The most important voice in the room

I once had an ongoing joke with a sound guy that I was “number one” because he would usually plug my vocal mic into channel 1 on the snake at my church. As if us worship leaders need any additional help boosting our egos any higher than they already are…

I’ve often heard (and have emphasized myself) that whoever is leading worship needs to be the most dominant voice in the mix, that whoever is leading the singing should be heard above all other voices. And from a strictly technical standpoint, there is some practical wisdom in this. The “lead worshipper” is, after all, leading. And it’s much easier to follow someone when you can hear them. I have worshipped in churches where the people leading the singing could NOT be heard, and it wasn’t good. But that’s not what I’m talking about here.

What I’ve encountered all too often is that the worship leader is the ONLY voice heard in the room.

A few months ago my family and I had the opportunity to worship at a variety of different churches for a season. We covered a fairly good variety too – from churches of a few dozen people to those with over a thousand in attendance. Some of these experiences were very good; others were more, well, “meh.” As I’ve thought through what factors made an experience “good” in my opinion (which really doesn’t count for all that much; ultimately Jesus gets to decide whether worship was good or not because He’s the only one that can see the condition of our hearts), I tried to identify things that each of these experiences had in common. Here’s what I realized:

  • The “best” worship experiences for me didn’t necessarily have anything to do with production quality or the size of the church.
  • The “best” worship experiences for me had (surprisingly) very little to do with how well I knew the songs.
  • The “best” worship experiences for me had very little to do with the quality of the lead singer’s voice, his personality, the number of boutique guitar pedals on his board, or the tightness of his skinny jeans.

The worship experiences I consistently walked away from saying “wow” were simply the ones where I could hear the congregation singing. 

The answer to the question, “Who is the most important voice in the room?” should always be the church. That is, after all, the very point of the gathering. Now, here lies the challenge set before us as worship leaders, because what is equally true – and this is key – is that there isn’t a formula in order to make this happen. The things I listed above can all be helpful in encouraging people towards this goal (maybe not skinny jeans), but I’ve visited enough churches and led worship enough times to know that there isn’t any one consistent thing, that if done right, will guarantee a singing, engaged church. This is part of why, in our American Idol-spectator culture, churches need hard working, faithful worship leader/shepherds now more than ever – pastors who are committed to a congregation, who know them as family, and who understand how to best lead them in song. The temptation to settle for a “non-singing” church is, sadly, a reality these days. Yet woe to us if we ever slide into a mindset that says, “well, if I cant get them to sing at least the band sounds (or looks?) legit.”

I’ve been with a new church family now for about 3 months, and I’m still in the early stages of discovering how my new family best worships. I’m discovering what songs, styles, arrangements, etc. and things that I can do as a leader are most conducive to helping Outward Church truly become a singing church. But as I continue to learn, I hope and pray that I can always remember (and invite anyone to point me back to the fact) that my job is to shepherd the people of God – to encourage, challenge, remind, and inspire them – into experiences that really reflect the communal nature of the church. Because ultimately, the performance that takes place on Sunday mornings is infinitely less about the sound coming from any stage than it is a chorus of hearts and voices yielded to their Creator. 

Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they sang: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” (Revelation 5:11-12)

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