10 Tips for Worship Leaders: How to Enhance On-Stage Presence

If you’ve ever seen a group of children perform a song for a gathering of parents and spectators, you’ve seen the teacher or leader who places his or herself directly in their line of vision and proceeds to mouth (very clearly and expressively) every word and indicate every gesture at the appropriate time so that the children can follow along and all look like they know what their doing.

That is exactly our “job” as worship leaders! We’re the coaches, the cue card holders, the kind gentleman in Pretty Woman who discreetly aids a befuddled Julia Roberts’ character in choosing the right fork for the dinner course at a fancy restaurant.

As worship leaders (or lead worshippers, if you prefer), our purpose is not to model a personal worship experience on stage. It’s not even most importantly to perform well. It is to facilitate corporate worship—to enable all present to participate and engage in what is going on and to point them to the truth of the Gospel. When we remember that our role on stage is primarily one of servant leadership, that it is not about us and what we do but about the people of God gathered, we are freed to serve and lead well.

So, here are some general tips for those of us who serve and lead from the stage:

1) Watch what you do. Be (or become) aware of your body language and gestures. If you can, have someone take a video of you leading worship so that you can observe yourself and see what you might be doing, consciously or unconsciously, that is awkward, distracting or helpful. Our body language and gestures should be natural, relaxed and appropriate. Remember that you are seeking to invite and enable the congregation as a whole to engage and participate in what is going on, not to be the poster child for how a person “should” look when worshipping. Carefully consider whether what you would normally do in private worship or as a participant in the congregation–or even what you do naturally when you hear music–will be more helpful or distracting when leading from the stage.

2) Keep your eyes open. Watch the congregation. Shocking, I know. In order to lead well, however, you need to know what’s going on around you. You may notice that people aren’t singing along, but rather look confused or perplexed (or bored). Hmm…maybe they don’t know the song? Maybe they don’t know they’re supposed to be singing? You can invite them to sing with a statement like, “Now that you know it, let’s sing that again together,” or simply “Let’s sing that truth/prayer together again.” You have not only let them know that participation is encouraged and expected, but you’ve pointed them to the content and substance of what is going on.

3) Sing it like you mean it. Sing clearly and in such a way that people can easily sing along with you. We’re not being good leaders if people can’t follow! Reflect on and give an appropriate facial or bodily response to the words we sing. The intent is not that we “act out” each song we sing, but rather show, by our expressions and actions, that we understand and agree with what we’re singing. If a song is joyful, smile! When singing a true statement about God, I will often affirm and agree with the statement by nodding my head as I sing that line.  When singing a truth about our hearts, I often indicate that by placing my hand over my heart. When we lead songs, we are proclaiming that truth (telling that “story”) to everyone there gathered, inviting them in to sing it and realize what we’re saying with us. You can do this well without being overly emotional, dramatic or distracting.

4) Cut down on “down time”.  There are two things that commonly happen to a congregant or a vocalist during an instrumental solo or extended instrumental break in a song: either they disconnect (because there’s nothing for them to do) and stand awkwardly waiting for their next cue to sing, or they start noticing and admiring the skill of the instrumentalist. Is this always the case? No. Is it often the case? Probably. This is not to say that arrangements should be so simplified as to cut out all intricacy and beauty, or to deprive instrumentalists of using their skills to offer their sacrifice of praise. But it is a call to worship leaders and arrangers to consider what is going on for the congregation and the singers during those times. Are all the interludes, solos, instrumental transitions necessary? An overly showy arrangement with extended instrumentals and/or solos can be just as distracting and awkward as a song sung off-key.

5) Use readings and transitions wisely. Be reverent, conversational and sincere, but use appropriate expressiveness and emphasis when you read or speak. Slow down a bit: don’t drag, but remember that not everyone in the congregation is a fast or good reader. With regards to readings, a seminary professor once pointed out that verbs are actually the most important part of any given text. Practice emphasizing verbs instead of pronouns, adjectives or adverbs. You’ll be amazed at how this highlights the truths of Scripture.

