Congregational engagement and participation are high priorities in my worship ministry. The quality of music and production also matter a lot to me, but if the congregation’s mouths are not moving and they are just staring at the band, then I am not succeeding as a worship leader. I have always tried to arrange songs so that they are singable, and that has been one effective way to help them engage in worship. Recently, I have discovered the power of making a relational connection with my church during the worship service. By regularly implementing a few simple practices into my worship leading, I have seen people’s willingness to participate in worship increase, and I have received a lot of positive feedback regarding their ability to engage.
I know a lot of worship leaders struggle with connecting with their congregation, so here are three simple practices you can implement in your worship leading context to develop a deeper connection with your church community.
1. Introduce and share a little bit about yourself.
First, make sure you are regularly introducing yourself at the beginning of worship and share something about yourself. Relationship is critical to all forms of leadership, and I think many worship leaders forget to apply that to their role. Think about it. You are trying to lead people to sing and engage in a spiritual experience. That is a lot to ask of complete strangers. Singing is a physically demanding activity, and spirituality is deeply personal. As a worship leader, you must gain the congregation’s trust. The most basic way to do this is to get to know them. You cannot expect to lead people to raise their hands in worship, which is a very vulnerable posture if they have no basis to trust or follow your requests.
When I first met my wife and was interested in pursuing her, did I immediately go up to her and ask, “will you marry me and spend the rest of your life with me?” Of course not. It took three years of us getting to know each other before she was able to commit to being with me for life. That is an extreme example of the work and intentionality it takes to develop a relationship and trust, but the same underlying principles apply to worship leading.
Your congregation wants to know you before they follow you. Do not expect them to sing, raise their hands, or engage in worship if they have zero personal connection with you. Try to dedicate a little bit of time every service to allow the congregation to have a glimpse of who you are. You do not need to be everyone’s best friend or share your deepest sins. I’m talking about making sure they know a little bit about your passions and your family. Here’s an example of what I said at the beginning of a worship service that was my first Sunday as an interim worship leader.
“Good morning, Deer Creek Church. My name is Jake, and I’m excited to worship with you this morning. I have been friends with your staff for a while now, and I love how vibrant and life-giving your church is. To tell you a little bit about myself, I am married to my wife Kaylee, and we do not have any kids, but we have four chickens…”
After everyone had laughed I invited them to join me in the Call to Worship and began the worship set. It took less than 20 seconds but it helped them connect with me, and I gained at least a little bit of trust. Each week I try to say or do something in the service so that they can know and trust me more.
2. Use humor when appropriate
The second tip I have for connecting with your congregation is use humor when appropriate. There is a reason why the personalities with the biggest following in our culture are comedians. I love watching the Late Night Show with Stephen Colbert and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. I disagree with a lot of their worldview, but they can gain my attention because they are funny. Humor is the most powerful tool for removing barriers between personal connection. Embrace the moments when you have an opportunity to be funny. Do not go overboard and try to be a stand-up comedian. Here is an example of something I’ve said to be humorous.
“Good morning, Deer Creek Church. My name is Jake, and I’m the choir director. By nature of being in this room at 9:00 or 11 AM, you just joined the choir.”
Everyone laughed because this church does not have a choir. I said it to be funny and to make a point that they were expected to sing.
3. Explain the "why" behind your worship.
The final tip I have for connecting with your congregation is to regularly explain the meaning and purpose of the various activities in worship. People will follow you when they are compelled by the “why.” Never assume that your congregation is full of worship theologians. They have no clue why you picked the songs you did or why they are reading an old school prayer. If you take just a few moment to explain and guide your congregation through the worship experience, they will connect. Guiding the congregation through worship is something I am passionate about because I love thinking critically about theology and liturgy, and every time I share explanatory thoughts in worship, I have congregants tell me how helpful it is for them. Instructing them in this way is what it means to be a worship pastor. Help your congregation connect the dots between Sunday morning and their everyday lives. Here’s an example of what I’ve said to explain a portion of worship.
Before singing the song "This I Believe" by Hillsong Worship, I tell them, “We are gonna sing a song based on an ancient text called the Apostle’s Creed. Christians have been proclaiming these words for centuries to affirm their faith, and we are going to join them by singing this song."
Before we pray a prayer of confession, I would say something like, “At this time I want to invite you to join me in this prayer of confession. It’s an opportunity to come before God and say, “Hey, God, I have fallen short in loving you and loving others in my life. I have sinned against you in so many ways, I have disrespected authority figures in my life, mistreated my spouse, or cursed at the guy who cut me off on the highway. I’m a sinner and need your grace every day.” Then we go on to pray the prayer of confession from the Book of Common Prayer.
Brief explanations like this will help connect the dots for your congregants. Look for these opportunities during the planning process. Write them out and practice saying them.
Developing a meaningful relationship with your congregation takes time, but I think you’ll soon see the benefits of implementing these tips. People will be more willing to follow you as a worship leader if they know you and they know the “why” behind worship.
I hope you found this article helpful for your ministry and it gives you a few actionable tips for connecting with your congregation. What other ways have you found to connect with your congregation? What do you find difficult about connecting with them? Let me know in the comments below.