Smile: Why Worship Band Faces Matter

Yes – Smiling Worship Bands Are Better Worship Bands

The songs are joyful. The songs are beautiful. But for a solid 30 minutes the worship leader’s face seems intense with concentration. Wait. So does the background vocalist’s face as she stares at her music stand. Why do I feel disengaged from those on the stage right now – and even from worship?

I’m scanning the stage for one smile, one engaging glance, over 30 minutes… there! I see one! The keyboard player looks up, and smiles! The room lights up.

For that moment, I feel like I am a participant in a community rather than a spectator in an audience.

Is Smiling Disingenuous?

For 25 years I’ve gotten pushback on this one. “Why should we smile? It feels forced, or contrived. Besides, if I don’t feel like it, and if I look up every once in awhile and do it, isn’t it disingenuous – or even creepy?”

No. It’s not disingenuous, contrived, or creepy. It’s leadership. It’s real. It’s community. It’s engagement. And looking up every once in awhile – with some semblance of a smile – will help you engage with God and your community in worship, as well as helping the congregation.

Why Smiling Worship Bands Are Better Worship Bands

First of all, let’s remind ourselves of the radical difference between a worship band and an artist band.

  • The worship band is there for corporate expression rather than self-expression.
  • The worship band is there to encourage us all in our faith, not just to execute the music.
  • The worship band – and every musician in it – is a leader of engaged worship.

A worship band is leading an experience that has to do with all of us. But when the band and the leader are:

  • Fixated on their chord charts
  • Looking continually intense or “semi-lost in God” (ever see the 30 minute, closed-eyes, “yearning” face?)
  • Unfamiliar with the music or feeling tentative and expressing that visually…

…it deeply affects the congregation in corporate worship.

If even one of the band members looks either uncomfortable, awkward, or semi-scared to be up there, it impacts the worship dynamic in the congregation.

You Are A Visual Leader

Please hear me. I am no fan of fake smiles and cheesy attempts to feign that something awesome is happening in the room when it isn’t. That’s not what this is about.

I have just seen, over 25 years, that if each musician looks up – even just 4-5 times during a 30 minute set – to visually connect with the congregation in a way that says “It’s good to be here together,” it changes the dynamic in the room.

I’m a leader when I am leading worship. When a band is up there with me, they are each leaders as well. Like it or not, we are more than just music leaders, prayer leaders, or technical leaders.

We are visual leaders. Every single one of us that is on a stage or in front of our congregation is a visual leader. For that reason, what we do as we face the community matters.

In the “band up front” model of worship settings (not the only one, I may add, and possibly not the best one), you are being watched.

And, silently, people are taking their cues from your face. They really are.

The community is even taking its cues, and drawing encouragement, from the drummer. With some drummers with whom I’ve played, they virtually lead the worship with their sheer exuberance, sense of worshipful engagement, and musical comfort level.

It’s not contrived – their engagement is real, it is visible, and it’s a choice they are making.

Engage Your Pleasant Face

A few things should just be laid out on the table, and may help us all realize what we’re up against. To engage our “pleasant-face” (and “having a face-that-says-I-don’t-hate-this” is not the same as having a pleasant face) is a conscious choice that comes with leadership. Pastors know it, and communicators of all stripes know it.

Here are some helps for moving forward:

