The Importance of Stagecraft for Worship Services

Jonathan Looney

Several years ago, a fellow ruling elder in our church asked me if we could stop sitting in front of the congregation when serving the Lord’s Supper. As we discussed it, and he tried to explain the reasons for his request, he finally said, “I never know where I am supposed to look.” He was simply uncomfortable being in front of a large crowd in that situation. Quite frankly, his discomfort may be appropriate: it is correct to take leadership in a public worship service seriously. And, any time we are on the platform[1] (or, arguably, any time an elder is present in a worship service, regardless of his seating location), we are leading the congregation in worship.

A worship service is a dynamic stage. Like the best dramas of the theater, elders invite the congregation to join us in what is occurring on the platform. As we worship, we want to draw God’s people to worship God with us. Like a stage drama, we work with emotions that are a natural part of our worship. (And, more than in a stage drama based in fiction, the emotions in worship are a genuine response to profoundly important matters.) As we marvel at the wonder of God’s glory, we invite the congregation to marvel with us. As we are utterly saddened by the badness of our own sins, we invite the congregation to grieve with us. And, as we feel the incredible joy of knowing God’s forgiveness for those sins, we invite the congregation to rejoice with us.

There are a few principles that are worth reviewing. First, what we do on the platform does matter; therefore, it is important that our facial expressions, dress, tone of voice, and actions be intentional (not occurring without thought) and be intentionally designed to lead the congregation in worship. Second, we can have a positive or negative impact. Our goal is not just to avoid making mistakes; rather, our goal is to have a positive impact in encouraging the congregation to worship. Third, our goal is to lead the congregation in genuine worship. We can aid this by modeling our genuine worship for them.

Stagecraft can be learned. I am deeply indebted to many over the years (particularly, Bruce Montgomery, director of my college’s glee club) who taught me the basic skills I use to this day. I hope to pass along some of those skills to you through this article.


As you walk up to the microphone (or even just sit on the platform), many questions may go through your mind: “What am I supposed to say? Who is that man staring at me from the fourth row? Did I remember to zip my fly? Did I remember my notes for the prayer? Did I remember a bulletin so I know what songs to announce?” Which of these questions is supposed to prepare your mind for worship?

It is critical that you spend adequate time preparing for the worship service so that you will not be distracted by extraneous things. Moreover, I would recommend that you adopt a routine to ensure you do this preparation every time. The routine will both ensure that you actually are prepared, and also may provide some comfort for you.

Your preparations should cover these general areas: dress (make sure your dress is appropriate and is properly buttoned/zipped/tied), personal care (go to the restroom prior to the service; take any necessary medicine; and, drink/eat enough to fuel yourself), tools (ensure you have any necessary notes and a Bible; ensure that you will have access to a song book while on the platform; ensure you know how to use the microphone; and ensure you have any other “tools” you will need), mental (review what you will do; identify and address any areas where you are unsure about your role), and emotional (free your mind of outside emotions or distractions; recognize, and take steps to address, your anxieties).

This list probably seems long, but I assure you it is just a summary. If you think about your own circumstances, you may find items you want to add. If it helps, make an actual checklist that you use in your preparations. In my opinion, the greater danger for many people is in under-preparing, rather than over-preparing.

Suffice it to say that adequate preparation is (humanly speaking) a prerequisite for intentionally making a positive impact on the worship service. But, of course, in God’s gracious providence, I have gotten through worship services where I was under-prepared. So, we must not despair when we realize our preparations have fallen short.

Facial Expression

Have you ever been to a choir concert and thought, “Those people aren’t enjoying themselves?” Instead, it may actually be the case that they simply paid too little attention to their facial expression. Our inner emotions are not always displayed in our facial expressions when we are in front of a large group of people.

It is hard to have a good facial expression while leading a congregation in worship. Our tendency is to be so focused on not making a mistake (or, to put it positively, so focused on the thing we are doing), that we pay too little attention to our facial expression. And, yet, this is so critical to getting people in the congregation to participate with us in the natural emotions of the worship service.

The very first thing we must do is to look interested. Even if we can’t express any other emotion, we must express that one. Otherwise, the people in the congregation may wonder (whether consciously or subconsciously) why they should be interested in worship. Note that it is not enough to be interested in the worship service; rather, you must also express this emotion. And, contrary to what you might think, your facial expressions do not automatically express the reality of your emotions (and, this may be especially true when you are in front of a large group of people).

