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?

What Fishing Teaches Us About Life

Lots of people fish; it’s how you fish that determines whether or not you will actually catch anything.  The same is true about life.  Lots of people are physically alive, but how you live will determine whether or not your life is actually full and meaningful.

Dad the FIshing Guide

I grew up rod-and-reel fishing with my dad.  Over the years we have fished for trout, walleye, bass, and recently, Alaskan sockeye salmon and deep-sea halibut.  Each fish differs in many respects:

  1. Diet
  2. Habitat
  3. Season
  4. How they engage the bait or lure

One thing never changes:  how you manage your line.

Early on dad drilled into my head the truth that you must always keep tension in the line; not too much or the fish will not be able to sufficiently swallow the bait, and not too loose or you will never know if something bites.  You have to keep it just right.

If the tension is right you will feel the nibbles and hits transmit through the line, up the rod, and to your hand like your rod and line are a giant antenna.

If the line tension is right you will be prepared to set the hook when the time comes.

The same is true with life.

You have to maintain a little tension; not too much or you will be anxiety-driven, but not too little or you will be apathetic and unresponsive.

Maintaining the just the right tension is called active waiting.  Active waiting has several characteristics:

  1. Peace.  You have ordered your life so that distractions and noise are balanced with sufficient refreshing time.  Personally I believe this requires significant time nurturing a relationship with the Creator of the universe.
  2. Attentiveness.  You are actively observing your life and experiences.
  3. Anticipation.  You expect opportunities to come your way.
  4. Engagement.  You recognize opportunities and take immediate action.
  5. Balance.  If your action fails you learn what you can and return to active waiting.  If your action succeeds you continue looking for the next step in the process.

Most of us say we want a life without tension, when that kind of life would be enormously unfulfilling.

A healthy life involves actively waiting for what God is going to bring your way and responding when the time comes.

Where in your life do you need to engage active waiting?

The Key to Worship Engagement

Choosing the right key for a song is like choosing a mate: everyone has their own way of doing it.

Few of us get it right.

The most frequent discussion revolves around this issue:

Should we keep the song in the key of the recording (often at nose-bleed-inducing heights), or do we adjust the key to fit the worship leader’s range?

This is the wrong question.

Think about it.

We, as worship leaders and musicians, are here to do two things:

  1. Honor and worship God with our gifts and talents.
  2. Point people to Christ through our gifts and talents.

We are not here to demonstrate our vocal ability, make ourselves sound good (yes, we must seek excellence; I’m talking about the heart here), or get our “music fix” for the week. This is not about us.

We are here for God and for others. Period.

So let me ask you: what should be our real consideration in choosing the key of a song?

That’s right. The congregation.

If the congregation cannot engage fully in the song because of the key, we have failed. Our whole goal in leading worship on Sunday morning in front of a bunch of people is to help them to engage in worship. If we just needed to use our gifts and talents to worship him personally we would not need to be in front of people. The fact that we are in front of people demonstrates that we are there to serve them.

All of our decisions in worship leadership should revolve around this fact.

So when you want to introduce a new song to the congregation, in addition to considering the theology and musical qualities of the song, consider the range.

  1. The melody should generally fit between a D in the bottom and a D in the top – one octave. Over a D both women and men start to drop out. Below D the singing is weaker.
  2. Some songs that stay within in this range are still barely singable because the majority of the notes lie at the top of that range. This concentration of notes in a line of music is called the tesitura of the line. The tesitura of a successful song is usually in the middle between the two D’s.
  3. On rare occasions a small allowance should be made for the lead guitarists. If, and I said IF, you wish the lead guitarists to play the exact solo on the recording, you need to consult them on your key choice to see how the solo transfers to the new key. The lead guitarists need to make the new key work 99% of the time (capo!!), but occasionally you will need to compromise a bit.
  4. Sometimes it MAY be necessary to compromise between the congregation’s needs and the worship leader’s needs, but if you compromise I strongly recommend that you only use ONE (1) key for the song, regardless of who the worship leader is. Why? The congregation needs continuity. They don’t know when you have changed the key, but they will find themselves singing differently. We, the musicians, must think for them.
  5. Sometimes a song is just so powerful that the benefits overwhelm the drawbacks, even drawbacks like a wide-ranging melody.

Just remember: we are here to serve people, not ourselves. We are here to draw people to Christ, not to have a warm, fuzzy spiritual moment ourselves.

Are you asking the right questions about your songs?