6) Show and tell. Show or tell people how the song we’ve just sung relates to what we’ve just done or are about to do. Mention the Scriptural truth that gives us the basis for this action, song, or activity. Be honest about how our feelings may not seem to line up with what we’ve just sung or what we are about to sing, pointing out that truth is not so subjective.

7) Get engaged. As I’ve mentioned, our primary role is to facilitate and enable people to engage and participate in what is going on in the corporate worship service. We’ve talked about a few ways to do (and not do) this when leading songs and readings. One big factor in on-stage presence is what we’re doing when the focus is not on us. People can still see you, and they are watching you if you’re on stage. At our church, we often have a liturgist do the readings in between songs. During those times, it’s crucial that those who are on stage, even if they’re not talking or playing, model what it means to be engaged in what is going on. If someone else on stage is talking or reading, turn your body and your head towards them. Listen to what they are saying. React appropriately. You are leading even in those moments.   

8) Listen to your mom. And what did she always say? “Practice, practice, practice,” right? Yep. One of the best ways to look and feel comfortable and relaxed and engaging on stage is to know what you’re doing. Learn the words and music to the songs so you can look up from the page and establish eye contact with the congregation. Practice your readings out loud several times so that you are familiar with all the words before the service. Run through the order of the set and service as a team before going up on stage so that everyone knows what’s happening when and where. 

9) Embrace imperfection. Whoa! That caught your attention, huh? What I mean is that, when it comes to worship leadership and serving the Church–much like anything else we attempt to do–perfection is rarely possible and certainly not our ultimate goal. The unexpected and unfortunate will happen. No matter how much we practice, we will forget lyrics. We will stumble over phrases. We will feel and look awkward. But, you know what? More often than not, those imperfections can serve as a gentle reminder to us and everyone else that what we’re doing is not a performance to entertain and wow, but rather the people of the Lord living and worshipping together as family. Our congregations are not crowds and audiences to be impressed. Be humbled by that. Be freed by that!

10) Pray. If it’s a day ending in “y”, then it’s a day in which you’ve experienced the pervasive power of sin in your own heart and mind. We customarily and easily fall into thinking more about ourselves than those we serve. We want to be admired and respected and affirmed and praised for what we do and how we do it. We want to shine. We want things to go smoothly, to feel in control, to avoid conflict and evade embarrassment. We are obsessive and fearful and insecure and prideful. So we must pray. Grow ever quicker to acknowledge and confess your sin before the Lord and those who hold you accountable. Ask the Lord to make you useful to Him in ministry. Ask Him for wisdom and guidance in how to love and lead His people well. Pray for and cultivate a humble, teachable heart to learn from those who give you feedback and serve as mentors. Pray for those you serve, and those with whom you lead. Pray together faithfully as a team.

Which of these resonates the most with you as a struggle, tendency or pet peeve?

What are some other tips or suggestions you would offer to fellow worship leaders?

 

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  • http://www.cecworship.wordpress.com klampert

    Right on Lori…and I love what you guys are doing at Sojourn

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  • http://www.theproblemwithreligion.com jonathan foster

    #4 ‘Cut Down on Down Time’ reminds me of what a young worship leader asked me recently… “are instrumental solos, even when done well, distracting?” “do they have a place?” i was surprised by his question.

    hmmm, your point here is well taken. what do we usually do during the solo? we stand awkwardly or begin to admire the soloist.

    maybe we should cut them out.

    then again, maybe we should cut out vocal solos as well!

    what do you think? when is a solo appropriate?

    thanks, great post.

    jonathan

    • jeanelle

      hi.!in our church music team…does solos are being recognized.for some, it is an appropriate time to reflect and pray to God.it is also a good way to insert the singing in spirit.putting your own prayers to God.=)

  • http://manofdepravity.com Tyler

    It is so great to see these thoughts of mine put into words in an organized way. Thanks so much.

  • Kyle Jamison

    Great stuff Lorie…Thanks for putting this list together.

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  • http://www.sojournmusic.com Lorie King

    Jonathan,

    Great point/question. I’m guessing you mean vocal solos in the sense of “special music” (which is what it was always called when I was growing up)?

