How Does a Worship Leader Cue the Congregation?

A while back I received an email from Paul asking:

One of the central roles of a worship band is to help the congregation to sing. Do you have advice on how a worship band can best cue the congregation? What kinds of things could I tell my instrumentalists and singers to do to help the people come in on the first words of a song or verse? How would you in general encourage congregational singing?

Paul’s question highlights one of the differences between leading a group of people to praise God from their hearts and simply playing and singing music for them. While people can certainly join along as we play our songs, it’s helpful when we make it obvious we expect them to sing. If you sing songs the exact same way every time, cuing the congregation isn’t as much of an issue. But if you regularly switch things up as you sing a song (repeat a verse, sing the chorus twice, go back to a different part of the song, etc.) people need to know where you’re going. Cuing them is one way to do that. Here are a few thoughts.

Give cues clearly.
In discussing the benefits of prophecy vs. tongues, Paul writes in 1 Cor. 14:7-8: 1Cor. 14:7 “If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?” In other words, clarity matters. The less time people spend trying to figure out where we’re going in a song, the more time they’ll be able to give to exalting Christ in their minds and affections. That means I don’t want to mumble or speak too quickly. It also means that if different parts of a song begin with the same phrase, I have to say something other than the initial words to let people know what we’re going to sing. Generally, if I don’t say anything, people (including the projectionist) should anticipate me going to the next part of the song.

Make sure you have enough time to give cues.
Trying to squeeze in a verbal direction at the last minute not only makes me sound frantic, but it doesn’t really help anyone. I should have a feel for how long the spaces in the song are. Also, I don’t have to say the whole first line to let people know what we’ll be singing. Saying two or three words works, or even simply, “Verse 2.”

Don’t give cues too early.
I’ve been guilty of giving direction immediately after a section of a song has ended, leaving people 8 bars to figure out when they should come in. By that time they’re usually already tried to come in or forgotten what I said.

Don’t cue the band without cuing the congregation.
Some leaders
develop elaborate signals to let the band know what’s next, while leaving the congregation clueless. That’s why I generally give verbal cues rather than visual ones. An exception is when I’m signaling to the band we’re going to sing a cappella or end the song, neither of which the congregation has to know in advance.

Vary the music to indicate when you want people to sing or not sing.
Instrumental cues can work as well as verbal cues.
You can increase the volume of the band, ritard slightly, or vary the harmonic changes to indicate it’s time to sing. For instance, you can lead into first chord with a walk-up on the bass. If you want people to wait to come in, keep the instrumentation subdued and sparse.

Vary your cues.
Most of us tend to do what’s most efficient. “Efficiency” can suck the life out of a congregation’s singing. To vary it up, you can make a comment on what you’re about to sing. Before the fourth verse of In Christ Alone (No guilt in life, no fear in death), I might say, “This is the effect of the gospel.” You can also sing a cue rather than speak it. Or just move up to the microphone.

Think tone as well as content.
Some leaders sound like they’re barking out military commands when they give cues. Cuing a congregation can be an opportunity to impart faith and understanding to people as well as give direction.

Don’t cue too much.
Leading is like giving directions on a trip. You only need to say something when there’s a turn. You don’t need to highlight every store, gas station, or landmark that you pass by. Give people a break from your interruptions (a lesson I continue to learn). But be sure you’re there when they need to make a turn.

What have you learned about giving cues to the congregation? Have any funny stories of times it didn’t go so well?

34 Responses to How Does a Worship Leader Cue the Congregation?

  1. Todd August 6, 2010 at 12:07 PM #

    When coming out of an instrumental section back to a chorus, I’ll sing the first note of the chorus on an “oh” or “yeah” or some other phrase.

    Since it’s not a new section, it’s a good lead-in to the repeat chorus. It’s a good cue for the band but also lets the congregation know that the energy is ramping back up. I don’t do it a ton, but we’ve done it enough that our congregation knows it and responds.

    Great post with good encouragement, Bob.

  2. Kyle Broady August 6, 2010 at 2:03 PM #

    Often I actually use the cues in rehearsal so that the team is already used to hearing it and I get used to saying it. It helps with timing and with remembering once Sunday morning comes.

  3. William August 6, 2010 at 2:08 PM #

    I noticed on the CD “Creation Worships” that the worship leader leading “Trading my sorrows” indicates a return to the chorus by singing (not saying) a part of the first line (I’m trading.. I’m trading my sorrows..) I found it useful and have done it successfully several times with other songs.

    Mostly, I sing songs about the same way every time and have my projection created to fit. It is a bit constraining, but it actually frees up everyone to worship : no guesswork.