  1. Avoid concentrating too hard on the music.
    The less comfortable we are with the music, the more we’ll concentrate. When we are concentrating, no one smiles, or looks pleasant. We look focused, and even busy. There are several reasons we look like we’re concentrating, but none of them are good excuses for creating a vibe of disconnection from the shared experience.
    Remedy: Get familiar with your music. Worship leaders, practice a lot the week before, and rehearse with the band when possible. Musicians, listen to the set, and learn the music at least well enough for you to look up with ease every now and again. When at all possible, with 5-6 chord MAXIMUM songs, MEMORIZE the music.
    Break through the psychological barrier that you can’t memorize songs. You can. Maybe not all of them, but many of them. Worship leaders, yes, this applies to you and I. We can memorize at least most of the music. We are often talking about 6 chords in contemporary worship music, with walk ups and walk downs.
    Memorizing music takes lots and lots of practice, over years, but that is the way our ear gets better at hearing what should come next (I am not talking about ‘winging it’ and making tons of mistakes because you’re ‘playing by ear’ – we have to learn the the correct arrangement before we can memorize it). Often we just get lazy, hug our props, and don’t put in the time it takes to do this well. Selah. (And note that next week, I may need a few lyric charts to get me through the set well.)
  2. Realize each week that everyone is, often, watching us.
    Honestly, especially if we’re on IEMs (in-ear monitors), I think that many musicians struggle to overcome an unspoken, psychological disconnect. We innocently imagine we are isolated, and unseen. We lose ourselves in our part. But that’s wrong. We are seen.
    Everyone is watching our face, at least 8-12 times (my guess) during that 30 minute set! If you or I don’t look like we want to be there, or this is uncomfortable, or it’s awkward, or that this-is-really-all-about-the-music-we-play-and-my-part-in-it, it affects the worshiping community.
    Remedy: Realize you are a visual leader, not just a musical one. Be aware that your sense of joy, or frustration, is contagious and visible. Good leadership means you have the courage to set your intensity aside to engage, and even enjoy, what is happening around you. Do it for your sake, and the sake of the community who has come together that week to worship God. They didn’t come to hear us play. They came to meet with God (Ps. 42:2).
  3. Don’t forget that you’re a leader – and we’re at war.
    This is a big one. I speak fairly often in front of crowds, and over the course of 25 years I have often had a rough night, a rough morning, a rough weekend, or a rough week (with 52 a year it happens). As a leader (a highly emotional INFP one at that), I often feel like I should change my message, or my attitude, to match my week.
    Shouldn’t everyone feel what I’m feeling? Isn’t wearing it and airing it an act of authenticity?
    As a leader, I prophesy to myself, and to those I’m speaking to, by engaging with my eyes, being passionate about the Scriptures, and smiling occasionally. I choose this not to be false – I’ve cried and been forlorn in front of my community many times (especially when we’ve experienced a death or a difficult event).
    But I make eye contact and add a smile to my communication efforts as an act of both encouragement and sheer war against the demonic forces of depression, sadness, despair, and fear that are at work in people’s lives in that room. A smile, and visual actions of engagement, can change both our attitude and that of our community (brain science tells us that smiles affect us).

What I Am Saying, And What I Am Not Saying

I am saying we should be aware of what our faces are doing when we are in front of people, and that every musician on any worship stage – especially the worship leader – needs to look up at least 3-5 times during a 30 minute set to engage with their congregation.

Looking up, with an occasional smile or pleasant face, builds a sense of community. In looking up and enjoying the moment we reach out and break down the invisible barrier between a stage and the gathered family of God.

Fight The Powers Of The Stage– For The Sake Of Community

Fight the psychological power of isolating In-Ear Monitors (turn up your crowd mic), distancing Stages (level them in your mind), armor-providing Music Stands (no more hiding) and the disconnection they can nurture.

Fight the need to “feel unseen” while leading/playing. You are not unseen. Even if a toddler closes her eyes and thinks she is invisible, she is not. It’s the same with us.

Fight those powers. We need to feel like we’re all in this moment together. And if the tech is getting in the way we don’t always need to think that losing the tech will fix a problem.

You and I can beat the tech, just like we can beat your own natural inclination to ignore what our face is doing for 30 minutes.

And in those moments when you look up, choosing connection and engagement with your community, on occasion crack something that looks remarkably like, or is even the real presence of – a smile.


Question: Why is it a struggle for worship musicians, in your experience, to engage with the wider community when playing?

Resource: The Essentials In Worship video course for worship leaders and teams further addresses some of these issues.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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12 thoughts on “Smile: Why Worship Band Faces Matter

  1. There is the other extreme to this, however. Feel free to call me a cynic but, particularly with the heavily produced, synthetic pop/guitar worship sounds a lot of churches are aiming for these days, there seems to be a competition amongst those on stage to appear the most spiritual. This often seems insincere and forced to me. Interestingly it seems to affect vocalists the most. Then again as a bass player who does church stuff as well as a lot of projects with no Christian connection at all, perhaps I’m expected to look morose.

  2. I am “worship leader” in my community and have lead/played music within the local church context for over 10 years. While I am not unsympathetic to what I believe is an honest desire on the writers behalf to see musicians serve the church by leading well, I do find myself somewhat agitated.

