What a strange time to be a worship leader! At the time I’m writing this, most of us are heading into our fifth weekend since most states, and eventually the Federal Government, shut down all large gatherings and changed everything we thought we knew about doing ministry. At this point, I’ve actually spent more weekends at home over the last month than I usually do in a year! And the craziest part is that I’ve still been leading worship the whole time… I’ve just been doing it virtually, like most of you.
One of the most exciting things about this time has been watching churches all over our country adapt, and adapt quickly, to the use of technology to continue holding worship services and connecting with their congregations (and with people they would potentially never reach on a normal weekend!). If you’re a worship leader or pastor who’s leading through this time, let me just say that you are all doing an amazing job! The Church isn’t closed… It’s just left the building!
As a “creative,” one of the most unique and life-giving parts of this experience has been the opportunity to take a close look at what we are doing as a church, as well as what other churches are doing, in order to figure out how to best connect with our congregations right now. Given that we all are likely to remain in this situation for some time, I wanted to offer my observations and a few humble suggestions (none of us, me included, have this all figured out). If you are a pastor reading this, consider sharing it with your worship leader… or have a Zoom conversation together about the content.
A quick note: My church has chosen to pre-record our weekend services to give us as much control over the quality of the service as possible and to put us less likely to run into issues with streaming stability. Regardless of whether you’ve chosen to pre-record or livestream, these ideas still apply.
TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THIS TIME
Take advantage of this time both personally and creatively. Take advantage of the extra time with your spouse and kids. Get outdoors as often as possible. If you’re not going live on Sundays, enjoy this opportunity to worship alongside your family while you are leading your church virtually. One of my most cherished memories from this time will be hearing my 8-year-old belting out “Raise a Hallelujah” next to me on a Sunday morning!
Creativity often thrives in less than ideal circumstances. Shakespeare supposedly wrote King Lear while in quarantine; The Beatles made the Sgt. Pepper album by recording to a bunch of 4-track recorders over and over (they didn’t have the luxury we have of unlimited tracks); David wrote some amazing Psalms while in exile; and Paul wrote Philippians from prison! So don’t let your circumstances stop you from doing what you do. Use these circumstances to infuse new creative juice into your normal routine! And realize that being socially distant cannot stop the church from being the church.
IT’S OKAY TO NOT KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING
We’re all in uncharted territory, and we’re all figuring this out as we go. Allow yourself to be okay with things not being perfect, and just be proud of the fact that you’re doing the best you can and your church is behind you. And remember that your church is not looking for you to be perfect; they’re just looking for you to be yourself and to care about them.
MEET PEOPLE WHERE THEY ARE
If you already livestream your weekend services, the obvious approach is going to be to continue doing what you normally do… just without people in the room. But I can’t help but wonder if a full band on a large stage in an empty room is the most effective approach right now. The normal rationale of live streaming is to invite people online to join into an experience that’s already happening inside your building. But I think right now may be the time for the church to try to create an experience that meets people where they already are, which is in their homes.
Consider adapting your weekend experience to feel like something they could actually experience in their living room – a smaller, acoustic worship set, your pastor sitting and talking more casually with a closer, more personal camera angle. These elements can go a long way toward helping people feel like they are a part of the experience, rather than simply observing. Perhaps right now should be less about inviting people into a pre-existing experience, and more about bringing that experience to them.
LESS IS MORE
The reality of a world saturated with media is that most people have a fairly short attention span. People are used to bite-sized chunks of information. I mean, a whole new streaming service just launched based around the idea of 10 minute TV shows!
We normally sing 5-6 songs in a typical service. We’ve cut that down to two right now (three for Easter). We’ve also shortened our sermons and announcements. If “This Is Us” can tell a compelling story in 40-something minutes, so can we.
BE INTENTIONAL WITH YOUR SONG CHOICES
If you’re singing less songs (which I highly encourage right now), make every one of them count. Choose songs that play to the strengths of your team for that weekend and support the message. It’s probably a good time to stick mostly to familiar songs that you know your church already resonates with, but don’t be afraid to try something new either. Statistics show that most committed Christians attend church 1.7 times per month, so normally when you introduce a new song, it’s going to take several weekends of singing it before most of your congregation is hearing it for the first or second time. Now that everyone can watch online at their convenience, maybe it’s a great time to try that new song you’ve been considering.
CONNECT WITH YOUR PEOPLE AND CONNECT THEM TO THE MOMENT (AND THE SONG)
Intentionally plan a moment in your service (live or pre-recorded) where you can help people connect with the song they’re about to sing. Explain a lyric in the song that they may not understand (how many people actually know the history and context of the word “hosanna,” for example), or take a moment to tell them what the song means to you, or why it resonates with the moment we’re all living in right now.
This is your chance to not only sing songs but to pastor your people, and they will love the songs you sing all the more because they’ve connected with the person who’s leading them. And don’t forget to remind them to sing! It’s going to be a natural inclination of people watching at home to simply sit and watch. Remind them that this is still a time for us to join together as a church and worship, regardless of how many different locations we are in.
(And if you’re a worship leader who isn’t super comfortable with speaking, if you’re pre-recording, this is your chance to work on developing that skill. You’ve got as many takes as you need!)
A FEW BONUS TECHNICAL/PRACTICAL SUGGESTIONS:
Keep It Simple
We’re likely in this season for a while, so make sure that whatever you’re doing is going to be sustainable and consistent. Make sure your setup can be run by a very small team so you can keep the health of your people a priority.
Mic Your Acoustic Guitar
Acoustic guitar pickups solve a very real problem of helping an acoustic instrument be heard on a loud stage, but even the very best pickups do not sound as natural as simply putting a microphone in front of the instrument. If you’re doing stripped-down acoustic worship without a full drum kit and stage monitors, this is your chance to allow your acoustic guitar to actually sound the way it sounds in the room. You likely already have some small-diaphragm condenser mics for drum overheads that you’re not using right now, so grab one of those, point it somewhere around the 12th fret of your guitar, and bask in the natural sound of your guitar for a change! (If you have a particularly good sounding pickup, try using both options and pan them hard left and right in your final mix… It will sound huge.)
And Finally… Set a Good Example
Romans 13 encourages us to “be subject to the governing authorities.” Please model appropriate social distancing in your online services and keep people onscreen at least 6 feet apart. It may look much cooler and more “vibey” to have people sitting on couches together, or sitting on stools right next to each other, but now is the time that the world needs to see the church setting the example for everyone else more than they need to see how “cool” we think we are.
I know that there are emails and articles flooding inboxes every day with suggestions on how to do church online and how to minister through a crisis, so if you’ve read this far, I want to say thank you, and hopefully I haven’t simply contributed to the noise. I believe this is a chance for us as worship leaders, ministers, and creatives to make the most of a challenging situation, and I believe that if we do our best to connect well with our churches and our world during this time, we will see the fruit of this season for months and years to come.
Stay encouraged, stay healthy, and stay close to God and to each other (from 6 feet away of course) during this time!