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?