Aristotle said, “Music has the power to shape a culture.” An advocate for congregational singing, Martin Luther said, “Next to theology, I give the first and highest honor to music.” Realizing the power of congregational participation as Saddleback began to explode with growth, Pastor Rick Warren wrote, “In the first years of Saddleback, I made the mistake of underestimating the power of music, so I minimized the use of music in our services. I regret that now.” One of the purposes of the church is gathering together to engage
in worship.

Many churches have lost the gift and joy of congregational engagement in worship.

Is your congregation singing, or just watching during worship? Many churches have lost the gift and joy of congregational engagement in worship. This can be frustrating, but it’s not hopeless. Worship is a powerful witness, and even more powerful when it comes from the people in the seats, not just from the people on the platform. In their book, Lovin’ on Jesus, Swee Hong Lim and Lester note that participation is a marker of contemporary Christian music. Rory Noland writes, “Worship is participatory; it is not something done to me by a worship band.” In fact, congregational singing is imbedded into the spiritual DNA of the church. In this article, I will show you how to choose great songs for your church and how to ENGAGE your people to sing more during worship. First let’s look at a very brief history of singing to God in the church.

Ryrie writes, “The New Testament exhorts both private and public singing as a facet of worship.” The biblical and historical evidence points to the importance of congregational singing. Historically, the worship song’s music and lyric has been vital to the congregational singing experience. After the songs from the early church were written, dating back to the third and fourth centuries, composers like Ambrose of Milan valued congregational singing and wrote specifically to encourage participation using musically simple songs. The Council of Laodicea (363-364 AD) halted congregational singing (in the Western Church) for one thousand years. Martin Luther’s leadership helped bring the song back to the voices of the congregation. In 1903, the Pope encouraged participation in worship with his Motu Proprio decree. Lowell Mason and writers of his day wrote music in a warm devotional style, combining simplicity and dignity. Ira Sankey’s Gospel song introduced emotional terms: “The Gospel Song.” In 1963, the Second Vatican Council made congregational participation, for Catholics, much more accessible by instituting the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. The CSL allowed for the use of local language and music style in the Mass. Every movement of God has a soundtrack. The Jesus People Movement, for example, made congregational singing more accessible because Pastors encouraged songwriters to write for the movement: it’s folk melodies were easy to sing and the lyrics matched the culture.

How to Choose Your Worship Songs – 7 Tips

Choose songs with theologically correct lyrics. Watch out for songs with lyrics based first on feeling and art, and then theological accuracy. Congregational singing plays a great role in the formation of the individual’s theology. Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi!! (As we worship, so we believe!!)

Choose Scripture based songs. One of the most transforming aspects of congregational singing is memorizing scripture. The Word of God is transforming. Transformed worshippers are engaged worshippers. The Bible says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:16-17)

Music carries the message of Scripture deep into the memory of the worshipper. One of the best ways to memorize scripture is by singing scripture in songs. We know Jesus memorized scripture because he quoted it many times. When Jesus was on the cross he quoted Psalm 22:1: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Psalm 22 is a song! Jesus was quoting a song lyric on the cross. It’s important to teach people transformational songs they can sing when facing their cross.

Choose songs the congregation can sing. Not all songs were written for the congregation to sing. Watch out: if your worship team has a hard time learning the melody of a song, your congregation will most likely struggle to sing it. Songs with wide vocal ranges, challenging rhythms and difficult intervals should be avoided. Vocal ranges that are too high or low result in less congregational participation. Congregationally friendly songs are engaging.

Choose worship song lyrics the people can understand. Martin Luther wrote, “I beg you to join hands with us and make the attempt to transform a Psalm into a hymn, after the pattern I enclose. I desire, however, that newfangled words, and courtly expressions be omitted in order that the language may be the simplest and most familiar to the people.” Well-crafted lyrics and melodies are memorable and engage the hearts, minds, and voices of the congregation.

