How to Be an Engaging Worship Leader

Perhaps the most persistent topic in worship discussions among church leadership is the engagement of the congregation. We try to measure it, observe it, record it, and dissect it so that we can have worship services that are participatory experiences rather than observation events.

We often overlook the most critical piece in engagement: the worship leader.

You cannot have an engaged congregation without an engaging worship leader.

I have struggled through this discussion many times. I have been scrutinized, encouraged, probed, and challenged on this issue more times than I can recount.

I distinctly remember one week years ago when I was reviewing the traditional service I was leading at the time. I was encouraged to change the way I seated the congregation after a hymn.

That’s right. I was instructed on the statement, “You may be seated.”

At the time I was trying to be as unintrusive about direction as possible in hopes of creating a more worshipful environment. I found, though, that people needed absolutely clear direction, and non-verbal signs were not always clear enough for them.

The suggestion for me was to say the phrase, “You may be seated,” more firmly and clearly. Apparently I had a way of saying it quietly and trailing off. Now I am much more firm in my directions.

This may seem like nit-picking, and, in a way, it felt that way at the time. Over time, however, I have come to value that piece of advice and have used it to guide my leadership. As a result, people respond better to my leadership, which creates better engagement.

The point is that you and I as worship leaders are the biggest factor in congregational engagement. We can discuss the culture of the church, the ages of the people attending and their backgrounds, the lighting, and the projection for hours, but if you and I, the worship leaders, are not engaging, all of the other discussions are pointless.

What does an engaging worship leader look like? Here are 10 characteristics of an engaging worship leader.

  1. Humility. People want to engage with a humble leader. Why? Because a worship leader who is all about himself leaves no room for the congregation to participate; the worship service becomes all about him rather than about worshiping God.
  2. Winsomeness. Sugar draws more flies than vinegar, the old saying goes. The same is true for worship leaders. Be warm and have a sense of humor. You don’t need to be a comedian, and you don’t have to smile all of the time, but you need have a spirit of optimism. People are drawn to positive leaders.
  3. Passion. A guaranteed way to kill a worship service is to lead like the deadpan teacher in the classic movie, Ferris Bueler’s Day Off: “Bueler? . . . Bueler? . . . Bueler?” If the life of Christ is not visibly in you then the congregation will be unresponsive.
  4. Confidence. An engaging worship leader gives direction, prays, and sings with confidence. The congregation needs to feel like they are being led confidently. Insecurity kills engagement.
  5. Transparency. Be open about your struggles. In one worship service I talked briefly about how difficult my divorce was and how it brought me closer to Christ. Later I found out that my comments were a key turning point for someone in the service. The Holy Spirit used those words to encourage this person to return to a deeper relationship with Christ. Your brokenness is your most engaging tool. You need to have balance and discretion in how you share your struggles, but you need to share them.
  6. Authentic Faith. You need to be close with Christ. There is no formula for this relationship, and this relationship is not legalistic. I could give you a checklist: read your Bible, pray, meditate, memorize Scripture, listen to sermons, read books, and on and on. All of those things are phenomenal resources and I recommend them, but they do not create a relationship with Christ. They are tools. Make Christ your focus and your desire. Spend time with him. Ask him to bring you closer to him. Then use the tools I mentioned and any others you discover.
  7. Relevance. Acknowledge the reality we live in through your leadership. The message of “Jesus saves” must be linked with “We are broken” for people to believe you. Leaders who are only sunshine all the time will seem false, but leaders who are depressed about reality will be a downer. A balanced view of brokenness and a Savior who can redeem brokenness will draw people to Christ.
  8. Authentic Emotion. An engaging worship leader has appropriate emotions. If the song you are leading is celebrative, a smile and bright face are essential. If the song you are leading is a lament, however, a hopeful but more somber face is needed. Appropriate emotional expression will make a worship leader feel real to a congregation. I am not saying to manipulate the people through “performing” emotions. People will read right through that. The emotions on your face need to come from your life experiences.
  9. Truth. Do not be afraid to speak truth when you lead. People want to hear the truth spoken in a gracious way, so, as the Holy Spirit guides you, share truth with them. Of course, you will only have truth to share if you have an authentic and growing relationship with Christ. Otherwise your statements of truth will come across as moralistic platitudes.
  10. Skill. Few things will hinder a worship service like a leader who does not know their music, their role, and their instrument well. You need to be so good that people can see Christ through your singing, playing, or speaking, even when you are playing or singing a solo.

