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?

Re-Post: What the Hatfields and McCoys Teach Us About Worship Wars

Throughout the month of April I am taking a break from writing in order to focus on other things.  As a result I am re-posting some of my most popular articles.

The Hatfield and McCoy families were at war with each other in the latter part of the 1800s, resulting in the death or imprisonment of dozens in their families and many more outside their families. At one point Kentucky and West Virginia almost went to war over the feud. In May of 2012 the History channel ran a three part miniseries on the feud, drawing record numbers of viewers.

Too often church members wage decades-long battles with each other over worship issues. We exchange angry and sometimes vengeful words with each other.

Not long into my first church job a long-time member marched into my office and pronounced firmly that she and 23 others all felt we should never do drama in the traditional service.

This church had three services and two styles and the arguments over worship style had been raging for almost 10 years by that time. Over the next eight years I got a first-hand taste of the Hatfields and McCoys worship style.

Now, looking back, I think of all the positive things that were overlooked because of the need to deal with conflict. The Hatfields and McCoys have showed us exactly what we will gain by fighting and arguing:

  1. Bitterness. In 2 Samuel 2 the armies of Israel and Judah were fighting each other and Abner, commander of Israel’s armies, said this to Joab, commander of Judah’s armies: “Shall the sword devour forever? Do you not know that the end will be bitter? How long will it be before you tell your people to turn from the pursuit of their brothers?” Joab then called off the pursuit of Israel.
  2. Self-righteous indignation. Worship wars are usually fought because one group claims the high moral ground over another group. Each group has it’s own standard of right and wrong and nothing can persuade them otherwise.
  3. Unhealthy pride. If your group “wins,” you can develop a very prideful spirit, and God has stern things to say about the proud. In Proverbs 16:18 God says, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”

These poisons will damage you and your church deeply. Instead, God calls us to demonstrate:

  1. Love. 1 Corinthians 13 says, “The greatest of these is love.” God’s currency is one of love, grace and forgiveness towards those who wrong you or disagree with you. Love brings more freedom than you could ever protect by being bitter and self-righteous.
  2. Humility. Christ gave us the ultimate picture of humility when he came as a child to save us. He actually had the high moral ground and he gave it up to save us. When he rose from the dead and proved he was the Christ, he did not flaunt it but gave credit to God the Father.

Philippians 2:3-11 points us to Christ’s model for our lives:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

P.S. The Hatfields and McCoys of today are very much at peace with each other, showing that even the staunchest of enemies can be reconciled.

How can you demonstrate more love and humility in your worship discussions?

What the Hatfields and McCoys Teach Us About Worship Wars

The Hatfield and McCoy families were at war with each other in the latter part of the 1800s, resulting in the death or imprisonment of dozens in their families and many more outside their families. At one point Kentucky and West Virginia almost went to war over the feud. In May of 2012 the History channel ran a three part miniseries on the feud, drawing record numbers of viewers.

Too often church members wage decades-long battles with each other over worship issues. We exchange angry and sometimes vengeful words with each other.

Not long into my first church job a long-time member marched into my office and pronounced firmly that she and 23 others all felt we should never do drama in the traditional service.

This church had three services and two styles and the arguments over worship style had been raging for almost 10 years by that time. Over the next eight years I got a first-hand taste of the Hatfields and McCoys worship style.

Now, looking back, I think of all the positive things that were overlooked because of the need to deal with conflict. The Hatfields and McCoys have showed us exactly what we will gain by fighting and arguing:

  1. Bitterness. In 2 Samuel 2 the armies of Israel and Judah were fighting each other and Abner, commander of Israel’s armies, said this to Joab, commander of Judah’s armies: “Shall the sword devour forever? Do you not know that the end will be bitter? How long will it be before you tell your people to turn from the pursuit of their brothers?” Joab then called off the pursuit of Israel.
  2. Self-righteous indignation. Worship wars are usually fought because one group claims the high moral ground over another group. Each group has it’s own standard of right and wrong and nothing can persuade them otherwise.
  3. Unhealthy pride. If your group “wins,” you can develop a very prideful spirit, and God has stern things to say about the proud. In Proverbs 16:18 God says, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”

These poisons will damage you and your church deeply. Instead, God calls us to demonstrate:

  1. Love. 1 Corinthians 13 says, “The greatest of these is love.” God’s currency is one of love, grace and forgiveness towards those who wrong you or disagree with you. Love brings more freedom than you could ever protect by being bitter and self-righteous.
  2. Humility. Christ gave us the ultimate picture of humility when he came as a child to save us. He actually had the high moral ground and he gave it up to save us. When he rose from the dead and proved he was the Christ, he did not flaunt it but gave credit to God the Father.