    Why? Not because I’m anti-smiles. Not because I disagree that musicians can be distracted or disengaged if they lack proper preparation. The reason I felt this twisting in my gut as I read was not because I thought the arguments went to far, but instead they didn’t go far enough. If the basis of the article rests in the three main points laid out in the “why” section then I humbly propose that these arguments also apply to the entire worshiping congregation. “Corporate expression”, “Encouragement”, and “leaders of worship” all hold true for the Christians in the seating area. And yet I never hear worship leaders arguing that we should all be telling the congregation that they have a responsibility to smile for the betterment of “worship dynamics”.

    Of course, you may want to push back and say “But wait, we on stage are the “real” leaders of worship, isn’t everyone supposed to look to us and follow our lead?” “Wouldn’t they smile more if they saw us smile?”. I grant you that this is unfortunately true. It’s unfortunate that we have created a church culture which has distorted the biblical act of responding in worship to the love, mercy, patience, peace, etc. of the triune God into a common act of simply responding to the verbal/physical/emotional ques of musicians on a stage.

    If everyone on stage smiles will the congregation worship “better”? No. Will their expression of worship be more honoring to God? No. Will they feel happier? Maybe! Smiles are nice to look at, and they are contagious, so I hear. But, is making people feel good the reason we “lead worship” in our church? If it is, I would humbly suggest that we have missed the point and that we should stop associating what we do so directly with the idea of worship. Perhaps we should refer to our ministry as the “pep squad” ministry for the church or something like that.

    The corporate expression of worship through song in the gathered church is a liturgical act along side all the other gathered expression of worship (fellowship, sitting under the teaching of scripture, service, communion, prayer etc.). Why is music the expression that should require smiling? Why not teaching? Should the preacher have to smile the whole time he preaches? Should Christians in the pews be expected to smile the whole time they sit under the preaching of God’s word? Why not? It’s a corporate expression of worship! I’m sure the preacher would be encouraged by it!

    Basically, I guess I think that making a big deal about what the musicians/singers facial expressions are in the context of gathered worship is an epic adventure in missing the point. It feeds into a culture of “worship ministry” that has been possessed by the spirit of entertainment. What actually matters in regards to “corporate musical worship dynamics” is no different today then it has ever been. Are we singing in worship out of a response to Father/Son/Spirit? Check! Are we singing words that true? Check! Are we singing together in unity? Check! BAM! That’s it! Every other aspect of what happens is variable and only holds personal significance.

    Am I crazy? I’d love any feedback you may have.

  3. Joshua, of course you are right, on a number of levels. You are not crazy. But here is what I would challenge. I challenge the idea that we’re all the same in our roles in community influence and leadership. Yes, every Christian should smile more. No, the pastor should not smile the entire time they are preaching (that’s a straw man, and not my point). I am saying that different roles can support the growing faith of a community – which is deeply and intrinsically connected to our emotions and our capacity to grow in emotional health over a lifetime.

    No, the people up front are not special. Yes, the people up front are special. “No”, because we are all in this together and have a responsibility to be something for each other that we cannot be for ourselves (Bonhoeffer, Life Together). “Yes”, because the way we set up communities as human beings across history places people in roles and arenas of leadership for our shared benefit.

    I full agree with virtually all that you said. I’m a big fan of the “let’s gather to worship because it’s the right thing to do, and feeling good is not the goal of our liturgy.”

    But we are emotional creatures, and this is one way we who are in specific communication roles can serve each other. When I am afraid, I choose to engage my body sometimes in an alternate action. It changes me (Lewis, The Screwtape Letters). When I occasionally (hear reverb on that) smile, because I want to or I remember that my first order habit is dominating my second order choice (Wright, Virtue), it serves others and myself.

    We have a faith that honors our emotions, and connects them to our worship while not allowing them to always lead (Willard – “Emotions are a wonderful servant, but a terrible master”).

    Leaders lead emotionally, and visually, and I would just like us to be aware of that. As someone who battled severe depression most of my life, I was occasionally encouraged by a real smile – that came naturally to someone or that they chose to give to encourage me that everything would be okay.

    In a generation that needs everything to “come naturally” to be real, I’m convinced that we’ve all but lost our ability to practice, and become proficient at, second-nature virtues.