6 Ways Notated Charts Can Strengthen Your Church

If there are silver bullets in worship ministry, notated charts may be one of them. Notated charts have been one of my most powerful tools.  

Good notated charts have enabled me to more effectively guide musicians and raise engagement within the congregation.  I have also been able to bring the vision of my senior pastor to life time and time again especially because I employed notated charts with my teams.

Whether I was leading Deathbed by Relient K for an Easter service drama, Who Am I Living For by Katy Perry for a message on purpose in life, or It Was Finished on the Cross by Regi Stone and Kristie Braselton as a response to the message, notated charts have been critical in enabling the church to have truly life changing worship experiences.  

Here is what I mean by notated charts:

  • Notated melodies and harmonies
  • Chord symbols
  • No tab
  • Rhythms notated using actual notes for solos along with a mixture of rhythmic and slash notation
  • Lyrics with the lemony, and only lyric cues for the rhythm part
  • Occasional notated drum patterns as guides
  • Tempo markings (descriptor as well as numerical and note values)

Have you tuned out yet?  Hello . . . McFly?

For those of you who have not studied music, set that aside for a moment and just go with me on this.

For those of you who think I have tuned out the work of the Holy Spirit all together, consider that teaching is a spiritual gift and notated charts are part of teaching your musicians to lead on a higher level.

Here are a few reasons NOT to use notated music with your musicians:

  1. To screen out “lesser” musicians.  You are not running the local philharmonic.  Musicians in church need to use their gifts to honor God and bless others, not live up to your expectations.
  2. To help you achieve your “dream” music team.  It’s not about you.  Period.  Get your musical kicks elsewhere.
  3. To impress professional musicians.  It’s not about them, either.  Oh, and impressing others means you’re still stuck on stroking your own ego, which we just mentioned.
  4. To impress your musical and worship colleagues.  Last time I checked this was not about you.  Again.
  5. To achieve your worldwide mission to restore the arts through the church.
I have been guilty of using every one of these excuses either consciously or subconsciously as a reason to use notated music.  I love to be good at music, and I can be a perfectionist in a moment if I am not careful.

Humans have an amazing tendency to be selfish and arrogant, even in church leadership.  Actually, Andy Stanley has said in a recent podcast Courage in Leadership that leaders are even more susceptible than the average person.  We as leaders have to constantly guard against self-centered-ness.

Christ is all about people, and we should be, too.

Why you should use notated music with your worship team:

  1. Every musician, especially those in the church, should be committed to improving their ability.  In the Parable of the Talents Jesus tells the story of three servants to whom the master entrusts his wealth.  Two servants double his investment, but the third is afraid and hides the master’s money.  The master comes back and is furious with the lazy servant.  Jesus expects us to improve and maximize the investment he has made in us.  We want children to graduate from picture books because they can find a much wider world waiting for them; why do we not want adults to see the wider world waiting for them through notated music?
  2. Notated charts unify worship teams.  One of the reasons I notate the melodies and harmonies of worship songs is to answer questions before they are asked.  Any musician on the team can pull out the chart and know exactly where they are supposed to sing harmony or unison, and exactly what those parts are.  The same goes for the rhythm players.  So much rehearsal time can be wasted arguing over what note someone is supposed to sing.  Good leaders answer questions before they are asked.
  3. Notated charts ensure a reliable experience for your team members.  Musicians love to know what to expect, so when you provide reliable charts that look exactly the same every time you are helping them to learn and feel at ease, and you are also saving tons of prep/rehearsal time for them.
  4. Notated charts help ensure the congregation hears a consistent product.  One of the best ways to annoy your church attendees is to sing a song’s melody slightly different every week.  These are amateur musicians at best, shower singers most often, and they are used to learning songs that are exactly the same every time they hear them.  Do you want to up your engagement in the services?  Sing a melody exactly the same every time.
  5. Notated charts save rehearsal time.  In the long run well written and notated charts can save you tons of time in rehearsal, and who doesn’t love that?  Yes, I said the long run, but it is worth it.  Love your team by giving them more time at home.
  6. Notated charts enable your team to play more difficult music.  Above you see the first page of a chart I made for Paradise by Coldplay.  Lakeshore Community Church in Rochester, NY, used this song yesterday in their Easter services.  This song is too complex to be well adapted from a chord chart.

You may have noticed by now that every one of these reasons have to do with improving the worship experience for either the congregation or the musicians.  Embracing notated charts can open up great possibilities for unifying your musicians, engaging your congregation, and realizing your senior pastor’s vision.

How could your church benefit from notated charts?