    In my opinion, there can be a time and place for a song to be sung “over” the congregation by a vocalist(s)—as a charge, a meditation, a blessing, etc. As worship leaders, we can even help the body gathered engage and participate in those moments by giving verbal cues like “hear these words” or “close your eyes and meditate on this truth” before the song is sung. But I believe even those cases should be exceptions and the reasoning behind that particular format (a solo) very intentional.

    A vocal solo, however, is slightly different than an instrumental solo in nature. Whereas we can certainly get swept away by the soloist’s honey tone or angelic range (or distracted by annoying mannerisms and funny facial expressions), there would also be words to listen to…which does give the congregation a focus. They can participate by listening and meditating on the words of the song.

    The good thing about thinking through these kinds of questions is that it helps us to lead and plan worship in such a way that we are teaching God’s people that congregational worship is a corporate activity, not a spectator sport. :)

    Again, great question!

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  • http://thejonmorris.wordpress.com Jon Morris

    Great article….I love when things we’ve been teaching here in the Fort are right on. It’s a great feeling when you can confirm your ministry with other believers. Good stuff.

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  • http://www.crossroadswired.com Lori Biddle

    My pastor just asked me to work again with several of our singers who struggle with stage presence. I am the Director of Magnification for our church, I take care of the programming of the services and have 2 full time worship leaders and 2 technology guys under me. So, I’m not the worship leader, but I try to trouble shoot for the worship leaders since I get to watch instead of being on stage.

    I would say most of our volunteer team members shut thier eyes a lot of the time. But, the worship leaders, (the staff) keep their eyes on the audience and do most of the talking and control the transitions. Do you think this is exceptable, or should everyone have their eyes open most of the time?

    Thanks for your article!

  • Linda E

    I read this article not because I am a worship leader, but because I wondered where our worship leaders might be getting some of their ideas. As a regular member of what is, from my experience, a typical evangelical congregation, playing mostly contemporary music, I would like to offer my insights, too and some things you didn’t address (1) Who decided that louder is better? Have you noticed that some of the older members are actually in physical pain when the volume is loud? They probably aren’t complaining, but look for people milling the hallway or putting their fingers in their ears, even. I know our sound people don’t notice this, and one of them is my own son. And too loud sounds distorted, not beautiful (2) yes, the musical interludes and vocal soloists are distracting. They break the continuity of the worshipper who hasn’t been merely singing along but trying to “enter in” (3) “encouraging words” by the leader are also distractions…half an hour into the praise and worship, they may say something like “com on now, it’s time to worship” — huh? If you have to label what you are doing, there may be a problem (4) trying to tell people what physical actions they should be doing is pretty lame, too — is worship really a choreographed show? If what you are doing on the platform resembles a show, why wouldn’t people watch rather than worship themselves? (5) consider the music you are choosing prayerfully — because it is popular on the radio or in worship leader magazines doesn’t mean it reflects a robust understanding of –well, anything. You have thousands of years worth of music to choose from–make sure you always pick the best. And please, set an example of honesty–if you display the words, follow the copyright laws and give the author(s) their credit. (5) finally, you are there to allow people to worship. There is no cajoling or begging you can do effectively with people who don’t have a relationship with Jesus or who have come to church “cold” and unprepared to worship–shouldn’t your job be “just” worship and facilitate that ability in others, sing so that they can follow (hint–no showy riffs or soprano leaders, please, most of us don’t sing those high notes!). Having said that, I know you have to please the senior pastor/leadership, who too often are satisfied with a show rather than a people who worship in Spirit and in Truth.

  • http://www.fredmckinnon.com Fred McKinnon

    Wow, Linda -
    Good points, though your response seems a bit tainted with sarcasm and judgment, to be honest.

    1 – louder is better?
    Very subjective here. Most people when they say “it’s too loud” are really referring to the mix … as I assume you are, based on your use of the word “distortion”. A good mix can be very full and pleasing to the ears at 95 decibels, whereas a bad mix with poor EQ can seem distorted and “loud” at 85 decibels. So, instead of saying “louder”, I’d shoot for a “great, pleasing mix”.

    In our experience, a pleasing, big mix has lots to do w/ how the people respond. If the music is too soft .. .people won’t sing out … turn it up (keeping the mix good and full, and not with bad frequencies) and people stand up and really start to sing, in most cases).

