Rockstars, and Worship Leading for the Rest of Us

Sing it out, Church! Yes. Because people love being referred to as a giant, indistinguishable mass, by someone who is quite obviously, not within that mass. There’s a reason why Chris Martin never says, ‘Let’s go, audience!’ You treat people as individually as you would want to feel, should you find yourself not on stage for a week. Remember how you would feel, and speak, push, prod, and encourage…only accordingly, and only when necessary.

You can only push and prod people so much during a worship set; so save the pushing and prodding for spiritual matters, and don’t waste it trying to get people to sing to a song with an angular melody or an awkward rhythm. Because the point is, you can get people to sing almost anything. But is that really where you want to spend your time while leading worship? And is that really how you want to use up the congregation’s energy? It is usually much more expedient to choose songs that are easy for people to sing with and get into. Then you have their patience and energy at full store, when and if you need to push and prod to get them to connect with God.

I’ve seen it happen many times, and have unfortunately done it myself many times, where we’ve used up so much of the people’s patience encouraging (err…yelling, oftentimes) them to sing out on songs that are just so difficult that when it comes time to ask people to really engage with God on ‘How Great Thou Art’, that they are just plain done. More than likely, within the course of a month or so of worship services, you will have to push and prod a few times. No one particularly likes to be pushed and prodded, so save it for things that matter. And doing the latest and coolest and hipster-worshiping-in-the-forest-whence-my-beard-is-one-with-the-tree-branches-and-the-iphone-generated-lense-flare-est song, is not what matters.

New songs, old songs, all is fair game…if chosen for the right reasons. And one of our responsibilities is allowing people to sing and worship with us. For the love of all that’s good in this world, choose songs that have melodies and arrangements and instrumentations that people can sing and clap to. So many times I hear nobody singing, and the frustrated worship leader calling, ‘Sing it out, church!’ And the ‘church’ is like, ‘Seriously bro, we’re trying! But we don’t know which way the woooo-ooo-oooh’s go, which way you’re going to sing them this week, why they hit a note that even you have trouble reaching, and what wooo-ooo-oooh is supposed to mean anyway. Is that Hebrew?’ I understand that often it is difficult to get people to engage in worship, because they don’t want to. However, it’s sad and frightening to realize how often people do want to, and can’t because I don’t let them. Because I sat at Coffee Bean and searched youtube, and found the most amazing set list, with a great mix of brand new and retro songs, with super deep theological content, poetic lyrics, keys that flowed, and a skill level that fit the band. I even prayed about it. But so incredibly often, we forget to give even the slightest thought to what the congregation can worship to this week. And maybe if we could replace ‘congregation’ with ‘friends’, it would help us remember to think about them. Not the church, audience, congregation, fan base, or constituents…friends who are looking forward to singing their hearts out to the Lord, with or without the latest youtube trending video.

And then when you feel the need to encourage your friends to let go and connect with God, not only will their patience not be completely used up because of how much you’ve had to talk to them earlier as you tried to get them to sing the most difficult melody ever, but they will actually be able to.


P.S. As always, there are exceptions. The special song that you don’t want people to sing and is only in the set because of lyrical content, the fact that if you’re doing a good job leading people in worship that you just may end up somewhat famous, or the church that just did a series on ‘being the church’, and as such, there is a sense of joy and responsibility in being referred to as such. But don’t let these exceptions become your rule.

40 thoughts on “Rockstars, and Worship Leading for the Rest of Us

  1. Splendid, indeed!

    Years ago, when I got asked by our new youth minister to start playing guitar again, I suggested (and even arranged) some hip new songs for worship. He said, “those are fine, but remember to stick with the tried and true – songs people know, but more importantly, can SING!” I’ve found this concept to be very true and I’ve continued to be careful about introducing new songs ever since.

  2. Very well said. I’ve had a couple people ask recently how to be more engaged with their congregations. Both times I think they were really meaning audience. I suggested they start requiring their worship team to be the greeters at the doors every Sunday as a way to start getting to know people. It also helps develop humility and a servant’s heart.

  3. MikeZA–thanks, man!

    JRush–super good advice. I’ve had a couple of those moments in my past as well. I didn’t understand at first, but years later, I get the wisdom.

