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?

[Repost] The Best of 2011-12: How I Got My Team’s Attention

Just over a year ago I began blogging.  This is the third of five posts that will be re-posts of the top five blog posts this past year.  Thanks for making this year great by reading what I have written and commenting.  I appreciate it!

Have you ever talked to your team about a concept until you were blue in the face and still got the feeling they were miles away?  I have, and I have not always been able to get their attention focused where it should be.

Today, however, I want to share an example of something that did work.

Last year I was working with my music team at a Saturday gathering specifically focused on connecting more deeply on a personal level with each other, and on digging into the preparation aspect of being part of the music team.  In the past month I have been posting excerpts from this time.  This past Monday I posted 5 Steps to Improve Your Preparation.  Wednesday we toyed with the question, What Are Your Goals?

Today I want to give you the illustration that helped the team to get involved in the discussion.

After discussing what our goals in practical preparation should and should not be, I introduced the 5 Steps.  If you remember, the 5 Steps were

  1. Listen – spend time with the example recording
  2. Read – spend time reading the music while listening to the recording to make certain you fully understand the piece
  3. Feel – listen through the set of songs without distraction and get a sense of where the songs want to go and how they want to flow together
  4. Worship – get beyond the notes and rhythms and be able to worship individually to the music you will be leading
  5. Lead – be past the rudiments of the music so that you can focus on God and the congregation while you lead.

The Illustration

In order to illustrate the steps and where we were or were not adhering to it, I drew a timeline representing the week a team member would be volunteering to lead worship.  On the right was the Sunday for which they were volunteering, and on the left was the Sunday prior.  In the middle I made a mark to represent the mid-week rehearsal.

Then I asked the team to help me note on the timeline where they thought we presently accomplished the 5 steps.  As expected, steps 1 and 2 were clustered right around the mid-week rehearsal, and 3, 4 and 5 were right on or close to Sunday.  In fact, some of 1 and 2 were also happening Sunday morning, where we were supposed to be simply running through music rather than rehearsing.

Next I graphed out where I felt we should be accomplishing the 5 steps.  We should be completely through the listening and reading stages early in the week.  We should be working through feel and worshipping at the rehearsal.  Finally, we should be completely ready to lead on Sunday at the first service, not the last one.  The Sunday morning run-through will naturally including more time of getting our feel together and preparing our hearts well for worship, but it should not be a rehearsal.

What followed was a lot of meaningful conversation about schedules, what I needed to provide for them so that they could improve their preparation, and many other things.

What successful methods have you used to get your team’s attention in regards to preparation?

A New Opportunity to Connect with Other Worship Leaders – an Update

We are all looking for ways to connect with other worship leaders, and last week I introduced a new opportunity to you, a Tweetchat centered on worship.

I have never done anything like this, but it is very simple and super fun.

Yesterday evening I hosted the second #worshipchat Tweetchat, and I had a blast interacting with friends across the continent.  I also made a new contact in the process.

If you are unfamiliar with Tweetchats, just think of an open air chatroom utilizing Twitter, led by a moderator, and organized using a unique hashtag.  For Twitter newbies a “hashtag” is a keyword preceded by the “#” symbol.  In this case we are using the unique hashtag #worshipchat.

Last night we talked about appreciating volunteers, and soon I plan to write a blog post digging into the comments.  After sharing ways we had felt appreciated in the past, we all agreed that the attitude and heart of a leader is the key component to making a volunteer feel valued.

So stay tuned for the blog post coming up shortly.

Our next #worshipchat Tweetchat is this coming Monday, August 13, at 8 pm EST.  Simply go to this Tweetchat room and you will see all of the comments organized.  Or you can simply send Tweets from your account, making certain to include “#worshipchat” in all of your tweets.  You can actually type “#worshipchat” into the Discover search field within Twitter and follow that way, but the nice thing about the Tweetchat room is that #worshipchat is automatically added to every tweet without you having to maunually enter it in.

In the meantime, share a brief story with us here in the comments below.

What have leaders done in the past to make you feel appreciated and valued?

Networking 101 for Worship and Music Leaders, and a New Opportunity

One thing they didn’t teach me in college is how to network with other leaders.  If they offered the class, no one told me about it.

In fact, at my first church job I was a little afraid to meet other leaders because I felt like such a newbie, an outsider.

Yes, I had a Master’s degree from the Eastman School of Music and my father was a pastor, but I still felt like I didn’t have the level of skills of my colleagues around town.

Slowly, though, I realized that I needed to reach out and seek encouragement as well friendship from like-minded leaders.

In fact, I have a new opportunity for you to connect with other worship and music leaders, but more on that later.

