Tuning Congregational Worship (On Ministry and Feedback)

For the past three years in pastoral ministry I’ve dedicated a significant portion of my attention to my church’s worship ministry. This has been a strategic choice. A church’s weekly worship service is the highest commodity hour of a given week—it has the highest visibility, the largest attendance, and typically the most buy-in. It is also the place, in sung worship, where the Spirit most often and most powerfully shows up in a congregation. Such visible and valuable time ought to aspire on every occasion to be a visionary channel through which God’s gathered people receive refreshment, restoration, challenge, and encouragement to truly live out the reality of the church in their daily lives. The wise pastor in leadership will take a keen interest in his church’s worship ministry.

matt-redman-worshipping

No, Matt Redman is not one of my worship leaders. But I like both him and his music.

Honoring this weekly time has required a number of small changes along the way. One of the first was my insistence that video be used in a strictly limited fashion. Too much of our attention is directed to screens throughout our weeks, and in this we too often ape the world’s ways, showing videos and clips as cheap bids for attention rather than invitations to worship. I also limited the phenomenon of individuals “coming up to give announcements.” In every church, members see the pulpit for what it is—a powerful organ of communication. Seeing that organ, they desire to access it for their ministry agendas, whether good or bad. However, the pulpit and its public power do not exist for promotion of anything but the gospel message. The whole service, in all its power, exists for the exaltation of King Jesus—from prayers, to sung worship, to sermons, to announcements, to Holy Communion, to the benediction. That, indeed, is a critical aspect of forming our theology of worship—to understand that from the opening words to the closing benediction, the entirety of the service is worship, and ought to be prepared and regarded in that way.

A critical part of this process has involved my worship leaders. We have met monthly for the past three years, praying, listening, worshipping, planning together how we might best exalt our God every Sunday. It has been a very rewarding experience to walk with them in this way, not least of which because they are a wise, discerning, and heartfelt group. Together we’ve set standards for our worship, determined which songs to sing and which to proscribe, discussed ideal rehearsal strategies, preparation strategies, and so forth. We also troubleshoot problems. At one point, about a year ago, it became clear that our Sunday members had largely stopped singing. My leaders had each been serving for years, and many of them were tired. In their exhaustion, they were attempting to keep up interest in worship by playing new songs. But the new songs, while interesting to the worship leaders, were sectioning out the congregation. In response, I placed a six-month moratorium on new songs, and insisted that we play only familiar songs in the interim. This did the trick, and within a few weeks, members were singing once again, and they have continued to sing. This provided us with a further opportunity to examine what kinds of songs we ought to be selecting, and as a result we’ve agreed as a team to only introduce new songs by mutual agreement and review. Beyond this, the chief criteria for songs in public worship are their orthodoxy and singability. Orthodoxy, because we must acknowledge the fact that sung worship is a part of the teaching ministry of the church (on the spiritual gift spectrum, I believe that worship leaders qualify as teachers); and singability because it’s in the tune that the song sticks and helps us to remember and internalize our faith. Beyond these criteria, my leaders are free to sing whatever they wish.

rocks-in-israel_getty

From Getty Images. This is the desert outside Masada in Israel. One of things people don’t realize is just how many rocks there are in Israel’s landscape–it’s so many that if they were to cry out in praise, their numbers would rival the voices of people.

Our meetings have also given us opportunity to explore our ideas of response and feedback. During one of our meetings I offered the following conversation topic: “What kinds of spiritual experiences do we expect from our congregation realistically?” From this, we had an illuminating conversation. Feedback, of course, is a curious phenomenon. We are not, of course, performers looking for personal acclaim after a given worship service. And yet, we most certainly desire to have some effect on our people. What does that effect look like? Here are some of the answers my worship leaders gave:

We want people to be humming the songs when they leave the church building. One of the great benefits of our sung worship is the way it cements truth in our hearts through song, the way a song will be remembered even when spoken words are lost.

We want people to be engaged in worship—eager to hear God’s voice in the service and after. When people show up on time, ready to worship, it makes a huge difference in the worship leader’s job. Instead of generating worship, it becomes his or her job to direct it.

We love it when we can move past the form of worship and get to the really real. Music always reflects an uncertain balance between freedom and limitation, between emotion and rationality. Weekly religious services are by nature patterned and formal, and can by virtue of their regularity begin to stifle the authentic experience of worship. It takes a special obedience, and occasionally an act of God, to move past our forms and really begin to worship.

We are encouraged when people tell us that the worship “spoke” to them, and when they thank us. Good feedback is hearing where God’s word and God’s Spirit meet a person—in this way we receive a note of encouraging return on our investment of time and effort.

We are encouraged when we have a sense that what we are doing in worship is working in tandem with what God is doing in your life. When a song speaks to a particular place, or where your presence in worship brings healing, comfort, or conviction, then we are encouraged to see that God’s hand has been present in our preparation beyond our knowledge and capacity.

