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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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!

Re-Post: Six Steps for Taking Your Worship Ministry to the Next Level

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.

Trying to understand how to grow your church’s worship ministry can be challenging and overwhelming.  Anyone, however, can discover how to take their worship ministry to the next level by applying six simple steps.

I distinctly remember the feeling of wondering how in the world I was going to unearth the next steps for my ministry.  I had been at this church for five years and now they were applying a new accountability structure requiring me to really understand where we needed to go in worship.

Not knowing what steps to take, I was completely overwhelmed by the untold possibilities.  What kinds of new music should we introduce?  What kinds of physical improvements did we need to make to the auditorium?  Should we keep the pews or go with theater seating?  Should we replace the aging projectors with HD or standard definition projectors?  What role should the choir have in the next five years?

Nothing had prepared me for these kinds of decisions.  Nothing in my upbringing as a pastor’s kid, in my two professional music degrees, or in my year at Bible college had hinted at resources for making these questions.

Of course, the congregation and leadership had plenty of ideas, which only made me feel more overwhelmed.  One person was certain they had just found the sound technology our church needed.  Another well meaning person had very strong suggestions about the kinds of music we should use and how loud it should be.  Others said, “Make up your mind and don’t worry about the nay-sayers.”  Elders urged caution.

Over time I began to get a sense of how to move forward without being overwhelmed.  Below are six steps anyone can take to get a grasp on where God might be leading them.

  1. Pray.  So often this is the last thing on our list, even as ministry leaders.  Solomon, near the beginning of his reign, asked God for the wisdom and understanding to rule the people of Israel, and God granted his request.  Jesus also reminds us, “Ask, and it will be given to you.”
  2. Study God’s Word.  Learn what God has to say about worship and it’s place in the church and in our lives.  God is your ultimate leader.  Know what is close to his heart.
  3. Study your senior pastor.  Regardless of whether your church is elder-led, pastor-led, or congregation-led, your senior pastor is going to set the tone and agenda for the church.  He is the one God has set in place to lead your church.  Get to know what is on his heart.
  4. Study your church vision.  Everything you do in the future will need to be in service to your church-wide mission.  Dig into it, even if you think you already understand it fully.  Take it apart with your senior pastor so that you can understand how to apply it accurately to your ministry.
  5. Study the health of your ministry. The growth your ministry needs may be more internal than external.  Some seasons are for growing in size and others are for strengthening what we have.  Endeavor to know your ministry better than ever before, whether you have been leading it for two months, two years, or 20 years.
  6. Study your personal health.  We often forget that we can only lead within our capacity and experience.  Sometimes the best growth steps for our ministry involves growing ourselves in order to improve our leadership.

Through prayer and study God will begin to reveal to you the areas of your ministry that need shoring up and the areas that are doing well.  Over the next week we will dig deeper into how you can plan the next steps for the ministry you lead.

Which of these six steps needs attention in your ministry, and how are you going to address that step this week?

What Parenting Is Teaching Me About Leadership

Some people grow up wanting to be parents, confident they will be great parents.  Other people try to avoid having children and end up being reluctant parents.  Most of us are somewhere in between: wanting children but not sure if we have what it takes.

Father and son

11 years ago I was one of those parents excited about having a child but a little concerned about what parenting would actually be.  Finally, six months after my oldest son was born, I fully grasped the idea that no one was going to come pick him up.  I was his dad and he was staying.

I learned at that moment that sometimes we are never ready for the position God gives us; we grow into those positions.

Now, 11 years and two boys later, I am learning something else: how to let someone else win.

This afternoon I have been enjoying our Sunday afternoon ritual of video games and popcorn.  These days I often lose because my boys are just better than me.  Other times I am beating them fair and square and I enjoy it.

Truth is, though, sometimes I know I would be better off if I did not beat them multiple times in a row.  I realize I would have a much bigger win if I found a way to let them win.

As leaders we face similar choices.

  • Worship leaders can lead worship every week in every service, OR they can train other musicians to lead worship.
  • Pastors can speak in the services every week, OR they can train others to speak.
  • Music directors can insist on doing all of the arranging themselves, OR they can train others to arrange.
  • Drama leaders can write and direct all of the sketches, OR they can train others to write and direct.

God can work through us when we do everything ourselves, but when we share the ministry with others God can do much more.  Leaders who follow Christ are naturally going to train others to follow in their footsteps because Christ did not cling to his place of leadership; he gave it up and came to earth to redeem us.

When we give away the ministry we are leading like Christ and modeling for others what it means to be a Christ-like leader.

Where can you give away your ministry?  Who can you train to take your place?

How to Grow Your Worship Team

Every worship leader and pastor faces the same challenge at least once and usually multiple times throughout their lifetimes: How do you attract more musicians to your team?

