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 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?

Choosing Songs for Worship

Music selection is one of the worship leader’s most visible jobs. Worship leaders are also vilified more for music selection than for anything else.

  • That song has weak theology.
  • The melody is unsingable.
  • That song has way too many words; I can’t get them all out in time at that tempo.
  • The music had absolutely nothing to do with the message.
  • Why don’t they sing more hymns?
  • Why don’t they sing more new music?

You don’t have to be a worship leader to recognize those questions. Perhaps you have even asked one of them.

I know I have.

So how do you choose music for the service?

  1. Remember that you can’t please everyone. If you pursue the path of pleasing people you will run into lots of problems. You are accountable to God, yourself, and the senior pastor; no one else.
  2. Find out the information for the service ahead of time. If the pastor does not have a practice of planning in advance, work with him to facilitate his planning, explaining the value of knowing those things ahead of time.
  3. Pray. Always pray. God is the ultimate creative, and he knows what he wants to do through you.
  4. Know your church’s tastes. If you are leading worship at a country cowboy church, don’t begin with a Prelude from Bach’s 1st suite for solo cello. Pick music that they can identify with.
  5. Begin with God. Almost always you should begin a service with a song that points us directly to the attributes and greatness of God. We have spent the week fighting the noise of life; worship is our opportunity to reset our perspectives on God.
  6. Begin up-tempo. I almost always begin with a faster song. I just like that. People arrive at church groggy and half awake; they need musical caffeine.
  7. Work towards songs that are more personal, intimate prayers.
  8. Guide the themes of the songs towards the theme of the service so that when the pastor gets up to speak the people are ready to hear what he has to say.
  9. Break rules 4 through 8. Never be afraid to try something different.

How do you select songs for a worship service?

How to Select Songs for Worship Services

Every week worship leaders select songs for upcoming worship services.  The process of selecting songs can be an enormous task, complicated by well-meaning people offering not-always-so-helpful opinions on what songs to use.

Just the other day I met a gentleman for the first time.  After a few minutes of conversation, he says, “Make certain that the first song and the last song of every worship service are familiar ones.  Starting with an unfamiliar song just taints the rest of the music.”

This gentleman is not a member of any worship group, and, by his own admission, has not been involved in music since high school.  He does, however, feel that he has the right to share his opinion on the music and that his opinion is right.

Worship leaders everywhere experience these kinds of comments and interjections every week.

Pastors are constantly talking about wanting to hear and see the congregation be more involved in the music.

Musicians want fresh music and not the same old stuff every week.

Members want to sing their favorite songs.

So how do you choose songs in the middle of this continual and usually all-over-the-map feedback?

Here are a few things I consider in my planning.

  • Be able to fully articulate what the service is about and what you hope to accomplish in the service.
  • Know the congregation’s favorite music.
  • Know your pastor’s musical tendencies.
  • Pray before planning.  Always.
  • Read the related Scriptures thoroughly and note what phrases and ideas jump out to you.
  • In general, begin every service with an up-tempo song focused on who God is.
  • In general, end each service with something uplifting and at least medium up-tempo.
  • If you have three songs in a set often the first song should look up at God, the second should focus on how God interacts with us, and the third should be our personal response to God.
  • Introduce on average one new song (new to the congregation) a month.  Repeat new songs immediately the following week.
  • Courageously cut tired songs.
  • Ruthlessly scrutinize the theology of your songs.
  • Do not take critical comments about music personally.
  • Do not take yourself too seriously.
  • Hold loosely to what you plan.  God can run the universe without you, so he can probably work in a worship service even if you have to change what you had planned.
  • Keep the difficulty level of the music reasonable for your worship team.
  • Keep the melodies of congregational songs no higher than D.
  • Make certain that song melodies are singable.

These are just a few ideas.

What guidelines do you consider in selecting songs for congregational singing?

A Leader’s Two Best Friends

As I mentioned previously I recently began a new position as Interim Director of Worship at Covenant Life Church in Sarasota, FL.  This position is my first step back into senior level leadership since 2009, and while I am excited about what God is going to do, I also know I have challenges ahead of me.

As a result I have been spending a lot of time writing and thinking about what it takes to grow a worship ministry.  So far I have written about

In order to lead well, however, I am finding I need to have close friends.  These friends are not the financial officer of my church, the executive pastor, the senior pastor, or even the chairman of the elder board, although good relationships with these leaders are highly necessary.

I have written several times about my mistakes when I began a new position in 2010.  I plowed ahead with my agenda, pulling everyone with me.  When I finally began to listen to my volunteers I was able to make changes and avoid burning everyone out.  I would have done well to engage the help of two friends right from the start.

These two friends are Questions and Observation.

Questions

Making questions your friend means focusing on asking questions rather than making statements.  Questions do several things:

  • Invite interaction.  A good question fosters communication and collaborative effort.
  • Demonstrate humility.  Asking a question shows people you do not have it all figured out and you are willing to learn.
  • Unearth information.  Obviously, asking a question guarantees you will learn more about those around you.  Refusing to ask questions prevents you from truly understanding your surroundings.
  • Direct discussion.  Sometimes the best way to lead a discussion is to asking a carefully crafted question.
  • Create ownership.  If you engage a volunteer in conversation with a question, that volunteer will own the ensuing decision.

