We've all experienced it - a great worship gathering led by a gifted leader and team. The experience was replete with beautiful, transcendent moments when people's hearts were meaningfully connected with God in worship.
The only problem is that the vocalists on stage had their eyes closed the entire time.
Many worship leaders will subscribe to a philosophy of leadership that says don't worry about the people "out there." You just go to an intimate place with God and if you're being "real" and "authentic," then people will follow you. I know that in some settings this philosophy can work well. In my years of leading worship, however, I've cultivated the opinion and conviction that this school of thought subconsciously excludes an essential component of worship: community.
Don't get me wrong, any effective worship leader MUST be willing to go to intimate places with God as they're leading. Authenticity in leadership is essential. But it can't come at the cost of the relational engagement that people long for in a worship gathering.
As a college student, I was blessed to have a mentor who helped me understand this on a deeper level. He explained to me that most people understand the corporate worship experience as a dialogue: we communicate with God as we worship. In turn, He communicates with us. Perhaps a better understanding of worship, however, is to think of it as a trialogue. There is a third (oft forgotten) dynamic that can and should be included in our worship leadership: the awareness and cultivation of the unique communication that's taking place between people on stage and those they're leading.
The ever-increasingly relational world in which we live is looking for the ability to identify with something and someone. In my experience, the most effective worship leaders understand that their congregations long for connectedness in all things. Churches don't need rock stars, they need leaders. They don't need individualistically-oriented song singers, they need shepherds. We all want to be led through an experience which helps us understand that we've all been (and are going) somewhere together. Teams who keep their eyes closed for extended periods of time while leading are erecting walls through which no one can climb, cross, or break through. I genuinely don't think that we, as worship leaders, realize the power we have to close off the world around us through one simple physical act.
Am I proposing that we should never close our eyes as we worship? No. There are obviously times where we need to experience moments of intimacy with God in that way. But it shouldn't be at the expense of those we've been entrusted to lead. I give myself more freedom to close myself off when I'm worshipping as part of the congregation than when I'm the one responsible for ensuring that others are participating in the experience.
So how do we help ourselves and our teams be better communicators?
- Watch other churches worship services and learn from their leaders. We're fortunate to live at a point in history when many churches live stream and subsequently archive their worship services. I love watching services from a variety of churches and learning from them. In case there was any question - when I watch other churches services, I try to remain objective. While my primary goal is always to glean positive new ideas and habits, I've also had valuable experiences which helped me to discern practices that I don't want to emulate.
- Know your culture and ask questions. It's entirely possible that you're part of a church community where a more inward leadership style is accepted or preferred. I wouldn't, however, make that assumption without careful study of your culture, experiments with levels of congregational engagement, and a variety of conversations. Talk with your people. Talk with your teams. Talk with your overseer. Talk with your mentors. Aside from the process of discerning wisdom on a particular topic, asking questions of people is a great leadership practice.
- Talk about it with your teams. My teams are well aware of my convictions regarding communication and the worship trialogue. We have open dialogue about many leadership topics and I've discovered that more often than not, many communication quirks are the result of nervousness or a lack of intentionality. As we become aware, we can change. But if we don't discuss matters of leadership (and how we can all get better), we'll be forever trapped in a cycle of unfortunate ignorance.
- Challenge yourself. I continually challenge myself to remain aware of my body language and what it communicates. I review the worship services that I've led each and every week with a constructively critical eye. And because it's easy for me to fool myself or rationalize potentially poor leadership habits, I ask two very trusted mentors to do the same every couple of months. I trust them to give me feedback about these kinds of things - even when it's difficult to hear.