    Just a question: When you say things like “This is the effect of the gospel.” in In Christ Alone, do you fit it into the regular break between verses or do you add a section to have the time. I really like the idea, but I’m not sure how to make it work since I don’t usually do long breaks between verses: I like to keep the congregation active.

    Love your blog, btw. Very useful posts giving me lots to think about.

  4. Brian Moss August 6, 2010 at 3:07 PM #

    Bob,

    Thanks for your thoughtful response here. I invite you to write another post in addition to this one…”How do congregations cue worship leaders?” I think that different congregations will, at different times, give us cues as to what kind of cues they really need from us. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that too.

    Peace,
    Brian

    • Bob Kauflin August 6, 2010 at 3:59 PM #

      Brian, GREAT idea for a blog post. Thanks.

  5. Richard Lee August 6, 2010 at 3:15 PM #

    Practical article. Thanks Bob! Funny story. I was trying begin the set with a 4 bar of guitar strumming but I went to the mic a little too early. The result? Someone thought (and who could blame them) that me getting closer to the mic meant I was going to start singing. Well, I didn’t. But they did. Really loud. I felt bad and I had to smile because I loved hearing that person sing so joyfully. Anyways, guess cues are good :)

  6. Dan Lyle August 6, 2010 at 4:18 PM #

    Bob, do you have a particular visual cue that you use to signal the band for a cappella?

  7. Steve I. August 6, 2010 at 4:30 PM #

    I can relate to squeezeing in cues and sounding like an auctioneer. Also, another thing I try and be cognizant of is making sure that if I give a partial cue, it is appropriate with context. I am unable to remember the hymn, but I gave a partial cue to the first line and it came across as really bad theology. As our pastor says, you take ‘text’ out of ‘context’ and you have a ‘con’. Something to be aware of.

    Finally, I’d love to hear thoughts on the “script” you have for the call to worship. Ideally, I want to keep it similar each time but I have a tendency to change it up. For example, I usually say something like “Good morning! Let’s come together brothers and sisters to worship the Lord at His throne of grace”. However, sometimes I change it up and say something different. It seems there are more pros than cons with keeping the call to worship the same.

    Thanks for the great blog content, Bob!

  8. Riley August 6, 2010 at 5:11 PM #

    I and my band tend to arrange the songs very methodically, and sometimes arrange a song in two ways. So rather than needing to use a lot of cues, people just grow familiar to the way we do a song.

    But I tend to use cues to accentuate a particular message of a song (e.g. “Ponder anew what the Almighty can do” as a particular application I want the folks to get out of the song).

    Have you posted on the advantages/disadvantages to strict song arrangements vs. a more flowing/improv style?

    Great post!
    Riley

    • Bob Kauflin August 6, 2010 at 5:44 PM #

      Riley, I haven’t posted on that topic, but great idea for the future. Thanks.

  9. Jeff Bourque August 6, 2010 at 5:35 PM #

    I was cueing the congregation to sing the first line of a popular hymn. Unfortunately, I only said the first two words – “All hail!” With the slight southern accent that I have, it came out sounding a lot like I was making a very redneck reference to Hades.

    Thankfully, no one took it that way beyond my band members.

    • Bob Kauflin August 6, 2010 at 5:39 PM #

      Jeff, usually not a good idea to curse when you’re leading congregational worship.

      Or any other time, for that matter.

  10. Jason August 6, 2010 at 7:34 PM #

    “or end the song, neither of which the congregation has to know in advance”

    You’ve obviously not been to our church…. some people will keep singing after the song has ended.

    Kidding, kidding!

    “Some leaders sound like they’re barking out military commands”

    Reminds me of one children’s ministry leaders, encouraging the little ones to sing louder in front of the whole congregation: “SING LOUDER!!!”

    Appreciate the post. Much food for thought.

  11. Ken Boer August 6, 2010 at 9:36 PM #

    One of my favorites was leading Matt Redman’s “You Never Let Go.” The only way to shout out the first line of the chorus is to shout, “OH NO!!!” Learned that one the hard way….

  12. Kyle August 6, 2010 at 10:02 PM #

    I usually shout something like, “Sing like you mean it!”

    Just kidding. But I heard a leader do that once, and it made me want to stop singing.

    If the cue is to let the congregation know that the singing part is coming up after an instrumental section, I usually make that clear by standing well away from the microphone during an instrumental section, and then walking toward the microphone and taking a very obvious breath when the singing is about to start. That has always seemed to work fine, so I’ve never thought through much else to do in that regard.

