Ethos and Pathos
Biblical leadership is essential to corporate worship, and to living in community with one another. A mistaken notion is to describe the role of pastoral musician as the lead worshiper, rather than the Worship Leader.
A lead worshiper does not actively lead, but rather behaves as one of the congregation who just happens to be worshiping in front of others. Though the humility of this concept is good, the concept itself is neither biblical nor leadership.
God works through leaders. Though skills alone will not make a good Worship Leader, without good skills even the most sincere, pious and theologically sound leader will become a distraction to the worship event. The skills to which I refer are those words and gestures which direct worshipers through the various responses of corporate worship, which include singing, praying, moving and meditating.
The ancient art of oratory has roots in Aristotle’s text entitled Rhetoric, which includes three necessary ingredients for a successful presentation: ethos, pathos and logos. I will borrow two of these terms to address the presentational skills necessary to the role of worship leading. Ethos will address the non-verbal communication skills, while pathos will speak to the verbal skills and style of the worship leader.
Some may contend that these skills should flow naturally out of a humble and sincere heart, and others may bristle at the thought of addressing the more physical issues of worship leading. On the contrary, just as skill can be present without spirit and heart, so can a leader’s passion be masked and hindered by a lack of skill. Developing certain public communication skills are neither an attempt to deceive nor to look good, but rather, to accurately reflect the heart of the worship leader. If development of skill can remove certain obstacles for worshipers, it is a worthy use of one’s efforts.
In the classical sense, ethos had to do with the perceived ethical character of the
speaker (is the speaker believable?) and this perception is communicated in non-verbal way. In the typical worship setting, the leader stands on a platform of some sort, while the people sit in classroom fashion (in pews or chairs) on a level lower than the platform. This separation places the leader at what is termed “public distance,” wherein one’s gestures become more important and symbolic than at closer “social” or “intimate” distances. This separation makes it more difficult for worshipers to see and follow, and therefore certain adjustments must be incorporated into the leading of worship.
The face, eyes and hands, for example, are key points that communicate both authenticity and sincerity. Students of worship leadership need to ascertain whether they are perceived as authentic and sincere, since distance distorts certain visual cues.
Obviously, there is a huge difference between actually being sincere, and just looking sincere, and it is entirely possible for a sincere person to appear insincere. When these distorted cues are perceived, there may appear to be a disconnect between what is said and what is communicated physically. John Wesley calls this the “silent language” that must be “well adjusted to the subject, as well as to the passion which you desire either to express or excite.”
Therefore, poise, facial expression, eye contact and room coverage are elements that must be considered in improving the ethos of an aspiring worship leader. The employment of videotape is invaluable in this regard, in order to objectively assess oneself.
The “close” phase of public distance is approximately twelve to twenty-five feet, and is more suited to informal gatherings. The “far” phase of public distance is twenty-five feet or more, and resembles most worship settings. At this distance, postural shifts are as important as spoken directives, and both speech and movement must be in agreement with one another.
A postural shift involves at least half the body, and signals the end of a section or a response. Effective worship leaders anticipate these natural breaks as they lead people toward the appropriate and desired responses.
Gesture, social distance and posture are very cultural expressions, and communicate different meanings to different People groups. Still, gestures seem to be a universal tool (even if the meanings differ), and are often divided into two categories.
Notational gestures are gestures that communicate, and are entwined closely with speech. They are a visual, kinesthetic type of movement that serves to undergird what is being said, like stretching out your hands when saying something is “huge.”
Referential gestures have more to do with signaling than with speech. These gestures give direction and are an asset when conducting worship at the public distance. For example, well-used referential gestures can signal the congregation to stand (a lifting motion) or sit (a deliberate lowering hand motion), sing with or echo (pointing to yourself or the congregation), sing loud (as a conductor signals forte) or listen (cupping the ear), without saying a word. The more that can be communicated by gesture, the less verbal direction the worship leader will need to give, thereby lessening possible distraction.
The term pathos provides a platform from which to discuss the verbal skills necessary for effective worship leadership. Pathos generally refers to the way a leader appeals to the emotions, sympathies, or imagination of the worshipper. It is never acceptable to manipulate or toy with people’s emotions. Rather, utilizing pathos effectively means personalizing the message so that others can respond.
Good Worship Leaders are inviting and encouraging. They facilitate, but do not dominate a service. They don’t give the impression that others have to feel what they feel. Pathos is the synthesis of both cognitive and affective (emotional) response, where what is said and how it is said combine to form a bridge on which the listening mind and receiving heart can encounter one another. A poetic tongue is required to help the community to recognize both its jeopardy and its yearning for God.
Worshipers are usually able to discern whether a leader’s words and message are in harmony with one another. Therefore, material must be mastered, so that one’s passion and confidence will encourage others to follow. Stammering and meandering show a lack of preparation and respect for this priestly role, and no one wants to follow a leader who is uncertain, or worse, lost.
Also, since the Worship Leader must love the people he or she is shepherding, the leader should look at the people when leading. This is contrary to the practices of many song leaders who shut their eyes while leading, either to demonstrate focus, or because they are caught-up in their own experience. Visually, leaders should not merely sweep the room, though this is preferable to staring down at notes. Rather, they should pick individuals to speak to, and complete a thought with that one person.
Finally, worship leaders should use a tone of speaking that is pastoral and inviting. Mastery of good microphone technique is necessary in this regard, and must be taught and practiced. While tone is important, it must not become a tool to manipulate. It is not the responsibility of leaders to make God look good, or to verbally excite worshipers. Rather, the authentic presentation of revelation, united to confident and clear leadership, is all that is needed of a Worship Leader.
This article is an excerpt from the book The Making of a Worship Leader and is used by permission.
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