I am facing this issue for the third time in as many churches.  We need instrumentalists, choir members, and soloists for the Classic service, and musicians and vocalists for the Modern service bands.  In particular, we need guitarists and worship leaders in the Modern service.

I will be the first to say that I do not have this all figured out.  In fact, I am writing this blog not to tell you what to do so much as to say what I am doing that I think is working, what I think God is doing, and what I plan to do soon.

You have to decide what is right for you.  With that in mind, here are some thoughts.  Please give me your perspective in the comments section.

  1. Don’t be in a hurry.  Focus on the right people more than just numbers.  A few good people are better than a lot of ok people.
  2. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.  Do not be in a hurry to fill empty spots with “ringers” or hired guns.  People will only see there is a need if what they are looking for is missing.
  3. Pray.  I truly believe that God is the one who brings the people.  Over the past three months I have seen 10 or more musicians join the worship ministry, and most of those people came because they felt “it was time” or because of some other similar prompting in their spirit.
  4. Connect.  If you hear of a possible candidate, call them and talk.  If you like what you hear, have coffee.  If that goes well, play together.  Follow through.
  5. Plan.  I am hoping to mount a church-wide campaign for musicians and team members very soon.
  6. Spread the word.  Tell people.  Sometimes we simply forget to ask.  People need to be asked.
  7. Be excellent.  Even if you do not have all of the pieces, do as good a job as you can with the people you have.  Good musicians want to play and sing with other good musicians.  If you want to attract good people, do a good job with the people you have.
  8. Be graceful.  I wrote about this a week ago.  People want to serve with leaders who are graceful.  What is the saying?  You will attract more flies with honey than with vinegar.
  9. Clarify the need.  Instead of saying, “We need musicians,” say, “We need electric guitarists, drummers, and sopranos,” or whatever the specifics are in your case.  People respond to specifics, not generalities.
  10. Paint a picture.  When you tell a musician you would like them to join the band you might get a response.  You are more likely to get a response if you tell them (make certain this is genuine) how their unique gifts would make them a perfect fit with the team and the vision of the church.  People want to matter and not just be another number.

What tips for recruiting do you have to offer?

How to Adapt a Song for Your Band

The worship music world is full of highly produced and densely layered recordings.  How does one listen to a song and adapt that song for their band without using loops and backing tracks?

Electric Guitar

Our worship band is presently without a regular guitarist, something I have not experienced in quite a few years.  Since most of the modern worship songs are guitar driven, we are adapting songs every week.

Here are two steps to guide you when you find yourself in a similar situation.

  1. Find the shape of the song.  By shape I mean the emotional and lyrical direction of the piece.  Does the song follow an arc pattern, building to the middle and relaxing from there to the end?  Does the song grow from beginning to the very end?  Or is the song one feel without much variation?
  2. Mimic the shape.  If the song starts soft and builds, begin with just one instrument and a solo voice.  At each verse add another instrument or voice.  Have the drums start with just cymbals and hi-hat, then let the drummer build to a full groove.  Play a pad on the keyboard and switch to piano or organ at a higher emotional point.  Have the vocals begin in unison and add harmony at the chorus or a later verse.

Your band is not an on/off switch.

Your band consists of a certain number of instruments and voices.  Please do not begin every song with everyone singing harmony and every instrument hammering away.  Thoughtfully choose which instruments and which voices start and what voices and instruments enter in what particular order.

You are the leader and you are orchestrating the music as you go.

Imagine John Williams writing the music for Star Wars.  Instead of arranging the instruments and sounds the way he did, what if he had walked in, plopped down a bunch of music in front of everyone, and told them to play whenever and as loud as they want?  Would we want to listen to the music?

Probably not.

Any person can lead music like that, but it takes an artist to carefully construct the sound their band or orchestra or choir makes.

This week take one song and play it a completely different way.  Be creative.  Make a plan for everyone to come in differently than they have in the past and see how it sounds.

Be an artist, not someone flipping a switch.

How do you adapt songs for your musicians?

Should My Church Have a Choir?

Whether or not your church should have a choir is not the right question.  So often we ask questions about details when we have not looked at the big picture.

Some better big picture questions:

  1. Am I providing opportunities for all of the musicians in my church to use their gifts?
  2. What styles of music minister the best to the people of my church?
  3. What role does music play in the service, and what kinds of bands or ensembles are needed to fill that role?
  4. If you do not yet have a choir, do you have enough musicians for the groups you already have, and do you have someone who could lead a choir well?
  5. If you have a choir, are they effectively leading in worship or are they simply a social club that meets regularly?
  6. What does my senior pastor support and believe in regards to music?
  7. What kinds of people is the church trying to reach?

These are just a few questions.  What questions would you ask?