The enemy of creativity is getting caught in the cycle of doing the same thing over and over. Every creative person I’ve ever been around is constantly looking for a new way of expressing themselves. As much as we need to serve our audience/congregation, we also have a desperate need to see how far we can go—how much we can push the envelope. Keeping things fresh without alienating those we serve every weekend can be tricky.
Let’s face it: the heart wants what the heart wants. For the most part, we want the hero to win at the end of the movie, for the guy to get the girl, and for all of the plot lines to be resolved before the credits roll. This is why pop culture is, well, popular. It goes down easy without much consequence and without expending too much brain power. It’s why Katy Perry sells more records than Radiohead, why CSI:Wherever stays on the air, and why there’s a McDonald’s on every corner. You know what you’re going to get and you’re pretty much okay with it.
How does this relate to worship? The composer George Frederic Handel said this about music: “The listener expects to hear a particular set of harmonic relationships, expects certain chords to resolve to others, and expects the notes of one key to modulate to the notes of another key.” The heart wants what the heart wants, especially when it comes to music. The dilemma for the creative is “how do we keep things interesting if our audience wants what’s comfortable?”
I believe that’s the key to building anticipation for your worship service. It’s delivering one what the heart wants, but being unpredictable enough that there’s some tension before the worship set. Here are a few keys to making that happen.
1. Give the people what they want.
Mostly, they want to sing songs they know. Just when I think we’ve run a song into the ground, our music director will remind me that we’ve actually only performed that song on six different weekends. But because of rehearsals and four weekend services, that’s sixty times we’ve sung it compared to six times the crowd has sung it.
2. Put a new spin on an old song.
We are constantly on the hunt for new, awesome worship songs, but there are times when the well runs dry. That’s a perfect time to take a song you’ve grown tired of and reimagine it. Many times we’ll find a pop song that has a cool sound and we’ll wrap the old song in that new sound. This accomplishes two things: the crowd gets a song they know, and the band gets to play something new. Win/win.
3. Be predictable.
Avoid making sharp left turns in the worship set. Think of the music as a narrative journey, leading the crowd into a place they’re willing and glad to go. According to Handel, the listener has a predisposition to expect a certain outcome when he/she hears a song (chord progression, melody, roadmap). Avoid as much as possible sending them on a detour. Too many detours and they will be unwilling to follow you in the future.
4. But don’t be too predictable.
Every now and then, throw a curveball into the mix, but make sure that curveball makes total sense. For example, we added a rap to a worship song recently. Risky move, but in the grand scheme of the service it was a great moment! Everyone likes a surprise now and then. Just make sure it’s a pleasant surprise—one that will make them look forward to coming back next week to see what you have up your sleeve.
5. Avoid the complete overhaul.
I’ve been there. It’s a difficult place to be. It’s better to make small, subtle changes every week, such as updating your keyboard sounds or bringing a couple of younger musicians onto your team. Chances are, the congregation won’t notice these changes at first. The residual effect, however, will be a sense of anticipation they have for worship every time they walk through the doors. And that’s the ultimate goal. Give them what they want, and a little bit of what they didn’t expect.
You might never capture the energy of a worship conference—where people are coming ready for and anticipating the worship moments. But you can craft an environment where people are eager to worship and where the atmosphere is electric.