    Regarding a cue during the singing portion of a song, I have often done what Bob describes during “In Christ Alone.” For example, in the hymn “I Stand Amazed in the Presence,” the verses are about what Jesus did for us at the cross, and then the chorus is a celebration of his love. So after we sing a verse (e.g., “He bore my burden to Calv’ry and suffered and died alone), I’ll say something like, “And here’s our response:” – and then we’ll sing the chorus: “How marvelous! How wonderful!…” I’ve found it can be an effective way to help people (myself included) make clear connections between lyrics of a song, and to understand very clearly what we’re doing at any given moment. In other words, instead of mindlessly rambling through the lyrics of the chorus, since that’s where we are in the song, we are responding in joy and gratitude to the mercy of God.

    Good post as usual, Bob. Thanks for your thoughts.

  13. Kyle August 6, 2010 at 11:03 PM #

    In the way of blunders, there’s been a time or two where I’ve attempted to squeeze in an exhortation or cue between lines, and my mouth got ahead of my mind, and it came out as gibberish. That’s always edifying.

  14. Tom August 7, 2010 at 12:32 PM #

    Bob – I LOVE your blog and really appreciate your insight. Thank you for posting such great, God-glorifying stuff!

    Two stories:

    1) When I was a very young believer, I brought an unbelieving friend along with me to a church I was checking out. I was watching the lyrics appear on the screen, and the first line of a latter verse started as, “Oh, God…” Just before we got to that line, the worship leader cued us by shouting, “OH GOD!” This panicked my friend greatly, as he’d begun nodding off a bit by that point.

    2) Recently my congregation was singing the excellent song, “I Will Glory in My Redeemer”. Unfortunately, the verse and chorus begin with the same line. The worship leader cued the line sure enough, but the projectionist, band and congregation all assumed he meant different things. We ended up singing almost all the way through the verse/chorus before the leader figured out what had happened! Thank the Lord that we will glory in Him alone and not in our ability to get it right =)

  15. Ron Man August 8, 2010 at 10:35 PM #

    My worst cue, which continues to live in infamy in the lore of our church, was when I instructed the congregation, “We’ll remain seated while we stand!”

    One pet peeve about cues: when the worship leader habitually speaks the next words the congregation is to sing, even though those words have just come up on the screen and are quite obviously the next thing the congregation is to sing!

  16. Ben August 9, 2010 at 9:42 AM #

    So this post haunted me yesterday as I led :) It seemed as if, no matter how hard we tried, every cue was slightly early. I’ve noticed this is exceptionally harder when the first word to the verse is on the 3rd beat of the measure. My tendency is to set up the line as if we would start it on “1.”

    I also had one of my vocalists who was leading a song give the first cue for that song, and she gave a very thoughtful one, but then missed where she was at in the measure, so it took about two more measures to get back on. It still was pretty good for her first time doing it!

  17. Ian Martin August 9, 2010 at 1:43 PM #

    Sometimes during a song, (usually to conclude a song) we will want to sing the chorus back to back. When there is not enough time to cue the congregation in verbally, I will use Powerpoint to help me out.

    For example, during “Grace Unmeasured” the chorus ends with this line:

    “And never cease to thank You for Your grace”

    When doubling the chorus, we have used the last word “grace” to begin the next chorus so the song goes:

    “And never cease to thank You for Your…Grace (grace, grace), paid for my sins and brought me to life”.

    We will use Powerpoint to cue the doubled chorus by showing the “…” before the new chorus. It allows for a visual cue when the audible cue is not possible.

  18. Yvonne August 9, 2010 at 3:03 PM #

    Once when singing Days of Elijah I wanted to repeat the bridge – There’s no God like Jehovah and proceeded to shout out to the congregation the shocking statement that ‘There’s no God’. Spent the rest of the song trying to restrain myself from laughing altho’ surprisingly nobody else noticed!

  19. Sean Johnson August 10, 2010 at 9:26 AM #

    I’ve learned that if you play the music so the assembly will follow, one doesn’t need to describe what’s going on in the song with words.
    But if one needs to cue, try singing the next few words, that works best. That technique has been used for centuries by song leaders leading people without books in front of them. This will solve the tone issue.
    Also, if one practices cuing, one will solve the timing issues.

    It’s one of our issues as worship leaders!

  20. Sergio Villanueva August 10, 2010 at 3:52 PM #

    Bob, What kind of cue Do you use when you want to do a key change? (F – G)

    The cue that it seems works for us is me telling the congregation “Church… lift up your voice” Most of the time the church already knows it means we are going higher musically.

    • Bob Kauflin August 10, 2010 at 4:03 PM #

      Sergio, a “thumbs up” is our sign for modulating. We cue the congregation, typically, by playing some variation of the 5 chord in the new key. So if we’re going from C to D, we’ll play an Asus to communicate the change of key.

  21. Brandon West August 17, 2010 at 11:50 AM #

    Bob,

    This is really helpful stuff, thanks. Another thing I found helpful is, as you said, preparing for what you are going to say during a cue.