Worship engagement begins with the worship leader, and I have failed as much as anyone else. Fortunately, you will notice that nowhere here did I mention a need to have a certain “worship leader” gene; all of these things can be cultivated if Christ is truly calling you to lead worship.

What can you do to be a more engaging worship leader?

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Holier Than Thou: Repetitive Songs Versus Wordy Hymns

Churches often fight over music styles. Which is best: experiential worship focused on personalized and often repetitive songs, or cognitively centered worship centered on content rich new and time-tested hymns? Who wins? Who is right and who is wrong?

I have dealt with this struggle first hand. From growing up in a Mennonite church that struggled to accept instruments in worship, to leading worship in multi-stylistic churches, the arguments remain generally the same.

Here are the common objections I have heard to simpler, shorter, more personal and experiential worship songs (Breathe; Everlasting God; Come, Now Is the Time to Worship; etc.):

  • They are light on theology and heavy on feelings.
  • They are repetitious (7-11 songs, meaning 7 words repeated 11 times).
  • They have not “stood the test of time.”
  • They are heavy on clichés and devoid of literary excellence.

Here are the common objections I hear to more cognitive and content rich hymns (Great Is Thy Faithfulness; Immortal, Invisible; Praise to the Lord, the Almighty; etc.):

  • They stay in the head and never reach the heart.
  • They are too “wordy.”
  • The language is outdated and inaccessible.
  • The style of music is outdated.

When talking about these subjects I find it helpful to step back and take in the larger view.

What kind of music is mentioned in the Bible, and does God give us any directions about what to sing? What songs have actually stood the test of time, and are the worship arguments of today mirrored anywhere in history?

God, the Bible, and Music

The Bible mentions all types of instruments and voices, short and long songs, theological and personal songs, songs for every mood and event in life, and repetitive and content rich songs.

The first music mentioned in the Bible is instrumental. Jubal was a maker of flutes and stringed instruments, Genesis says.

David and other leaders wrote the largest book in the Bible, the Psalms. This book has both the shortest (Psalm 117) and the longest chapter in the Bible (Psalm 119) and both are profound. The tone of the music ranges from wildly celebrative to subdued, depressed, and raging. Some of the language is lofty and theological, even prophetic. Other psalms are intensely personal prayers. Some psalms contain regular refrains every other line or so.

In the New Testament Paul encourages us to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, making melody in our hearts to the Lord. The word for “hymn” actually denotes music accompanied by stringed instruments. Psalms obviously came from the book of the Bible of the same name, and spiritual songs probably were Scripture songs.

Revelation is full of worship, but most of it is extremely repetitive. The elders and the flying beasts around the throne say one or two phrases over and over throughout eternity without stopping. The great multitude sings a song with a very short text.

Music and the Litmus Test of Time

The mass texts and A Mighty Fortress are great examples of ancient, time-tested music. These pieces of music are heavy in content and theology and have strong, crafted shapes and melodies.

The Hallelujah Chorus is a classic, yet it has very few words repeated many, many times. The theology is simple, ad the text is based on the worship scenes in Revelation.

Great Is Thy Faithfulness and How Great Thou Art have been around less than two centuries, but they are staples of worship because of the beauty and transcendence of their language.

Many more hymns, however, have been lost to time. Isaac Watts wrote 750 hymns; comparatively very few of them are in use today. Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck set every Psalm to music in elegant, complex choral settings hundreds of years ago.

New music has always been suspect. Many renounced the revivalist music that came out in the late 1800s because it was too experiential and light on theology. Yet these hymns brought us many of the testimony hymns we know today, such as Higher Ground and All the Way My Savior Leads Me.

