By Greg Johnson
I spend a lot of time in worship services. A lot. And, sometimes it is hard for me to engage because I am watching and evaluating what is happening in the room. Recently, I was in a service and observed the congregation seemed fairly apathetic about the experience. So, of course, I started evaluating the leader. Now, it is not always the leader’s fault the room feels dead. First and foremost, connection depends on the Spirit’s activity. However, there are many things that are “makers” and “breakers” in the worship experience that are completely up to the worship leader. On this particular day, I noticed the worship leader did two things that I found peculiar – the only time he opened his eyes was to look at his music stand, and he never once gave the people any direction on where he was leading them. As a result, he became a great singer singing great songs to an uninspired group of people. Something was missing.
In part one of our series on engagement, we discussed how important it is to choose great songs and develop song sets that encourage engagement. In part 2, we will look at some important on-stage skills that cultivate an engaged worship culture.
1. Eye Contact – When you have a conversation with someone, eye contact is one of the best ways to show you are engaged. This has become a problem of epic proportion with technology all around is fighting for our attention. My wife gets very frustrated with me when she is trying to talk to me and I am looking at a screen, whether it is a TV screen or my phone. The other day, we were in a somewhat distracted conversation (my fault) and finally in frustration she said with impressive emphasis and enunciation, “I am RIGHT HERE!” pointing to her eyes. So, if it’s true in one-on-one conversation, multiply by the number of people in the congregation you are leading and you get an idea of how important it is. When you are leading, you are having a conversation with the congregation, and your eyes are helping you communicate passion and conviction. So, with that in mind, here are a couple of thoughts on eye contact.
a. Open your eyes! How ridiculous would it be to have a conversation with someone with your eyes closed? Closing your eyes creates a barrier between you and people you are leading, barring the opportunity to connect with them. Now, occasionally closing your eyes may help you focus, or communicate passion or devotion, but to keep them closed all, or most, of the time (and this happens a lot) is not connecting or fostering an engaged worship culture. Truth be told, as a worship leader, you give up your personal worship experience for a corporate one. This doesn’t mean you perform, but rather you are attuned to the people you are leading and seeking to connect them to God. You have to be engaged with them for that to happen. Shutting your eyes and getting “lost” in worship is like walking out on the job and abandoning the people you are “called” to lead. If you constantly leave them to their own devices, why do they need you? Don’t kid yourself – you are not LEADING worship, but a singer posing as a leader.
Also, don’t get fixated on one point in the room, but scan it all. As a rule, I generally find people in different parts of the room, “anchor points”, who are engaged and let my eyes gravitate toward them throughout the set. It keeps my eyes moving throughout the room, and is a source of encouragement that at least a few people are with me.
b. Lose the music stand! I am a text-aholic. My phone is constantly going off throughout the day, as I am carrying on 5 different running conversations. It is CONSTANT. The problem is, it happens when I am with others. Now, I think I can multi-task and meet the needs of the person in front of me while reading and replying to my texts, but the person in front of me is getting ripped off – he doesn’t have my full attention. And, not only is it rude, but I’ve said yes to things I should’ve said no to because I wasn’t paying attention. (“Sure thing! I’d love to give your 5-year-old voice lessons…”
In the same way, the music stand in worship is taking away from giving full attention and leadership to the congregation, and has reached epidemic proportion. It’s time for us to rise up against the evil music stand empire! Ok, a bit dramatic, but seriously, it’s time… Here are a couple of reasons why this is important. First, it is the same thing as talking while texting – you are distracted. If your head is buried in a music stand, you’re not looking at the congregation, so it becomes a barrier. And, like my wife, they want to scream, “I am RIGHT HERE!” Second, it speaks to a lack of preparation. This is a bit off topic, but if worship leading is your chosen profession and you can’t play through a song without reading chords or lyrics, find something else to do. Think about what it communicates: What you are singing was not important enough to memorize and make your own. Reading off a music stand does not communicate passion and conviction, but the opposite – apathy and lack of preparation. And, let’s be honest – there are really only 4 or 5 chords in modern worship today anyway…
2. Voice Prompting – This is a great help in engagement. In short, great leaders lead both by directive and example. While it is true that worship is as much “caught” as it is taught, it is naïve and irresponsible to expect a congregation to connect simply by watching you worship. Coaching people through a worship experience puts them at ease – it is the LEADER part of worship leader. Think of it this way: If you are not coaching and encouraging people to join you, then you are simply singing AT them, which is a performance. As I said above, to lead your congregation, you will have to give up your personal worship experience for a corporate one, but the payoff is huge. There is nothing more fulfilling and God-honoring than a fully engaged room full of people. Here are some examples what voice-prompting looks like.
There are many phrases that are commonly used by worship leaders. One phrase I use liberally, especially at the beginning of a song is, “Sing this with me.” While it may seem obvious, it is a reminder to the congregation that this is not a performance. I also use phrases like, “Lift your voices,” “Sing it out” and “C’mon!” While I feel a bit like a cheerleader sometimes, it’s not about me, but connecting people with God.
Also, feeding them upcoming lyrics is a great way to let the people you are leading know where you are going. For instance, coming out of the verse of “How Great Is Our God,” I might say, “Sing How great…” The challenge is always finding a way to communicate clearly within the rhythm of the song. It can only be done well with practice and repetition. This is where talent and experience intersect with calling.
Now, there is a school of thought that says voice prompting can be a distraction. My question is, why wouldn’t you want to encourage the congregation and tell them what you want them to do? If you really want to connect them to God, coaching them with voice prompts is leading well toward the goal of engagement. And remember, you should lead the person in the room that has never experienced God in worship. If you are only “leading” those who are rabid worshippers and would naturally engage anyway, are you really leading at all?
So, based on part 1, we are choosing great songs with high repetition and putting together great sets that encourage engagement. Now in part 2, we are using our eye contact and voice prompting to communicate clearly where we are going in the worship experience. In part 3, we will discuss the importance of your team in creating an engaged worship culture.
Edting and collaboration by Leann Francis.