There’s no end to the number of articles, blog posts, and interviews about how the worship leader or worship team in any given church can improve the worship experience for their congregation. I’ve read two in the last week and at least 10 more in the last year. Just this week, two different friends posted this article to their Facebook/Twitter accounts.
Most of the time these blogs say the same things. “Sing songs we know. Sing them in a key we can all reach. Don’t overplay/over-sing.” These are good and helpful suggestions and ones worship leaders should take to heart. But as I read those articles, I find myself in a unique position. I’m currently both the pastor and the worship co-leader at Thrive, and have been the worship leader at two other churches. I spend a significant amount of my time planning, praying for, and preparing for worship each week, and have been doing so for some time. Having held both the role of pastor AND worship leader, I think I offer some unique insight into the worship preparation/production process and thought I might come at it from a bit of a different angle.
Before I begin, it’s important to remember that worship is never a passive experience. We take the stage Sunday, having practiced and prepared both the music and our hearts, in order to lead the congregation in worship, but that doesn’t mean the congregation sits idly by. In fact, because worship is never passive, that means the congregation is required to work just as hard to bless the worship team (and ultimately praise God) as the worship team works for the congregation. With that in mind, I give you 10 ways the congregation can help the worship team. These are by no means exhaustive, and I welcome your comments, though I can’t promise I’ll always have time to respond to them all.
- MAKE WORSHIP PARTICIPATION A PRIORITY.
If you don’t believe that the singing portion of the worship service is equally as essential as the sermon portion, then you don’t really understand church and worship at all. The whole service is designed to help us worship. The musical/singing portion AND the sermon all point us toward Christ, and if you don’t make being in the musical portion of worship a priority, and you don’t make participating actively in the musical portion of worship a priority, then you aren’t actually doing a very good job of worship, and you’re not helping your worship team.
- BE ON TIME.
I know it might sound petty, but when you show up halfway through worship (oftentimes with Starbucks in hand), then that distracts us, and keeps us from doing our job as well as we could (and it reveals a failure on your part to take point number one to heart). I know we ought to be focused on the Lord’s leading. I know we ought to be focused on the songs we’re playing, but we’re human, and we can’t help but be distracted sometimes. Sunday morning worship starts at the same time EVERY SUNDAY. If you’re consistently 10 minutes late, then the easy solution is getting up 10 minutes early. What’s more, if you spend most of the worship service out in the hallway, or talking to your neighbor, or God-forbid giving your wife a neck massage (there’s at least one couple in every church), we can see you, and it’s distracting. I wish it wasn’t. I wish I was more focused on the Lord. I wish I was deeper in prayer and following the Holy Spirit’s lead, but the truth is, sliding in 10 minutes late and trying to inconspicuously camp out on the front row distracts us. Please be on time.
- PREPARE YOUR HEART FOR WORSHIP.
I can honestly say, without a single exception, that every person that’s ever complained about worship in any church I’ve been a part of, failed in this one regard. They did not prepare their heart to worship the Lord before they arrived at church. It should come as no surprise that worship isn’t meaningful to you, or helpful to you, or encouraging to you, if the 20 minutes of singing we do on Sunday morning is the only worship you have all week (and you were 5 minutes late and spent the other 5 pawing at your wife’s neck). Are you doing your devotions? Are you spending significant time in prayer? Are you listening to and singing Christ-centered music throughout the week? If not, then no matter how good the worship team is, no matter how great the songs we’ve chosen are, you won’t be ready to worship. In the immortal words of Allen Iverson, “We talkin’ ‘bout practice.” Prepare your hearts to hear the Word in song and sermon.
- SET ASIDE YOUR PERSONAL PREFERENCES FOR THE SAKE OF OTHERS.
Thankfully we haven’t had many complaints in any of the music ministries I’ve been a part of, but when we do, they inevitably fall into the personal preferences category. “The music is too loud. I don’t like this style. We do too many old songs. We do too many new songs.” You get the idea. What we’ve got to remember is that congregational worship is just that, it’s congregational. It involves everyone in the church, not just you. That means that sometimes we’ll do songs that are good and helpful to others, but that you might not personally enjoy. (You might be surprised to know that we sometimes do songs even the band doesn’t enjoy) It means that sometimes the music might not be as loud as you’d like, or the style might not be as traditional as you’d like. The point is that it’s not about you in the first place. It’s about Christ first, then it’s about others. And when it comes to thinking of others…
- SING!!! BE AN ACTIVE WORSHIPER.
