Lecture 6: Engage People in Worship
Course: Worship Pastors and their Teams
Lecture: Engage People in Worship
Hey, Everybody. My name is Carl Cartee. Welcome again to Worship Leadership.
I. How Do I Help People Engage in Worship?
I am excited to be talking to you today about something that is important to all worship leaders because it is associated with a very common question that I get as I work with worship leaders around the country. They say, “Can you help me get my people to engage in worship? How do I get people to engage in worship? Or, how do I help people engage in worship?”
A. Are you being engaging as a worship leader?
Sometimes I answer their question by asking a question of my own and saying, are you being engaging as a worship leader? Are you doing things that are human engagement for somebody. When they are looking at you lead them, how are you engaging them if you want them to be engaged? It is important to remember, all the things we will talk about in this lecture are subjective. They are not perfect, they are not able to solve all your problems, they are not foolproof; and I can’t say everything that could be said about the subject. But what I can do is offer in this time that we spend together some tools.
B. Not everyone engages in the same way
One tool that I really like to remind people about when they ask me, how do I get people to engage more in worship? is this, it is a reminder. Just be reminded that not everybody engages in the same way. I heard it said one time that two different people can look at a beautiful ocean and one might hear the birds chirping and the water lapping around their ankles and the sun setting and it’s beautiful and they hear classical music. A different person could look at the same ocean and the same scene and they hear jaws; they hear the terrifying music. They look at the same thing in very different ways. That is just a way of reminding you that when you look out on a congregation as you are leading them in worship, give yourself permission to remember that. Not everybody engages in the same way; and just because somebody might not look on the outside like they are engaged, you may be surprised at how deeply moved they may be; or you might be surprised at how much of an impact the worship is making on their own soul. Give yourself permission to do that.
At the same time, if you do want to invite people in to engage in the worship service even more, from start to finish, the music, the offering, the preaching, the benediction, the whole thing, really should be a way to invite people to engage; not only with who is leading or who is preaching or who is singing. The whole process can ultimately engage their soul with the Lord and be able to express their own mind’s attention and their own heart’s affection for how good God is. That is the process that we want to talk about today, engaging people so that you can invite them in to the worship experience, to the worship time in a way that helps them move past who the leader is and to look at the place that we all need to be looking, and that is on Jesus.
II. Connect Horizontally so You Can Lead Vertically
So let me get started on these. Remember this concept, that we are connecting horizontally so that we can lead vertically. We want to connect horizontally. I want to engage people so that by engaging them, I have an opportunity to help them look up or get their eyes off the temporary things and onto eternal things, 2Corinthians 4:16-18.
A. We don’t lead music for people, we lead people with music
We don’t lead music for people. I hear a lot of comments about that, but I want to make sure that we use correct language. We don’t lead music for people, we lead people with music. We use music to lead people, we don’t lead music for people. So when we are engaging people, we have to remember, I’m not just leading music, I’m leading people, and you lead people by engaging them first.
B. Earn trust
First thing you have to do as an engaging worship leader is earn trust. You earn trust over time, but you can also earn trust over the short term. Short-term trust, you do a welcome. Somebody opens up my door, I don’t know them, but I know they are supposed to be there. They knock on my door, I open my door. I say, hello, welcome to my house, come on in. I usually don’t open the door and say, what are you doing here, why are you here? I say, Hey, I know you’re supposed to be here. I’m not sure who you are, we’re not close yet, but welcome in, I’m glad you’re here. Very simple, but very human things that people do every day without thinking about it, are some things that I believe worship leaders need to do, very intentionally and very purposefully, something like a smile or a nod.
Imagine yourself on a Sunday morning and you just walk up to the place from which you are going to lead and you smile and you say, welcome, I’m glad you’re here. Come on in. I didn’t say a whole lot. It wasn’t a ton of information or a ton of words; but what I did was try and think through, what are some things that are universally welcoming? What are things that are universally celebrated as safe, trustworthy? What are some things that a lot of people do that cause other people to take one step forward? It is usually a smile, it is usually a nod, maybe even a word of encouragement like, I’m glad you’re here, it’s good to see you. I want you to know that you’re welcome here. Doing little things like that go so far to help people trust you. When you want to engage people and you want people to engage, you have to break down first, resistance, curiosity, reluctance because they are not sure about what is going on. So, earn the short-term trust.