    I practice giving thanks in everything now, as my wife is my spiritual director in this new second-order activity. It is slowly becoming a second-nature habit, that is dominating my first-nature habit. In this exchange, I am becoming a thankful person.

    My seeming emphasis on “smiling” is a gateway for my primary message of “let’s wake up and realizing we influence one another with our facial expressions.”

    Perhaps on the backend I’m also suggesting that both eye contact with our community in musical worship and smiling are good pathways to new second-nature virtues that it would be good for all of us to have.

    And yes. When I am speaking I am drawn to, and encouraged by, people who are smiling at me as I speak.

    Thanks for your insightful thoughts, Joshua. They are a welcome pause for us in this conversation, and can keep us from looking on the outward things in gathered worship, as we are so bent to do these days.

  4. Ian, I hear you. Everything, to any extreme, is forced. Yes, smiling can be forced, and I am as repulsed by that vibe coming from a leader as much as you are.

    What I am suggesting has nuance to it. And my bass players, right now, are smilers. Morose is out; and a pleasant face is the new morose and I’m-so-deep-in-God-I-can-barely-play-right-now face.

    I got playful there. I love your comment. Let’s all keep it real, but let’s grow into something – into someone – at the same time.

  5. Mark, thanks. It’s a hard topic. As in teaching theology, everyone wants you to say everything that could ever be said about a topic like this or they think you left something out intentionally!

    I love leading worship in a community where the smiles that are shared every Sunday morning are real, refreshing, and encouraging to everyone else.

    Thanks for leading that kind of encouragement among us. You live this.

  6. Dan,

    Thanks for taking the time to reply to my comment. You have obviously given a lot of time and resources to your ministry online, and I’m just some random guy who ran across your post, so I honestly do appreciate it. I also appreciate your references throughout the reply which point to what has influenced your point of view. I readily admit I am not familiar with the Wright,Virtue material on first and second nature habits, but I think I understand basically what you’re getting at.

    Please allow me a second bit of push back. As I reflected on this issue further I tried to get deeper into the heart of what bothers me about the “visual leaders” paradigm. Because as much as my rant may have painted me as some anti-leadership advocate, that couldn’t be further from the truth. I am in seminary currently studying leadership. I care deeply about the role of leadership in the community. It’s not that I disagree about the reality that our facial expressions affect others either, it undeniably does. So, what is my big problem?!

    I think the dissonance for me resides in the framing of the argument. When smiling (a pleasant look) becomes a tool and the motive is primarily influence. I’ll admit I struggle with the tension of authenticity and the power of influence that leaders wield. What is more important isn’t the right question. They are both important, I know. But perhaps we as leaders are doing a disservice to our community by focusing our influence in the wrong area here. For example, the Pharisees had influence on the people of Israel, but time and time again we see Jesus calling them out. These were people who gave their lives to “visual leadership”. Of course, God saw their hearts were not turned toward loving Him or loving others and they were condemned for it. This seems to me the inherent flaw in the framing of the issue of “visual leadership”. Love vs Legalism. You can’t emphasize loving people and end up pushing people into legalism, it’s impossible because love as a motive is the antithesis of the motive behind legalism. You can however push people toward legalism when a particular action is the emphasis, even if the desired result is positive in nature.

    So, your desires to build community, break down the invisible barrier, and encourage others are all great, and I affirm them. I just think that the “visual leadership” paradigm lends itself to legalism, and that a better paradigm might be something akin to “love leadership” (give me a break here I’m thinking out loud). The emphasis then being “let’s decide to take time before, during, after our set to look around at the community God has blessed us with the opportunity to serve and choose to lead in loveing (agape) them”. Instead of “every musician on any worship stage – especially the worship leader – needs to look up at least 3-5 times during a 30 minute set to engage with their congregation”. The upside being that musicians are now focused on the second greatest commandment AND that with the right insightful instruction they will recognize that it IS loving to smile at people to encourage them and that smiling IS a way to love people through hospitality. The downside is of course that you can’t really “manage” the way real love is expressed. The bass player might look at the congregation with an overwhelming desire to love them by praying for them while he plays, or a singer may be so full of love for those she sees that she cries half the time she’s on stage. It’s messier. There is less a leader can control visually. But, it is biblical and it changes the tone of the your leadership. Instead of questioning your musicians about how many times they looked at the congregation with a “pleasant look” that morning, you can ask how often were they were focused on loving the congregation and how were they expressing that love.

