Do you wish your congregation participated more during your worship services? Are you looking for creative ways to more effectively communicate the Good News of Jesus Christ in your worship services? Are you frustrated, feel like moving on, or giving up on ministry? Before I share the backstory of the importance of creativity in the local church, check out these practical principles, that must be empowered by the Holy Spirit to work. I hope these ideas will encourage your creativity and benefit your ministry as they have mine.
- Lead with love
- Pray your songs
- Greet the congregation before you get on stage and after
- Lead songs in the culture of the congregation
- Sing songs in the key of the congregation (see my app)
- Sing familiar songs—Incorporate new songs regularly but sparingly
- Use theologically accurate lyrics with terms that guests can understand
- Choose tempos that fit the meter and message of the lyric
- Display or print lyrics clearly and in the correct order
- Prefer the congregation’s or community’s musical style preference over the staff’s
- Don’t choose songs solely based on radio or polling popularity
- Put the songs in a sequence that take the crowd on a journey toward intimacy in worship
- Feature vocal melody as the prominent sound in the mix: Congregations sing to singers
- Clearly, intentionally, and affably invite the crowd to sing
- Focus on connection, not perfection—excellence is valuable, but it’s not the goal
- Always do your best—be prepared
- Use songs that support the sermon theme
Worship is the most important reason God gives creative gifts to His people. Worship is faith expressed. The creative worship leader’s goal is to connect the crowd to God. It is an understatement to say that congregational singing benefits from the use of creativity. It is a biblical practice to use creativity in worship:
“See, the Lord has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold and silver and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, for work in every skilled craft. (Exodus 35:30-33)
Well-crafted lyrics and melodies engage the hearts, minds, and voices of the congregation. While creativity is a good companion to worship, designing a worship service begins with prayer and God’s creative leadership. The worship leader’s creativity is not an appropriate replacement for the work of the Holy Spirit. The Bible says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him…bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
Gifted artists must realize the source of their creativity. The Bible is clear that real ministry cannot be done apart from God: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts.” (Zechariah 4:6)
The purpose, priority, and presence of creativity in the church are to bring Glory to God and to connect the crowd to intimacy with God.
Singing is just one of many ways the congregation can participate creatively in worship; however, it may be the most impacting. Rick Warren says, “As a pastor, I hate to admit this, but people don’t remember sermons or speeches—they don’t even remember paragraphs. What people remember are simple statements, slogans, and phrases.”
Simple statements, slogans, and phrases are hallmarks of great songs. Other great speakers, such as C.H. Spurgeon concur: “Personal praise is sweet unto God, but congregational praise has a multiplicity of sweetness in it!” Martin Luther said, “Next to theology, I give the first and highest honor to music.”
Throughout history, church music has experienced different levels of congregational involvement. For example, in the Middle Ages, the western church congregations were silenced and forbidden to read Scripture aloud or sing during corporate worship services. The congregation’s role in the church was minimized by the Priests to protect the “integrity” of the service. (Important: God is not dependent on congregational singing for church growth, as the Church grew during this period.) As Luther championed its reinstitution, congregational participation blossomed during the Reformation. The doctrine of the Priesthood of the Believer resulted in congregants participating in various roles in the worship service. Congregational singing became one of the essential features of the corporate worship service.
Congregational singing that honors God honors Scripture. Methods come and go, but the message of God never changes. Using songs with theologically sound lyrics is imperative in worship that honors God and benefits people. As the crowd engages in singing, the songs of the Church become an indelible part of their lives. Worship leading is an incredible responsibility as an individual’s theology is formed by what they remember. When led well, the crowd leaves the church building singing one or more of the songs. Chances are, as good as the spoken sermon is, people will not be humming the points of the message on their way home from church.
Music can be a compelling storytelling tool in the worship service. The songs we use to tell the story must be carefully selected and led to connect the congregation with God’s message, presence, and mission. Worship that honors God is right in content and deliberate in context: theologically accurate lyrics effectively communicated.
The essential structural elements for the meeting between God and His people are the same today as they were in the Old Testament. God convenes the meeting, each member uses their talents to contribute to the church, the Word of God is taught, the believer renews her commitment to God, and a sacrifice is offered.
Webber states that “the norm of Christian worship is both Word and Sacrament.” Biblical Christian congregational worship revolves around retelling the Gospel story and responding to it: as a people. Historically, God’s people responded to God, in corporate and individual worship, by remembering, anticipating, and celebrating. God’s is a story of redemption.
Remembering the saving works of God is a central practice found in both the Old Testament and New Testament corporate worship settings. Singing, praying, giving, taking communion, gathering, symbols, and especially preaching are acts of worship that help the congregation remember God’s story of redemption. God’s people gather to remember the promises of God that have been and will be fulfilled. God’s Word exhorts, encourages, and equips believers. Music is most effective in a church service as a soundtrack connecting the entire worship experience memorably while delivering content from the head to the heart. In worship, we remember the benefits and the duties of being a child of God: We belong to God and His Kingdom. Believers gather to trust and celebrate that God will keep His word and fulfill every one of His promises. Israel had the promised land to anticipate. Christians anticipate the hope of heaven, the new heavens and earth and the Kingdom of God. A natural climax to the act of remembering and anticipating is celebrating. The style in which God is remembered, anticipated, and celebrated corporately varies depending on local culture.
Congregational singing can seamlessly tie these three ancient elements together. In corporate worship, the substance of response is more important than the style of presentation. I agree with Robert Webber’s warning: “we ought not allow worship to be accommodated to current cultural norms to such an extent that worship loses its meaning.”