Earn long-term trust by representing the Word well over time. Represent the Bible well over time. We are short-term, the Word of God lasts forever; and when we represent it well, when we quote Scripture, when we read Scripture, when we encourage our people with Scripture, over the long term they hear those kinds of things coming out of our mouth and being offered as a feast to their ears. That is the way to earn long-term trust.
Another way to earn long-term trust is musical integrity. I talk a lot with the worship residency that I lead. We work on musical proficiency. So the men and women who go through the program, I don’t need them to win some TV talent contest. They don’t have to be superstars or pop stars. But they do have to have musical integrity so that the things that they execute musically are beautiful, they are well crafted, they are engaging, they are not distractions. So that the things that they present offer something that is worthy of the attention of a congregation. That is another way that over time you give the best that you have, the best that you can; over the long term you invite people in by establishing that musical integrity.
Community engagement. Are you earning long-term trust from the people that you lead by being somebody more than who you are on stage, more than who you are on a weekend or as the worship leader at the Bible study or on Sunday morning? Are you also a person who is serving, engaged in the community? You are a part of a small group, you are a part of a team, you are a part of a ministry that has nothing to do with a platform. Are you engaged in that? That is a long-term trust builder for a congregation. So that when you are leading them in worship, they have a context for you, to know that you are a human beyond when you stand on the platform. You are a human beyond what your talents are. They have a way to say, I saw him or her serving beside me for the last six months at the homeless shelter or at the soup kitchen, or teaching a Bible study, or cleaning up the church after the student ministry had used it. Engaging in community yourself as a worship leader will be unbelievably impactful for your engagement level when you are leading from the platform. And the people that you are trying to lead will have a context to trust you because they are building their trust in you on more than just what you’re saying to them from the platform.
Short-term trust. Do things that any stranger would understand as welcoming and engaging. Hey, how you doing? Welcome. I’m glad you’re here. Those things are super easy for us to get done, that doesn’t take any energy. That is short-term trust. Then earn long-term trust over the arc of the year by being somebody in your community who is contributing more than what you are just trying to do when you lead four worship songs in a worship service.
C. Think as a shepherd
Think about yourself like this. We talked about this in some of the other lectures. But if you are a worship leader who is called to lead worship, you are a shepherd who is tending a flock. Here is a very good way to engage your mind when you are thinking about leading worship, thinking like a shepherd.
Here is something that happens.. I am going to use my guitar. A lot of times on a Sunday morning I will see somebody come onto the stage and music comes on. Hey, everybody, stand up and sing with us right now. Come on, we’re going to have an awesome time. They begin a worship service by barking orders or saying something like, come on, stand up. Come on, are you ready! I’m not throwing any shade on anybody who tries to do that. But instead of barking orders at people, especially at the beginning of a service, I wonder if you might begin by welcoming people. Maybe instead of barking orders, asking a question or making a statement like, I hope God moves in your life today. I hope that our time together today changes everything about your eternity. Or maybe asking a question, saying, Have you had a hard week? I have, too. I’m really glad you’re here, a simple way of reframing that conversation. Usually if you bark orders right out of the gate, most people tend to hold back just a little bit because they are not sure they are ready to trust you yet. But, if you welcome people in and say, Hey, how is it going? Have you had a good week? I hope you have. We are going to have a great time together during this service. Things like that, re-framing communication. You can be as energetic as you need to be if the song is up, if the song is exciting, that is great, go for it. But you don’t have to bark orders, it is not necessary. Tend the flock. Don’t drive cattle. That is the thought. Don’t force the people information. Offer them a meal. Would you like to have? Can I offer you this thought? Sometimes we try to force-feed, but the better way is to offer a meal.
D. Provide a balanced diet
Be careful to not be repetitive
We are providing a balanced diet when we lead worship. Think about the things you say across the arc of a whole month. You say the same thing over and over again. You have these catchphrases that you use. That’s fine. I have some things like that as well, things that are almost like signatures, that I want to teach people. But on the whole, am I communicating in a way that feels genuine? Most people would trust you if they feel like what you’re saying is genuine.
