Clearing the Obstacles & Distractions to Worship
by Amy Wolter
Anyone who’s had to seek out a new place to worship for any reason, knows what a ‘joy’ it is to walk into a different church week after week, trying to find a place you fit in and belong – a place where you get something out of the teaching, and can see yourself serving. AND, where the music fits your liking and gets you vertical…in tune with God.
When looking for a new church a few years ago (because of major doctrinal shift) we scratched a couple off our list right away because the pre-service music felt like we were about to enter a dance party! I’m not joking. My husband and I were in a CCM rock band so it’s not that we’re opposed to loud music or a great groove, but for the love of all that’s holy, it’s NOT ‘all about that bass’ when I’m getting ready to worship!
I’ve been on the platform as a musician, sung in choirs and on worship teams, and soloed in the ‘special music’ part of the service, but for the greatest percentage of my life, I’ve been in the congregation. Having been able to observe a good number of worship teams through the years, I’ve noticed things that lead me into a beautiful place of worship, and things that distract or sidetrack me from getting there.
Now I know that The Babylon Bee has already done a thorough (and hilarious) job of pointing out flaws on the worship team. Satire is an amazing thing, making us laugh, then secretly cry over the truth in it, but I want to try to go beyond criticizing and help equip you to lead well.
Because of what I do for a living, I’m trained to be critical. My profession as a Live Music Producer (with Tom Jackson Productions), involves teaching artists how to better connect with their audiences and put on a good show. Of course, we don’t approach worship leading as a ‘show’ or ‘performance’, but much of what we teach an artist can effectively help worship teams when applied in the right way.
Before I talk about the worship aspect, it’s important to understand that Tom Jackson’s method is based around connecting an artist’s music with their audience in the most effective way. To accomplish this, one needs to understand that people go to live shows for 3 reasons; to be captured and engaged, to experience moments, and to be changed in some way. People go to concerts to connect – both with the artist and the people around them who want the same experience. They also go to feel something – those are the ‘moments’ I mentioned. They want to laugh, cry, feel the hair on their arms raise, sing along…basically EXPERIENCE the music! And they go to be changed in some way – perhaps find hope or encouragement from the artist.
So, shifting back to church, I believe people go there for some of the same reasons; to be captured and engaged (with the message, with their community of believers), to experience moments (feel the love and mercy of God, joy, celebration. They want moments to contemplate the beauty of God in scripture or in a song, and maybe even have a cleansing, grateful cry), and, they come to be changed: discover Jesus, find forgiveness & truth, and have their lives transformed.
Love the Congregation Well
First and foremost, the primary role of a worship leader should be to love your congregation. This means giving everything you can for the benefit of each individual there. You’re there to lead them and get them VERTICAL or God-ward…captured and engaged with God. I may get pushback on this, but I believe when you are leading a worship service, that this is not your own private time to get lost in worship. Your job is to pay attention to the congregation and make sure they are connecting. This means that you can’t just close your eyes and sing. That shuts us out because we’re watching you. You’ve got to lead with ‘one eye open’.
Keep in mind that by the time we enter the building, you and your team have been up and going for several hours! You’ve had coffee, maybe breakfast, and have been singing and worshipping LONG before the congregation shows up. We’re all stumbling in, just trying to wake up, grabbing that first cup of java in the lobby, and trying to get over whatever hassles (arguments, kids, traffic) we’ve had that morning! In other words, when you jump right into Oceans and squeeze your eyes shut, trust me, we’re not even on the beach yet. You’ve got to work to gather us in, and watch to make sure we’re getting on board….you’ve got to open your eyes and pay attention.
Our eyes may be the most important tool we have, to engage with people and those closed eyelids can be a big obstacle. I have many testimonials from artists who started making direct eye contact and were astounded at the difference that specific change made in connecting with their audiences. In short, people want to be seen. When someone on the stage looks you in the eye at a concert, it makes you feel good…it makes you feel special like they cared you showed up! In the same way, if a worship leader takes time to look me in the eye and their eyes say ‘I see you, you are worthy, come and worship with us’, then I’m following. If their eyes are shut, I’m left out. There’s no encouragement to join in.
Now granted, it would be weird to keep looking us in the eye when you go to songs directed TO God, so there’s a balance there as you observe where the congregation is, and lead us upward. At the point then when the Spirit moves and you see everyone has ‘arrived’, then yes, go there yourself.
Another obstacle or distraction can come through your body language by way of you standing stiffly, hunching over, or even being back too far from the front of the platform. Worship leaders want to justify that disappearing act by saying, ‘I don’t want you to look at me…it’s not about ME, look at Jesus’. Well, yes that’s good intention, but at the moment, you ARE standing there in front of us and we see YOU, sooo… what you do physically sends us signals – good or bad.
I think people are afraid to move, just because they don’t want to be accused of ‘performing’. Many musicians play in bands doing mainstream shows all week, so on Sunday morning when it’s time to play in church, they flip a switch and over-compensate in the opposite direction, standing like statues behind a mic stand or keeping their heads in their charts.
You need to move like the music dictates. I don’t mean dance around the stage or jump up on the monitors, (unless you’re trying to pump up your youth group), but I wouldn’t expect you to stand still on a song like Beautiful One or Freedom Song. Why? Because movement tells me you are INTO the song and the message. What I see goes with what I’m hearing and thus makes sense. I’m sure you’re feeling the power of the music on the inside…you just need to let some of that show on the outside! Trying NOT to draw attention to yourself by standing totally still, distracts me. It makes me think, ‘what’s the matter with that girl? She must not believe what she’s singing about’. If you’re singing about joy, I should SEE joy!
