Narrowing the Worship Gap

Definition: The worship gap is the distance between your expectations and what really happens.

When I prepare and practice a worship set, I do in the light of an expectation of how the congregation will respond. Sometimes the congregation exceeds my expectations, which is absolutely fantastic. But what happens when we prepare a worship set, practice it and get a sense that God is really behind it—and then on Sunday, the congregation seems to be flat and hardly responsive? It is so easy to say that it is a bad worship day, the congregation is spiritually lazy today, there were too many distractions in the sanctuary or any other excuse that would allow us off the hook. Besides, as everyone could plainly see, we’ve done our best. Right!? Yet we know deep inside that God has given us a divine responsibility to lead worship no matter what the circumstances are. I think I have a strategy to help us narrow the gap, but it takes a new mindset about leading worship.

I would like to suggest that we consider worship leading as a functional process, having inputs and outputs. Inputs are the things that you gather together to create and perform your worship set. These include God’s direction, the lead sheets and sheet music, the musicians and vocalists, the sound equipment and the sound stage you create, your budget, your practice times and places and so on. Outputs are the worship environment you create that the congregation responds to. The figure below attempts to illustrate this worship process. As you can see, there might be a gap between our expectation and what actually happens.


To narrow the gap, we must use feedback to help us become more effective. Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community in Barrington IL, insists that on Monday the staff will review every aspect of Sunday’s service. They use feedback to narrow their gap.

Effective feedback requires two things. First, we must have our expectations clearly defined: “How did we expect the congregation to act?” Sometimes we limit our expectations of the work that God plans to do through us so we don’t disappoint others or ourselves. We must be bold like Gideon and believe God can do bigger things through our availability than we could ever do with our talent. So take a bold step and clarify your goals, then write them down in 10 to 15 words. You should have at least one objective and one subjective goal. Your written goals include an objective, i.e., “25 people raised their hands,” “4 people danced in the aisles,” “50% of the people looked introspective and contemplative when you sang ‘Refiner’s Fire’ toward the end of the set.” Examples of subjective goals are “How well did we set up the environment for worship and ministry?” “Will people have an opportunity to freely express themselves before God?” “Will people grow as worshippers as a result of this set that we are planning?” 

The second important factor for effective feedback is to observe how the congregation responds to your leadership, i.e., did you attain your goals? If you expected 150 people in the congregation to clap, literally count to see if 150 clapped. If you expected 500 members to form a praise processional meandering in and out of the aisles, did it happen? If you lead a large congregation, you will need help verifying that your goals were met. For example, ask the sound engineer to measure the loudness of the singing congregation, because worshipping congregations usually make a lot of noise. Ask your video technician to count how many people spontaneously raise their hands, dance, kneel, bow their heads or their knees. Finally, while you lead, attempt to discern the congregation’s spirit. Rate their response against your goals on a scale of 1 to 10 for each of your goals. If you are leading solo, you will be limited on what you can observe from week to week. Therefore, focus on two or three different things every week.

The feedback process takes your expectations and your observations and combines them in an analysis-targeted toward narrowing the gap. As an example, let’s say we prepare a worship set to try to get people to respond earlier in the set by starting with “Forever” followed by “Come, Now is the Time to Worship” and transitioning to “My Jesus, I Love Thee (I Know Thou Art Mine).” Let’s also write our goals down: (1) People should anticipate the next song and posture themselves accordingly, (2) During the second song’s chorus, 25% of the congregation would raise their hands, and (3) 50% of the congregation will be 100% worshipping during and after Song 3. However, when we actually lead, we observe during “Forever” that more people than usual are talking with their neighbors and are generally distracted. On the second song, there are fewer people talking, but there are a number of people struggling to worship, like it’s a chore. Finally, we observe that the congregation seems quiet. During the transitional third song, you notice that a lot of moms are fussing with their kids, and only about a third of the men are singing. Our expectation was that the first two songs would have enough energy to inspire the congregation to worship earlier, but our efforts and plans did not come to pass.

What do we consider in our analysis of the worship gap? First, consider the environment. The environment includes everything that influences people’s desire and commitment to worship. It can be the temperature, the seasons, the economy, or even politics or local or international affairs. We are responsible to control only the environments we can influence. We can’t change the economy, but we can change the temperature in the sanctuary (85 degrees is too hot, especially for men; 70 to 72 degrees is better).

If, as in our example, our congregation is consistently slow about entering into heartfelt worship, there are several possibilities, including asking the congregation before you start, “Please take care of the things that might distract you during worship right now, so we can truly dedicate ourselves as a holy offering to God in our worship time.” Or ask the congregation to start worshipping God by speaking out their praise before you start singing. Sometimes doing something unexpected helps to free a congregation of the routine of the service.

Not every adjustment will bring a positive result. We narrow the gap the same way humans learn: by successive approximations, changing little things one by one. By nibbling at the gap every week, we can narrow the worship gap over the long term.

As worship leaders, we give the congregation its primary expression of the worship. If we are not purposeful in our worship leadership, we will rarely meet our expectations, no matter how talented or anointed we are or will become. We need to prayerfully and humbly prepare our sets, minister and observe and then examine our leadership. But we also need to recognize that our worship is a partnership with the congregation to provide a unique expression of love, honor, glory, worship and praise to our Lord and King who is blessed forever. Amen.    

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John White has led contemporary worship bands since 1985. He teaches people the basics of leading worship in an 8-week course (about 20 hours total) and currently works as an optical engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab designing and building the next generation space clocks that should be accurate to one second in 30 million years. John is happily married since December 30, 1983 and has two children.