A Gift for Leading Worship

This article was previously published in Different Voices magazine.

Suzanne Butler explores the skills necessary to become an effective worship leader.

What comes into your mind if I refer to ‘worship leading’? Does it evoke a particular style of music, a person, or a certain type of church? If I’m honest, my first association would be as follows: a young(ish) man with a shiny acoustic guitar and a pleasant singing voice, inviting the congregation to enter ‘a time of worship’ and murmuring prayers over the song links with his eyes screwed up in a super-spiritual manner!

You might say this is a narrow and somewhat facetious view of worship leading – and you’d be right. All I can say in my defence is that my ‘mental model’ was sturdily constructed during my student years at an evangelical city-centre church, where earnest young musicians were in plentiful supply. However, I am now aware that there are many other definitions and styles of worship leading. Attempting to describe them all is out of my scope here, but here is a catch-all summary to get us started off.

Leading Worship: various definitions

  1. Being ‘front-person’ for a praise band, or leading alone with guitar or keyboard if there is nobody else around
  2. Maintaining the flow of a service of worship, by coordinating the people involved and announcing different songs, readings etc (often the minister/priest/pastor)
  3. Someone who takes the ‘cantor’ or ‘precentor’ role in certain styles of vocal music
  4. The person who chooses and leads the music, and possibly helps decide the overall shape and theme of a service
  5. Some combination of 1-4 above!

Whatever the role involves in your church situation, the first comment to make is that worship leading is a very important job, and can actually make – or break – the experience of worship for the congregation. ‘So, no pressure then?’ I hear you say! It’s true that this knowledge can be intimidating if you are leading, or are responsible for someone else taking on the job: I still experience sweaty Sunday morning moments in my own small friendly church, and that’s despite quite a few years of experience. However, the second comment is that I reckon it is better to be nervous than blasé. If you feel inexperienced, or overwhelmed by the implications of leading then at least you are approaching it from an attitude of humility and reverence: surely a more spiritually sound position than feeling you are totally in control, or that ‘it’s just another job to be done’ to keep the Sunday ritual moving along as usual!

Let’s look at the two main aspects of the ‘worship leading’ role that most people would agree on: the musical and the liturgical.

Leading the music

Here are a few key considerations for anyone taking on this role.

  • Are you reasonably confident and knowledgeable on the basics of music theory, structure and performance, whether you have trained formally or simply learned through experience? If not, you may struggle to direct other musicians on questions of chords, keys, tempos and style.
  • Do you know the current musical repertoire of your church? Though you might be itching to introduce fresh material , you need to stick to familiar songs for the first while. Even the most adventurous congregation won’t cope with new songs every week. ‘Too much new stuff’ must be the number one complaint levelled against music leaders, particularly by older members.
  • It isn’t essential to play piano or guitar, but these instruments are the most versatile for providing accompaniment for a wide variety of songs. If you don’t play either of these you might need to find a musical partner, or ensure that you have enough musicians week by week to support you. This is not to say that well-led unaccompanied singing isn’t wonderful, but it is nice to have the choice!
  • If you do play an instrument, make sure you practise enough so that you are able to play smoothly while still being mindful of the other musicians and the congregation. Beware the effect that Sunday-morning nerves can have on what you thought was a well-prepared piece. If you sing as well, make sure you practise singing and playing at the same time. Perfection is not essential, but too many mistakes can spoil the atmosphere as everyone tenses for the next musical blooper. Remember to think through anything you need to say in teaching or introducing a song. Unless you are a gifted improviser, lack of preparation can lead to ‘waffling’ or being lost for words, especially if you are feeling nervous.

Leading Liturgy/Services

  • This role suits those who enjoy making plans in advance, working with other people and balancing structure and creativity. If none of these appeal to you, ask someone else to do the job!
  • While you may not be singing or leading the music, your vocal skills are important. Practise speaking clearly and expressively and with a microphone if used. Go over readings to enhance meaning and expression, and practise unfamiliar words. Pay attention to your body language – ask a trusted person whether you come over as friendly, open and confident. Stance, eye contact, and gestures are key elements of communication.
  • Spend a good while operating within the existing culture, atmosphere and personalities of the church community before starting any gradual programme of positive change to the style and content of worship. Sudden change can feel threatening and disrespectful.
  • Part of your role may be to choreograph the whole worship event. Even small details such as how you invite people to stand or sit, or a few too many announcements, can get in the way of worship. Christine A. Chakoian, who writes for the Reformed Worship web site, says: ‘A poorly prepared leader makes people terribly uncomfortable and invites them to worry about the worship leader rather than focus on worship. So even if you don’t know what you’re supposed to do next, fake it. Look like you know. Someone has to lead—and in this case, it’s you’.

General worship leading points

Put time and effort into developing relationships with the musicians, the leadership team and the church family as a whole. Whether you are largely responsible for the whole service, or are just leading songs chosen by someone else, their confidence, respect and warmth of regard for you is paramount. Being a fabulous musician or gifted public speaker does not compensate for poor people skills. In many churches, worship can seem tightly controlled with little room for participation or ideas from others. If you are currently on the sidelines but keen to see some changes, consider prayerfully how you could offer help in a constructive and sensitive way – you might be welcomed with open arms.

Regarding your maturity of faith, I would be the last person to say you need to be a spiritual giant or theological expert in order to facilitate others’ worship. However, at the very least you should have an enthusiasm for, and a commitment to, working with God’s people as you seek to worship together. If you are feeling spiritually lifeless or discouraged, leading could make you – and the congregation – feel bad. If you are struggling through lack of skill or experience don’t be afraid to admit this and seek some help.

As Christine Chakoian summarises, ‘The goal of worship leaders, then, is not to star in a great performance, but rather to become transparent prompters who help focus worship on God. How does that happen? By eliminating both the stumbling blocks and the theatrics that draw attention to the leader and away from God’.

Worship leading is an important and multi-faceted role. I’ve recommended one or two places to get more information (below). There is no substitute for observing a good leader and entering into that positive experience, so if your own church is at an early stage why not pay a visit to other places and take in a variety of styles. If you have questions or problems, please write or email us at DV and we’ll try to help.

Recommended Reading

Worship Central – lots of info about the contemporary worship scene, blogs on good practice, events and resources.

Reformed Worship – a very useful and extensive site for anyone involved in planning and leading worship; from a Reformed/Presbyterian/Congregational perspective. Christine Chakoian’s article ‘When you lead worship: practical advice for worship leaders’ (resources/issue 21) is a good summary of the required skills.

Book: Worship Matters by Bob Kauflin (April 2008, Crossway); I have not read this myself, but it was recommended by several worship leaders on various online forums. Bob says: ‘I wrote Worship Matters primarily for people involved in leading corporate worship, but I’ve been told that it’s helpful for anyone who wants to grow in their understanding and practice of biblical worship’.