    For instance, the first line of “You are God Alone,” you would want to say something other than the first few words… a cue like “sing with me, you are not a god” – wouldn’t be very helpful (I noticed this one the other week, fortunately before saying it). At the very least you would probably want to say the whole line – “you are not a god created by human hands.”

    Thanks,

    Brandon

  22. Gretchen Brown August 23, 2010 at 3:28 PM #

    How much talking should a song leader do? Should they read the gospel and give meditations? Or what exactly should the role be in a contemporary service. These questions are not for pastors in this position but for lay people.

    • Bob Kauflin August 23, 2010 at 9:40 PM #

      Gretchen, I did a three part series on that topic, starting here.

  23. Anonymous September 18, 2010 at 10:24 PM #

    I find this practice of yelling out things in-between verses or the chorus by the worship leader is very annoying. 

    I don’t understand how yelling something out and breaking the flow of the music helps direct people to focus on worship. It actually breaks my focus and worship of Christ during singing. It’s done on the SGM live CDs as well. It seems like since the head worship leader at SGM does it that our worship leader tries to imitate and do the same. 

    We should not focus on teaching methods to drive peoples emotions in worship. The worship leader should be transparent during worship and let the Spirit do His work just as a good Pastor is transparent when preaching the Word of God and letting the Spirit work in the hearts of the people. 

    The congregation doesn’t need yelled at in directing worship!

    • Bob Kauflin September 18, 2010 at 11:49 PM #

      Anonymous, thanks for stopping by and commenting. I wanted to mention three things I agree with you on, and offer some explanations that I hope will be helpful.

      I agree that we shouldn’t focus on teaching methods to drive people’s emotions in worship. What should drive people’s emotions is a fresh understanding of the greatness, glory, majesty, beauty, and goodness of Jesus Christ. There seems to be a biblical precedent for proclaiming those truths at times with a loud voice (Ps. 33:3, 27:6, 32:7, 42:4, 126:5). While shouting isn’t the only way we can respond to God’s glory, it seems to be one way. Of course, it can be overdone.

      I also agree that a worship leader should be transparent during worship. Nothing should be done for show, out of routine, or from a motive to manipulate people’s emotions. But that transparency at times may express itself in an exuberant declaration that Jesus is a great Savior, that his atoning work is finished, and that He is the sovereign King.

      Finally, I agree completely that the congregation doesn’t neet to be yelled at in directing worship. Directions can be given calmly, quietly, and in a normal voice. But directions and cues are different from heartfelt expressions of praise, worship, and adoration. One doesn’t get the impression that heaven is always a quiet place (Rev. 7:10, 14:2, 19:1).

      One more point. I think you might be helped to consider the content of what is being said, rather than simply the fact that it’s being said with a loud voice. There are truths, accomplishments, and realities that are worthy of our loudest and most passionate proclamation.

      Hope that’s helpful.

  24. Anonymous September 19, 2010 at 12:45 PM #

    Bob, thanks for the reply. I hope I didn’t come across the wrong way on this issue.

    The point is that there is always a danger of pragmatism when there’s topics of discussion of what works and what doesn’t in worship. It does come across the wrong way when it seems something is being imitated or duplicated. Just something that worship leaders need to be careful of. Style over substance. Every local Church may have it’s individual uniqueness in worship.

    Thank you for the Scripture references. I certainly submit to those references; however, in almost everyone of those verses (or in context), when in assembly, there is mention of “us”, “a multitude” or “many waters” making the loud noise/shouting.

    There are several in our congregation that may shout in a loud voice with gladness, clap loudly during our singing or even calling out an Amen during the sermon. And that’s OK! It just thrills one soul that we, in one accord, are being blessed by the singing or hearing the Word of God!

    However, the worship leader has to be careful not to stand out individually from the “multitude” assembled together in worship. Maybe worship leaders need to remember they’re in front of a microphone. Sometimes when I have my eyes closed in worship it actually startles me when this technique is used. Sometimes it just doesn’t seem appropriate.

    What ever direction is given by the Worship Leader, it should be done in a way that is in one accord with the rest of the congregation and how the Spirit is working in that moment. The “direction” shouldn’t be done in a way that draws attention to the worship leader and away from our worship of God. Does that make sense?

    We have a very humble Pastor who God uses mightily each week to share the Word. I’ve never walked out of a service saying, Pastor “Smith” did a wonderful job today, but I’m often left with an attitude of awe that I’ve just heard a powerful Word from God in the sermon. There’s transparency there. We’re directed to Christ and His finished work on the Cross and nothing else. For that I am grateful!

    The singing portion of our worship should leave us in that same state of awe. I hope that makes sense coming from someone sitting in the congregation.

  25. Keith November 25, 2013 at 2:11 PM #

    Great Article. and helpful.

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