E. Does your communication come across as cheerleading or inviting people to have an encounter with God?
One final thought about how to engage people, especially at the beginning of a service, and invite them in. Does your communication seem like it’s purpose is cheerleading, or encouraging someone to have an encounter with the Living God in worship? Sometimes it’s like, let’s get excited, we’re going to have so much fun. Aren’t you excited today? Let’s be excited. I have watched a lot of worship leaders; and at the end of hearing what they are saying, I think to myself, at the very least we know this person is excited because they use the word “exciting and excitement” probably more than they should. A great way to think about communicating as a worship leader when you’re opening up a service to engage people is to get people to take one step closer to what you’re doing, to encourage an encounter with Christ. Do you believe that God could move on your life today? Would you be willing to take one step of faith to see him move on your behalf? I hope you see the difference between cheerleading and featuring a special future by blessing your congregation, or inviting them in, to say, do you believe, can you imagine? Who knows what is about to happen. Think of it in those terms.
F. Show people your scars and let them in on your struggles
Anything we do is a result of God’s power and grace, not your merit
Another way to engage people in worship: If you are leading, you have had a great call to worship. You asked a bunch of good questions, you have invited people in. They took the next step closer to you relationally and maybe even the next step closer to the Lord in their hearts. Something that I have found to be so fruitful over the years of leading worship is showing my scars and letting people in on my struggles, showing my scars, being vulnerable in weakness. We hold pretty tightly to our image as Christian leaders when we occupy the stage. We have a lot of influence and so it can become tempting to insulate yourself and try and build for yourself this perfect image, this perfect idea of, this person is on the platform today, they must be living the most Godly life. It’s easy to try and craft that for yourself.
I think worship leaders would do themselves, and pastors would do themselves, and every Christian leader would do themselves a great favor to remind their self that all that they have been able to do and all that they are doing from a platform as a Christian is by the grace and through the mercy of God. It is for no reason and no merit of their own. God uses broken things always. He never uses any other kind of thing except for broken things. And you acknowledge to the men and women that you’re leading, hey, I’m broken, I have weakness, I’m not perfect, I need you to know that I have scars, I need you to know that I have been healed. I need you to know that I am also struggling.
I remember saying one morning to a congregation that I was leading that I need to borrow some of your faith today. I’m struggling. I need encouragement from you guys. Will you sing with me, so that together, as we lift up the name of Jesus, I hear you and your faith strengthens mine. Saying things like that, pulling back the veil on your life, will do so much to help men and women, not only engage with you a little more intimately, but seeing their own story of struggle and being able to invite Jesus into what they’re doing. So show your scars and show your weakness. Don’t try to be somebody that you’re not. And by all means, don’t try to craft an identity for yourself that looks like you’re perfect and flawless, and you have it all together. Show your scars and your weakness.
G. Tell your story
Everyone experiences the Gospel through story
Next thing, if you want to engage people in worship, tell your story. All of us, all of us relate to God through story. The Gospel is a story. God is holy, man is sinful, grace is amazing, Jesus is the hope of the world. That is a very short version of a very good story. That is what we are engaged in. Everybody experiences the Gospel through story. When I tell my story, the way that the Gospel has impacted me, that story gets a new dimension and gets a new life and a new perspective for you. And when you tell your story when you’re leading worship, to your congregation, the Gospel in you gets a whole new perspective, a whole new dimension as it has worked out in your life for the people that hear you share your story. So, don’t be afraid to tell your story. Don’t be afraid to share weakness.
Be a shepherd. To earn a person’s trust, you must develop a track record of integrity, keeping your word. Fundamentally our human efforts to faithfulness is our call to lockstep with faithfulness to the people that we lead. We want to be faithful in leading people. Faithfulness to the congregation that you lead accumulates over time. No one will follow a person that they can’t trust. So, share your story, show your scars, be a shepherd. Invite people to go on a journey with you. I think you will be amazed at how people tend to take that next step toward engaging, not only with you, but with the people that you lead.