Thankfully, it is easy to look interested. You convey most emotion with the eyes,[2] and this one is no different. Simply raising both eyebrows a slight amount can convey interest. Look in a mirror and try this. Get a second opinion from your wife or another elder. And, then, use a mirror to practice this for a while. (And, you do need to practice this. Your eyebrow muscles may hurt if you try to do this for an hour straight with no previous practice.) Ideally, you should get to the point where you instinctively put on your “interested face” at the start of the worship service and don’t release it until the end. Even if you allow your mind to wander, you don’t want to model that mind-wandering for people in the congregation. Practice is essential in maintaining that “interested face” in all circumstances.

Once you have mastered showing interest, you may want to practice other emotions, as well. Remember that the aim is not to convey false emotion; however, when there is genuine emotion, we must be able to convey it to the congregation. How are they to rejoice with us when they don't see us rejoicing? How are they to sorrow with us if they don't see us sorrow? Leading the congregation in worship includes leading them in appropriate emotional responses to the content of the worship service.

If you usually rehearse the things you will speak in the worship service, you should include your emotions as part of your rehearsal. We tend to do things the way we practice them, so it is important that you include the critical element of emotions when you practice speaking. Spontaneous emotions are good and should not be suppressed—that is not the goal of the practice I suggest. However, it is important that you prepare for this particular facet of leading the people in worship and not merely rely on the emotions that come to you (or may fail to come to you) in the moment.

Singing seems to present some interesting challenges in showing emotion. Certainly, that is not because songs are void of emotions. (For example, what Christian can sing “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” without being moved to sorrow, thankfulness, and, perhaps, even wonder?) And yet many people seem to have trouble showing emotion while they sing. The answer to this is practice.

I think many people have trouble showing emotion while they sing because they are trying to show the emotion in their mouths—the same mouths they are trying to use to sing. However, recall that you convey emotion in your eyes, so it is possible to convey emotion with your eyes while your mouths are fully engaged in singing.

It also should be easier to show emotion while you sing if you are fairly familiar with the song. If you are concentrating on a new tune or unfamiliar words, you may be so focused on merely getting the words or notes correct that you completely miss the emotion of the song and are not able to model any emotion for the congregation other than concentration. This is yet another way in which good preparation can help you.


Anytime someone else is speaking, you should focus on the speaker. By doing so, you both draw the congregation’s attention to the speaker and subconsciously communicate to them that you think it is worth paying attention to the speaker. By contrast, if you look away from the speaker, others may try to follow your gaze to see what you found more interesting than the speaker. Or, if you simply stare into space, others may subconsciously assume that you find what the speaker is saying to be uninteresting or boring, and you may lead them to have similar thoughts.

Because of the arrangement of our church, when I am on the platform, I am often situated where I cannot easily see the pastor’s face when he is speaking. During the Lord’s Supper (when the elders sit in front, facing the congregation), he is behind me enough that I would need to turn my body to be able to see him. In these cases, I imagine an invisible line extending forward from his nose and I focus on that line. I am not actually looking “at him”, but the effect on the audience should be similar. Other times that I am on the platform, he may be in front of me such that I cannot see his face. Again, I simply pretend that I can see his nose through his head and focus on that. In these cases where you cannot actually see the speaker’s face, it seems easier to get distracted. Therefore, it is that much more important to focus on showing proper emotion (beginning with “interest”).

When you are the speaker, you should focus on what you are doing. It is good to make eye contact with the congregation, shifting your gaze from person to person. If possible, it is good to cover the entire width of the sanctuary so no one feels like they are in an isolated part of the congregation, or are somehow disconnected from the worship.

Obviously, none of this changes the fact that the actual focus of the worship service is God. It is up to the session to order the worship service such that the focus of the service is the worship of God. When that is done, drawing the congregation to focus on those leading the worship service should in turn draw them to focus on the worship of God (and, therefore, to God himself, who is the object of our worship).


Distractions are an inevitable part of life. When they occur in a worship service, it is often best to acknowledge them, deal with them, and then return to worship (as best you are able).

Distractions can be big or small. I've been in a worship service where someone fainted and we had to call the paramedics to help her. In another worship service, a man who was having a bad reaction to a medication a doctor had recently prescribed stood up and began to talk during the sermon. Those qualify as “big” distractions. Your instincts will probably already guide you on what to do in those circumstances: you need to address the distraction and assess what path forward will produce the result most conducive to the worship of God. In some cases, the best choice may be simply to break into a prayer service.

