When a Congregation Resists a Worship Leader

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The dream of every worship leader is to serve a congregation who makes their job easy. They sing every song with gusto. They never complain or gripe. They learn every song after singing it once. They’re always just begging for more. It’s like you’re in heaven every Sunday. Freedom abounds.

I suppose these kinds of congregations exist, but my hunch is that they exist, blissfully, mostly in the dreams of delusional worship leaders.

The reality of most worship leaders is that they serve congregations who don’t exactly make it easy. There are weeks, and seasons, and years of painful slogging. There are particular people who seem to relish the opportunity to criticize you. Songs fall flat. Excellent musicians don’t exactly fall out of the woodwork. And as you look out over your congregation you get the distinct impression that they’re just not that impressed and they’re just not that into you.

Congregations can tend to be, in a word, resistant. And this is the phenomenon referred to as “reality”. Real people, the people who are actually sitting in the pews on Sunday mornings, tend to like to feel safe, and tend to want to avoid having their personal sovereignty threatened. And few things threaten the personal sovereignty of people more than heartfelt worship. It gets at our pride in a unique way that’s both good for us and painful for us at the same time.

And when a worship leader faces resistance, he or she can handle it one of four ways.

First, give up. They’re resisting your leadership, so they’re all cold hearted atheists, and you should take your talents somewhere else.

Second, double down. They’re resisting your leadership, so they need to have a fire lit underneath them, and you need to rock their faces off until God sends revival.

Third, embrace the status quo. They’re resisting your leadership? You didn’t really notice. You pick some songs/hymns. You lead them. You get your paycheck. You go home. Why rock the comfortable boat?

All three of those options are tempting at different times. Most worship leaders (myself included) have chosen all of those responses at different stages.

But there’s a better option and a wiser response when you find yourself leading worship for a congregation who’s resistant: take it slow. They’re resisting your leadership, but you don’t need to give up, and you don’t want to shoot yourself in the foot by acting in a way that would make yourself the poster child of what they’re resisting. A bit of their personal sovereignty is at stake, after all, and if you try to take that space by force, there will be casualties.

So unless you’re one of those worship leaders who leads the congregation of your dreams, I suggest that you face resistance, you take it slow. Evaluate. Build trust. Serve them on their level. This isn’t you lowering yourself. It’s you incarnating yourself. And there’s a big difference.

Once you’ve done that, then you can begin to actually lead the people that are actually in your congregation. and you’ll slowly begin to see people’s personal sovereignty begin to soften in worship, creating a more conducive environment for heartfelt praise in response to the glory of God in Jesus Christ, the one who came to serve and not be served, and to set the captives free. Be encouraged that God’s longing for freedom in your congregation is unfathomably greater than yours.

11 thoughts on “When a Congregation Resists a Worship Leader

  1. Lindele Elliott January 6, 2014 / 8:27 am

    One of the ways I did this was by giving up my desire to teach a lot of new songs, and limit myself to about three or four new songs a year. I also changed the way I introduced new songs by saying “this is a new song. I’ll sing a line, and you sing it after me.” We’d do that for a couple of weeks, then the third week we’d just do it as part of the service and they’d always sing well. Taking it slow and being humble works a lot better than having an adversarial relationship with the congregation.

  2. Kevin Miller January 6, 2014 / 2:18 pm

    Taking the slow and intentional route is most certainly the best, but the difficulty is leading through the ho-hum, the lack of engagement during those seasons. Leading or performing in front of any unwilling crowd or congregation is one of the toughest things for the creative individual. Any tips on that one – when the season is long?