H. Be centered around prayer
One thing I always encourage worship leaders to do is centered around prayer. When you pray as a worship pastor, pray purposefully, about issues, objectives, people. God, our community is struggling with this. We need to see you move on this issue. God, we want to build this building, or we want to send these missionaries this amount of money. That is what we want to do in our heart, would you make it happen. God, there is a sick person in our congregation. There is a little sick child that needs your healing hand, would you heal that child. Pray about people, objective, and issues. A bunch of strung together Christian lingo phrases when you pray, they are not unanswerable prayers; but when we pinpoint in front of our congregation, on behalf of our congregation, the things that we want God to move on and do on our behalf, you can never be more influential in the life of a person than when you are praying for them, never. We can never say enough awesome things to help somebody more than you could help them by praying for them if you want to engage people.
I will never forget, in a hard season of life, I heard a few people call my name out in prayer; and it was the most impactful and profound thing for me, especially in that season. They knew what I was going through, they knew where I was, they knew that I was hurting. They knew I needed to see God move on my behalf. You are in that same position for your congregation, you know your people, you know what is happening, you know what is going on, you know how they are hurting. Letting them hear you pray for them is transformational. If you want influence, pray for people.
I. Non-verbal communication
Use your music to take people on a connected journey
This is something that I want to talk about. It doesn’t use words, it is nonverbal communication. I’m going to stand up because this is pretty similar to how we would be on a Sunday morning. Usually, when I stand up to lead worship when it is Sunday morning, I try to remember a couple of things about engaging people. Number one, like we talked about, I try to smile. I try to have a positive movement with my head, usually a nod, a smile, and make good eye contact with people, try to stand up straight. This is simple stuff that your mama always told you to do. She was right about a lot of it. Stand up straight and smile, take a deep breath. When I speak to people, especially when I’m engaging them, I try to let my body match what my mouth is saying. People are very astute at picking up on body language. So if you stand up straight and put your shoulders back, smile, nod, you say a welcoming thing, it has a very, very powerful effect of drawing people in because they can trust somebody who seems like a person who is at least comfortable doing what they are doing.
There are universal ways of thinking. A lot of times worship leaders will kind of look down at their shoes a lot when they are playing, singing, it’s harder to see your eyes, it’s harder to see your mouth move and what you’re saying. So, if you can, if you are physically able, stand up when you deliver your message. Do it with your eyes open. I close my eyes when I’m leading worship sometimes, but I always do it purposefully. If I was singing a song about “Be thou my Vision,” it might be okay to close my eyes because I’m singing a song about asking God to let me see something with my heart, so you close your eyes because you don’t need your natural eyes to see with your heart. But if you are singing a song about engaging the congregation or blessing the Lord with me, “How Great is our God,” you might look around the room when you’re saying that because you are talking and singing about something that is corporate, it is united, it is beside each other as much as it is vertical. That is something to think about. When we have the opportunity to close our eyes, I always try to encourage worship leaders, do it on purpose. If you want to close your eyes when you pray, that’s great. If you want to pray with your eyes open, there are no rules against that, you can do that all you want to. But you may fall into this trap of keeping your eyes closed most of the time. It’s a little bit of a way for us if we feel uncomfortable in front of a congregation, we might close our eyes as a way of kind of insulating ourselves from some fear and insecurity that we have. But as a communicator, it is important to remember that if you had a conversation with a friend who kept their eyes closed all the time while they were talking to you, or trying to lead you somewhere, it wouldn’t be quite right. You’d feel weird about it. I think most people that are in a congregation, if you are the worship leader and your eyes are closed most of time, I think it might be problematic for the people to follow you because they are curious, why isn’t he looking at us? So, think about that.
Finally, one more thing about using your body to help people sing. I have talked a lot about, one of our jobs as a worship leader is to help non-musical people sing. You want to encourage participation. This is not a spectator sport, it is a community expression. In traditional churches for hundreds of years, a lot of times the worship leader would use conducting patterns to help people know where they were on the beat, know when it’s time to sing. I am playing this guitar, so I can’t do that; but I can use my body to help prepare people for what is coming next. The song, “A Million Times Over,” the verse sends by saying, “I was grave bound, but then you raised meeeeee. A million times over, thank you, thank you. My heart’s spilling over, thank you, Jesus. Oh, how you love…” I am exaggerating it a little bit, but I have to take a breath before I sing those lines. And that is a good way for you to use your body language, use your eyes. Hey, we are about to sing the chorus. My eyebrows go up, my shoulders lift as I take a breath, and people are very astute at picking up on body language. So that is a good way to help people say to themselves, we are about to sing. I am doing a very simple and subtle thing that anybody will pick up on, that will be able to help them sing and you are using your body to help engage people. You are using your body let people know, hey, this is coming next, come on, I want you to go with us, this is for you. Engage with me.
