How a worship leader starts a service is revealing.
For so many years I fell prey to the “Good morning church, are you excited to be in the house of the Lord!?” routine. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, my greeting was largely intended to elicit a response from the congregation to satisfy my desire for demonstrative engagement. But my prompt was hinged on my words, not God’s.
We’ve all been there, Amen!? 😉
Instead of calling the church to worship using the timeless, inerrant word of God, I regularly commissioned services using my own fallible, worn-out, cliched phrases, framing them no different than a rock star would at their own concert. I know that worship isn’t about me but for years I’d kick off a service no differently than an ego-centric rock star.
Is that the best we can offer Sunday morning?
What we say off the top sets the tone for the entire service. The first words out of our mouth indicate why we’ve gathered and instruct us all on what we’ve come to do. Out of service to the people I shepherd, I’m regularly confronted by this question: “What do people need?”.
In one word: Jesus.
Not my words but God’s Word. That’s where my authority comes from, that’s where the power lies, that’s what calls us to worship in spirit and truth.
Calls to worship may be the most overlooked and ill-prepared element in a worship service. How do we turn the corner and get out of the endless “amen?” prompting cycle of worship leader shallow-talk? It all starts with turning up the dial of intentionality and preparation. A compelling call to worship has three main ingredients:
Let’s talk about each of them.
First is connection. Connection to the Word of God and connection to the people we are leading. Connection is the on-ramp of any compelling call to worship.
We’ve already established that no words of our own can turn hearts but the Word of God can make a dead heart beat again. We need to plug ourselves into the power source if we want to see the power of God displayed in our services.
My pastor and friend, Daniel Ethridge has a great illustration. When speaking of the Christian life, he says so many of us try to vacuum our homes, expecting a result without ever plugging the vacuum into an outlet. What a ridiculous way to “clean” our homes! Likewise, the clever words of a worship leader are impotent and ineffective unless they are powered by the Word of God.
Where I serve, I am often encouraging the worship leaders I coach to memorize Scriptures that call people to worship. The book of psalms is filled with such verses (Psalms 33:3, 34:3, 96, 133:1 and 150 are just a few). As you fill your mind with the Word of God and write it on your heart, it will soon become the foundation you use to gather the people you’re leading.
A compelling call to worship is connected to the Word of God but it’s also connected to the people you are leading.
How we connect to people; the words, vernacular, tone and volume we use will in part, be determined by who we are and the worship culture we serve in.
I want to take a quick bunny trail here.
God has made me to be an enthusiastic person. It doesn’t take much to get me excited. I often tell people that God never asks us to be anyone other than who he created us to be, however, in the context of our own temperaments, we ought to be dialed all the way up and redlining when we are leading others. Leaders go first. We are the permission givers on stage demonstrating what full-engagement looks like, not on behalf of those we lead, but as examples to those we lead.
So much of connecting to those we lead means dying to the worship caricatures we create in our minds. In our efforts to mimic others we look up to, we so often fail at being ourselves. God hasn’t called us to lead worship out of any other identity than the one he’s given us.
Our ability to connect on-platform with those we lead flows directly from the relationships we have with them off-platform. Shepherds ought to smell, look and talk like the sheep they lead. Many of us simply need to be ourselves. An effective call to worship ought to be authentic, conversational, honest and true to one’s self.
Start thinking of calls to worship with this question in mind: How do you connect with people at your front door? Worship leaders are doorkeepers to the house of God. Open the door wide and welcome people into God’s house in the same spirit you’d welcome them into yours.
The second ingredient in a call to worship is reflection. It hardly seems appropriate to race through a call to worship, treating it as an afterthought. For many of us, the length of what we say to start a service is determined by the intro of the first song. What a poor constraint to put on the man or woman of God tasked with calling God’s church to do the most important activity possible!
When we call people to worship we’re calling them out of distraction and into attention. People arrive distracted and part of gathering them is taking a moment to reflect on what we’re doing. Be it a pregnant pause or an honest, heartfelt, succinct response to Scripture, a reflection is the part of a call to worship where we articulate, in our own words, something of substance and value.
Consider the following example. A novice may quote Lamentations 3:22-23 in a call to worship saying,
“God’s word says, ‘Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness’. So let’s stand church and sing “Great is Thy Faithfulness”.
Is it wrong? No.
Is it weak? Yes.
It’s missing a reflection. And the call is hinged on the lackluster word, “so” as a pivot (sigh).