  7. Interesting article, but I for one find smiley worship leaders often look fake and insincere. But your article title is unfortunate because it sounds like it’s all about smiling, whereas you do go on to discuss the broader, and frankly much more important issues here.

    I personally don’t think smiling is that important, but positive body language and engagement with the congregation most definitely is. If the people upfront are looking bored, or unmotivated that is a problem, but why is a serious face a problem? You said it yourself – we are leaders and we are at war. The last thing on my mind on the battlefield is dazzling the enemy with my porcelain crowns, but I would definitely want to provide a strong lead and keep connected with my company.

  8. Great article and commentary by everyone. I was just having this discussion recently with our worship team, so this was timely. I was even encouraging them to smile. 🙂

    My experience has been in a combination of worship leading (16 years) and traveling music ministry (9 years in hundreds of venues), so I’ve seen lots of different worship styles and approaches, across many different denominations.

    The most effective music/worship leading I’ve ever seen has been what could be called ‘inside-out’ worship. This is not the same as passionate playing, or even singing lyrics with conviction (though those elements certainly exist in IO worship). IO worship is characterized by an outward expression of something God Spirit is *actively* doing on the inside, that is manifesting itself on the outside, leading the worshippers to focus on and worship God all the more in the corporate environment. I heard someone say to a worship leader one time, “when you worship, it doesn’t make me want to focus on you – it makes me want to focus on God”. That truly should be the ‘heart’ of worship (Matt Redman: Heart of Worship).

    Now, clearly, people do focus on those leading (to the point of the article), and we should be good stewards of that time up on stage.

    IO worship leading can be contrasted with ‘outside-in’ worship leading where it *begins and focuses on* techniques and the desired outward experience, to produce an outward response in the people, in an attempt to achieve what we want everyone to feel on the inside. This can result in an environment that is honoring God with lip service, while hearts of those leading are not where they need to be with God (Matt 15:8-9). Many times as worship leaders, we spend a lot of time focusing on the performance – the preparation for the event coming up – techniques – at the expense of closet time with God. I raise my hand as having been there many times, and having led services where my idea of what the experience should have been like ended up hindering the service. Left unchecked, outside-in worship can (many times unintentionally) manufacture an environment that in the extreme ends up becoming more man-made than God led.

    Don’t get me wrong – there is great merit to being aware of and implementing the techniques mentioned in the article. In fact, I plan to discuss it with our worship team at our next rehearsal because there’s *really good stuff* there. It’s just a matter of prioritization. We must be sure that implementing techniques never supplants, or perhaps even distracts from, pursuing God at a level that will produce authentic, Holy Spirit led worship leading from the abundance of our heart (Luke 6:45) – from the inside to the outside. If we make that the top priority, the worship team and worshippers response will flow forth naturally, in response to what God is doing there – on the inside. Then, even more smiles will come. 🙂

  9. Honestly, I wonder how many worship leaders and team members even realize what they look like when they are up front. Perhaps if someone told them, or worse….someone took a video of the service and showed it to them…they would see just what you are talking about in this blog post!

    For myself, my “default” worship look is eyes closed, with a very serious look on my face. This is even having the songs memorized by heart, and freely worshiping and leading with them. But as I have grown as a worship leader, I have realized exactly what Dan is talking about here. I routinely video myself leading (even with a cheaper video camera, during service so I can see what my congregation sees. At first (maybe even now!) it wasn’t pretty…but I could then begin to work on it!

    Then I began “leading” during my practice times at home in front of a full length mirror, working on those issues that I saw. And you know what? Even watching myself, I was more energized in my worship when I smiled and began to look like I actually enjoyed what I was doing…even during practice time! We are visual, and emotion, beings. The Lord created us this way. So it is perfectly OK to use the way He has created us to lead our congregations into His presence in a better, and yes, more authentic, way!

  10. I am not a worship leader, but part of the team. I think the hardest part of engaging with the community is their crossed arms, hard faces, and lack of emotion. lol I am not sure why there are only 2 people in the entire congregation who feel the freedom of worship. It is very uncomfortable and difficult.