J. Organize musical transitions
Use your music to take people on a connected journey
The next thing that I want to talk about is musical transitions where you organize your transition. Use music to take people on a connected journey, not a bunch of chopped up, disconnected little nuggets. Do you organize your music sets and your worship sets? Are they designed in chunks of songs, or are you able to organize them so that the transition from song to song feels like it was purposeful, the momentum rises and falls sonically. The tempo is dynamic across different time signatures and different tempos in the music. How are you weaving everything together?
The reason I think it is important to think about that as a creative concept is because every time you have a break or a transition in anything, people get hung up. I learned this about my kids. Hey, we are going to transition from being awake to being asleep, it is bedtime. Transition is always a problem. Bedtime is a problem because we are making a transition from being awake to asleep. We are going to make the transition from being barefooted to putting shoes on, it is always a problem. Wear your shoes, you have to make the transition. We’re going from being out of the car to getting in the car, it’s a transition. Then, play that out over your whole life. You are transitioning jobs, you are transitioning schools, you are transitioning, any concept, all the way down into worship sets.
When we make transitions, we have to be careful with them because we have to make sure that people are going with us and we don’t trip them up. One of the ways we trip people up in transition is doing it clumsily. We stop, and start and it’s clunky and it’s disconnected. Those moments are the moments that distract people and make it harder for them to keep their mind’s attention and their heart’s affection going towards Jesus. Organize your transitions. Have you studied music theory enough to know how to do that? If you haven’t, work on the concepts of complementary chords, developing your skillset chromatically, so that you can get from one key to the next musically without it sounding clunky. Does what you say fill space or add meaning and dimension to the worship service? Sometimes you have to make a transition and you have to stop the music and make an adjustment for whatever. That’s fine. You may use that moment to say something. But make sure that you are not filling space. Make sure that you are adding meaning with what you say. Plan what you will say. Write out your words and stop shooting from the hip. You will be clearer and you will have more impact.
A famous pastor that I was reading about related a conversation that he had with his worship pastor, who was having trouble with transitions and communication. He said to him, “You are having problems in our worship services that you could be solving in the weekday.” In other words, he was saying to him, you are having trouble on Sunday morning, but that is trouble that you need to fix on Tuesday when you are practicing and planning and working out what you are going to say. So plan what you’ll say.
K. Try to add familiarity in some measure to everything you do
This is important. Lots of conversation about all the new songs that are flooding the church, lots of conversation about, hey, I wish we could sing more hymns. I love hymns. I think hymns are awesome. I also love new songs. I think all of them add value to the corporate expression of people around the world. One way to engage people, though, is to not fill up a worship set with a bunch of unfamiliar songs that they don’t know. Try and add familiarity in some measure to everything you do because it is just a way of helping people engage the process of lifting up the name of Jesus, just a way of helping do that. Pick familiar songs. Arrange those songs tastefully. Maybe you want to do a new arrangement of a hymn, but you have this crazy guitar solo in there and you mess with the melody a little bit and there is a goofy phrasing and it is in a super high key. Then you do all kinds of adlibbing over the top of the hymn. You have basically wasted an opportunity to invite people in by creating the arrangement of a song that is designed to be observed versus participated in. Try and arrange your songs in tasteful ways, in ways that say, hey, we want you guys to sing along. We want to invite you into this process. We don’t want to do a bunch of musical showoff tricks that get you to stop singing and start watching. We want to do everything we can to arrange this song in a way, from the key that we choose it in.