Now consider the same call from the same verse with a meaningful reflection added,
“God’s word says, ‘Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness’.
Our ability to even stand and sing here today is because of God’s kindness to us. Today is not just another day, but it’s a NEW day. We’ve been greeted today not with the wrath we deserve, but with compassion, love and mercy. There’s no greater reason to lift our hearts, our hands and our song. Let’s do that now and sing to the Lord.
With just a little bit of thought, preparation and intention, our call to worship has gone from cold and stagnant to compelling and significant.
Time for another quick bunny trail.
Equally important to what comprises a call to worship is “how” it’s presented. After all, worship leaders are worship leaders not worship suggesters so “how” we lead from the platform ought to illustrate our calling to lead. Leaders behave differently than followers:
a) Leaders speak with an excited, engaging, commanding tone of voice. The worship of the Most High God ought to feel more like a birthday party, not a funeral.
b) Leaders are expressive. Their countenance, gestures and movements are in agreement with what they are saying. Don’t be a visual hypocrite!
c) Leaders speak louder. They dial it up to communicate urgency and importance in what they are saying.
d) Leaders speak slower. They take the time to articulate and emphasize specific words so that everyone can clearly hear the proverbial trumpet call.
e) Leaders speak from the heart with their content memorized. There’s nothing wrong with having a prompt here and there to keep you focussed, but it’s hard for a call to worship to feel compelling when read word-for-word from the confidence monitor.
The third ingredient in a compelling call to worship is direction. After connecting people to the Word of God and reflecting upon that, we ought to be directing people to the throne room, telling them plainly the journey we’re on and the destination of pure ascription we’re headed towards. Direction is the off-ramp of any compelling call to worship.
Now we know that people enter church needing to be refocussed and reminded of what we’re here to do and who we’re here for. The tall order every worship leader faces each week is the challenge of getting people up to the top of the mountain, where the view is the best, in a matter of minutes.
Direction in a call to worship ought to reorient our hearts towards God, tuning us like a radio into His frequency, calling people to turn their back on their problems and their face to the Lord – where our help comes from (Psalm 121:1).
Direction is instruction. So often worship leaders stumble out of a call to worship because they overcomplicate it. Allow me to simplify this ingredient in a call to worship: direction is simply inviting people to worship. More often than not it’s a simple sentence inviting the congregation to engage, to sing, and to respond.
So you got your well-crafted call to worship. It’s connected, reflective and directive. What comes next?
A familiar song.
The only thing worse than a poorly-crafted call to worship is following it up with with a song no one knows. After greeting people at the door and showing them where to hang their hat, you essentially open a trap door beneath them when you follow a compelling call to worship with a new song.
Don’t alienate your congregation that way.
Instead, follow the call to worship with a song that’s easy for people to enter into worship with. Something very familiar they can sing by heart – with all their heart. The true litmus test for any effective worship leader can be summed up in one question: “Is the church singing?”
Next time you strike the gong and call God’s people to worship, bag the improv and embrace intentionality. A call to worship is more than an enthusiastic greeting designed to manufacture a response. A compelling call to worship communicates revelation and response through connection, reflection and direction.
Here’s an example of a call to worship we’ve prepared for an upcoming service at our church:
God wants to be worshipped passionately. Not just “shoulders up” worship with only our minds but with everything: our bodies, our voices, our intellect, our obedience.
John 4 teaches that TRUE worshippers worship the Father in Spirit and Truth. Spirit and truth worship is worshipping God with everything we are according to everything He is.
We call down the glory of God in this place when journey up the mountain to the place where the view is the best – the top. And it’s there at the mountain top, where we join with heaven doing what the angels do: singing TO God ABOUT God. The destination of all Biblical worship is vertical ascription: telling God that HE is worth more and that everything else is worth less.
The apostle John said it best in John 3:30: He must INCREASE and I must DECREASE.
Let’s show God how much we love Him with our obedience today.
Let’s bring to Him the kind of TRUE worship He’s asked for.
Let’s passionately, passionately PASSIONATELY worship our Savior!
Let’s empty our lungs,
Let’s exasperate our voices,
Let’s engage our whole hearts and minds
Let’s exhaust ourselves as we ascribe to Him….
The worship that He so rightfully deserves.
*Note of thanks and recognition* Some of the content of this blog entry came as a result of a meaningful and helpful conversation with my friend and fellow worship pastor, Kyle Mullett. Thank-you, Kyle for helping me think deeper about this often overlooked topic!
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