However, other distractions can be subtler. Perhaps, the classic example of this is when everyone knows that something is wrong and they are waiting for someone to address it. What if the pastor gets up to speak and his fly is down? Someone needs to pass him a note quickly; otherwise, many people (if not everyone) will be distracted while they wait to see how the situation will be resolved. Things dropped on the platform can also serve as distractions. If the speaker drops his handkerchief, a pencil, or a notecard, you will likely find that people keep looking at it, waiting for someone to pick it up. Even though this seems like a minor thing, it can distract the people's attention, so it should be resolved quickly—even if that means that someone goes to the platform to pick up the dropped item.

Microphone or other audio-visual problems can also be distracting. While the situation is unresolved, people may be distracted as they wait to see what will happen. In these cases, it is probably better just to address the situation head on and quickly announce a resolution than to leave it unresolved or to search too long for a solution. So, if your microphone stops working, it may be better just to say, “We’ll continue without microphones for the rest of the service, so please move forward if you are having trouble hearing.” This will probably produce a better result than trying to speak while someone continues to search for a solution.

It is almost inevitable that distractions will happen. When they do, you should address them, “resolve” them (even if the resolution is that you will simply work around the problem), and then, if appropriate, return the people’s focus to the worship of God.[3]


Microphones are worthy of special mention because of their ability to be a very prominent distraction. Remember that microphones can always be on, so you should always treat them that way. If wearing a lapel or over-the-ear microphone, take it off (or, if that is not possible, at least double-check that it is completely disabled) before going to the bathroom. Likewise, be careful about having private conversations anywhere near a microphone (whether a lapel microphone or a fixed microphone).

If using a microphone with batteries or a wireless microphone, it is good to have an easily accessible backup microphone (hand-held or on a stand) which you can easily start using if the batteries on your primary microphone stop working or the wireless microphone encounters interference. Advanced planning like this can help minimize the distraction that occurs when these devices encounter problems.

Final Thoughts

It is normal to feel nervous in new situations, but I fall back on my practice to get through them. (Note that word “practice.” You should practice these skills.) On the other hand, it is also possible to become complacent when you are too comfortable. This can cause you to appear to lack interest in what is occurring around you, whether that is accurate or not. Again, the antidote is practice. It may be helpful to ask someone (such as your wife or another elder) to keep you accountable for expressing appropriate emotions in a worship service.

You must also be intentional about directing the focus of the people to the speaker. And, try to plan ahead to minimize distractions, and do not let distractions that do occur (no matter how seemingly insignificant) go unresolved for long.

When done well, these things really can make a difference. Whether on the platform or in your seat, and whether you are speaking or not, you can help lead the congregation in the worship of God by showing appropriate emotions, directing their attention to the speaker, and preventing (or minimizing) distractions.

And these things aren't just important for your normal congregants. The next time you are in a worship service, ask yourself this question: If I were an outsider and knew nothing about Christianity, what would I think about this worship service? Does it look like this is an interesting, emotional, and profoundly important meeting? Or, does it appear that this is merely a matter of rote obligation? We know the reality is the former. Let's all aim to show that.


[1] Different congregations have different physical arrangements. Sometimes there is a platform on which the worship leaders stand. Sometimes there is no platform, but the worship leaders stand at the front on ground level. I’ve even been to one worship service where the worship leaders stand in the middle and are surrounded on all four sides by the congregation. You know when you are in the location where those leading worship usually stand, whatever the physical arrangement may be. I am using “on the platform” as a simple way to refer to this location.

[2] As an experiment, try having someone crop some photographs of people so you can only see the area around their eyes. See if you can accurately guess the emotions shown in the full photographs from the images of the eyes. Another interesting experiment is to try showing emotion without involving the eyes. I think you'll find it is very hard to do that.

[3] Obviously, distractions caused by people in the congregation (for example, talking on a cell phone during the sermon) may require some discretion or delicacy. Use your best judgment in addressing these.

Jonathan Looney serves as a ruling elder at Hope Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Syracuse, New York. Ordained Servant Online, May 2017.

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Ordained Servant: May 2017

Watch Your Language

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Cultivating Christ-Honoring Speech in Church Courts (Proverbs 15:1–4)

Reformed Confessions: The Scottish Confession of Faith (1560)

Geerhardus Vos: The Biblical Theology

The Doctrine of the Covenant and Testament of God by Johannes Cocceius

Time and the Bell

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