If the congregation is not involved, it’s music, not worship.
We’ve been there, right?
We pick the best of songs, practice and rehearse them like crazy, and then play them flawlessly on stage. Everything goes well, there are no musical shipwrecks, and we’re feeling wonderful.
Then, we take a look at the people and… there’s… nothing! No one seems to be singing… and you’re left wondering why the congregation is unable to get into the ‘brilliant’ set-list we are delivering.
As a worship leader, nothing used to deflate me faster than an unengaged congregation. Frustration, anger, misery, disappointment… I’d feel all of that and more… I’d also drive myself crazy later analyzing it all, trying to figure out what went wrong.
While this doesn’t happen to me so much these days, I can still remember my rookie years when I went through it… often. Experience and time are good teachers, I guess!
Leading worship is more about “engaging” your congregation than it is about “amazing” them with your worship leading brilliance. – David Santistevan
Sometimes the microphone can be a barrier between the congregation and the worship leader. It’s not too difficult for the band to get so caught up with the technical and the musical that the people begin to feel disconnected.
Leading worship is more about engaging with people than putting up a great Christian performance, right? It’s more about connecting together with the Lord than belting out the latest musical chops.
But how do we get to that special place of going beyond the functional and grasping the relational? These tips will help you:
Essential tips to improve how you engage people in worship
Engaging your congregation before the session
Seriously, many of us pray and worship only when on stage—it’s the swiftest route to spiritual bankruptcy.
Worship leaders should be earnest and intense prayer warriors in private seeking the Lord’s voice every day—frequently and regularly. If we don’t spend time with the Lord, we are setting ourselves up for disaster.
And when we pray, we need to also take time to pray for our community—the congregation which we lead in worship.
Apart from praying individually, it’s also great to pray for our church as a team—during team rehearsals for instance.
The point is engaging your congregation begins when you are preparing for the session itself.
2. Tune in
There’s a danger in trying to keep up with every new song churned out by the worship music industry every day.
Frankly, it’s a losing proposition considering the sheer quantity of new material being made available every day!
We can easily get too busy looking for the next great usable song and lose the voice of the Holy Spirit. The natural next step is losing the congregation.
We need to be striving to keep up with the Holy Spirit instead, listening to His heart and finding out what He wants us to sing.
If we tune into the Holy Spirit, our congregations will tune into the worship.
Engaging your congregation is ultimately dependent on Him, not you and I.
How about spending some time in some much needed reflection and (re)thinking?
I am talking about visualizing our people’s expectations and experiences by putting ourselves in their shoes.
We have to know the people we’re leading. The more we become students of our audience the better we’ll be able to lead them. – Worship Rocket
Sometimes, it’s not a bad idea to just walk into the place where we lead worship and stand where they stand, sit where they sit and look at the stage from where they are.
Do this to get some fresh perspective on our worship sessions on engaging your church.
How about talking to the people on our worship teams?
Asking them what are potential causes of disengagement and discussing possible solutions to overcome them is a fantastic leadership practice—sadly ignored by many worship leaders.
Each member is different, bringing different skills, gifts and personality type into the mix. But when they work together, they produce something greater than the sum of the parts. – Jon Nicol
As much as we hate to admit it, we don’t have it all together—we need help—and there’s nothing wrong in taking help—especially from the very people we are ministering with.
I strongly believe, the people we are serving with can bring in useful ideas on engaging your church in congregational worship.
5. Consider the song mix
Do you also consider the needs of the people when you ‘re choosing songs for worship? Or is it simply, “I like the song, so I will use it”?
Traditional hymns, familiar classics, a new song, and so on… have a good mix of songs.
Let’s not become one trick ponies that can only pick and play one particular type of songs.
Good set-lists tend to have something for everyone.
Additionally, consider the following questions too:
Look at the lyrics… are they making sense?
Are the songs fitting into the overall theme of the day?
Are the lyrics worth singing together? Worth singing to our Almighty God?
Are the songs appealing to the culture and tradition of our Church?
Are the lyrics able to teach Godly truths and explore the Gospel?
Think about how people of different age groups would feel about the lyrics that we are singing; would they make sense to everyone?
The right mix of songs has a lot to do with effectively engaging your congregation.
Engaging your congregation during the session
Sounds too simple? Maybe it is.
