Smile: Why Worship Band Faces Matter

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.


Sheltering Mercy: Prayers Inspired by the Psalms

Sheltering Mercy, along with its companion volume, Endless Grace, helps us rediscover the rich treasures of the Psalms—through free-verse prayer renderings of their poems and hymns—as a guide to personal devotion and meditation.

The church has always used the Psalms as part of its prayer life, and they have inspired countless other prayers. This book contains 75 prayers drawn from Psalms 1-75, providing lyrical sketches of what authors Ryan Smith and Dan Wilt have seen, heard, and felt while sojourning in the Psalms. Each prayer is a response to the Psalms written in harmony with Scripture. These prayers help us quiet our hearts before God and welcome us into a safe place amid the storms of life.

This artful, poetic, and classic devotional book features compelling custom illustrations and foil-stamped hardcover binding, offering a fresh way to reflect on and pray the Psalms.