I’m not much for stage direction (lift your hands, give Him a clap, etc.), but I’m always amazed at the number of people in a congregation who literally do NOTHING during worship. They don’t sing. They don’t clap. They don’t do anything. They just stand there. Maybe they look around. Maybe they check their phone. I once led worship at a church where a guy would stand during worship, holding what must have been the biggest Bible I’d ever seen, and bury his face in it without giving a second thought to what was happening on stage, or to his fellow church members. Again, worship is congregational. It’s for all of us. And when you participate, it helps others participate. The sound of others’ singing leads others to be more comfortable and sing. Your participation helps others participate. So be active. Make eye contact. We’re not trying to entertain you, and that’s not our purpose, but we are trying to help you join with the church in worship and praise. We are trying to help you do the very thing you were created to do. The least you could do is TRY to participate.
- LISTEN TO AND LEARN THE SONGS YOUR CHURCH TYPICALLY SINGS IN WORSHIP.
If your church does mostly traditional hymns, then this is probably not much of a problem. If, however, your church does more modern music, then learning the songs can present a challenge. Newer songs are coming out all the time, and worship leaders love to introduce new, different music to the church. (By the way, this is a good thing. It’s their passion and their ministry. If your worship leader never introduces new songs, then he’s not really doing his job very well) And while it’s true that a few larger churches have been writing their own worship songs, most churches are singing songs that you can hear pretty easily on Christian radio, Pandora, etc. You can also purchase these songs on iTunes and make a playlist for your drive to work, workout, or cleaning the house routine. So for about $15 a year, you can stay current on the songs your church uses in worship. If you don’t want to pay for the music, apps like Pandora might be helpful. At our church, we publish a new songs list a couple times a year so that people can become accustomed to the new music we’re doing. The point is, if you’ve really taken #1 and #3 to heart, then you’ll want to listen to and learn the music your church does in worship. And when you go into worship already knowing the songs, then you’re more free to focus on their words, sing to Christ, and be in prayer for your fellow church member.
- SHOW YOUR WORSHIP TEAM GRACE.
Some churches are blessed enough to employ professional musicians and singers (who also deserve our grace), but the vast majority of churches are working solely with volunteers in the worship team. These people are NOT professionals, and while they may be very talented, it’s likely they’re not going to sound just like your favorite Christian band. Everything we do should be unto the Lord, which is why the band works so hard to “get it right.” But the truth is, we’re probably going to mess up from time to time, and miss a note, or play the wrong chord, or sing poorly because we have a cold. Be gracious to us.
- PRAY FOR YOUR WORSHIP TEAM.
This is self-explanatory, but probably the one thing on this list that church members are least likely to do. Pray for us. I promise we need it. Also, at least at our church, we begin each practice praying for you.
- ELIMINATE DISTRACTIONS.
Turn off your cell phone. Make sure you’ve got the baby’s pacifier handy. Finish/postpone your conversation with friends until after service. This is good for you, for the people around you, AND for the band. I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about this, but we can see you, and we know when you’re not engaged and participating. We know when you’re checking your texts or looking around to see who’s there instead of singing. And when you’re not engaged, it distracts us. We start to wonder if we sound bad?. Are we playing well? Are we just plain boring? When I wonder if I sound bad, or am playing poorly, then I start sounding bad and playing poorly. I take my mind off of Christ, and off of the music, and I get distracted. Then I can’t do the very ministry I’ve been called to do. So if nothing else, be polite.
- BE PREPARED.
I led worship at a church for a while, and one couple had the same routine every Sunday. First they came in late, while the band was already playing. Then they walked down the aisle, all the way up front, past everyone else, to take “their” seat. On the way down, they made sure to speak to friends, shake hands, hug necks, etc. Never mind that people had to stop singing to speak with them. Once they got to their seat they had to take off their coats, and scarves, and carefully fold them, arranging them just so. The husband took his jacket off, then helped the wife take hers off and drape it over her shoulders so she wouldn’t be cold. They had to produce their Bibles, which were in his zip-up cover, or deep in her purse respectively. Once settled they took this opportunity to wave to those on the other side of the church, the side they didn’t walk down, and chat with the people immediately behind them. And they did this all while the worship team is trying to lead the congregation in song. Now there’s nothing wrong with any of the things they did. I’m glad they spoke to their friends. I’m glad they brought their Bibles. But if they’d done those things BEFORE service began, then I wouldn’t be writing about them now. I’d have no problem with them if they’d only been prepared.