What I Learned from Aristotle about Leading Congregational Worship

Image Courtesy of Shutterstock

Image Courtesy of Shutterstock

Specifically, I haven’t learned anything from Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) about leading congregational worship that I didn’t learn first in Scripture.

But in his day, Aristotle sought to help speakers be more persuasive by identifying three crucial areas to keep in mind. He called them logos, ethos, and pathos.

Briefly, logos is seeking to persuade through truth. Aristotle was concerned that the speakers of his day, the sophists, focused too much on flowery language and not enough on actual content.

Ethos has to do with the character of the person speaking. Aristotle recognized that listeners tend to be influenced most by people whose character they trust.

Pathos refers to the ability to stir the emotions of your listeners. Important truths are often presented with no apparent response in the hearer. Airline attendants experience that every time they review the flight safety procedures before takeoff.

When I lead people to worship God in song, I’m seeking to persuade them that Jesus is more worthy of worship than money, possessions, sex, power, relationships, or anything else we idolize. While our trust is ultimately in the Holy Spirit to do that work in people’s hearts, the Spirit uses means. And three of those means are logos, ethos, and pathos.

A number of things can affect us emotionally when we’re singing together: a cool guitar riff, a bombastic pipe organ, fresh arrangements, skillful musicianship, a dynamic choir, being with people we love, well-executed transitions, intentional lighting. But being moved emotionally isn’t always the same thing as actually worshiping God. Worshiping God requires knowing God, which requires truth. That means that before I think about the arrangements, lighting, transitions, video clips, drum patterns, vocal harmonies, or a hundred other possible elements, I need to make sure that I’m seeking to communicate truth that is biblical, substantive, Christ-exalting, and understandable.

Logos obviously affects the lyrics of the songs I choose. Whether we’re singing objective truths about God or responding to those truths, our words should be governed and fueled by God’s Word. But logos also includes anything I say to the congregation or lead them in saying. (I did a series on that topic a while back and you can check out the first post here.) Valuing logos means I won’t assume everyone knows what we’re singing about and I’ll take time to explain words and actions. It means I won’t think I’ve done my job simply because people are excited. I’ll want to know why they’re excited.

It’s unfortunate when someone is leading worship in song and you have a hard time believing they really mean what they’re singing. It could be the plastered on smile. It might be the disconnected mumbling they do between songs. Maybe it’s the lackluster way they read Scripture or hearing them shout out the same three Christianese phrases in every song. Whatever it is, no one’s buying it.

Caring about ethos means I seek to build trust with the people I’m leading. If you lead a congregation on a regular basis it’s easier for people to get to know you. But even in that context we can fail to build trust if we’re superficial, take on a “worship leader persona” that’s distinct from who we normally are, or live in a way that contradicts what we’re singing. If I’m leading a group of people who don’t know me well, valuing ethos means I’m personal, vulnerable, and clear. I don’t hype Jesus or my band, I don’t start sweating profusely when things don’t go as planned, and I communicate out of a desire to serve rather than impress.

I’m frequently asked how to motivate a seemingly unaffected congregation. I say seemingly because you can’t always tell what’s going on in someone’s heart simply by what you see on the outside. But both Scripture and experience tell us that our emotions are generally reflected through our bodies. If you give attention to logos and ethos, people will typically be emotionally engaged. But I’ve found two other things helpful.

First, I have to be genuinely affected by the truths I’m singing and proclaiming. I have to be actually worshiping God while I’m leading others to do so, and it should be evident on my face and in my body. When I’m being led, I’ve often been moved just by seeing how engaged and passionate the leader is.  Second, we can engage people emotionally by making connections and drawing contrasts. Whenever I lead, I want to help people connect who God is and what He’s done for us in Jesus with the circumstances they find themselves in.

Are you struggling with condemnation? Jesus purchased our full forgiveness and has overcome the accuser of the brethren.
Do you worry about the future? We worship a God who is sovereign over all things, and even caused the “tragedy” of the cross to bring about our salvation.
Are you battling lust, anger, or greed? Jesus has risen from the dead and has sent his Spirit who works in us to desire and to do God’s will.

We can also engage emotions by drawing contrasts. I might ask questions like, “What would happen if this wasn’t true…if we didn’t meet together…if we were still under the wrath of God…if Jesus hadn’t risen?” Considering those questions often helps people to see why what we’re proclaiming is so crucial.

Logos, ethos, pathos. Three means the Spirit uses to lead others into a greater love for God as we sing the praises of our Savior.

Where can you grow?


11 Responses to What I Learned from Aristotle about Leading Congregational Worship

  1. Chris Yokel March 15, 2012 at 10:53 PM #

    Great reminders Bob. Ironically, I’ve been teaching these very same three principles in a writing class to college students. Interesting how applicable they are in such a different situation.

  2. Kathy Sturgis March 17, 2012 at 6:54 PM #

    Thank you for writing this article. It is what I have always known in my heart when I worship but I am not good at putting things into words. I have recognized these items in others and can tell when others are involved. I have always thot I need to becareful because it copmes off as if I am judging others. But it is neat to look in the eyes of a member of the congregation and know that they know what they are doing and they are worshipping God with me not just going through the motions of a Sunday Service. What a coneection it makes in our hearts and my hope is that such a connection pleases My Father.

  3. Chuck Clevenger March 23, 2012 at 10:55 PM #

    Good words, Bob. As I was readings your application of Aristotle’s “Logos, Ethos, Pathos” triad, I couldn’t help but think of a similar triad written by the Apostle Paul (who had read his Aristotle) — Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual songs. I think you could make a good argument that thdy’re analogous.


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