I was talking to the guy who helped make all of the Promise Keepers’ records, which was a very popular ministry for men in the ‘90s. All these men, from all over the world, were singing these songs. I asked the guy who worked on the records, how did you get all those men to sing? He said, I put all the songs in truck driver keys, which for him was to say, any man can sing in this key. He is not going to feel intimidated or afraid to sing too high because it is in a key that he can sing in. Arrange your songs with a little bit of that in mind because if you get the fellows singing, the girls will follow right along and it will be the Body of Christ lifting up its voice in a beautiful way. So arrange your songs tastefully.
L. Eliminate distractions
Eliminate distractions is another thing for engaging people. A lot of times it is in a transition. It could be that the song is unfamiliar, that is a distraction. If you are teaching somebody a new song, all you have to do is just let them know. Hey, we want to teach you guys a new song. You might not know it. As you learn it, try and sing along with us. Once again, do things to invite them into the process.
III. Commit the Time to Practice and Improve
Audition yourself each week
Finally, all of this stuff, it is just tips, it is just ideas, concepts that you can make your own and put them to work. They will work every time with one condition, that you practice them; that you, as a student, as a worship leader, as somebody who said, yes, I need to get better at that stuff, I’m not good at that stuff. You have to commit the time necessary in practice to get better at this stuff. How do you practice that? I will tell you.
My method for a long time has been, if I am leading worship on a Sunday, on Wednesday I will get my guitar, I know the songs that I am going to sing. I will be in my office or my place at my home where I do this. I will be in that space, all by myself, with my guitar on. I say everything I want to say, just like there is a congregation. I sing everything I want to sing, just like I’m going to sing it with the congregation. I incorporate every element, every Scripture. I just go through the process, practice the process, rehearse the process; so that when I am responsible to deliver the message that God wants me to deliver, that is not the first time I have done it. I’ve been here before. I understand what I want to say. I already fleshed out what I want to say on Wednesday. By Sunday, it becomes closer to second nature for me.
Practice yourself, audition yourself on your instrument, record yourself, record yourself into your phone. Listen back to it. Ask yourself how it sounds. Record yourself singing into your phone. Video yourself calling your congregation to worship, just right there in your practice space. How does that look? What are you doing with your body? What could you do differently to be more engaging? Is your body language weird? Does the look on your face match the meaning of the words that are coming out of your mouth? Audition yourself. Check in on those things and see how you might be able to improve. Every one of us has a chance to improve. I might look back at this video in six months and say, I wish I would have improved on that. It is okay. The act of practicing it and being willing to submit to it, that will make the difference.
IV. Engaging People is How You Will Become an Effective Worship Pastor
I want you to remember this. This is the one thing you need to know. Engaging people is really how you will become the most fruitful worship pastor. Being a distant, uncaring, checked out worship leader is not the way to engage people. You are a shepherd. You have been called. You have said yes. If you are watching this, I hope you have said yes. So, the thing that you have to remember is this process of engaging people. You are not leading music for people, you are leading people with music. You have to remember that.
If you work on this stuff and stay faithful in ministry, the ministry to people, not only will your ministry be fruitful, your own soul will experience what it is like to have the peace of Christ that comes from knowing that I have said yes to the thing that I am called to. I have not said yes to a different version of stardom or being a singer. I have said yes to being a worship pastor.
Why do you need to know this? Because you are a leader and it is important that when you go on this journey, you’re going on it understanding that you are leading people. Colossians 3, I’ve talked about it before. In this process, I think it is important to call it back. When you put on the call of worship leader and you say yes, the Bible instructs us in Colossians 3: “Put on a compassionate heart, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience; and above all these, put on love.” All of those characteristics are ways of engaging people. You are compassionate, you are kind, you are gentle, you are patient, you are loving. All of those are ways of engaging people. So when you put those things on, you want to see people lifting their hands in worship, you want to see people singing from their hearts. I want to see that. I want to worship the Lord in the kind of worship that I want to lead. I want to see people engaged. How can I help them engage? By giving them a model, not of just what it looks like to sound like a good singer, not what it looks like in a certain kind of dress. None of that stuff means anything. The most important thing is to be the shepherd that God has called you to be and invite your congregation in. I think you will be amazed how beautifully God lets the expression of your church mature and develop and become so dimensional and Christ-honoring.
Let me pray for you as we finish. “I pray that you being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and how long and how high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know the love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations forever and ever. Amen.”