    James–wow, that’s a great idea. Worship team and greeting team as one and the same. I love it! Keeps us from just kneeling on stage by our boards, making minuscule changes to our reverb mix in between services. Great idea, man!

  4. @James

    What a great idea!

    I have found this to be most true with new folks who are experiencing worship with our body for the first time. Every church has a different worship vocabulary, and there is giant variation in “heart songs” from place to place, but there are a few standards that are unbelievably universal. It’s one of those things I struggle with, but fitting one of those into our very limited time in our early morning “contemporary” service is something I’m striving for just for the sense of unity and Godward focus it inevitably brings, no matter how much deeper or more theological the latest Redman is.

  5. Great points. I think we all have to reach that “sweet spot” of old songs/new songs depending on our congregation. That old egg was re-opened recently with my Pastor. During a power outage I did an acoustic set of older songs, emphasizing gospel-style stuff. The Pastor got postive feedback and encouraged me to continue in that vein.
    I have to say again that when first introduced, the old songs were brand new. Too many new ones or songs that the average person can’t sing are problematic.
    But I did point out to him that the people giving him feedback liked that style. Others probably said nothing. Reminds me of that old political survey I read about during the 1930s. They used the telephone to take a survey of how people were leaning on the next presidential election, and got a definite tilt towards one candidate — that guy lost. Why? Because only the wealthy had telephones back then :-)

  6. Justin–I totally agree. There are a couple songs that translate wonderfully no matter where you’re at. And then there are some that translate so well for a particular congregation. I know at my church, there’s a couple songs that may be old/cheesey/what-have-you, but man we all worship to them! :)

    Randy–good point. Surveys can definitely be skewed, as can surveying just the folks that care enough to speak up. But when you hit that sweet spot, often surveys aren’t needed because everyone in the room is connecting with God.

  7. Love this. I find that the more often I “sit in” on worship sets/services the easier it is to understand this concept. Suddenly the worship leader does/asks something you always do/ask and you think, “Oh…. so that’s what it feels like for the congregation”. So often we forget what it feels like to be part of the congregation. This is stupid and speaks to a deeper issue of pride and superiority in the heart of most worship leaders who just play their music then go and sit in the green room for the rest of the service (myself included).

    Think of the the burly dude with the bandana and leather jacket before you plan a set of overly romanticized songs where you ask people to clasps hands and raise them in the air (never done that for the record). Chances are if a worship song can be mistaken as a first dance wedding song, this guy isn’t going to connect with it.

    Think of the old lady with gray hair before you plan a set full of fist pumping “WHO-OAAAAA” songs. Chances are she’s not going to get the same adrenaline rush that the 20 year-old who just drank a Monster is.

    Think of introverts who don’t want to turn around to the person next to them and say the cheesy canned phrase you asked everyone to say to each other. They find community in a completely different way and often feel ostracized because they can’t seem to muster up enough Holy Spirit to be extroverted and charismatic.

    Now, obviously a worship leader can over think their sets and try to please everyone (impossible) but I don’ think that’s the most common scenario in churches these days.

    Great post man!

    • Thank you Luke! As I am ‘the introvert who doesn’t want to turn around to the person next to them and say the cheesy canned phrase someone asked everyone to say to each other.’

      Excellent insights. And yes, I do ‘find community in a completely different way.’ ME being ‘extroverted and charismatic’ is NOT of the Holy Spirit, it’s fleshly and phony and creeps me out!

      It’s not that I do not want to engage in corporate worship, but I do not want to interact in such a contrived fashion. Let me and God have our conversation – I’m not there to be the worship leader’s marionette! (have I said too much?)

      Very, very insightful, Luke!

      • You just described my wife’s spiritual language. Do you know how helpful it is to have a help-mate like this as a worship leader? Invaluable!

  8. Wow, bro…that was a fantastic comment. So incredibly true that we need to think of the individuals in the congregation, and how they are not us. Meaning, they may or may not get pleasure from listening to music for hours on end.

    I have a couple close friends at my home church who simply don’t connect with God through music like they do in other aspects of their lives. Both these guys go worship God by taking hikes in nature, and communing with him. They enjoy the worship music, and glorify God during it, but they’ll never have the emotional experience I have with the music. We talk about this together a lot, and it fascinates me.

    And you’re right…it really does help to be in the congregation. When you’re sitting there, head down, connecting with God, and the worship leader asks everyone to stand, and you get slightly annoyed at first. And then you realize that you probably did that to someone just last week. 😉

    Again, great comment.