Making Sense of It All

Perhaps you know where I am heading with this conversation. My feelings on the matter can be summed up in this sentence:

Just as the wide diversity of the people whom God has called to be his own demonstrates the rich and varied love of the Savior, so the span of musical styles from pre-Classical to the newest pop song reveals his profound message.

God is no respecter of persons or styles. If a style bothers you, I challenge you to find something positive about that style. If God is able to use you and me, he can definitely use any style of music he chooses.

What style of music is most challenging for you, and why? What positive aspect can you discover in that style?

6 Ways to Involve Children in Leading Worship

We all love to see children in church; as worship ministry leaders, however, we often struggle to find ways to include them in the adult worship services. I know I do.

Jesus set children up as a model for believers when he said, “Don’t prevent [children] from coming to me. God’s kingdom is made up of people like these.”

Presently I am working with staff at my church to brainstorm ways of including children in worship. Here I am defining children as those in 8th grade or lower and, in particular, the youngest ones.

Involving children in worship can be challenging because:

  1. Every element in a service should be excellent, even if the people leading worship are only five years old.
  2. Children’s involvement in worship should be purposeful.
  3. Adults should be drawn to God through children, not just proud of their children’s performance.

A Positive Example

Here is an example from our church.  I am not sharing this to say we have it all figured out; rather, I want to share a moment that was very meaningful to all of us.  This idea was not mine; I am so grateful for other people and their creative ideas.

This past Sunday a 10 year old played a short piano arrangement of a hymn for the prelude to the Classic service. He played well and his parents taught him through the process that he only needs to think about playing for God rather than worrying about the 300+ people in the congregation. All of us were encouraged and inspired as we began worship.

This week people have continued to comment on how meaningful his playing was to them. Children can have a huge impact on worship.

The Why

Before deciding how to involve children in worship you must decide why you want to involve children in worship.

Here are some reasons for including children, although definitely not exhaustive:

  1. We are a family church, and we want our services to be multi-generational.
  2. God called us to be like little children in our faith.
  3. We want to train children how to worship and to lead worship.

The How

Once you have decided the “why,” you can set about deciding the “how.”

For example, if you decide you only want younger children to learn to worship rather than to lead worship, you might simply provide ways for children to participate in the services from the congregation rather than having them on stage leading worship. For me having children learn to worship is not enough; I want them to learn to lead worship.

Here are six ways  children can help lead worship:

  1. Play or sing during the prelude to the service. The environment is very positive and the pressure is minimal. NOTE: Audition the children so that the experience is positive for them and for the adults in the service.
  2. Lead motions to a song in the services and invite people in the service to join them. Motions and children can be a great tool in teaching adults to be free in worship. NOTE: A few well rehearsed children leading precise motions are often more effective than a large group of children doing decent motions.
  3. Sing a piece of music with the choir or worship band. NOTE: Plan well in advance for best results and minimal stress.
  4. Sing or play a special piece of music. NOTE: Plan even further in advance.
  5. Draw/paint/color images to fit the message for the day, then post them in the lobby and/or use them for the bulletin cover.  NOTE: Choose a topic that is easily illustrated: Daniel and the lions’ den, etc.
  6. Act in a drama sketch or production.  NOTE: Definitely audition them, but keep your expectations reasonable.  This is not Broadway!

These ideas are not original with me.  I would love to hear your ideas.

How do you involve children in worship?

The Side Effects of Impatience

Today I am having a hard time figuring out what to write.  I have started several things and each one of them either needs time to settle and come together or simply needs to be thrown away.

Seems a lot like life.  When something isn’t clear I want to push through and make it clear.  Patience, however, is almost always more effective.

Impatience can have serious negative side effects:

  1. My writing may not be well focused.
  2. I may not feel peaceful about the result.
  3. I may miss important content.
  4. I may include suspect content.
  5. I may unintentionally damage relationships.

