Think like a television producer

How to Trim at least 2 minutes off the length of your worship service...

Perhaps you don't have a service length problem. Maybe your pastor never preaches more than 12 minutes...and your choir always sings one 2 minute anthem...and your children's moment is never longer than 2 minutes tops...and you only sing one verse of one hymn during the course of the entire service...and your announcements...well...I'll just stop there, ok?

If your church is like most, though, you will, from time to time, have an issue with the duration of your worship service, and I can almost guarantee that it won't be because you quit early. This is not the place for me to argue whether or not a service should be subject to a time limit, or whether or not that time limit should be a certain set time. This is, however, a discussion of how to "tighten up" your service.

Before we start. Walk into your sanctuary with a piece of paper and some colored pencils. Take a long look at what you see. At the "big picture" view, I'll bet that you have some form of either a square, a rectangle, an octagon/circle, or wedge. Draw representation of your shape on your paper. This is not an art exercise, so don't worry if the drawing is crude, but make it big enough to add some details as we go along.

Now look closer. Every sanctuary has some "fixed" elements, be they pews, a pupit, organ console, table/altar, kneeling rail for communion, a large portrait of the founding pastor, what have you. I truly mean fixed elements here, something that cannot be moved. If it is on wheels, or can be picked up, it is not fixed. Add these elements to your drawing in a color that translates to fixed when you look at it. Naming the elements is a nice touch, but if you can get the shapes closely approximated, that is the most important thing.

Now do the same for the movable elements that generally are not or have not been moved for some time. This might be your piano, some permanent banners or flags, or the drum set. For our purposes, if it only gets moved for a large scale production, it is a semi-fixed object. Add these elements to your drawing in a different color. Again, the idea is not precision, nor accurate scale for the moment. The idea is to begin to see the sanctuary as a director might see it.

Finally, follow the same drill for the elements that move every single week, and place them on your drawing in yet another color.

Now let's sit down and look more carefully. Find a spot that allows you a view of the entire sanctuary with the platform in front of you (in other words, sit from the audience's perspective, not the platform perspective). Let's look at your space again. This time we want to see the space and the elements of furniture as sets. Most sanctuaries have more than one natural area of focus: a space that sets itself off naturally to the eye. Those areas, or sets, can be a result of architecture, furniture groupings, lighting/windows, ceiling height, or sight lines (transepts, for instance, or a gallery), to name a few possibilities. Enclose those spaces on your drawing with another color. It is ok if one or more sets overlap. At the moment we want to look for possibilities, not final determinations.

As you are determining the set spaces, be sure to look beyond the obvious as well. If you have a wraparound balcony, for instance, there may be set spaces up there, even though seating occupies the preponderance of the space. At this part of the process you want to be very aware of levels: floor, stairs, platform, and so forth. Transfer as much information as possible to your drawing.

Now what? Once you have your drawing done, you can go back to your desk. You may want to re-do the drawing in order to better represent the sanctuary space, but the primary object of this exercise was to internalize the space for worship planning.

Planning for scenes. If you've done any large scale work, like a musical, you know that it generally divides itself into scenes. If you haven't, let's agree that scenes are segments of the whole production that organize themselves distinctly from other segments of the production. You may be familiar with scenes in opera, for instance, or musical comedy, but the most prominent example of a scene is that space between two commercial breaks in a scripted television show.

Let's take a bulletin or worship leaflet in hand now. Even better would be the plan for your next week's worship. At this point, however, any service will do, as long as you can easily remember what happened by looking at the bulletin or what should happen by looking at the plan. Look at your document now and figure out what the scenes are/were in the particular service. If you are having trouble, look for natural service "breaks" to figure this out. In most worship services, the sermon, with or without a separate scripture reading, for instance, will be one scene. The offering might be another, either by itself, or with an intro (call for the offering) and/or outro (doxology and prayer). In liturgical churches, the various scripture readings may each be a scene.

For the purposes of this exercise, it is not important that you get it perfect, but that you begin to see the segments, or scenes, begin to separate themselves from each other.

Now, let's save time. When a service runs long, it is not always due to a long-winded preacher or an extended anthem. In every service, timing problems generally occur in the transitions between the scenes of a worship service. It might be that the lay reader is not ready when the time comes to read the morning's scripture. Perhaps the deacon giving an announcement is seated in the middle of the pew, and needs to navigate past several people to get to the aisle in order to get to the microphone. It might be that the children's choir director needs time to organize the standing arrangement before the children can sing. These are small delays, but added together might consume several minutes of worship time.

Now let's think like a television director. Not every moment of every show takes place in front of the same backdrop. Even a local newscast will cut away to the weather screen, or the sports desk. Imagine your worship scenes in different set locations in the sanctuary. Perhaps the announcements can be done from a side aisle, or the children's choir can line up in the front part of a transept. The lay reader might read scripture with a wireless mic from a spot off the platform...even perhaps, in a pew.

With some judicious planning, each of your worship scenes can be set up while the current scene takes place. Assuming that this can be done with a minimum amount of distraction, the congregation's focus will remain upon the current scene, and the focus can shift immediately and seamlessly to the new set for the new scene when the time comes. With some experimentation, planning, and intentionality (rehearsal, anyone? I know of one particular church which enforces a strict rule that no one can be on the platform during worship without attending the worship walk through on Saturday afternoon. During this time they not only rehearse scene transitions but set microphone levels for the people who ordinarily are not in worship, and thus don't have pre-set eq levels on the mics.), your worship transitions will not only save time, but will add dramatic interest to the service.

Final Thoughts
Remember to not be a dictatorial director. The idea is for this to be a help, not a constant source of battle.

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