Going along with this is facial expression. Gauging by some peoples’ faces on the platform, you’d think they hated their lives. So often I see NO expression or emotion. Playing off of charts does not help, so try to look up when you can, and pay attention to what your face looks like because it’s telling me you’re bored! You may think it’s a small thing, but it can be a big distraction for some.
Carving Out Time to Create Sacred Space
I’m sure you’ve all heard instrumental passages where the music alone moved you. I’ve heard amazing guitar solos in secular songs that led me to a worshipful state! Sometimes a perfect melodic solo can take me places nothing or no one else can.
This leads me to another obstacle…no time to breathe in a song. Create space for moments to happen or for the Spirit to move! I want times to contemplate God’s goodness, or ponder His Word. First of all, I hope you are incorporating instrumental sections during worship. If you are, you need to draw attention to them. A physical or verbal clue of who/what to pay attention to can enhance our worship experience. People may want to close their eyes and listen, but sometimes for me, watching the creation of an amazing cello passage or guitar solo, is a beautiful thing in itself. Point us to it…not in a cheesy ‘take it away Billy!’ sort-of-way, but in a way that says ‘watch and worship along with this!’. Turn and look at Billy so we connect with what he’s playing.
This becomes a musical moment – a space – where we can pause our singing and appreciate the beauty of melody, of the player’s skill, even just that wonderful tone coming from that Les Paul or steel guitar. I want to just add here, that I really appreciate when that extra player is brought onto a worship team, to add cool, ambient texture to the service. Worship leader Michael Adler concluded that the electric guitar pad seems to be taking up some of that slack that left sonic gaps when the [traditional church] organ died away from modern worship. Yes, and hallelujah!
There are, of course, other types of moments you can incorporate into worship…from joyful and celebratory to contemplative. Learn how to lead us there, both non-verbally with your demeanor/physical body, and verbally with your directives or scriptural proclamations. It seems like some worship leaders don’t want to talk, thinking the music should do all the talking. But I find myself wanting the worship leader, at times, to tell us to ‘sing it louder!’ because I wanted to, but no one around me was singing out. Give us permission sometimes to close our eyes, or even sit down or kneel while we ponder a scripture or reading. These can be moments that carve out a sacred space.
Now, no one wants to hear TOO much ‘cheerleading’ or talking, but if I hear a few lines from the leader about what inspired him to write one of the songs, I’m more inspired to sing it! Those real-life experiences help us connect as a congregational worshipper and make us want to join in, celebrating the victory, or feeling the repentance the song speaks about. Point out the heart of the lyric sometimes, even if it’s on the screen. Maybe help us see a different angle to the message or if it’s an old chorus, remind us of what the message is lest we forget or take it for granted.I could go on and talk about obstacles and distractions having to do with stage set-up, bad mixes and a strange pronunciation plague that has infected our singers, as those things can be my own stumbling blocks. I live in Mus
ic City though, and we’re spoiled here with churches on every corner and amazingly talented musicians, so I can be very nit-picky. Which is why I have to bring up personal responsibility; how we should enter a worship service and the importance of getting our hearts and minds ready to engage. We shouldn’t be totally dependent on the leader to get us there. THIS obviously, is an entire other conversation and one I’m sure has already been discussed in these pages. When I am in a worship service, I have to consciously silence the critic and push past those things to get God-ward.
Please hear this; your freedom as a worshipper on the platform creates freedom in the room. Freedom for others to move, lift their hands, to express themselves! This is something Tom Jackson has taught artists and worship leaders alike, and it’s a thrill to watch the chains come off and see them operate in that freedom.
Where Humility Meets Confidence
Another revolutionary truth that has opened up the minds of many leaders is Tom’s creed on humility. He believes that ‘true humility, is walking in the authority God gave you to lead on that platform’. You’re there for a reason – you’ve been called to this! Walk it out with confidence. I love passing this truth along to those who may have wrapped themselves in a straight-jacket of false humility, and see them exhale in relief. Permission to free yourself, granted!
A perfect example of this came to us in an email from a husband/wife team who travel both as artists and worship leaders;
“We were leading worship at a church last week, and of course we were putting into practice the tools we’ve picked up from you and the Expressive Worship seminar. It was 3 pretty packed services so we had plenty of stage to cover and plenty of people to connect with. The responses we had were really incredible. They caught on to new songs they hadn’t heard before and were almost louder than we were by the end of it. So many people came up and complimented us on our ability to lead them and create a moving worship experience. The kicker was the comment we got from the pastor. He mentioned he was really thankful for our humility. Of all things, I wouldn’t have expected him to call us humble while we were “commanding the stage.” But I guess if it’s done right, our desire to humbly lead the church comes through just as clearly.”
— Jacob and Katie Eckeberger
YES! This made me so happy, and I wanted every worship leader to see this. Please, take on your ordained authority on the platform, love your congregation well, and lead with everything in you. It’s not just about picking the right songs… It’s about how to better connect their meaning with your congregation, and get them vertical. Do the work, lead us, and break down the obstacles that keep us from the beautiful worship experience our souls long for.