Time's flow in worship

April 6th, 2022

When it comes to flow, what we are really talking about is an experience of time. A myriad of books about personal creativity and professional productivity have recently made flow, both its desirability and its apparent elusiveness, a popular topic of conversation. Regarding worship planning, we can’t exactly prescribe flow, but there are a variety of things we can do to help flow become a characteristic of our worship. Flow is desirable in our worship because it marks an overarching unity to the experience of worship. That overarching unity has been especially important in contemporary worship. Not only is flow simply more enjoyable as a basic quality, but also, people have come to expect it as a quality in all their experiences, from drive-thru lines to blockbuster films, from switching between devices to, yes, even worship.

Planning for flow as a quality of worship includes removing distractions. Though distractions in worship are often neither predictable nor universal (what distracts one person may not distract another), there are a few key elements that tend to distract from flow and are evident in many church contexts.

First is dead time. Silence in worship can be a gift, but only if it is treated as such. Accidental or incidental silence leaves congregations wondering who dropped the ball and missed their cue. When it comes to performances (in the most general sense of the word here) of any kind, people expect one thing to lead seamlessly into the next. This seamlessness signals the actions are connected logically, functionally, and ritualistically—the event is ongoing. To give an example, I often see readers and speakers wait for complete silence (e.g., for the last decay of instrument sound to die out) before even beginning to walk up the steps to the chancel or platform to use a microphone. In that time between our worship actions, our attention turns to the thumping of feet and waiting. There is no virtue in that kind of incidental waiting; it doesn’t produce or practice a holy patience. Instead, as the sound of the instruments is still ringing (keep your foot down and let it decay naturally, pianists!), the prayer leader can already begin speaking. You aren’t interrupting; you’re creating a seamlessness to the experience that generates trust and holds our attention to the moments of meaningful action in worship. Leaders must know where the worship service is going and guide the congregation into that next action. You’ll find many more strategies and approaches to achieving this seamlessness in the following chapters.

Second is the “and now for something completely different” problem. Many times in worship, the leaders act like the thing that just ended no longer exists. Now that it’s over, there is no reference to it, no acknowledgment of it, no sense of direction. For example, the organist chooses a rather somber piece to accompany the time of offering (a curious choice on its own, but we won’t address that here) that reflects on the weight of sin and death after which the punchy youth pastor pops up to tell us about all the amazing events going on this week in the church’s life. Talk about emotional whiplash! Or in the case of a recent service, the preaching left us on this really heavy note, and it felt like we needed a bit of space and silence to process. Instead, the person presiding over Communion just marched right up and began a perfunctory performance of the invitation to Communion. It was clear the congregation wasn’t ready to move on yet, but the script was clear this part was next, so on we marched into Communion. What a missed opportunity for active discernment and attention to the time it takes for people to process! We needed something to help bridge the chasm between those two actions, and we didn’t get it. It was like the balloon just popped and our attentive presence to that holy moment was forever lost and irretrievable. 

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Thirdly, a parallel problem besets many a contemporary worship service that has a similar effect on me. I call it “thematic tetherball.” If you don’t know, the old schoolyard game of tetherball is one in which a ball is connected by a string to the top of a pole. You play by smacking the ball back and forth around the pole between you and your opponent. The ball never really goes anywhere; it just bounces back and forth between the players. “Thematic tetherball” is when a worship song set, for example, just bounces around a theme for fifteen to thirty minutes and never really goes anywhere. It’s like we’ve found the top three songs in our repertory that use the word grace and dumped them into the service. It can make us worshippers feel like we aren’t getting anywhere. Don’t get me wrong, multiple songs on a theme can be a very faithful way to reinforce teaching and offer multiple opportunities for praise and thanksgiving. However, when the set doesn’t seem to progress along a narrative or story—or otherwise draw us into a variety of deeper essential activity—the musical seamlessness becomes a veneer over a lack of flow on a logical, functional, or liturgical level. We do want the surface level flow of music, but we want it to reflect a deeper current of flow in the activities of worship that draw us onward.

Fourth is the issue of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance in worship happens when what is said and what is done don’t seem to link up. It can happen anywhere and everywhere in worship. For example, a congregation processes forward to receive Communion by intinction (“Take the bread and dip it in the cup”) while singing “Let Us Break Bread Together on Our Knees.” Last I checked, the congregation was neither breaking the bread (it was broken and handed to them) nor on their knees (they are either walking or sitting). A similar example is when in texts like the Great Thanksgiving prayer a strong mood phrase is used (“It is a good and joyful thing always and everywhere”) and is read as though the presider either doesn’t believe what they are saying to be true or simply hasn’t processed internally what the text is actually saying. As a congregant it causes me to think, “Do you really believe that? It doesn’t sound like it.” Or in another case, I know a worship leader who says everything—and I mean everything—through a brilliant, toothy smile. It could be a death announcement and it looks like he is pleased with the news! When the action or leadership doesn’t match the content or sense of action, congregations experience cognitive dissonance. This detracts from flow and from the congregation’s engagement with God in time.

It should be reaffirmed here that disruption and interruption can be useful tools, but only once you’ve got flow down. One way in which worship planning and leadership reflects artistry is in its capacity to surprise, delight, shock, and awe the participants. We don’t want to lose that good artistic sense about worship; dynamic and holy interruption can only happen when we’ve got a bedrock of flow to crack open.

A number of other examples could have been cited in this section, but I hope you’re getting the point: making your planning and leadership more contemporary and with time means attending to the flow of the service. Flow isn’t about the amount of clock-time you have for the service, but about stewarding the sense of time the worship service creates as an event. Yes, you may still have a limitation on time for multiple reasons (multiple services, itinerant pastors, brunch plans, and NFL kickoffs), but worship services should strive to gather people out of the time of the world and inaugurate them into an engagement with God’s redeemed time. Flow is about experiencing time, and you want the congregation to experience time peaceably and without checking their watches every few moments, wondering when the service will be over.


This article is adapted from Lester Ruth, Flow (Nashville: Abingdon, 2020).

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