  9. Some great (and splendid) ideas here.

    I’ve been challenged at the church I’m currently attending. I used to go to a Pentecostal church for almost 20 years so I’m used to a congregation that claps, sings loudly, raises hands etc. We’re now attending a Baptist church with an older congregation and they don’t do a lot of those things.

    It frustrated me deeply until last Christmas when I was talking with the husband of one of the singers. He’s in his 60’s and usually stands during worship with his arms folded, looking at the stage but not singing. I used to think he hated the worship and wasn’t interested. But he said to me that he LOVED the worship, really enjoyed my playing and felt a real connection with God during the worship.

    This was an eye-opener for me. Whilst I still think there’s opportunities for people like him to go deeper in their worship, I’m now less worried about the outward appearance of our congregation and more interested in helping create an environment that’s most conducive to worship – God can do the rest :)

    I also totally agree with your comments regarding familiar songs. To me, a great song is one that an average guitar player can play on an acoustic guitar in a small group environment.

    Whilst I love a lot of the worship songs that are around today, I’ve observed that the quantity of words in each song leads to people reading the lyrics off a projector screen instead of closing their eyes.

    There has to be a balance somewhere, and I’m still looking for it.


  10. Hi KARL, and Gang!

    First time post here, just wanted to thank ya’ll (yeah, from the south) for really fun reading and some excellent discussions. Found your site a few days ago and been soaking it up.

    I’m a relatively new christian, who used to play guitar, but took an unintended hiatus for twenty years(YIPES!!!) Just starting to get back into it, and its a daunting task to gear up. I’m playing for my own pleasure right now, but have it in the back of my mind to join the worship team if I ever can get my playing to that level. I found this site doing a google search for strymon pedals. Very entertaining and informative.

    I’m hoping for a little advice, if it’s not hijacking the thread. Recently bought a budget guitar (Strat copy by Ibanez, needed a fret dress, but now has a nice low action with 11’s) and a budget amp (EpIphone Valve Jr. Head and Cab). After a very long period of reserch, decided and bought a Hughes and Kettner Tubeman for OD/Distortion (gives me three foot-switchable channels)

    I’m what you might call very budget limited, but have a little money put away for gear. If I’m chasing tone and flexibility, where would you start? I’ve had amps in the past with reverb and/or tremola, and really missing both. Although It’s a chunk of change, Strymon came out with the Flint. Looks to be real flexible, had some awesome tones in the demos, reviews so far have been great. But it seems that delays are king here, and seem to be used in place of reverb, if I’m getting it right. I’ve got three hundred saved up for the Strymon (still saving for shipping). Would ya’ll invest it in the Flint, get a delay, invest in upgrades to the amp/cab (turretboards/OT/speaker). Where would I get best return on investment, tonewise?Any advise would be appreciated!!!

    Karl, thanks for turning me onto Carina Round! What a voice! Your blog is a real gem!

  11. Hey Karl. You know me, and so you know that I strongly agree with the overall sentiment of the post. Thinking about the congregation *first* is what differentiates a church service from a concert of worship songs (imo).

    But I do want to quickly point out that I feel referring to the church as “church” isn’t the worst thing, in my opinion. In fact, it would probably be a good counterpoint to American culture if in a church service we were reminded that we are in many ways a “giant, indistiguishable mass”– of every nation, tribe and tongue and yet neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Gentile but one in Christ. I was listening to Christian radio the other day and heard a song about how if I was the only one that would be saved, Jesus would still have died … gave me the creeps. I think you’d be hard pressed to find that kind of individualism in the New Testament.

    Point well taken that it’s inappropriate if the worship leader is drawing a distinction between herself/himself and and the unwashed masses … but hopefully what I’m trying to say still makes sense. Apologies if I’m overanalyzing, as usual. 😛

    Again, that being said I definitely agree with what you’re saying. If the songs one is using requires a lot of prodding … maybe that calls for a re-examination of song choice? Crazy, I know …

  12. @Allan

    I would suggest not throwing too much money at gear right now. Work in the order of the “signal chain.” By that I mean follow what effects your sound in order it effects it. So step one is the musician. Learn and practice more than you research and buy. Find someone local to help you know what to practice and when. “Link” two is the room, but feel free to ignore that :). Then just follow your sound. Pick is next, then strings, guitar its woods pickups and such, cable, amp, et cetera.

