Listening in Two Directions: Preparation

Last summer my husband and I took a class at Regent College on public speaking. Like pretty much every course Regent offers it was carefully researched, thoroughly prepared, and well delivered… in this case by Dr. John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

Stackhouse describes public speaking as a gift: the goal is to serve the audience to which you are speaking. To give to them the knowledge, the motivation, the passion, the change you have to offer. Thus your audience must be the focus of your preparation, of your practice, and of your delivery.

Listening in Two Directions. Photo Credit, Allan Old, Flickr Creative Commons

Listening in Two Directions. Photo Credit, Allan Old, Flickr Creative Commons

My brain has a secret “worship theology” setting that is always at a low hum in the background, so this started me thinking about the two-fold “audience” in worship leading. What does it mean to focus in two directions – to focus our preparation, our practice, and our delivery on our congregation and on our God simultaneously? I’ve often described a worship leader’s primary task as one of intense listening – to the congregation and to the Spirit, but the idea of this listening being present throughout the process of preparation, practice, and delivery – while not entirely new to me – has caused me to consider the idea more deeply.

In my next two posts I will explore what it looks like to listen to the Spirit and to your congregation, respectively, but I want to introduce this idea with a further word about preparation.

One of Stackhouse’s key points is that preparation frees up brain space during presentation. If you prepare well, then you can adjust to your audience as you present, shifting to better engage their attention, sensing and responding to difficulties they might be perceiving in your material.

Now, in the world of worship leading, I’ve heard and read a lot of arguments for and against preparation. Usually these arguments pit careful and rigid preparation against the spontaneous and loose leading of the Spirit. On the one hand we have those who meticulously plan every chord, every note, every word. On the other hand we have those who don’t know what song they’re going to sing until they start singing it. This, of course, is a false dichotomy.

You cannot listen to the Spirit without preparation. And the Spirit should be present in every step of your preparation. Also, both a complete focus on the Spirit during delivery and a rigid understanding of preparation as controlled by the worship leader ignore the roll of the congregation in gathered worship. The helpful truth, I think, lies (as it so often does) somewhere in the middle.

Stackhouse’s point regarding public speaking is apt. We prepare because being well-prepared, well-rehearsed, frees up brain space during delivery, giving us the capacity to engage in active listening even as we play and sing and speak. So we prepare well – not so that we can do everything exactly as it has been prepared – but so that we can be free to adjust as the Spirit or as the congregation needs us to adjust.

Think about it. If you’re playing a new song – or if you’re new to an instrument, or to leading itself – isn’t it true that your brain is mostly scrambling for the next chord pattern, the next progression, the next string or key or note? You don’t have the capacity to think beyond the immediate mechanics of the moment. Now, there will be some weeks that are simply like this. You will need to introduce new songs. You can’t mentor a new musician or leader and not expect them to begin with a training period during which the majority of their thought life is taken up with the mechanics of what is happening.

But, as we mature, as we become comfortable with a corpus of music and familiar with the mechanics of leading a band or playing a solo instrument, as we grow in our knowledge and interpretation of Scripture, our weekly planning and preparation should be such that when we get up to lead, we are able to focus not on mechanics – but on the voice of the Spirit, and the movement of the congregation. We should be able to serve our two audiences more fully – ensuring that our worship leading is not just music, not just words, but a gift.


  1. Great word on leading worship pastorally. Very helpful to draw us into consideration of the preparations needed to help facilitate worship, and also the sensitivities even while we are in the process of worship engagement itself. Thank you, Stacey.


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