Perhaps one of the more difficult positions in which worship leaders may find themselves is knowing how to respond to and engage with their congregations. If you are anything like me, you had a time when you simply wanted the congregation to respond to you and where you were leading, not the other way around. What I’ve had to learn, and re-learn—the hard way, mind you—is the congregation is the pulse of the church. That may seem obvious at first glance, but the more we dive into this, we begin to see that we as leaders and pastors of worship are called to observe and detect the needs of the Body, and in our case, the local body.
What is the emotion of the church? Are you in a season of rejoicing and exuberance because the Spirit of God is moving in new and profound ways, leading many in your congregation to radically transform their lives to pursue Christ with renewed energy and prowess? That calls for celebration: praise the Lord! Is your church mourning the loss of a prominent and beloved member, or grieving over the sudden death of another member’s child? This calls for lament: mourn with those who mourn.
How do you respond when it is a mixed bag of emotions? There may be some who are experiencing great joy and fulfillment, while others may be in the harrowing valleys of the shadow of death. Praise and lament are often juxtaposed throughout the psalter, and therefore it can be a model for our worship experiences in our local contexts. There are ways in which we can and must learn to respond to both. Now, this statement essentially makes two assumptions we need to unpack:
- Assumption Number 1: You know the congregation. Often there is an automatic stigma that we as worship leaders are the standalone leaders, whether staff or volunteer, who like to be seen and heard, but not listen to others or “see” them. It is not the norm for worship leaders to intentionally pursue and get to know the congregation in a way that enables them to see and hear the needs of the flock. Pastors are shepherds. Shepherds know the needs of their flock. It isn’t convenient. It can be messy. But the more you know those in your flock, the better you can learn their needs and how to lead them in worship based on those needs.
A quick story: There was a gentleman at a former church where I was on staff who came to church with his wife to simply honor her, but he himself was not a believer. Several months into this accompaniment he became aware he was diagnosed with stage-4 colon cancer. This created a radical change in his life. He soon became a follower of Christ, thanks largely to the persistence of both his wife and a colleague of mine who made it his life mission to make sure this man knew and experienced the love of Jesus.
During the ensuing months of chemo, radiation, and grueling long-suffering the cancer caused on his body and family, there was a particular song that deeply resonated with him and became more or less his “anthem” the last few months of his life. I would not have known this had I not taken the time to get to know him, listen to his story, and hear what the Lord was doing in his life, even through this struggle. So you know what we did the last remaining weeks of his life? We played that song. A lot. And let me tell you, there is no deeper humility I have experienced so far than watching a dying man give it all he had as we sang that song—with hands lifted, shouting at the top of his lungs—making the most of every remaining breath. Lord, have mercy.
My point? Get to know the people in your flock. You never know the stories they are living and from that, you can learn what you need to sing and how you need to lead in response.
- Assumption Number 2: The congregation knows you. It has been my experience, whether growing up in the church, or even early in my worship leading vocation, that there’s a kind of ethereal mysteriousness about the “worship leader” that is silently heralded throughout the ethos of churches and congregations. What do I mean? Early in my experience as a worship leader, I thought it was unacceptable for me on the platform to share my personal self with those I was leading. Specifically, I had the misconception that I had to have my life totally together—or more so at least look and act like it.
I became really good at hiding my struggles, doubts, vices, sins, etc. What I began to realize is this actually created more of a rift between myself and the congregation. Why? I think largely because the body can sniff out superficiality. I don’t mean you should just wear your sins on your sleeve, but I am saying I believe there is a level of sincere realness that the congregation appreciates when their worship leader expresses a sense of struggle or doubt in their life.
There was a particular season when I was experiencing significant difficulty with the church where I was on staff due to politics of two opposing views about vision and direction (I know, shock, right?). It was exhausting as a leader trying to wade through these waters of what seemed like trivial issues in the grand scheme of the Kingdom of Christ. One particular Sunday I remember thinking, “Man…I really need to sing these songs for myself.”
For whatever reason, in a moment of apparent vulnerability, I simply said, “You know…I don’t know about you, but this week has just been tough. It has been really, really hard. I stand before you totally exhausted. And right now, I need to sing these songs over my soul and remind myself of the goodness of the Lord. I don’t know where you are right now or what is going on in your life, but I invite you to sing with me.”
And did they! That was a notable worship experience I will not soon forget. When we break down the walls or close the chasms that separate the worship leader from the congregation—the shepherd from the flock—we often see real connection and response happen within our midst.
So how does this practically play out within our local contexts? I certainly realize this becomes a more difficult task the larger your congregations. But don’t see this as an excuse. One very simple thing you can do before and after every single Sunday service(s) is take the 5-10 minutes during the countdown (or whatever pre-service element your church may have), and directly after the service concludes, to seek out people you do not know, or who may not know you. Introduce yourself. Ask them what is giving them life right now. Maybe ask them what is draining in their life.
I realize this is small talk and for you introverts, like me, this can be your worst nightmare. I’m not saying get involved in a deep philosophical conversation, but just let them know you see them. It’s amazing how many individuals you can meet compounded over several months of making intentional efforts. And even for those leading at churches with very large congregations, it is still achievable if you make this a goal. Try to meet different people each time, before and after the service. Try different parts of your sanctuary/auditorium each week.
And do everything you can to remember their names. This will undoubtedly help you as you continue to cultivate these relationships with those in your flock. Whether you are full-time, bi-vocational, or volunteer, it is undoubtedly a great way to learn more about those you are leading and, in my experience, has significantly helped in developing a greater connection, bond, and response from the flock. It may seem simple, but it could vey well be the thing that allows the intimacy of worship in your congregation to go to a new, deeper, or renewed, level.