Philippians 2:3-11 points us to Christ’s model for our lives:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

P.S. The Hatfields and McCoys of today are very much at peace with each other, showing that even the staunchest of enemies can be reconciled.

How can you demonstrate more love and humility in your worship discussions?

How to Start Well in Your New Job

Leaders emphasize the importance of beginning a new job well, but often our best lessons come from our mistakes.

This past week I accepted a new job as full-time Interim Director of Worship at the church where I have been working part-time for the past year.

I searched the web for advice on how to begin a new job and here are some of the recurring themes I found:

  1. Dress right and make a great first impression.
  2. Learn everything you can about the company.
  3. Identify key leaders and find ways to align with them.
  4. Start earlier and stay later than your new boss to let him/her know you are committed.
  5. Keep perfect attendance the first 2 years of your new job.
  6. Be friendly.
  7. Report your progress to your boss weekly, whether they ask for it or not.
  8. Ask questions.

While these are good suggestions, I did not find the lessons I learned from mistakes I made beginning a previous job.

In 2010 I became the Interim Director of Music at a church in upstate New York. I had just finished eight and a half years at a much larger church in a much larger role, so I quickly began to apply what I had learned in my previous role to my new job.

Very soon I realized I was off track. Team members were working hard but were getting stretched thin, and I was getting frustrated in rehearsals.

The answer was simple: I was not working at my old church, so my solutions for the old job were not working. After some time we were able to get on track and move forward as a team in a more healthy way.

Here are a few of the lessons that I learned:

  1. Start slowly. I am a big proponent of notated music charts, and so I quickly began converting the charts at the new church to notated charts. I also began adjusting keys of songs where necessary. Finally, I began trimming old songs from the rep and introducing new ones. I did all of this at the same time. As a result often 70-80% of the music in a week was new to the band. Not good. Once I slowed down the team began to get back on top and catch their breath.
  2. Honor the past. I was so focused on the future that I would discount the way the team had worked before. I found later that carefully learning how things used to operate earned me the trust of the team. I also gained a better understanding of how to move ahead.
  3. Be patient. I am a dreamer and I can get all kinds of ideas in my head that I want to do now. Patience, though, is much more effective, whether you are transitioning culture, changing leadership, growing new worship leaders, or challenging difficult personalities. After all, Christ is very patient with us; why shouldn’t we be patient with others?
  4. Be humble. Admit you do not have all the answers, and admit it when you make a mistake. Don’t make excuses; just say it like it is and take steps to improve.

I definitely was humbled yesterday. After announcing my new role in the second service, the pastor commenced with giving his message. Because I had been through the entire first service I stepped out when the message began.

I was standing in the office when the pastor ran in and said, “Maurice, I’m off the platform.” Oops.

Here I had just been given a new role, and I blew it on the first Sunday.

Wow.

Fortunately one of my leaders stepped up and led that final hymn for me, but I had to profusely apologize to my pastor for my mistake. Trust me when I say I will be very careful not to make that mistake again.

What steps have you taken in order to begin a new job well?

How Do I Reach the Next Level of Musicianship?

Every person can learn something new, regardless of their age or years of experience.  The operative question is not “Can I” or “May I,” but “How do I.”  It is a state of mind, an attitude.  Do you want to learn?

The challenge I face, and many of the people I have worked with, has been to acknowledge that we do not know it all and that we might have something to learn.  Choosing this point of view requires vulnerability, or humility.

Humility means primarily “not proud or arrogant, modest,” and comes from the root word humilis, which means “lowly, insignificant, on the ground.”  Humilis comes from the root word humus, which means “the dark organic material in soils . . . essential to the fertility of the earth.”

