Corporate Worship: Ideas for Engaging your Congregation

In my roles with the RMCN and CBAmerica, I am exposed to a spectrum of styles of Sunday services. This continuum ranges from traditional services, that have an organ and hymnals (these are definitely fewer in number, thank goodness because those books are heavy), to rock concert like productions with laser lights and fog machines and often times, thank goodness, optional ear plugs. Oops, tipped my hat there a bit, didn’t I?
When I am in a Sunday morning service (as one pastor of a very large church told me, it is not a worship service), I often mentally pose the unspoken query for the pastor and worship leader, “What are you trying to do with this service?” Another way to put it is, “What is your philosophy worship (sorry, I am old)?”  or “What are you wanting me to do in this 1-hour experience?”
Do you want me to worship God? … be entertained? … gain more bible information? …commune with other believers? My hope is that if I knew what we were trying to do, that I could either relax and enjoy or perhaps join you in fulfilling your purpose. But to be honest, most times I do not have a clue what we are trying to do.
So I have asked a few “Worship Leaders,” that from my subjective perspective “get it,” to share some of their insights. The first to come to mind was my good friend Sam Hoffman. Sam is the volunteer worship leader at First Baptist Church of Sheridan, WY. I have known Sam for over 15 years. Vocationally, Sam is an optometrist. He and his wife Robin are the parents of three wonderful daughters.
First Baptist Church of Sheridan, WY is a church of 500 multi-generational attendees. The church recently called Chad Cowan to be their pastor.

Knowing Sam’s musical talent and leadership gifting, I knew that he would share some very practical observations about worship. He did not disappoint me.

From Sam:

I strongly recommend the book “Worship Matters” as a point where I learned much of the following.

In corporate worship, I try to gently lead people to worship God by singing songs that they already know and having them do so in keys that are singable, with the mind and heart fully engaged.

This means:

  1. We introduce a new song once every two weeks maximum, usually only once per month. We do not retire “old” songs very often: if they were good enough for worship 5 years ago, they’re probably still good. I look over old songs and try to do them a maximum of once every three months. For most people who are worship leaders or music-people, learning new music is easy and fun, so I think a major mistake that a lot of worship teams make is too much new music too fast (in fact, this is the primary problem in most churches in America today). YOU may like it, but the average congregant is likely struggling to follow along if you do too many new songs too fast. Also, pay attention to the demographics of your congregation: if it’s mostly older people, you’ll want more hymns. If it’s mostly younger people, you’ll want more contemporary songs.
  2. When we introduce a new song, I play the melody loud and clear on the piano in order to help people pick it up as we sing it the first couple times.
  3. Typically, we start with one or two upbeat songs, and move into more slow/worshipful songs at the end. We do four or five a week, but that’s not a magic number.
  4. All songs must have good theology. There are a lot of songs out there. No sense using one that has bad or even questionable lyrics. If you’re not sure, run it by the senior pastor or the elders. “What a Beautiful Name it Is” is a nice song, but some of the theology is suspect (or flat out wrong), so we haven’t done it.
  5. Key is very important. The average singer can sing from a “low” A (or G in a stretch), to a high C (or D in a stretch). Comfortable for most people is an even narrower range, perhaps a “low” C to a high A (less than one octave!). This may require transposing a song into a difficult-to-play key, but it is worth it to allow people to sing. “Songselect” is worth every penny for performing these transpositions. Guitar players can capo, and piano players (keyboarders) can grow by doing these in strange keys. Remember though that a lot of songs on the radio span an octave and a half or even two octaves (!). Don’t try to do these songs corporately!!! It won’t work!
  6. I sometimes change words in songs to make them fit more appropriately. I do not let this trouble me in the least. Most often it is changing “I” “me” and “my” to “We” “us” and “ours,” making individual songs into corporate songs.
  7. Follow the music and sing the notes as written. Leading worship is not a time to improvise or try something fancy. Keep it simple so people can follow. If your worship team can’t sing it perfectly in 2-3 times through, then leave it. (For instance, I really wanted to do “Jesus Friend of Sinners” recently, but after trying it twice, my worship team was struggling, so we scrapped it.)
  8. Sing songs with appropriate feeling and accompaniment. If you are singing “I Surrender All,” it will be more quiet and subdued than the upbeat song “Trading My Sorrows.” Certain verses of certain songs (see “How Great Thou Art”) call for quiet contemplative minimal accompaniment, and other verses of the same song call for HUGE sound. Play and sing appropriately. In a quiet restaurant, you will whisper “I love you!” to your wife, you don’t stand on your chair and scream it. Apply the same rule to your worship: make sure the volume, tone and presentation fit the words you are singing.
  9. As much as possible, the worship leader(s) should disappear. No stories about “how my week went,” or “You know, I’ve been thinking…” Let the pastor preach. My job is to lead worship, period. Brief exhortations are ok, but anything longer than about 30 seconds is too long (with very rare exceptions). 
  10. Remember it is never, ever, ever about YOU. This is not American Idol. It is about God.
  11. Point people to God, and get out of the way. Bad notes call attention away from God and towards the instrumentalist or vocalist. But a fancy guitar solo does the same. Don’t interrupt the flow. Even long song introductions are rarely worth it: four measures at most for an intro then get the show on the road! If you want a contemplative part in the middle of a song to give people time to pray, you must TELL them that this is what you’re doing… don’t expect them to know. 
  12. At the same time, there will be times when a certain song requires some kind of story or anecdote or thought to get into it gracefully. I do NOT invent these on the fly. I thoughtfully consider what I am going to say and often type it up (at least the keywords) so that I don’t ramble.
  13. Often before singing a song, one simple thing to do is to restate the main theme of the song in different words. Then sing the song. Easy to do but engages the mind. For instance, before “Amazing Grace,” you could say, “If you do not know that you were a wretch at one time, perhaps you do not understand the position from which you were saved.” or “God’s grace is so amazing it will cover every one of your sins,” or something. This needn’t be profound, lengthy, nor poetic. Keep it simple and grounded and relevant.
  14. Avoid 7-11 songs. There are many great worship songs out there. Too much repetition is awesome for about 3% of the congregation, the rest hate it. Trust that people get the message in 2 or at most 4 cycles through. “Jesus lead me where my faith is without borders…” can be grasped in 1 or 2 times around.
  15. Hymns are good, especially ones that are widely known. I do at least one per week, and I try to do them as people remember them. If you jazz them up too much or change them, people will be frustrated because “I wanted to sing it like I know it!”
  16. Don’t be too loud, or people can’t hear themselves sing. Don’t be too quiet so it feels like no one is singing. There’s a balance there, and your sound guy should know it (and will have a meter to find it). 
  17. Every so often, on songs the congregation knows well, have all vocalists back away from the microphone, stop the accompaniment, and let the congregation hear themselves sing.
  18. Don’t worry about the technical components of the sound. Let the sound guys worry about that. Trust your sound person.
  19. Remember there is a difference between leading (taking people where they WANT to go) and manipulation (taking people where they do NOT want to go). In leading worship, we do the former. Don’t be afraid or ashamed to take people out of their comfort zones if it will get them closer to true worship of the living God.
  20. Every so often, intersperse Scripture, a reading, or a responsive reading. If you can get the words on the screen, all the better (some people will not grasp it unless they read it). Make sure it is appropriate and meaningful to your audience.
  21. During powerful worship songs, people will have a hard time sitting. Let them stand.
  22. Don’t make them stand for the whole set, it can be a long time. Give them breaks at times to let them sit.
  23. Respect people’s time. Remember that many of the people on your worship team have 40+ hour per week jobs, spouses, kids, and other hobbies. If you call a meeting from 6-7 PM, make sure it is over at 7 PM… even if this means abruptly interrupting Suzie’s story about her son’s kindergarten class. (Even better, aim to get done at 6:50 so you have a 10 minute buffer). Also, you as the leader need to be ready to go at 6 PM: get there early to make sure things are in place so that others don’t have to pick up your slack.

3 Replies to “Corporate Worship: Ideas for Engaging your Congregation”

  1. I like the content. However, worship is far more than music. True worship is about surrendering ourselves to the Lord and His will. Music can help lead to that place, but good music alone cannot do that.

    1. I agree that worship is more than music. Music can be a powerful resource to draw people’s heart to God. It must be intentionally focused to do so.

  2. I absolutely agree. Every part of a service ought to draw us towards a deeper relationship with the Lord. Announcements, prayer, preaching, music—everything must be designed to bring us face to face with our Creator. Most of us who serve as pastors have lots of work to do in this realm.

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