The key here is “like-minded.”  I don’t have any time for arrogant self-promoters, and there are plenty of them in the church world.  I don’t operate that way, and I can’t stand those that do.

Here are a few of the ways I search for potential leaders to befriend.

  1. I research the other churches in town.  What churches are like-minded?  Which ones are pushing the edge of creativity?  Which churches have a reputation for excellent music?  Once I find the churches I research their worship and music departments and reach out to the worship and music leaders.
  2. I ask my friends.  I just moved to Sarasota, FL, last fall and my friend and boss is very connected here.  Hanging out and talking with him naturally puts me in contact with other leaders.
  3. I attend conferences.  Several of my favorites in the past have been the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit and the Willow Creek Arts Conference.

Here are some of my favorite ways to get to know other leaders. 

  1. I Google them.  In fact, I Google everybody.  If I am going to meet someone completely new, I will plug their name into Google and see what comes up.  Sometimes I find the most interesting things that can lead to great conversations.
  2. I treat them to coffee or lunch.  I enjoy sitting down one-on-one with another leader and asking them about their ministry and work.
  3. I friend them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter to see what they’re talking about.
  4. I arrange a lunch for several leaders.  Getting a few other leaders together for lunch can invite some great conversation.
  5. I attend their events or churches when I get the chance to check out what they’re doing in person.
  6. I listen to any recordings they have made.

A New Opportunity

Recently I was talking to a professional social media friend about networking and she mentioned Tweetchats.  I had never heard of them.

A Tweetchat is where a group of people converse about a topic using Twitter.  They mark every post with a particular hashtag (a hashtag is a word preceded with the “#” symbol) so that others can follow the conversation.  By logging into Tweetchat each person can enter the hashtag into the field at the top and see just those comments, or you can use a tool like Hootsuite to sort the comments.  Both are free.

My friend encouraged me to do one on worship, and so I am.

I am really excited about doing this, although I have just the slightest bit of apprehension since I have never led one before.

Join me this coming Monday, July 30, at 8 pm EST for a Tweetchat.  Just include the hashtag #worshipchat in your comments.

I will have some questions to guide our conversation, but the main goal is simply to provide a place for like-minded people to meet while discussing worship and worship music.

I hope to see you there.

Again, join us Monday, July 30, at 8 pm EST for a #worshipchat Tweetchat.  I can’t wait to meet you!

How do you find and network with other leaders?

How Many Worship Leaders Should We Have?

Some churches emphasize having one primary worship leader for their church.  Other churches work hard to have many different worship leaders, rarely having the same person up front from one week to the next.

Is there a “best way” when it comes to the number of worship leaders you have up front?

I think there is, but the answer is not as obvious as you may expect.

(My 7 year old son just looked at my title and said, “About 10.”  Let’s take his comment under advisement.)

First Example

In my first church job the senior pastor and I pursued an environment with one primary worship leader who was on staff, adding other leaders every 4-6 weeks.  Up until that time we had four worship leaders who led once a month, one of them being on staff.

Needless to say, moving to one primary worship leader was a radical change.  Here were some of the reasons for our decision:

  • We wanted a strong bond between the worship leader and the senior pastor.  To do this the senior pastor needed to work with the same person every week.
  • We wanted to improve the service flow and production.  By having a staff member be the primary worship leader the senior pastor could also work one-on-one with the worship leader during the week to intentionally craft the service experience.  While you can do this with multiple volunteer leaders, having the leader on staff cuts out a lot of potential miscommunication.
  • We wanted to communicate a unified vision.  The senior pastor was new and the church had been without a senior pastor for three and a half years.  By working closely with one primary worship leader the senior pastor could be more effective in communicating the vision of the church at a critical time.

Second Example

In 2010 I began working for a different church.  This church strongly emphasized multiple worship leaders.  I eventually became the Music Pastor, but I only led worship once every 4-6 weeks.

We pursued multiple leaders there for some of these reasons:

  • We placed a high emphasis on serving.  Our goal was for every person to use the gifts God had given them.  We found out about every person with gifting in music and worship and sought them out.  We also held regular church-wide auditions.  Our standards were high, but we found some excellent leaders and were able to live out a culture of service in the way we led worship.
  • We measured successful leadership by how well we trained leaders.  Every leader was expected to replicate themselves as much as possible.  If we were not delegating we heard about it.  The view was that by not delegating we taking away someone’s opportunity to use their God given gifts.
  • We had a highly effective communication structure.  We could have multiple leaders because over the years this church had built a strong and effective way of communicating with the leaders, and the leaders knew what to expect.
  • The pastor wanted primarily guitarists to front the band and I am a keyboardist.  I accomplished this goal by staging the guitarists forward and acting as Music Director on the weeks I was not leading worship.