    • Jamie Brown January 6, 2014 / 4:06 pm

      Hey Kevin. Yes, it’s incredibly tough to lead worship for an extended ho-hum season. My “tips” (and I’m preaching to myself here too) are:
      1. Find the people who “get it” in your congregation, and ask them for their prayers, their advice, their friendship, and their support. Likewise, encourage them and make sure they know that you appreciate (and need) their presence and support.
      2. Pray over your worship space. Walk through it. Lay hands on the seats, the pews, the choir loft, the organist’s bench, the pastor’s seat, and ask God to melt the ice.
      3. Light little fires around the edges. Host mid-week or Friday night worship nights. Without the same constraints of a Sunday morning, you might enjoy the freedom to stretch out a bit more. Maybe only 5 or 10 people will come. But do things “on the side” that will create a stream (even a small stream) of vibrancy.
      4. Make sure you take breaks. When you sense that you’re frustrated with your congregation to the point that it’s coming out in your leading, that’s a sign that you need a Sunday or two off.

      • Kevin Miller January 6, 2014 / 4:16 pm

        Good stuff, Jamie. Thanks for taking the time to reply. Striving to continue to make meaningful moments for people to connect with God…

  3. William January 6, 2014 / 3:53 pm

    Hey Jamie, what exactly do you mean by “incarnating yourself”?

    • Jamie Brown January 6, 2014 / 4:11 pm

      Hey William. Yes, that is a bit of strange phrase isn’t it? By “incarnating yourself” I mean clearly identify yourself as “one of the sheep”. Your congregation needs to know that you don’t see yourself as being above them, more important than them, other-than them, arrogant, a performer, or someone who’s just doing it for a paycheck. See and be seen. Go to the potlucks. Build actual relationships. This is not only wise politically, but it’s wise spiritually and pastorally.

      • William January 6, 2014 / 4:28 pm

        Ah – makes sense, and yes, agree!

  4. Steve February 11, 2014 / 9:19 am

    For the past 3 years I have not been a regular attender at a specific church. I signed up for Worship Leader email because many of the articles interest me as a music instructor. During the past few years I visited many Protestant and Catholic (Mass) worship services. I observed and participated (soloist, choir guest and congregant) in many different worship styles.

    Community worship at churches with formal liturgical settings are usually lead by the organist (usually a pipe organ). The congregation, choir and ministers (or priests) sang traditional hymns (or chants) but the pipe organ led the songs. I cannot say everyone sang with “gusto” but I heard people around me singing and they seemed to be engaged. There were also people not singing. Attendance ranges were 100 to 1000. Generally the dynamic level of the organ increased relative to the size of the worship space.

    I visited 12 contemporary worship churches with attendance ranges from 30 to 6,000. A worship leader with backup singers plus instruments (drum set, lead and bass guitars, acoustic and electronic pianos, brass and occasional sax) or a worship leader with acoustic guitar led these congregations in worship. I’m not able to evaluate factors of room acoustics and amplification levels but the instruments and lead vocalist dominated the overall sound. People next to me sang but I could not hear them. I noticed people not singing although several seemed to be engaged in worship by hand clapping or other body movements.

    I do not intend to evaluate or rate (1-10) one worship mode over another. I’m curious about the perception of worship. Do you think individual personality affects worship? Do we all need to worship at the same or similar dynamic level?

    I’ve experienced worship at a Quaker Meeting, at churches where people raised and clapped hands and at a cathedral where the last chord of the pipe organ reverberated against limestone walls.

    I enjoy and value the exchange of ideas on this site.

    Steve

  5. Kate who isn't going to put myself out there anymore than I have... February 18, 2014 / 10:11 am

    GREAT post. My husband, as a deacon with no background in music at all, was charged two years ago with “bringing in more contemporary music,” because the dirge-like pianist who calls all the shots doesn’t trust anything not born in the Reformation era unless it’s from the 1950s, with 1970s youth-group songs like “…it only takes a spark…” throw in occasionally, and we are losing people who want to sing something else sometimes. WHAT a horrific experience this has been. We (I was a church music major 35 years ago) spend hours trying to find EPs of songs (1) in the right key for singing (2) not too much percussion (3) not too many meaningless repeats of phrases (4) God-centered, not experience-centered lyrics… and on and on and on. This is the kind of thing churches split over, and having lived through it, I can see why. We have no musicians (a couple of the pianist’s kids play strings, and we have an organist who can play a keyboard loudly…), our pastor who leads worship is half-deaf (literally), and although I can conduct I can’t sing well enough anymore to lead worship.

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