A couple of introductory points:
a) I am talking about the leading of the congregation in worship through music in the context of a worship service or gathering of believers. Every time I mention worship in this context someone tries to remind me that worship is more than music, as if I didn’t know that or didn’t believe it. I do. I firmly do. I just preached on worship a few weeks back in Element’s “Kill Your Idols” series, and while we talked about music a bit, it addressed the total life of Christ-following worship. So . . . save it.
b) I am not a worship leader. I have tried my hand at it a few times eons ago. I am not a musician. I think I can contribute some important thoughts to a casual conversation on the pastoring of worship in the Church, but it is quite likely, due to my lack of hands-on experience and lack of calling, that I have no idea what I’m talking about.
Some thoughts on the leading of worship in the churches and some tips for leadership:
1. Worship leaders, ask yourself while choosing songs and arranging a set list (and even choosing musicians), “What is the purpose of this?” You may say it is to bring people into worship of God, but everyone says that. Look at your songs, look at your arrangements, look at the people assisting you. Are they all on board with that purpose?
2. The vast majority of your congregation is not musically savvy. They need to be able to follow where you’re leading. So don’t get fancy. If you change keys, take long pauses, run words together, change tempos, go too high or too low, or don’t provide a way for those who don’t know the words to know what they’re singing, you may lose them. It may make for a great performance, highlighting the great skill and talent of you and your musicians, but worship is not a concert.
3. On that note, keep it simple. This does not mean simplistic. Contrary to popular belief, repetition is not bad. It is helpful, actually. Droning or mindless repetition is bad. But the repetition of a chorus or melody is helpful for congregants who shouldn’t have to focus on keeping up with you.
4. Remove yourself from the presentation as much as possible. Are you a rock star? Cut it out.
5. Beware of banter. Good worship leaders develop sensitive and strategic ways to shepherd their people into the worship experience. This may include explaining songs or reflecting on their meanings. Maybe it means quoting or reading Scripture. It should include interspersed prayer. It could mean a lot of things, but refrain from speechifying, from lapsing into some extended pontification between songs. Save the preaching for the preacher.
6. When you banter, be mindful of what you say. Is “Are you guys ready to have fun tonight?!” a good way to begin a worship set? It is not wrong or bad for worshipers to enjoy themselves in worship; indeed, they should. But is “fun” what you really want to call their attention to when you begin?
7. Words matter. And they matter beyond their poetic quality. What do the lyrics of the songs you’re singing say about God and about the Christian life? They do not have to be systematic theology set to music — and they probably shouldn’t be — but neither should they be vapid or borderline meaningless. It may sound pretty, but does it reflect sound doctrine?
8. Songs that highlight the gospel (sin, grace) should be treasured.
9. Music matters. Your lyrics can be straight from Scripture, but if the music is kitschy, you are condescending to your congregation. You’re not a Carnival Cruise Line, you’re in the community of Christ-followers. Your lyrics may be easy to follow and substantive, but coupled with complex, “artistic” music, and you may be singing a song best suited for performance, not corporate worship.
10. Beware of musical interludes. I don’t know what you call these exactly. Moments in the songs when singing pauses and just the music plays. Sometimes there’s a guitar solo (or in my Nashville church, it could be any kind of solo — mandolin, fiddle, organ, keyboard, whatever). These are not bad. They can be very worshipful. But they can also lapse very easily into performance mode. Are we highlighting an instrument during this time, and if so, what are we highlighting? The praising of God with stringed instruments, or the sweet licks of our rockin’ guitar god?
11. Pray with your fellow musicians and leaders before you take the stage.
12. Be mindful that you are leading a congregation in worship, which typically and ideally means a cross-section of men and women, youth and old folks, etc. Some, if not most, men may be uncomfortable singing about “going into the King’s chamber” and kissing on Jesus. Some women may be uncomfortable singing about God smiting his enemies with furious vengeance. I think, actually, there are places in worship for both sorts of songs (just as Scripture contains all sorts of portraits of our God), but be sensitive to your congregation’s needs, not necessarily to your own wants. Frequently certain types of songs resonate more with leaders and they can obsess on them; this is great if the “type” is a general theo-centric worship song, but it is bad if the type is a “making out with Jesus at Inspiration Point” worship song.
13. If you lead in a majority white congregation, telling people to “put your hands together” during a song can go terribly wrong.
14. Don’t chide worhsipers for not doing what you want them to. They are not there to respond to your performance.
15. Do ask worshipers to stand frequently. Perhaps not for the whole set, if it is a longish one. Sitting down is comfortable, but it leads to lazy, unfocused worship (in my experience).
16. This will be a controversial one: Careful with female vocalists. This will be especially tough if the worship leader herself is female. My observation over the years is that when women lead worship, because the female voice is naturally “prettier” than a male’s, there is a real temptation for congregants to stop singing along and to listen. I know this is my tendency, and I have observed it many others as well. If a woman is leading or singing, please take care not to get too performance-y. That means no going up and down the scale, or whatever you call that exaggerated Whitney-esque vocal gymnastics. This means no “ecstatic” facial contortions. And for the love of YHWH, tone down the hip swaying.
Female vocalists, mostly inadvertently and unaware, do tend to draw more attention to themselves than male. Which is not to say they can’t or shouldn’t lead worship. There are just different things to be mindful of.
17. Read theology. Read on theology of worship. Read on philosophy of worship.
18. Not all songs are created equal. Some songs may be incredibly worshipful but are not conducive to corporate worship. I love U2′s “Where the Streets Have No Name;” I find it very worshipful. But it is not a good song for corporate worship. You want worship songs that can be sung along to, not just songs that can be sung.
19. When possible, choose songs for your set list that connect to or reflect the theme or message points of the sermon. This may not always be possible, but it does enhance the perception of the worship time as part of a whole service of worship, rather than as a stand-alone element in a program.
20. Talk and work with whoever you have to to get creative with the worship service format. If you always do worship first, talk about placing the message first and worship last. And vice versa. If you have a set routine that works for your church, great. But when done in sensitive and strategic ways — as opposed to abrupt and chaotic ways — the rearranging of worship elements can provoke congregants to really focus on the worship service.
21. Worship the one living God. Is your song only vaguely directed to YHWH God? Is it only vaguely Christian? Could it be sung to Allah?
22. Some people will say don’t sing about us. I would tell them to read the Psalms. The key is not to not sings about “us,” it is to sing songs that tell the truth about us. Instead of singing about how God makes us feel, why not sing songs about our dependence on Him? Instead of singing songs celebrating the great things we have done and will do for God (which is just self-worship, actually), how about singing songs about the depth of our need and the falling short of our efforts that celebrate the great things God has done? It’s not the pronouns “I” and “we” that should be avoided; it’s certain verbs that follow them.
23. Trust the Spirit, not yourself.
24. Exalt Christ.