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How to Lead Those in Worship Who Don't Look Like They're Worshipping

Bobby and I recently attended Refuge SSI, a worship leader sabbatical retreat hosted by St. Simon’s Community Church on St. Simon’s Island in Georgia.  We’re thankful for God’s provision of this much-needed time away to rest and renew our hearts together with the Lord.

All of the speakers at the retreat shared vital encouragement and insights from God’s Word with the help of His Spirit. As Bobby mentioned in an earlier post, we were encouraged at the outset of the retreat to reconsider our identity as children of God and to remember that our kingdom work is empowered by our life in Christ. Striving to serve in our own strength is futile and burns us out. With this groundwork laid in our hearts, we pressed on to hear from the Lord regarding how we can better serve our congregations as we lead worship each week.

Drew Thompson, a logically-minded and gifted pastor (also a college math major), enlightened and encouraged us with practical wisdom to aid our leadership of those in our churches who are literalists, like him. He hilariously demonstrated to us what it’s like for him to engage in worship from his literalistic desire to prove something is TRUE before he agrees with it in word or deed. He gave us the example of his inner turmoil when singing Chris Tomlin’s Holy Is the Lord:

The first line of the song says, “We stand and lift up our hands.” Pastor Drew does NOT feel right singing this without literally standing and lifting his hands. What he sings MUST be true or he feels compelled NOT to sing it. So, he will either stand and lift his hands and sing this line (which he acted out for us) or he will bite his tongue until the next line, “for the joy of the Lord is our strength,” which he could easily sing because this lyrical truth is lifted directly from Scripture.

However, the next line, “We bow down and worship Him now,” creates another internal conflict unless he is actually bowing down. Although this may sound like a ridiculous predicament, there are probably logical, truth-tenacious members in our congregations who are likely, to some degree, experiencing a similar dilemma.

It’s important for worship leaders to consider such a perspective as we stand before our congregations and sing to the Lord while many in our gatherings may have a logically laborious time singing along. From where we stand, it looks like they’re simply disengaging or refusing to participate because they don’t want to, or aren’t as in awe of Jesus as we are. But maybe, just maybe, they really want to sing, but are struggling because they don’t want to lie and sing something that is literally, even if momentarily, untrue. We need to be gracious with these brothers and sisters and seek to help them as best we can.

This may include our own demonstrative participation in the worship service as we sing songs that describe lifting our hands. It may also include striking songs from our hymnal that are too abstract and possibly misinterpret or misrepresent scriptural truths. We could also take extra time to explain an oblique poetic line or an abstract concept featured in a given song to help the entire congregation understand how these words coincide with the truth of Scripture.

Another encouragement Drew gave us was to teach our people to sing. There are likely people in our churches who don’t like to sing, or don’t know how to sing, or don’t like to sing because they don’t know how to sing. He exhorted us to learn to teach our congregations to sing as we lead them in worship. He suggested that lead vocalists focus on singing the melody straight, while secondary vocalists should concentrate on singing subtler, easy to follow harmonies. More simply put, simplify your singing so the congregation can better discern the melodies and follow along, especially when introducing new songs. (I’ve written more helpful tips for worship team vocalists here.)

Finally, along these same lines, we were given a helpful example from the Refuge founder and host, Fred McKinnon. He described a recent conversation with a long-time member of his church, who always appeared to be disconnected during the worship service. Our friend discovered that this brother actually loved the worship gathering and testified that God would often powerfully minister to him through the songs being sung over him, as he quietly participated by listening. This disclosure contradicted what Fred had long thought about this member of his congregation.

It also revealed what is likely true of many members in our churches. This exchange teaches the importance of worship leaders engaging with church members, inquiring what our gathered worship times mean to them. We should eagerly and humbly seek to know how we can better serve our congregations by humbly soliciting and processing their feedback. We should also be encouraged to boldly sing out God’s truths, both to the Lord and to each other, whenever we gather because God is working mightily to speak to all who gather, regardless of each person’s visible responsiveness and participation.

Praise God for these helpful insights and instructions. May we all be encouraged to obey the Lord as we follow His Spirit, leading others in worship of Him.  

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Kristen currently leads worship in Sojourn Community Church and was featured on SojournÂ’s 2011 album The Water And The Blood: The Hymns Of Isaac Watts, Volume Two.