Patience, on the other hand, is always rewarded with:

  1. Peace.
  2. Clear meaning.
  3. Effective communication.
  4. Great results.

So instead of forcing something into cyberspace before it is ready, I am going to be patient.

Where in your life are you being impatient?  What would patience look like in that situation?

How Our Church Recruited Worship Volunteers, Part 4

Your recruitment is only as good as your follow-up. You could recruit a million people, but if you do not have a follow-up plan you might as well have gone on a cruise. Follow-up turns a maybe into a somebody.

Recently I have been sharing how our church went about recruiting volunteers for the arts. I have written about The Plan, Why Technical Arts, and The Campaign. In this post I want to share our strategy for following up with interested people.

Here was my plan:

  1. We would call every interested person back within a week of the time they turned in the information request form.
  2. We would find out more about each person on the phone cal, their interests, and their experience.
  3. We would invite each person to First Step Weekend.

We had grand hopes, but our success was mixed.

We were able to follow-up with almost everyone within a week of receiving their information request form.

On First Step Weekend we scheduled time for people to audition musically and dramatically, share their art with our visual arts leader, and interview with our Director of Production (Technical Arts). Saturday morning from 9-12 was set apart for Musical, Visual, and Technical Arts, and the Dramatic Arts people scheduled an informal hang out and audition time Sunday evening.

Musically we had a few no-shows, but we also had two excellent auditions leading to very talented musicians joining the team in a month. Technically we only had one interested party.

Visual Arts had three artists come in to share their art with our leader, and they were three different generations. One watercolor artists was probably in her 70s, one painter was in his 40s or 50s, and the other painter was a teenager. Each of them had great stories to tell, and each had very different styles.

Sunday night the drama gathering was disappointing. Only two people showed up out of many interested people.

The weekend was definitely a mixed bag, but overall I feel very good about the campaign. In a week or so I plan to share one more installment cataloguing what we learned from this experience, but here are a few thoughts from the First Step Weekend experience.

  1. Even some success on the weekend means that the weekend idea is still good.
  2. Several of the no-shows shared viable excuses later and asked to re-schedule, which I am doing now.
  3. The lack of numbers in Technical Arts has to do with our overall effectiveness at recruiting for the Technical Arts. Very few people mentioned an interest in the first place.
  4. The lack of numbers at the drama gathering does not mean our efforts at recruiting people for drama was a failure. We had many interested people. Because of the campaign drama has a higher visibility in a church that has been largely ignorant of drama.

I will be digging into the successes and challenges of this campaign with my leaders soon, and I hope to have clearer answers to share with you then.

How would you evaluate a recruitment campaign?

Shunning Shame

You and I have at least one thing in common: our lives both have themes that resurface from time to time. These themes are weaknesses, chinks in our armor, and the evil one loves to exploit them.

Two of my themes are guilt and shame.

In the last month or two I have experienced a new level of freedom from guilt and shame. Past issues are being aired out, experiences are being put into perspective, and God is at work in me. At times the process is scary, but I love it and I will be eternally grateful.

This morning in my devotions I read Psalm 25 and a particular verse stood out to me:

“No one whose hope is in you will ever be put to shame.” Psalm 25:3

Later on the psalmist reminds God:

“Let me not be put to shame, for I take refuge in you.” Psalm 25:20

When you and I put our hope, our trust, in God, Maker of heaven and earth and Redeemer of mankind, he gives us a “Get out of shame free” card. He loves us and cares for us, and as long as we place our hope in him we have no reason to feel shame from past failures and difficult experiences. He redeems those experiences and renews us.

So if you are feeling shame,

  1. Have you placed your hope in Christ, or are you trying to go it on your own?
  2. Have you asked Christ to redeem your past, or are you trying to ignore your past and your shame?
  3. Have you shared your shameful experiences with a safe friend or counselor?

We were not made to live in shame and guilt; God made us to be free. Once you taste freedom you will never want to go back.

What shame are you carrying around? What is holding you back from placing your hope in Christ and facing that shame?

