“Praise ye the Lord, Alleluia, Praise ye the Lord, Alleluia, Praise ye the Lord, Alleluia… Praise ye the Lord!”
We clap and smile and praise God. Luke claps before we reach the end of the song. Every time.
I’ve played on worship teams for eighteen years, led teams for five, and run a couple worship programs during that time, but when I begin to sing with my almost two year old it still comes out, “Praise ye the Lord,” “I am a C-H,” or “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart.”
It doesn’t matter how old we are or how many songs we know. Sometimes instinct kicks in. Sometimes it should.
Now, when I say, “Praise ye the Lord,” my son’s hands shoot up in the air. When I ask where God is, my son’s hands shoot up in the air. It’s become instinct. We as a church, who love worship, should learn a lesson from a little guy who can’t say more than “Dada,” “Mama” (to Dad), and “Is that” (to everything else).
Last week, I read an article titled Are We Headed For a Crash? that excellently nails many of the pitfalls in leading worship today. A couple days later, I noticed another article a friend posted to Facebook. It attempted to counter an article about worship that, upon clicking, I found to be the original article I’d loved.
I was shocked as I read through the second. It totally missed the point. Let me explain. The first article noted church members engage less in worship today because worship leaders constantly throw new songs at them that they don’t know and because there’s a growing focus on performance — lights, fog machines, show — that diminishes the congregational aspect of worship. The second article said, naw, the real problem is we don’t have our hearts focused on God. We need to check our hearts, not scrutinize worship methods.
The thing is, coming from the perspective of a worship leader, a lens I’ve looked through for the past eighteen years, leading the congregation in worship is something we should take responsibility for. Sure, church members should focus their hearts on Jesus. That’s their responsibility. But if that’s our leadership response to an evaluation of the state of our job and diminishing worship engagement? “Well, the people need to get their hearts right”? That’s ridiculous. Really, to ignore the factors that diminish worship engagement and write it off as simply a “heart attitude” would be bad leadership.
The thing is — my son and praise ye the Lord.
There are ways as worship leaders we can absolutely lead people in worshiping effectively at maximum engagement. We can focus their hearts on Jesus. We should be willing to look at how we can lead more effectively.
What My Son Can Teach Us About Worship
My son responds to praise ye the Lord by shooting his hands up in the air because I’ve trained him to do it by repetition. We sing. I raise my hands on Praise ye the Lord. Little hands shoot up. I bend to the ground on Alleluias. A little body bends. And tomorrow we won’t sing “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever.” We’ll sing “Praise Ye the Lord.” Again.
That’s the first lesson of worship leadership. Want people to sing? You have to repeat the songs more than the worship leader wants. One pitfall I’ve noticed in churches I’ve served at is worship leaders are so immersed in songs, they get bored and want to move on to new ones constantly. But the congregation has heard it only a couple times before the worship leader moves on to the next new release.
Want a tip to increase engagement? Sing songs more often and more times than you, as the worship leader, want to.
Praise ye the Lord and Alleluia, baby.
The next is wrapped up in that lesson, as well. I sing songs with my son that are developmentally appropriate for him. I mean, many of them are very small steps away from “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain,” Jesus-style.
But he wouldn’t have a clue with “He is jealous for me (How He Loves).”
In other words, I sing congregational songs. I sing it for him, selecting songs that maximize engagement. I don’t choose new songs every week to whet my artistic creativity or musical intelligence. Otherwise, I would’ve left “I am a C-H-R-I-S-T-I-A-N” in the dust a long time ago, brother.
We have to intentionally choose songs that put congregational engagement at the forefront. That draw people’s hearts to Jesus.
There are lots of cool songs out there. But repeating “You make beautiful things out of the dust” over and over doesn’t exactly draw people into heartfelt worship. Rather than blame them for not trying, we should call them into worship by carefully selecting songs that lead them in.
But, and this is going to break hearts here, baby, and redirect that second, well-intentioned article: you’ve got to sacrifice the cool, too.
If we invest in torn blue jeans, mood lighting, fog machines, and near rock concert decibals to draw people into a heart of worship for God — our own attempts to create atmosphere, what room is there for the Holy Spirit and the people themselves to contribute?
One, they can’t hear themselves sing. I’m going to tell you as a musician. I don’t sing when I can’t hear my voice. This goes for when I’m in the congregation and when I’m on stage. If I can’t hear myself, I don’t know what other people are hearing, and there’s no real point to pretend like I’m contributing, so I stop.
So, a third tip to increase congregation engagement is: Turn the music down. Blaring worship music at holy decibals that almost shock people’s spirits to life increases the focus on the band and diminishes focus on worship engagement. If the crowd can hear themselves, they’re important. This is an easy choice. Intentionally keep decibals in the high ’80s or below. They can hear us. Trust me.
And, yeah, I know loudness produces energy. But what kind of energy are we looking for?
That leads to another important point. The focus is not excellence. It’s not performance. It is congregational worship. Yeah, I want my sound, as a leader, to be excellent. I’ve honed my skill and I work diligently to bring the band together in practice. But please get this: I don’t prioritize a perfectly executed song set for my teams and those I serve on. I teach listening and flowing together (which is real musicianship). Because in the service we’re not going to just play a set. We’re going to go where we sense the Holy Spirit leading and where the congregation’s hearts need to go. That’s leading worship. Not technically executing a set list. Not boosting fog ambiance or mood lighting (to imitate heaven, God forbid). Rather, it is intentionally choosing and leading songs that turn people’s hearts to God. The excellence or performancism argument, as the above article advocates, is usually an excuse to value performing technically perfect musicianship over putting the emphasis on responding to the Holy Spirit in a fluid situation with real people and immediate needs as we lead.
The point is — although we all want the music to be superb, what do we trust to do the trick? Mood lighting? Or the Holy Spirit? Rock concert atmosphere? Or a congregational focus of teaching and leading sing-able songs?
Whatever we invest in is at the sacrifice of the other, when the goals and endpoints are at such odds.
So, in letting go of sleek worship, we as worship leaders have to also be willing to stop and teach new songs in the middle of the service. If the congregation doesn’t know a song, introduce the chorus a couple times at the beginning of the set. Why not? We’re not trying to be Justin Beliebers, but Jesus leaders. How can they sing if they don’t know the song, amidst the torrent of hundreds we throw at them? Take a moment and teach people how to worship or how to sing a song. And never introduce more than two a month. If you scoff at this, please see the priorities above. Is worship for us, to compete with the culture for attention-spans, or to offer people an opportunity to worship God as effectively and efficiently as possible through the power of the Holy Spirit?
It’s either ignorance or cowardice to say the people’s hearts aren’t hungry for God and that’s the real reason they aren’t singing, while we blast last week’s new release that we haven’t taught at well over 100 decibals and mood lighting reaches the audience where it can cut through the mist.
The truth is, there’s a lot we can do.
- Sing songs more than we as leaders want to, so the congregation is comfortable with the songs.
- Choose songs that are easy for our group of worshipers to sing.
- Turn the music down so people can hear themselves and be a part of worship.
- Focus on congregational worship, not a sleek look or sound.
- Teach people new songs. Two or less a month.
That’s what my kid could teach us about worship. That and praise ye the Lord.
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What has God spoken to you about corporate worship?