But a major turn-off for people is to see a stiff worship leader going through the motions.
You may possess fine technical / musical / vocal skill, but it’s of no use without a sense of connection.
Please smile, express happiness to be there worshiping with your people and ask them to smile at each other too—after all, we are supposed to be a community of brothers and sisters worshipping together.
And while you’re at it, please open your eyes and look at your people. The more you keep those eyes tightly closed, the more aloof you appear to be, preventing you from engaging your congregation well.
7. Focus on engaging
It’s critical to work on connecting with our congregations over and above just musical excellence.
Our musical artistry and pastoring of people need to work together to create an environment that welcomes participation instead of causing disengagement.
So don’t just stand there and go through your set-list like a robot. Do you have moments to pray, read scripture, be in silence during your worship session? Or it is just song after song after song?
It’s darn easy to go through a set like a musician playing a paid gig. We on the other hand, need to be thinking more about drawing people into worship.
Learn to speak to your church, open your heart to them, tell them a scripture verse, your struggle, your aim for that session etc. Remember we are in this together; it’s never ‘us and them’, but always ‘we’.
Pro-Tip: Take a video of one of your sessions and watch it later with your team; you will easily figure out most of your areas of improvement—including how to better engage your church!
8. Use familiar songs
This is probably the no. 1 hurdle that comes in the way of congregational engagement: they don’t know the song!
It’s no big secret that worship leaders and musicians learn songs faster than the average congregation, right. Unfortunately, we also tire of songs quicker, and so we keep choosing more new songs, thereby successfully compounding the problem!
Meet them where they are and then take them to newer songs.
If your people are elderly, throw in a hymn too now and then. To repeat an earlier point—let there be something for everyone in your set-list.
If you must use new songs, follow The Beehive Hack, take time to teach the new song, repeat each section many times when playing it for the first time.
Be patient with people and don’t have more than one new song in a set-list. Maybe two at the most if the songs are simple enough.
As a rule of thumb, more familiar songs and the least number of new songs is the better way to go to improve how you engage your people.
9. Let them sing
Extend some sections of the songs—maybe the chorus or the bridge or a few key lines in the verse by repeating them one or two times more than usual—stop playing / singing and invite your people to sing instead, thereby creating what we can call congregational solo moments.
Not only does your congregation get to hear themselves, it can be nice to give everyone’s ears a break from hearing your band’s wall of sound… This puts a healthy sense of pressure on them to sing. – Tommy Walker
You’ll enjoy this as much as them, trust me!
Another alternative is using responsorial songs where the worship leader sings a line, and the people sing something in response to it. Songs like “You are worthy of my praise”, “Hallelujah glory”, “He is the Lord (show Your power)” and so on.
10. Balance your sound
Check your volume level, is it too high or too low?
Are the vocals heard well above the musical instruments
Is the drummer pounding away too much?
Is the electric guitarist overplaying all over the song?
If people are unable to hear themselves, they won’t feel like singing, it’s as simple as that.
Work on setting a comfortable and balanced sound.
11. Infuse dynamics
Is everyone playing together at the same time from the start to the finish of every song? Is yes, then, there’s a problem.
Stop thinking like a musician and put on the attitude of an arranger.
A good worship session needs to have some quiet intimate moments as much as those high anthemic moments. Too much of both is bad.
Figure out which instruments need to be playing in which sections.
More importantly, figure out when they don’t need to be playing! If there are no valleys, there would be no mountains, right?
Engaging your congregation after the session
12. Invite feedback
Hang around after the gathering, walk around and get a feel of their experience during worship.
Being an introvert myself, this doesn’t come naturally to me, but I’ve worked on it over the years and it’s a lot easier today!
Talk to people in the hallways, in the seats, etc. Leave your green room and engage. Be a culture shaper. – Jeremy Armstrong
Listen dispassionately to their views whether you agree or disagree with them. You can always evaluate everything later with your team.
And most importantly, don’t forget to thank
your people for being there and for their participation
your worship team for serving with you
Worship as a ministry is highly pastoral though people see the musical side of it more. Connecting and engaging with people should be among our topmost priorities.
Let’s remember the opening line of this article: If the congregation is not involved, it’s music, not worship.
How do you engage with your congregation during worship? Can you share your top tips in the comments?