crowd are not. That means that 10-20 minutes of worship flies by quickly for those on stage, and can feel like a blithering eternity for those that are not.

Should WL’s encourage and give people permission to worship? For sure!

Do they need to punish the crowd with multiple chorus repetitions if they do not? I’m going to go with no on that one. I’ve never heard of anyone angering a congregation into authentic worship…

– – – – –

Honesty check:

So if I had my way, we’d do one more worship tune each week, averaging 3-4 worship songs for a total of 14 – 18 minutes.

And the sermons would be no more than 30 minutes, ’cause I tune out and my eyes get really heavy…

But that’s just my little “right-brained emotional feeler” wish list. 🙂

– – – – –

So, Bob, yeah – 20-30 minutes does seem long to me too, even as someone who loves (and earns a living from) the worship set…


5 thoughts on “Worship: Time Limit?

  1. “I’ve never heard of anyone angering a congregation into authentic worship…” I think that may be the quote of the day here. That’s my number one pet peeve with worship leading — bullying by worship leaders to try and force worship. I hate when worship leaders try to create the external response (“lift your hands,” “close your eyes,” “clap,” “sing it loud”) because when they say those things, it just sounds desperate, as if they need to see those responses for their own ego (reminds me of your altar call horror story above). In contrast, if we focus on faithfully and clearly presenting the object of worship, the response will take care of itself.

    I often think that 15-20 minutes is barely enough time to “get into” worship before it’s over. But every time I’ve been to NPCC, I’ve really enjoyed the experience. I think part of it is the focus on environments. From the parking attendants and greeters to the look of the auditorium and the tone of the videos and announcements… everything in the environment preps you for a good worship experience. And so while another church might require a throwaway song or two at the beginning to get people going, your church puts people in a worshipful mood before they even stand to sing. Kudos for that!

  2. I think you captured the whole idea when you said “the crowd / congregation will always poop out and grow weary before the Worship Leader does.” As worship leaders we love incredible songs and take every opportunity to throw an extra in when we can. We have to remember that no matter how incredible a song is, if it’s the 3rd, 4th, or 5th in the set we’re gonna lose some people.

  3. Ouch… Heathen-land? Is that an Obama-ism? Must explain why he didn’t even stay a full 8 hours here… ANYWAY…. I’m in the middle for all this time stuff… Growing up in the same church as Reid, I understand for the most part what he’s saying… And when it comes down to it – there is no set time limit in worship.

    I’ve done everything from the “token worship” of 1 song before an AGM “so that everyone is in a good mood”… and I’ve also done sets that have gone for 3 to 4 hours straight (with scripture reading and prayer intermingled). Neither of them was wrong or right – but it was simply what God (or man) had in mind for the moment in time. So I think it’s best to focus on the question that Reid asked – but instead of saying “What is your lens?” I would tend to ask “what is your target?”

    Going into a service or a meeting, there’s alway a target you’re trying to hit. (I don’t necessary like the word GOAL as it seems more of game that way- TARGET is more like a mission)… And when you’re trying to hit that target, there are different things you need to do to do that properly. If you are trying to hit a target of say- healing – then you need to do whatever it takes to facilitate that meeting for healing. Or if say your target is reaching out to those who are new to Christianity – then you need to do whatever it takes so that you hit the mark for that.

    And if you get people complaining that there’s not enough worship – you can always offer a special time in the week to facilitate that… I know of quite a few churches on the Westcoast of Canada that do that! They might have a Saturday or Sunday night service that allows for a little more of an extended time of worship – and those nights are specifically TARGETED for that – worship.

    Anyhoo — I’ve got lots to do in Heathen-land – like prepare my wigwam for summer. I should get going as the igloo’s about to melt, and my pet polar bear is getting hungry…


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