How Our Church Recruited Worship Volunteers, Part 3

Last week I shared with you The Plan for a wide scale recruitment campaign at our church encompassing four areas of the arts:

  • Dramatic
  • Musical
  • Technical (I wrote a specific post explaining why I called our audio visual volunteers Technical Artists)
  • Visual

Today I want to share what actually happened.

Week 1

I was curious and a little nervous going into the first Sunday, particularly because of the Live in the Lobby piece:

  • How would people react?
  • Would they be in a hurry and just brush past?
  • Would they complain about the lobby music feeling like cocktail hour?
  • Would anyone respond and sign up?

I was excited about the actual services because  we were presenting Painting Pictures of Egypt, by Sara Groves, and I had been able to do a cool design of the lyrics for projection. This song fit perfectly with my plan to have something special in the services in relation to the arts.

The services went wonderfully. People loved Painting Pictures of Egypt. The pastor giving the announcements set up Arts in Worship and Live in the Lobby wonderfully.

As soon as the first service was over I dodged out to the lobby to play. A bassist and I did some improv on worship songs as well as a little bluesy jazz. The response was warm and a good number of people seemed to be stopping by the information table.

Before the second service a trumpeter played solos and excerpts and we used that as the prelude music, simply keeping the doors to the lobby open right up to the beginning of the service. After the second service the men’s quartet started singing in the lobby. People crowded around for more than 20 minutes, soaking up the music and having a great time.

By the time the morning was over we had 15 responses ranging from children to adults, and many people had commented on how much they liked the Live in the Lobby concept. Needless to say, I was thrilled.

That week we divided up the responses between the leaders of the difference areas of the arts and contacted almost everyone. My assistant put together a spreadsheet with all of the information and we began tracking responses and interests. The majority of responses the first week were for Musical Arts, but we had a good number of Visual and Dramatic Arts responses as well.

Here is the Arts in Worship Information Request we asked people to fill out.

Week 2

Right up until the second Sunday the visual arts leader was fine tuning which artists would be displaying their art in our one-Sunday-only gallery. People had heard that someone was showing art and calls came in asking for the opportunity to participate. In the end we had five artists in the lobby: a photographer, 2 painters, 1 mixed medium artist, and 1 artist with painting and paper sculpture. Ages of the artists ranged from teenager to senior adult.

By the time the first service started they were all in place, sitting on stools or standing in front of their art, and our visual arts leader was actually working on a large painting. As people arrived they came right over to check the art and had a great time talking. Before and after both services people were milling around, asking questions, and enjoying the art.

The artists were greatly encouraged, and the people who saw the art, both children and adults, came away inspired and jazzed.

We had only three actual responses from artists, but we also had several verbal responses. We followed up on all of them and found out we have more artists at our church than we thought. Both I and our visual arts leader were overwhelmed by the experience that day.

We did not have a visual art element in the services that week, contrary to my plans, and we forgot to tell people to sign up for Arts in Worship, but the exposure in the lobby made up for it.

Week 3

The final week we focused on the Dramatic Arts.

In the services we once again encouraged artists to sign up, and we had a dramatic reading of a Scripture text from the Message translation.

For Live in the Lobby the Drama Team decided to do short scenes from their fall production of Old Testament Rewind, a Willow Creek ensemble script compressing the Old Testament into a humorous 45 minute experience. The portion of the lobby designated for Live in the Lobby was set up like a small stage use all of the props from the show.

We received a handful of responses that Sunday. The actors had some difficulty making themselves heard over the crowd noise in the lobby, but they had particular success walking around the lobby interacting with people while in character.

My Favorite Part

My favorite part of this whole experience so far has been the spiritual conversations and life stories that have been initiated through the discussion of the arts in worship.  People have been drawn back to the church.  Artists have been challenged to seek God more deeply.

While not everything went as well as we had hoped (later on I plan to share lessons we have learned from this process), the bar has been raised and there is an expectancy about the church.  I believe we are poised for a new expression of the arts at Covenant Life Church.

Later this week I will share the follow-up and First Step Weekend results with you, so stay tuned!