Although churches offer a great variety in musical styles, there are some common features in awesome worship experiences. For those who prefer to bypass the emotional component of worship, though, it was Jesus who said to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:30)! Here’s a few important elements I have intentionally used to create engaging and inspiring worship in churches of different sizes over many years.
- Song Choice. Songs with meaningful words that focus on who Christ is and what He has done will inspire, teach and encourage. They tap emotions, rather than just describe emotions, so that the focus is on God and not the individual. Themes may sometimes be especially important in the overall structure of a worship service, but great songs will help create great worship experiences. This is sometimes hard to define, but another factor is the musicality, where a song with great light and shade will lift to a crescendo point rather than follow a bland descent to mediocrity. Light and shade is important overall, too. A well-known and timeless list-saver is an essential complement to a newer and unfamiliar song, just as a reflective song can compensate for a big anthem and a simple song can helpfully balance a complex one.
- Key Choice. It just doesn’t follow that the key of an original song or of one on a live album needs to be preserved. People change arrangements regularly and are seldom able to replicate a song precisely, anyway, so why not adjust the key to what works? The average person will typically reach a range between a low A and a high D. Songs with great longevity don’t usually break this rule. For me, there needs to be a very good reason to step outside this boundary. Worship is about promoting participation by everyone, not just presentation by a band or by professional singers who can hit the high notes. Key changes can also help to lift the feel of a song using a IV passing chord with a V bass in the new key.
- Leadership. Presentation is still important in creating a worshipful culture in churches. Great body language and enthusiasm on stage needs to be complemented by the cues of a key leader who doesn’t badger or berate, but takes people on a journey. Thawing out those who have struggled in from a busy week or a stressful morning takes a leader who recognises the time it sometimes takes for people to respond, so he or she will inspire with pastorally-sensitive encouragement. Responding, and reaching out, to God in the company of many like-minded people can see a powerful moment of engagement that needs to be felt (and not forced) by confident and gifted leadership and this can be taught where needed!
- Preparation. Spiritually passionate worship needs band members who are themselves spiritually passionate! Congregations will worship best when they are prayerful and punctual, switched on for maximum engagement. They will often need the more dedicated effort and application of a music team, though, to generate this ideal experience. Therefore, being well rehearsed is also essential, so setting a goal of using no charts or music may help to enforce this! Also, bands who are used to flowing in prophetic praise and who are comfortable with unstructured chord progressions will help more naturally to craft an atmosphere for best engagement with God. This is not about manipulation, but about bringing our best planning and effort, in a spirit of excellence, so as to optimise the environment in which God will touch people’s lives.
- Sound. Good mixing needs proactivity to deal with local building acoustics or band dynamics. Expert input can help with musical skill or sound baffling, but some important and basic principles are often overlooked. Creating space and sensitivity involves listening to each other and avoiding overplaying or showmanship, even though the tasteful use of solos and variety spots will be essential for maximum reach. All too often, drum noise dominates the stage-scape, too. Where drums dominate a band, light cane rods and brushes, or a gentler hand, will need to be used along with some feedback from others where the drummer can’t always tell how loud he or she is, anyway. Whilst overall loudness may be problematic, too, other factors that add to a jarring mix may be competing frequencies (which can be solved with a spectrum analysis and other specialised work) and then musicians competing in the same note range or singers using loose harmonies (both of which are resolved with practised attention to detail).
Finally, with anything that we value, resources of time and finance are needed in order to cultivate our best possible effort. People can feel frustrated by others who ‘let the side down’ or where unexpected circumstances thwart excellence. Some factors will be out of our control and we have to realise that a relaxed approach to doing the best we can with what we have requires us to sometimes go easy on others and on ourselves in environments that are high on volunteerism and maybe low on budget and which should, after all, be characterised by love and patience.