Today, I want to look at the hand signals that worship leaders use.
Having visited a number of churches, I have noticed that worship leaders (depending on how they were trained) approach hand signals very differently. I am not talking about the core shapes, because it seems that worship leaders around the world have somehow managed to develop the same hand shapings independently of each other. For example: “hand in the shape of a ‘C'” means “chorus”; extended pinky finger usually means “last line” and “closed fist” means “end of song”.
The more interesting issue for me is how obvious worship leaders make their signalling.
Some worship leaders like a discrete “hands behind the back” approach. Usually they look out to the congregation, still singing and smiling, and then you see the hand that’s not holding the microphone slip around the side of their body to the area that’s the small of their back before moving into shape formation.
Then there’s the “telepathic” approach where the worship leader doesn’t even have to use their hands. A minimal raising of the eyebrow or a wink at the drummer usually signals the end of the song. Unless the rest of the music team are simultaneously gifted in “words of knowledge” (thereby being able to read the worship leader’s mind together), what has usually happened is that the worship leader has planned the set down to a tee so that the entire movement of songs is predictable without the need for any extemporaneous signalling.
I want to suggest the rationale for these two approaches is the need to deliver a neat, polished “performance”. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it seems to give the impression that worship leading is a spectator sport rather than something completely participatory both by the worship team and the congregation.
My own practice is two-fold: first, I use vocal cues as much as possible. Rather than signalling with a “C”-shaped hand, I simply say something like “let’s sing the chorus again”. Or as the last line of the chorus ends, I sing the first line of the chorus over the top to prompt the musicians to play the chorus again.
Second, when there just is not enough space between lines to a vocal cue (or I’m too worried the band won’t catch the vocal cue in time), I make my hand signal obvious to both the band and the congregation. This tends to look less polished, but at the end of the day, the role of the worship leader is to lead everyone into worship. By giving clear hand signals to the congregation, they too can anticipate the next change and join in without disruption or hesitation.
The way I see it, the worship leader should be engaging and directing the entire church, both band and congregation, in expressing their praise to God, not putting on a nice show for the congregation. (The fact that the band is facing the congregation is perhaps a relic of tradition and I wonder whether one day, we might put the band at the back of the church just to explode the concert mindset!). We fulfill this role by making our signals clear to everyone: one way of looking at this is that we are treating the congregation as the biggest section of the band, with the audience as God!
Another advantage of clearly visible hand signals is that the AV personnel can also see what the worship leader is doing and move to the next slide or powerpoint with some foresight.
So the next time you lead worship, ask: who are the hand signals for anyway? Are we trying to put on a concert, or are we leading God’s people to worship Him corporately and in unison. If the latter, then make your cues obvious to the congregation, so that everyone may follow your lead in worship.