    I’d suggest wearing out inexpensive gear while really gettin to know it. Then start with an excellent guitar and cables, then a really good amp. It’s a patient route but it will get you where you really want to be later.

  13. Thanks @Allen, and apologies to all for newb post in wrong section. Ya’ll had a serious discussion going, really admire all who contribute to the worship experience. If it weren’t for you guys/gals, I might never have been saved!

    God is Great!!!!

  14. JRush–well said, as well!

    Justin–absolutely. My wife keeps me in check because she knows how I really am.

    Allan–hmm, for sure. Great point! I’m always stunned when the guy who stands there silently comes up after and talks about how the worship reached him, or when the loud singer with arms lifted comes up after and talks about what the worship meant to them, and they totally missed the entire point of the worship.

    Rob–welcome to the blog my friend, and congrats on your faith in Christ! :)

    As for versatility in the rig, the Valve Junior is a very decent amp. The Flint is also a great pedal, but with the 300, here’s what I would do with the rig:

    1. Pickups for the Ibanez. You can go all the way and get some Lollar Blonde’s or Fralin Blues. That’d be around $200. Or go with Seymour Duncan’s and cut the cost to around $100. All used of course.

    2. For tremolo, check out the Danelectro Tuna Melt. I know it doesn’t look like much, but it’s what I use for trem. And on one of my latest videos, someone asked if the trem sound was the Flint. $15 used.

    3. For delay, I’d go with the Line 6 Echo Park. Again, not the flashiest, but for $60-75 used, it will get the job done and then some.

    4. And for reverb, the Boss RV5 is not bad at all. However, with the delay, you may be able to go without reverb for a bit.

    Just my opinions, for what they’re worth. You’ll probably be happy with the Flint as well, but there are some almost just as good sounding pedals, for much cheaper. Then that leaves room for a pickups upgrade which could help a lot. You may also want to look into an eq pedal, or use one of the channels on your H&K to be always on, as the Valve Jr. sounds great, but lacks an eq section. Hope that helps!

    Rapha–as I mentioned in the last paragraph, there may be a time and a place to refer to people as ‘church.’ And I definitely hear your points about our misplaced faith in individualism, and our lack of excitement in being a ‘church.’ I wholeheartedly agree on both counts. :) It’s just that I don’t see how yelling out ‘church’ from the stage will do anything to help get the point you’re making across. If anything, I think it only serves to further entrench people in their sense of individualism by making them bitter towards the word.

    Secondly, I don’t see how referring to people as such from the stage can ever not put a gap between the worship leader and the people. I think if change is to happen, it’s going to happen through conversation and relationships. In the meantime, I see no purpose in saying such phrases from stage, unless the relational teaching has already taken place, or as mentioned above, unless it’s calculated into some current teaching push about ‘being the church’ or ‘the church’s purpose.’ :)

    As always, super thought-provoking discussion points, brother! Love it.

    James–good points. I think that mindset and practice will take us far! Although, most worship teams are going to want you to be able to cop a couple delay sounds too. Line 6 Echo Park. $60. 😉 😉

    • Karl-Well said, sir. I guess I was thinking more of implications of not wanting to *think* of ourselves as a faceless mass, and you are focusing on the act of making them feel like one in the worship leading context … guess that’s the difference between too much thinking about how things could/should be done and actually doing said things on a regular basis. :)

  15. Absolutely! Somewhere I forgot to finish my thought. Definitely get some pedals and gear, just avoid feeling the need to spend big on any of it yet. Shop wisely and play lots!

  16. Some excellent thoughts Karl. I’ve always tried to find a happy medium of a role as a ‘Lead Worshipper’ and taking on the idea of what John the Baptist said when ‘He (Jesus) must increase and I must decrease.’ The goal for me is to make the times that I do ‘prod’ the church to be only for the sake of trying to impress that we are worshipping to a living God who hears our voices and sees our hearts, not to ‘prod’ them to sing louder as to give me ‘vocal assurance’ that I did, in fact, choose the ‘right’ song or set for the congregation haha. I do believe we as worship leaders need to work at knowing the dynamic of our church and pray and arrange the songs to reflect what we already know. Some great, theologically sound songs may not bring your congregation to worship and if that’s the case, you are doing a disservice to them as a worship leader if we continually use the songs and just figure more prodding will fix it. Same with some older songs working really well with churches, you may not feel cool playing it, but again, it’s not about you!