    2 – I think this is subjective. There are many who are drawn into a place of worship when they can just sit and listen to a beautiful solo. This happens in our church all the time, and as a Worship Director, I often have people say “I loved it when you just asked us to sit down and listen as “so and so” sung that song to us ….

    3 – good point, though again, very subjective. There are those who need to be led and exhorted. Are you also distracted when the Pastor says “open your Bible” or he says “let’s stand to pray”? Likewise, WL’s often need to “exhort” the congregation. This is Biblical as well.

    4 – again, you come at this assuming everyone there is “ready to worship”, which you allude to in #5. We would not be called “leaders” if all we did was get up on the stage and worship. If that’s all we’re going to do, why get on a stage period? You may do just fine without encouragement, but others not only need encouragement, but will respond from it. Then of course, there are those who will never budge.

    5 – I agree, cajoling or begging is a ‘no win’. But, there is a difference between those negative verbs, and a true, authentic, Spirit-led exhortation and encouragement. Sometimes, we’re cold, as you say. Sometimes, we’re beat down, Satan has hammered us all week, we don’t feel like worship, and we need someone to encourage us, exhort us, etc.

    Last point: Not sure how to respond – sounds like a sarcastic, judgmental response to me, probably as a result of some frustration locally.

    Just my $.02.

    For the Kingdom,
    Fred McKinnon
    http://www.fredmckinnon.com
    http://www.theworshipcommunity.com

  • Angie Jackson

    We use mpegs. They have a lot of “down time” in them where we struggle with what to do. Sometimes we read scripture or speak and other times we’re just unsure. Do you have any advice ?

  • Kym Lamb

    I am the new leader for our Celebrate Recovery Band. I appreciate the information for myself and my team. I have been a our church’s Magnification Team for several years, but this transition feels very foreign. I want to lead our worshipers in honesty and truth and these suggestions will help me in my lack of experience. Thank you God for all the help!

  • Jay Hinkle

    I don’t think Linda E. was being sarcastic and judgmental. I think that there is a disconnect between what leadership in the church thinks the congregants need and what the the congregants actually are looking for. For interesting insights into this google (I hate it when my worship leader…) and read the responses from the people sitting out there being led by us. The frustration just isn’t locally.

  • JR

    Regarding Linda E’s post—there are several points which if expressed with more care probably are worth considering, especially if informed by Fred’s response—a lot of churches have a terrible mix, which is often exacerbated by terrible acoustics and no will at the board level to do anything about improving it. This really does affect the worship experience.

    Secondly, a lot of her post has to do with the difference between encouragement and manipulation. Manipulation backfires (either immediately or in the long-term), but encouragement is great when done right—the trick is differentiating between the two. Motivation is probably the key measurement—why am I encouraging them to do this? ie. Because I feel like no one is responding to my leadership? Because the people aren’t doing things the way I would do it?

    Thirdly, regarding “no soprano worship leaders” – that’s ridiculous! I’m a tenor and I could lead songs much higher than 90% of the congregation want to sing (even the sopranos). Many worship CDs today featuring tenors use keys that are really not congregational in range. The truth is low Alto is probably the worst range for worship leading, because their range has the least in common with average singers. The key is picking the right KEY so that the notes of the song fall between middle C to E’ (one octave + 2). Some people still find songs in that range high, but it’s an attainable range for most (the old hymnals keep almost all hymns within that range with a few going to a high F).

    Regarding song choice, it has nothing to do with the article, I’m sure Lorie King would have lots to say about it, but I think Linda is right—often people latch onto a “top 40″ mentality. To discourage this, I originally instructed our worship leaders that they were not allowed to lead a song more than once in a month (other than new songs for a couple months while we were teaching them). This forced them to become more creative and use songs they wouldn’t normally have picked. I’ve relaxed that quite a bit in recent years now that they have the idea—and we are probably still close to keeping the rule.

    Coming back to Lorie’s article, the only point I would disagree with (in part) is “Cut down on downtime.” I agree that many times showy interludes can have exactly the effect that Lorie describes. However, I think we also have to think about the opposite extreme—where people never get to express an original thought and spend a half an hour straight singing other people’s words.

