The question of how long your worship service should be is like a river that flows between two banks. If the senior pastor’s philosophy of ministry for the church is speaker-driven communication, this will result in less time for music. If his philosophy of ministry is experiential, this may result in more music. The congregational worship experience for most churches flows somewhere in between those banks.
The issue of time and the leading of the Holy Spirit is a common struggle in the church. The good news is the Holy Spirit knows how to work within time and cultural constraints. The Holy Spirit works with great power, but in our humanity we often feel we need to do more, to go longer. Longer does not necessarily mean more effective. Many times, longer is less effective as we start to lose the attention of parts of the congregation.
Careful preparation starts with the leadership of the Holy Spirit. Many services I plan are done by faith with as much info as I have at the time, asking God to bless it and remembering flexibility is an essential quality of the servant worship leader. Proverbs 16:1 says, “We humans make plans, but the LORD has the final word,” and Proverbs 16:9 says, “We make our own plans, but the LORD decides where we will go.”
In addition, many times we underestimate how long it takes to do a song. Very few songs are three minutes. I allow 5 minutes per song as a rule. It’s important to time your songs to find out how long it takes for your team to really do them. Timing the service is the key. Go through the flow, imagining how these songs can help connect the congregation in worship and also reinforce and help people to understand the theme for that weekend, working out natural transitions including keys and song arrangements. Assuming that you don’t talk in-between songs, then three songs in a live situation generally equals about 13-14 minutes MINIMUM (usually 15 minutes). For some music styles, three songs could take 30 minutes. Not timing songs out before the services is like going on a vacation and not knowing how much you have to spend. Most often we will go longer than we think, and not due to the Holy Spirit. I’ve found the longer the service, the less prepared my leadership often was.
If my pastor gives me 20 minutes and I feel I’m going to run long, I will cut songs so I can end on time. It honors God when we keep our word and follow our senior pastor’s leadership.
When doing multiple services, time must be considered! The people coming to the next service have to be cared for. The parking lot needs to be cleared out from the previous service, making room for new people to park, drop off their kids and get seated. Blessed are those who teach our children because they often have to improvise and scramble when services go overtime.
Many times at Saddleback if we go long at the first service, I will cut the closing song to save three to five minutes. I think it’s really important to sing the closing song, but it’s even more important that the childcare workers have enough time to change shifts or prepare and for the incoming cars to be able to find parking spots so the people can get to the next service.
At Saddleback, we have two basic types of worship services, each with a unique purpose: the evangelistic service and the believer service.
Most of our services are evangelistic services. They are designed to draw the unbeliever with an open heart to the possibilities of reality with God. The purpose of the music in the service is to reinforce the message; to prepare the people’s hearts for the message and reinforce the spoken word. In this service, the music selections are very focused on theme, framing and supporting the message. The message is usually 50-60 minutes (sometimes more) and the music is 20-25 minutes. Many times we’ll do a “Point and Play” service. Point and Play is where the service is divided into three to five sections with the speaking pastor making a key point and then the worship team reinforcing that point with a song. This is done for each key point in the sermon. Depending on the number of points, there may be only enough time for two to three songs before the message.
Believer services generally allow for more in-depth worship time, both in the spoken word and through music. We have monthly worship nights that take place on Wednesday where the focus of the service is more devotional and expressive.
The mix of people in the group can change your music goals. Every person is at a different point in their spiritual growth, and not everyone may be ready to worship through music. You probably have non-musical people in your group. We have to remember there are people in our churches for whom music does not and probably never will have an impact. For most people, however, music is a very effective communication tool.
Another key consideration is the size of the group. A large group setting generally allows you to do more music than a smaller group setting.
Finally, the movement of the Holy Spirit can be like watching a Polaroid picture develop. It’s easy for us to think we are the person holding the picture, but in reality the Holy Spirit is holding the picture and we’re just a part of the development process. We have to do the best we can to catch God’s vision and frame the service, and then have faith that God will develop it.