Observation

Observing people and systems reveals critical information you will not discover by reading the employee handbook or studying staff biographies.  Here are just a few benefits of observation:

  • Reveals hidden attitudes.  Body language comprises the majority of our communication.  Watching body language in a conversation gives a much better picture of what the other person is thinking and feeling.
  • Reveals unresolved issues.  Avoidance, for instance, can communicate unresolved tension or a lack of interdependence between separate ministries or departments. Other behaviors such as sarcasm, avoiding eye contact, or abrupt communication can also tell you that something is not right.
  • Reveals broken systems.  If I observe, for instance, that the song lyrics displayed on Sunday are not in the correct order, I discover that either I did not give the proper information to the projectionist, the projectionist was not at rehearsal to fine tune the lyrics, the projectionist messed up during the service, or I made a change from the stage and the projectionist was not able to follow.  That observation can lead to a discussion that will improve the flow of information and guarantee better projection on Sunday.
  • Reveals pain.  If you observe that a co-worker or volunteer is more subdued than usual, a good question can often lead to an encouraging discussion and even prayer.  Worship leaders need to be particularly observant of the people they are leading in worship in order to respond and lead more effectively during the service.  Many people are hurting and need to know they are not alone.
  • Shows that you are listening.  In order to observe you have to stop talking and listen.  I am amazed at what I hear and understand when I shut my mouth and listen.  People love a listener, as I am certain you do, too.
  • Reveals what is going well.  As a teacher I was often reminded to “Catch someone doing something right.”  This rule applies in leadership as well.  Catch your volunteers doing something right and congratulate them.  Smile and cheer when your choir shapes a phrase correctly.  Be a cheerleader for your volunteers, friends and family and they will follow you wherever you go.

What other “friends” have helped you in leadership? 

Why Your Perspective Matters

In leading worship your perspective matters.  By perspective, I mean the way that you think about what you say and sing and how you lead.

Man with Glasses

For instance, if your perspective is that you are supposed to give something you have to people who do not have it, you will come across as an evangelist.

On the other hand, if you try to understand the perspectives of the people coming through the door in order to speak directly to them, you will come across as compassionate.

The next time you lead worship or speak, take a few minutes to think about the people walking through the door. What if that person is a widow? A teenager? A single mom or dad?  A downsized worker?  A newly divorced person?  Will it make a difference in how you speak or lead or not?

Can I suggest that choosing to ignore these details will make those people feel ignored?  We often simply think about what we are giving to people rather than about the people to whom we are giving it, and our message can sound aloof and pretentious.

I remember once as a young worship leader saying, “I don’t care if you’ve had a difficult week, this is the time to worship with all you’ve got.”  I am grimacing right now just admitting this.  Wow.  The height of arrogance.

Learn from my mistake.  Have a little humility and compassion when you prepare to lead.

How do you need to change your perspective in your preparation for leadership?

The Key Component in Caring for Volunteers

How you care for your volunteers may be one the single greatest factors in your success or failure as a leader in a church or non-profit organization.

This past Monday I hosted the second #worshipchat Tweetchat and I asked the question, “How has a leader appreciated you, and how has that impacted how you care for volunteers?”

By the end of the evening a root issue had come to the surface.

@joegallo82 and @johnnybeck almost simultaneously said,

I feel most appreciated when a leader shows interest in my personal life.  Not just what I can offer musically

Honestly I wish I could tell you about a time when I was in a rehearsal and I felt like the leader had no interest in my personal life, but I can’t.  Maybe it happened sometime, but I don’t remember it.

What I DO remember is treating my own worship team members that way at one point in time, and I am not proud to say that.

Early in my career as a worship leader I was focused primarily on excellence.  Even though I asked people how they were doing and I cared on a certain level, deep down I was there to deliver a product and not to build them up as people.

The results were challenging.  While I drove the quality up, I was intensifying a culture of perfectionism in a church already tending towards the critical.

The kicker is that I had no idea I was doing this.  I really cared, I thought.

Until a number of years ago when God changed my heart.  Seemingly overnight I felt a change in my focus.  From then on I felt as if my focus was caring for people rather than about the music.  Music became secondary.

I wish I could say it all got very easy.  Not really.

Read my post from last week on personality types and you will see that I am someone who loves detail and excellence.

I still want to do a good job.  I still want to end rehearsal in the middle of the week with something I am not afraid to offer on Sunday.  I will still push my musicians to their best because God deserves our best.

But that is no longer my primary concern. 

People are my primary concern.

We live with people.  We make music with people.  We talk with people.  The only thing we can take with us into the afterlife is . . . people.

So when it comes down to appreciating volunteers, they want to know that they are more important than the eighth note push is the 5th measure of that new song you’re teaching them.

They want to know that when Sunday is done and over you will love them and the service simply because you led worship with them.  They don’t want to be conditionally accepted based on the level of perfection they offered.

@joegallo82 offered the crux of the issue:

you have to realize that they’re not volunteering for you but for the lord.

We are all volunteering for God.  As worship leaders we need to be humble enough to realize that “it’s not all about us.”

So what is the key to appreciating your volunteers?

  • Get your heart right.
  • Put people first.
  • Love God (not music, or whatever you are the leader of) most.

Then you will be on the right track.  In the next post we will talk about some practical steps in appreciating volunteers.

How do you keep your heart right and people first in your ministry?