I remember as a young worship leader the first time I stood in front of our congregation, guitar in hand, ready to lead our Sunday morning worship. In our assembly of over 1000 people were professional musicians and producers, some well known Christian artists, and in general, people much more accomplished and spiritually mature than I.
It was all somewhat intimidating, but we had a great experience. The grace of God was in abundance and you could say I passed the test. Over time I progressed through various worship leader roles at the church and eventually shifted careers to join staff as the pastor of worship and arts.
That was a long time ago. In this article are my recommendations based on experience to guide the young music leader to effectively lead those who are older (or even better) than him or her in worship.
There are unique challenges for the worship leader in their 20s or early 30s to engage and impact people who are in their 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s and older. Every generation is unique in their spiritual journey, musical predilection, and expression of worship.
I would encourage you to have an open mind and not assume automatically that “older people = hymns” and “younger people = contemporary.” It’s more complex and nuanced than that. Today’s grandparents are not your grandparent’s grandparents.
So, here are suggestions in three areas that I think will be helpful to you. First is mindset, second is relationship dynamics, and finally some common-sense practical musical suggestions.
First and foremost, be confident in the role that God has placed you in and the assignment he has given you. It can be intimidating to lead older people, especially if you don’t feel like they are connecting with you. If you pursue clean hands and a pure heart, the Lord will have your back. So don’t be afraid to lead clearly, joyfully and confidently.
Second, resolve to be a good Shepherd for everyone who is in your flock. That means you must be dedicated to become a student of the unique culture of your church, and really get to know your people. Honor the history of your congregation. Continually seek the Lord about the prophetic destiny of your community. A good shepherd knows where his people have been and where they need to be going.
Finally, demonstrate a humble and teachable leadership style. Don’t be a hot-shot know-it-all. Ask for feedback and input. Determine to lead worship in such a way that it is a great experience for everybody.
Be respectful, sensitive, and agreeable, but don’t feel like you have to be a people pleaser. It’s not possible. Resolve to be a God-pleaser.
Show a genuine interest in connecting with the people in your congregation off the platform. Develop empathy for them. Learn who they are. This may be difficult or impossible in a very large church, but the mentality you should embrace is to know your people as best you can. Greet them before and after the services, talk with them in the hallways. As Andy Stanley advises, do for a few what you would like to do for many.
Next, smile! A lot. Growing up, my mom would tell me, “Robert, stand up straight and tall, look people in the eye, and smile.” That’s pretty good advice, and a good starting place for leading worship.
Make an effort to dress for the culture. Typically, a contemporary service has a casual dress code. For a traditional service in a formal sanctuary, it may be more appropriate to wear a coat and tie for men and a dress for ladies. Older people regard this as a sign of respect. Pay attention and be sensitive to how your appearance impacts people. Don’t be let your apparel be a distraction. And guys, don’t wear a hat in a traditional service.
Most importantly, be wise and spirit-led regarding changes and innovations for worship traditions. Hopefully your older worshipers will understand change is healthy and inevitable, but do so incrementally and sensitively. Blend the new with the old when you can.
7 Common Sense Practical Musical Tips
1. For older worshipers, probably the number one complaint about modern rock worship music is it hurts their ears. Older ears are sensitive not only to volume but also to harsh and bright frequencies. These would be in the 2K to 8K range depending on your room and the sound sources. Usually that’s going to be your snare drum and crunchy distorted electric guitar.
There’s a couple things you can do. First try to tame the sound at the source. Deaden the snare a bit. Have the guitarist mellow out his tone. Second, have your sound technician dial out harsh frequencies in the mix with a -3 to -9db cut.
2. Older people don’t want to fight the band and will stop singing if they can’t hear themselves. Add some air to your arrangements. Drop out the band for a verse and a chorus and let it just be voices singing. That’ll create some sonic space and maybe even encourage people to sing louder.
3. Use a less intense instrumentation of the song. If you’re doing four songs in a set, make one of them have much cleaner sound sources so there’s more space and the sound is less dense. For example, swap out the slamming kick and snare for the cajon, use a nylon string guitar instead of electric.
4. Lower the key of the song. Yes, older voices lose some range. From “C to shining C” is a good rule of thumb. By the way, many of the hymns in our hymnal are pitched too high for today’s singers. If you transpose them down a step or two, they will be much more singable and sound less screechy.
5. Familiar hymns are good to mix in your song rotation regularly. Find out and include the classics from your church’s unique song history.
6. Make it easy for older people to sing along with your songs. Simple melodies and straight, easy-to-anticipate rhythms are better than octave and a half jumps and tricky syncopation. (By the way, this tip works effectively for children too!)
7. Intelligent, theologically sound texts are better than vague emotionalism. For the older worshiper, there should be no confusion about the message of the song. If it’s not clear and very solid, use a different song.
Older people want to be a blessing to the younger generation. They are pulling for you to be successful. If you develop a confident yet teachable mindset, practice good relational dynamics, and make some common-sense musical decisions, you can be extremely successful at engaging the older worshipers in your church.
How about you? What thoughts would you add to this? What has been your experience with any of the tips in this article?
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