“Such an extent” is the key phrase. The redeeming substance of a congregational song is the lyric—is it theologically true? Music style and presentation is important for the cultural context: it carries the truth of the Gospel, woven into the lyric, into the heart of the sinner for which Christ died. Powerful congregational singing proclaims the truth of the Gospel, to God and each other, through the hearts of the redeemed.
Using lyrics that are aesthetically beautiful, scriptural, inspirationally meaningful, and immediately understandable will increase the participation in congregational singing. Three creative factors work together to make congregational singing accessible. First, the worship song’s music and lyric are vital to the congregational singing experience. After the songs from the Bible were written, dating back to the third and fourth centuries, composers like Ambrose of Milan valued congregational singing and wrote explicitly to encourage participation using musically simple songs. Lowell Mason and writers of his day wrote music in a warm devotional style, combining simplicity and dignity. Ira Sankey’s Gospel song introduced emotional terms: The Gospel Song. Lyrics on screen, hymnal, songbook or by memory. Second, church leadership plays a significant role in the accessibility of worship, in song, for the congregation.
The Council of Laodicea halted congregational singing (in the Western Church) for one thousand years. Martin Luther’s leadership helped bring the song back to the voices of the congregation. In 1903, the Pope encouraged participation in worship with his Motu Proprio decree. In 1963, the Second Vatican Council made congregational participation, for Catholics, much more accessible by instituting the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. The CSL allowed for the use of local language and music style in the Mass. Every movement of God has a soundtrack. The Jesus People Movement, for example, made congregational singing more accessible because Pastors encouraged songwriters to write for the movement. Its folk melodies were easy to sing, and the lyrics matched the culture. Third, musical direction influences the accessibility of congregational singing. Arrangements and musical production can encourage or discourage participation. Tempos, keys, volume, length, accompaniment, and sound reinforcement all play a deciding role in the accessibility of a congregational song. Tempos must support the composition. If the pace is too slow, the congregation will lose interest. If the pace is too fast, the words can be too difficult to sing and prosody lost. Congregational songs must be chosen to encourage congregational engagement. Keys that are too high or low result in less congregational participation.
Novelty (incorporating new songs) is encouraged in Scripture and benefits congregational singing. The Bible mentions singing a new song six times in the Bible. (Ps 96:1, 98:1, 144:9, 149:1, Rev. 5:9, 14:3) Singing familiar songs helps congregation participation, and new songs create a fresh element to the experience. Effective new songs are Scripturally true, easy to learn, and hard to forget. Singing too many new songs will diminish vocal participation (because they are learning, not singing). Creativity is essential for Worship leaders and Pastors to select songs for the worship service strategically. Many church leaders believe churches should have a blended approach in worship. Morgan writes, “sing the best of the newer Christian music without abandoning the heritage of our hymnody or the treasuries of our old hymnals.” Williamson adds, “If you are responsible for leading worship in your church, it becomes your job to detect the musical language or languages that most successfully and completely communicate with your people.” Creativity is a great asset in discovering the best sound and style for each individual church. Valuing novelty guards the church from the cookie-cutter approach to worship service programming. The value of using creativity in the worship service is dependent on authenticity.
Authenticity is the key to engaging a congregation. Paul describes authenticity in ministry in this verse: “For our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience, that we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God, and supremely so toward you.” 2 Cor. 1:12 Worship leading is not a show. It is personal and authentic faith expressed. James teaches that true disciples of Jesus Christ do more than talk about their faith. They live it—”But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” James 1:22
The Church always suffers when their worship leaders prioritize performance over praise. One of the most famous worship leaders in the Bible, David, is a good example of authenticity: “(God) he raised up David to be their king, of whom he testified and said, ‘I have found in David, the son of Jesse, a man after my heart, who will do all my will.” Acts 13:22 The most critical worship leading is done off the stage.
The purpose of creativity, in the church, is transformation. Singing prayers to God has a significant impact on the soul. A singing congregation ministers to the individuals of the crowd. The most transforming aspect of congregational singing will be memorizing Scripture. The Word of God is transforming. The Bible says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and training in righteousness that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” 2 Tim. 3:16-17
Music carries the message of Scripture deep into the memory of the worshipper. One of the best ways to memorize Scripture is by singing Scripture in songs. We know Jesus memorized Scripture because He quoted it many times. When Jesus was on the cross, he quoted Psalm 22:1: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Psalm 22 is a song! Jesus was quoting a song lyric on the cross. Congregational singing plays a significant role in the formation of the individual’s theology. It’s essential to teach people transformational songs they can sing on their cross.
Music and creativity are not synonyms for Biblical Worship. Biblical worship is expressed by faith before it is expressed by music or creative art. Creativity can be used as a vehicle to express faith, create energy, tell a story, inspire emotion, provide ambiance, teach language, history, mathematics, to entertain, and many more things. Creativity is a powerful communication tool and a universal language. Martin Luther said, “Next to theology, I give the first and highest honor to music.” Luther was a true advocate for congregational singing when he wrote: “I beg you to join hands with us and make the attempt to transform a Psalm into a hymn, after the pattern I enclose. I desire, however, that newfangled words, and courtly expressions be omitted in order that the language may be the simplest and most familiar to the people.” Luther understood connecting others to God was a priority in church worship. Despite the disapproval of traditionalists, Luther’s work ignited the use of modern Hymns. Don’t let your critics discourage your creative potential. Be faithful with your gifting. Refuse to give up. God gave you your gift to ignite something and to impact the world around you. Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi!! (As we worship, so we believe.)