    • Sorry Rich, this got caught in my spam folder for some reason. Fished it out! :)

      Love what you said. Especially the ‘assurance’ part. I think sometimes we even hinder people’s worship because since we’re insecure about whether they are or not, we ‘encourage’ them to sing louder and louder. And sometimes that may be the wrong call.

      Also, I totally agree on some theologically great songs or just great songs in general, being wrong for specific congregations or for specific times. Sometimes we do, myself included, fall into the default songs and thinking we’ll just fix it with prodding. Great thoughts, man!

  17. Craig–no worries on the hijacked hijack! haha There is a small emporium in the forums, I’m just not sure how well traversed it is.

    James–oh ya, I agree. When I first started on pedals, I too got into trouble making $400 pedal purchases and then ended up realizing that I really didn’t like chorus. 😉 😉

    Rob–no worries, bro! :)

  18. I’ve been reading this book, and this quote specifically began speaking to me about the way I worship. I’ll just share it and let it hang out there for you to take as you will.

    “If Jesus appears at your dining room table tonight with knowledge of everything you are and are not, total comprehension of your life story and every skeleton hidden in your closet; if He laid out the real state of your present discipleship with the hidden agenda, the mixed motives, and the dark desires buried in your psyche, you would feel His acceptance and forgiveness. For experiencing God’s love in Jesus Christ means experiencing that one has been unreservedly accepted, approved, and infinitely loved, that one can and should accept oneself and one’s neighbor. Salvation is joy in God which expresses itself in joy in and with one’s neighbors.” -Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel

  19. Rapha:

    the fragile egos up front.

    Err … to be clear I don’t mean those with fragile egos, I mean all of us (most of us? Or maybe it’s just me!). Don’t want it to sound like I’m pointing fingers or insulting people!

    • fragile ego = pride problem. In my extensive experience with myself, I find myself most prone to idolize myself when the spotlight is on myself. In other words, our fighting our fragile egos is part and parcel with the worship leading thing, and until our modern Western concept of raised-and-lighted-individual-exalting-personality-and-celebrity-led congregational music dies (and it inevitably will), this will be the primary internal battleground of the worship leader.

      Jesus is better; it’s a shame my feelings so often get in the way :)

      • Nah, I didn’t see it as an insult at all. I definitely have a fragile ego, and I’m sure many worship leaders will cop to the same!

        If people aren’t singing, my first thought should be asking God’s guidance for how to get them to experience Him more. But usually my first thought is, ‘I’m the worst worship leader ever.’ haha

  20. I think sometimes we mistakenly feel like it is our job to instigate worship for the congregation when our job is really just to provide a catalyst for God himself to instigate worship in each individual personally and together as a community.

    In light of this, it seems more appropriate to do our thing, do it well, but also do it passionately before God regardless of how we perceive the congregation (often meaning “our audience”), because they are not our audience at all, but God’s. And I’m pretty sure God would prefer us not to harass or distract his audience.

  21. Great perspective! I agree that it’s God and not us.

    I have seen it done very poorly before though, where the leader is having his own private worship time, and people are trying to follow suit but just can’t. I think a balance between worshiping and leading is a good thing. :)

  22. I don’t see anything particularly wrong with referring to the congregation as “Church” because that’s what we are and that’s how we are identified, both by each other and by scripture. Though I think your point more to do with the “Sing it out” part than that.

    Part of the problem and disconnect that we all experience as leaders is that a lot of what we pickup and incorporate into our worship leader vocabulary seems to come from what we hear on live worship albums, which are really live concert albums, filled with people who own the leader or bands records, know all the songs by heart, and have paid to be there. It’s a totally different mindset than church on Sunday morning.

    One of my rules of thumb for new songs is, if it sounds like something that you would’ve had fun singing at junior high camp, it probably isn’t going to be well-suited for your whole congregation, especially if there’s quite a bit of age diversity. Save that one for when you get asked to lead worship at a junior high camp. :-)

    Apologies for jumping in late with a sort of schizophrenic response. Just a few random thoughts.

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