We are encouraged when we can hear the congregation singing back to us. Nothing is worse than the feeling that you are alone. The problem is that our sound systems and monitors can isolate our worship teams, removing from them the awareness of the congregation’s effort. At times our enjoyment of public worship is shielded by our own technologies. But in those moments when we can hear the congregation swell, then it is a powerful reminder of the nature of the church as one body, praising Christ.

We are encouraged when we ourselves enjoy God’s presence, and when worship is fun. It is easy for the details to crowd God out of our own experiences of worship—to be so concerned with time, and how many times to repeat the chorus, and the mistake someone just made, that we forget to worship. But when we can remember to be worshippers first, and leaders second, then in those moments worship once again becomes fun.

We are encouraged when we transcend our own inhibitions and simply worship. Church services are not performances. When you stand in front of people, they are your friends, family, and coworkers. Churches inhabit political environments, pretences, and memories. Navigating all of these pressures can easily lay burdens upon worship leaders which inhibit their freedom to transcend inhibitions. But by God’s grace, we can forget all those fears and focus on Him alone.

I am, and have been, deeply impressed with the quality and dedication of my worship leaders. I have enjoyed watching God change our worship service these past years as well, to honor Himself more and more in our weekly worship. I hope, that in some small way, these simple reflections might help you in your life of worship as well.

doxology

7 comments on “Tuning Congregational Worship (On Ministry and Feedback)

  1. Melanie says:

    I really enjoyed reading this-our family has long been part of worship teams and I think you’ve hit on some important points. I would add from the other side that giving adequate attention to the spiritual life of those on the worship team is more important than anything else. When they are tired (as you mentioned in your post) perhaps they need a season of refreshment. How is your church providing support for the team-how are rehearsals arranged to allow family time and rest during the week for them? Just a couple of questions you might want to ask them.

    • jmichaelrios says:

      Hi Melanie–I couldn’t agree more about the importance of the spiritual life in worship leading! Just this past week we had a meeting and scheduled several leaders for extended breaks in the new year. I always want people to serve out of their strengths, and out of their sense of call from the Lord–not based on the dictates of the ministry!

      You mentioned that you’ve been in worship ministry for a long time–what things have you found that bring restoration to you and your family?

      • Melanie says:

        Thank you for asking-true relationship within and outside the worship team family was one thing that was especially important. It’s easy to see the worship team as a tool for Sunday morning and overlook the fact that they are also members of the flock. Another was to have built-in down times and rotation of responsibilities. Our son was a drummer and there weren’t any others available so if he needed a Sunday off, it always seemed like it was putting everyone out. I think team members are often willing to arrange their plans around the needs of the church, but there should be Sundays when they are free to make plans. This may not be remotely part of your church’s experience, but one other important aspect of relationship and ability to serve longterm is accountability. The worship leader needs to be accountable to leadership within the church and the team on a personal basis-his or her attitudes and actions toward the team, toward worship and toward perfectionism (musicians tend toward that and exhibitionism) should be checked often and if gentle correction needed, given. We have served under true servant leaders and under performers that simply channeled the need to perform to Sunday morning. That may be more than you wanted :) again-thanks for asking.

  2. JD says:

    I appreciate your attention to the importance of both orthodoxy and singability, as well as recognition that what is inspiring to the worship team may not always correlate with what is meaningful to the congregation. We had some discussion on our worship team recently about a new song that while not unorthodox, was repetitive and not very deep theologically, yet very singable in its simplicity and easily “hummable.” The worship team didn’t really care for the song, yet the congregation seemed to be moved by it. On the other hand, the worship team loved another new song because of its rich theology and musical complexity, but the congregation found it difficult to sing (and it is). The issue is not limited to new songs since the same dynamic can be seen when comparing hymns such as “Doxology” and “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” but additional care must be taken when introducing new songs to help the congregation learn and appreciate the songs with deeper theology and complex music, while not minimizing the impact of simple, easily remembered songs. Both can honor God and wise worship leaders find ways to incorporate both, as well as balancing the new with classics that have been used for centuries to praise God and edify Christians.

    • jmichaelrios says:

      We’re in complete agreement, JD! I like to imagine that singability and orthodoxy help us through the morass of hymns vs. contemporary as well–in other words, I don’t care how old or new the song is so long as it exalts King Jesus and is easily sung by the gathered congregation. Thanks for sharing!

  3. I LOVE how you said, “The problem is that our sound systems and monitors can isolate our worship teams, removing from them the awareness of the congregation’s effort. At times our enjoyment of public worship is shielded by our own technologies.” When I lead worship music, I keep one in-ear monitor out so that I still feel connected with everyone else. Now I can explain why I do that. ;-)

    • jmichaelrios says:

      Hi Temitope–I’m hopelessly behind in communicating (I’ve been moving internationally)! I’m glad that you keep one of the in-ears out. I’ll keep an eye out for others who do the same!

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