    I have intentionally increased “dead time” in our worship—but not for amazing solos. Instead we cultivate an atmosphere where people worship with their OWN words. It’s an amazing experience when everyone is shouting God’s praises in their own way at the end of a song—but you’ll cut it off if you move too quickly to the next song. Likewise, with moments of quiet contemplation. Note that many congregations are totally unprepared for this kind of worship and so this may require gradual introduction—but once you get a whole church doing it, newcomers adapt quickly. We don’t leave spaces around every song, and don’t do anything showy—but I try to make sure that every time I lead people have at least one opportunity to express both exuberant praise and reverent adoration in their own words—and that can only happen if we leave in some “downtime.”

  • http://www.summitcc.org Ryan

    Really helpful, for both myself (a WL) and my band/singers, who I consider to be worship leaders too. Everyone who is up front should read this, to help increase our excellence of leadership in worship. Thanks again.

  • Grace Barona

    It is very helpful pointers.not only for my friends but for myself as well.Thank you so much.and Godbless

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  • Anya Thomas

    Lorie, you did a great job putting this list of tips together. I found it very practical and helpful. Thanks for passing on the Truths that you’ve learned.,

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  • tatenda s macheka

    wat we do on stage smetimes contradicts wat we sing eg a song with lyrics lyk ‘we bow down…’ and the singers are so straight like towers yet they want the church to participate and do what?

  • http://www.facebook.com/gcamako Jeremiah Portado

    As a Worship leader, i have learned that you can’t lead others if you are not teachable and humble. God bless you.

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  • Tabigirl94

    Wow! This was awesome! Exactly what I needed! Thank you!

  • Davidpetu

    In as much as I like your article, there are no better set of guidelines than the one the Holy Spirit Himself inspires into the heart of song leaders. As a pianist and worship leader, I find that sometimes simply playing a piano solo takes the assembly to a whole new level, further than what my prior singing had done. Again, as the Spirit leads so I follow. Every worship session is unique, and should be treated as such. Let the Holy Spirit guide and lead you in all you do, especially in fore front of God’s people.

    Great job and keep it up.

  • Lucyladora23

    I hate it when their voices are all you can hear. It’s great when our worship leader will be quiet and allow the congregation to sing.

  • Lucyladora23

    Meaning he will periodically not sing lines in the song. Like okay “you sing”. . .

  • http://www.facebook.com/the.sandifers Jay-Sherry Sandifer

    Thanks for your thoughts. Will pass them on to my team.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/stephanie.r.smith.948 Stephanie Renee Smith

    I think somtimes we over think worship and make it too complicated. It just has to glorify and honor JESUS CHRIST. We are to help usher people into the holy of holies. Into the presence of GOD. Sometimes I think we get caught up in what’s popular or what’s new. Popular and new is fine but when that’s all worship becomes we lose the heart and meaning of it. It’s not about pleasing people but helping them honor and glorify JESUS CHRIST. It’s all about him afterall :)

  • http://twitter.com/Dryb0nz Trent DeJong

    I’d like to suggests something under the heading of selection. We need to sing songs that help worshipers experience TIME more fully. We have adopted a “secular” view of time that Praise and Worship songs can feed. I suggest that our selection lead worship to “higher times.” I explain more fully here: http://trentdejong.com/?p=959

  • Danielle Snipes

    Im in the process now of learning how to worship and exhort openly not only does fear try to grip me I dont think I have a good speaking voice, some ppl I hear exhort usely dont sound like they do when holding conversation. Is this something I should practice too? how can I be successful at this?

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  • Joshua

    I think that it is great to have a forum here for worship leaders and members of the congregation alike are free to share tips and experiences. Remember the point of our effort is to lead people in the worship and praise of Christ, our redeemer our savior and our friend. Anything that we do should be geared towards that end, the congregation one the one hand is of no importance. Nevertheless, The congregation is the one that we are trying to lead in worship, therefore if they are for some reason not able to worship God by what you are doing, then you have failed. As I close however, thank you for the comments and the tips they are greatly appreciated.

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