Choose familiar songs. Although the worship team enjoys learning new songs, the crowd is more interested in worshipping God than they are in learning new songs during the worship service. Worship teams need to remember their primary role is to serve God by serving the lead pastor and the congregation, not sharing new music. The congregation is more likely to participate when they don’t have to focus on learning a new song.
Choose new songs that are easy to learn and hard to forget. Be careful: singing too many new songs will diminish vocal participation (because they are learning, not singing). However, novelty (the new) is scriptural and benefits congregational participation. The Bible mentions singing a new song 6 times in the bible. (Ps 96:1, 98:1, 144:9, 149:1, Rev. 5:9, 14:3)

Choose songs that are aesthetically beautiful, impactful, and bear fruit. California Baptist University’s Professor of Composition, Glenn Pickett, teaches six things that make good music: Surprise, Clear Beginnings and Endings, Forward Motion, Building Blocks that Build Over Time, Climax, and Interesting Shape. Good music will be both beautiful and impactful. Good worship music must also bear the fruit of congregational participation and spiritual transformation.

How to E.N.G.A.G.E. Your Congregation

After choosing great songs the Worship Leader must prayerfully, intentionally, and skillfully engage the crowd in worship. The difference between and artist and a worship leader is subtle, yet profound. An artist is like a fire. Everyone watching the fire is amazed at the fire’s awesome power! All the focus is on the fire. By contrast the worship leader, instead of being the fire, lights the fire. The congregation becomes the fire that engages in red hot worship. The point of worship leading is to connect the crowd to God, not the worship team. Here are six things you and your team can do to E.N.G.A.G.E. your congregation in worship.

E. Exemplify Worship. Leaders who want to engage others in worship must first lead by example. Jesus led His disciples by His example. “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow
in his steps.” 1 Peter 2:21

Paul modeled worship when he said, “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” Phil. 4:9

The role of the worship leader and worship team is modeling true worship: be Authentic.

N. Never over-sing or play. Over-singing and playing is unfortunate, and very common, as it silences the crowd and is often a sign of unhealthy ego or inappropriate song keys. Bringing attention to ourselves is a misuse of the platform. Singing the melody, using a few ad-libs to encourage participation, is more helpful to the congregation. “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Col. 3:17

Lead in the key of the congregation.

G. Get to know your crowd. Many worship teams spend too much time in their greenrooms and not enough time in the Worship Center with the congregation. Jesus spent time with his disciples, but also spent time in the crowds… with the people: Jesus was interacting with a crowd when a woman expressed her faith in him: “If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.” Jesus turned and saw her. “Take heart, daughter,” he said, “your faith has healed you.” Matt 9:20-22

Crowd participation increases as the crowd knows their leader and team. Get out of the greenroom and spend time with the congregation.

A. Ask God to multiply your efforts and give you strength. Our resources may be limited, but God’s aren’t. “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Cor. 12:10

Engaging people in worship requires planning, preparation, God’s power, and our trusting God for the results. The best things that happen in the worship service are the things God does.

G. Give your best. Worship leaders who engage the congregation in worship know their music so well they focus on people more than programs. The bible says, “If we are leaders, we should do our best.” Romans 12:8b

I think of leading worship as a matter of life and death. Worship leaders and teams need to take their ministry seriously because it is serious. Preparation enables us to focus on people, not just the program.

E. Encourage participation. There are several ways to encourage participation: model participation; use familiar songs; put the songs in the key of the congregation; be enthusiastic; inspire others with truth, mystery and beauty; give clear instructions; lead in a way that is easy to follow; arrange the instruments and vocals in a way that encourages the congregation to participate; mix the music so the congregation can hear themselves: “O come, let us sing for joy to the LORD, Let us shout joyfully to the rock of our salvation.” Psalm 95:1

Worship leaders show their love for God and others.


  1. For centuries Christians have worshiped without a worship leader, but nearly always with musical accompaniment. “Worship leading” seems to be a recent phenomenon, relying on the microphone, and today treated as indispensable. Methinks the role of worship leading is overrated. Maybe I’ll start an activist group: “Return control to the congregation”! or maybe: “Congregational Control – Love It” (CCLI).

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