The resultant meaning of humility is not self-disrespect or self-demeaning or self-deprecating; those are actually reverse forms of pride, where we sabotage our own egos so that no one else can.  Humility is bringing yourself low enough that you make your heart a fertile place for things to grow.

Humility is described this way in Proverbs 25:6-7: “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great, for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.”

Once we acknowledge we do not know it all, then we are in a place to actually take steps forward in our musicianship.  The opera star Cecilia Bartoli takes lessons from her mother to this day, even though she has been on top of the vocal world for years.  The same was true of Beverly Sills.

And the same has been true of the great musicians I have known in church bands; they all find a way to learn and continue to grow.  If you do not have tons of money for lessons with a world class musician, here are some tips I have learned that can help you get a head start.

1.  Memorize.  You can memorize your music, and it will change your musicianship and worship experience.  The congregation will be thrilled to see you without a music stand in front of you.  So many worship bands are populated by music stands with heads.  Let me give you a hint: NOT engaging!

A friend of mine thought that memorization was out of his capability as a worship leader; memorizing all of the lyrics had always been difficult.  When he buckled down and worked at it – listening to the music every day, reviewing the words – he found he could do it, and he realized that he could focus so much more clearly on the congregation as he led.

  • So what’s your excuse?

2.  Take lessons.  OK, so right off the bat let me acknowledge that this can be costly, which is a challenge in this economical climate.  Lessons with a professional is optimal.  A guitarist friend of mine would take jazz guitar lessons for a while, then classical, then trumpet, and on down the line, increasing his overall musicianship.

If you do not have the cash, have you lead guitarists considered getting all of the lead guitarists together and having a show and tell on each person’s foot pedal techniques, equipment, and sounds?  (insert keyboardists, pianists, vocalists, whatever)  Of course, that would require a little humility, which is tough for us ego-heavy musicians.  The up side is . . . it’s FREE.  Everyone bring some nachos and munchies and make it a party (um, party – meaning fun and sober, not party – meaning pasted).  In the end something more important than musicianship happens: community.  When you work together like this, the whole team benefits and the atmosphere on the platform changes.

Another option is using technology to gain the input of other musicians.  Check out my example on point 3.

  • So what’s your excuse?

3.  Practice.  Yep, that’s right, good ol’ sweat and effort.  Nothing beats spending focused time on your instrument.  Note I said focused.  You might want to check out my friend Erica Sipes’ blog, where she is experimenting with practicing only 15 minutes a day as she prepares Beethoven’s third piano concerto for a competition.  Erica is a fabulous musician who is posting video of herself practicing and gaining input from other musicians who watch her blog and comment.  Talk about humility!

Her big push right now is to really focus and not practice for practice’s sake – no “junk” practicing, as her friend called it.  (By the way, she is playing by memory; notice that?)

Oh, and she is only practicing 15 minutes a day . . . for a concerto.  Not 60, 90, . . . . 15.

  • So what’s your excuse?

4.  Emulate.  Whether you are writing songs or learning music, and whether the style is rock or classical, one of the best things you can do is emulate great artists and try to figure out how they got their sounds.  This is one of the biggest reasons I recommend using recordings to guide the band in their preparation.  When you prepare a song and try to get your sounds and playing to be like the recording, you stretch your own musicianship and you grow.

When I was studying piano in my undergraduate degree, one of the first things we would do when we were assigned a new piece was to go listen to half a dozen different versions of it to see what the great artists have done.  Besides being a feast for the ears, you could look at how different artists resolved different issues in the piece and give yourself some options as a starting place.  Then we would go off and make the piece our own.

Emulation requires humility, though.  Enough humility to be willing to be accused of being a cover band when you are actually increasing your band’s musicianship.  Some bands are focused on being cover bands, duplicates.  You might get lumped in with them.  No matter.  You know what you are doing and why; who cares what the critics say.

  • So what’s your excuse?

By now I am starting to feel, as usual, convicted by my own writing.  I think I need to practice some more today!!

How have you encouraged your musicians to remain humble and teachable, and did it work?  How have you helped them to increase their musicianship?