How many worship leaders should you have?  By now you have probably guessed my answer.

Every church is different.  They are all in different seasons at different times, have different leaders and expectations, and have different challenges to overcome.

Here are some questions you can ask to decide how many worship leaders your church should have:

  1. Do your worship pastor and senior pastor have a highly effective communication structure in place?  Effective communication is always important, but becomes even more paramount with multiple worship leaders.
  2. Are your worship leaders all 110% supportive of the vision of the church?  Better to have one good worship leader sold out on the vision than 5 stellar worship leaders who don’t really get it.
  3. Does your church actually have more than one excellent worship leader?  If they’re not available your decision has been made for you.  Start praying.
  4. Do you have a primary worship leader who is burning out?  Some leaders do not have the bandwidth to lead well every week.  In that case, definitely find some excellent alternate worship leaders to protect your primary leader’s health, and pray that your leader is humble enough to accept it.
  5. Is the church struggling to deal with transition?  Sometimes, not always, it is helpful to have just one worship leader during a time of transition.  Other times having multiple leaders during transition helps the congregation see that they are not being cut out of whatever change is happening.
  6. What kind of look does the church want up front?  If you have a guitarist as a worship leader but the senior pastor would prefer to have vocalists without instruments as worship leaders, then make the necessary adjustments.

How have you decided how many worship leaders to utilize?  What other questions did you ask?

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?

The Difference Between Worship Leaders and Spiritual Leaders

Did you think these were one and the same thing?  Never thought about it?  I have only begun to think about this recently.

Worship leaders and spiritual leaders can be the same person, but that is not a given.  In fact, in my experience worship leaders have to learn to be spiritual leaders.

For instance, I grew up playing on worship bands.  By the time I was finishing high school I was leading worship from time to time, and by the time I graduated college I was the primary worship leader at my dad’s church.  After grad school I took a job at a church and became the primary worship leader there in both the traditional and the contemporary services.

I’ve been leading worship for over 20 years now, but only in the past 5 years have I actually began to be a spiritual leader.

I have noticed some key differences between worship leaders and spiritual leaders.

  1. Worship leaders lead and prepare teams to lead events.  Spiritual leaders lead people.
  2. Worship leaders choose music to propel the theme of a service or fit a particular “slot” in the service.  Spiritual leaders choose music to speak to people’s hearts, and then think about the theme.
  3. Worship leaders hold rehearsals for events.  Spiritual leaders use rehearsals to find out where the team members are in their own walk with God.

Spiritual leaders care most about the people they are leading, not the product.

I have spent much of my life trying to be excellent in music and produce good services.  These are good things.  The problem is, I was pursuing those goals ahead of caring about the people on my teams.

If you want to be a spiritual leader and not just a worship leader or some other kind of leader, here are a few thoughts to consider.

  1. People are most important.  Period.
  2. Because people are most important, you will need to sacrifice other things in order to succeed in keeping people as a top priority.
  3. In rehearsal sometimes we have to let a detail go for the sake of encouraging the volunteer rather than running the volunteer into the ground for the sake of perfection.  Note: This does not mean horrible intonation and sister Mary’s autoharp get to go unaddressed.  This does mean that a missed note here or there is not the end of the world.
  4. Prayer, group sharing, and devotions are critical in rehearsals, not just music.  Note: This does not give you license to hold a revival meeting instead of rehearsal.  This does mean you should take 15 minutes to help your volunteers prepare their hearts and support each other with God’s help.
  5. In a service a slight change on the fly to meet a discovered need is worth a few seconds of disarray.  I have my mentor, Stephen Michael Newby, to thank for this.  He likes to shout “Reggae” and other random musical styles in the middle of a song and expects his players to switch the style.  Needless to say, he only does this when working with higher level musicians, but there always are a few moments of disarray.  The overall result is awesome, though, and Stephen makes these changes when he feels it will help bring people along in worship, not to be “cool.”
  6. If you have to choose between writing a cool new song for the service and having a coffee with a volunteer, choose the volunteer.

As you love people, people will love you and God will bless you.  Worship leading becomes much easier when you are a spiritual leader first, because suddenly people want to follow you where’ve you are leading them.

In fact, musical excellence will thrive when an excellent worship leader is also an excellent spiritual leader.

Your team members will relax and perform better because as a spiritual leader you have demonstrated that you care more about them than you do about whether they are perfectly executing a piece of music.

What changes do you need to make in order to be a better spiritual leader?