Thursday, August 30, 2007

Tips for Worship Leaders

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.


Daniel said...

As one who has morphed into the role of worship leader (i.e. I didn't go to school for this - I initially just wanted to play the guitar in the church band), here are some of my thoughts:

No. 5 is something I probably struggle with. I want the congregation to understand the thought behind the words to the song and I have the tendency to get too wordy. I'm working on that one.

No. 8: Yes!!! A Million times yes!

No. 9: See No. 8.

No. 10: Quite the fine line isn't it between praising God on the stringed instruments and being highlighted for a wicked cool guitar solo?

No. 11: See nos. 8 & 9

No. 12: It's vital to know where you are and the community of worshipers you are in. Our heavy metal drummer doesn't always like playing boom-chuck-boom-chuck country songs but our congregation loves it.

No. 13: Oh yeah!

No. 14: Can you chide them for looking like someoone kicked their dog week in and week out while we are all singing about how Jesus set them free? ;-)

No. 16: Females also tend to sing higher so it's harder to follow. It's not sexist, it just is ...

No. 18: 'Streets' works if you have the right congregation. Typically, it works better on the younger set even though that song was written in the mid-80s.

No. 19: You're right, not always possible, but, yeah, absolutely. For a church full of the unchurched, this actually helps them learn the Bible.

No. 22: I get aggrevated by the constant talk of counting the number of times you say "I". You're correct, it's the verbs that follow them that are more important.

No. 23: I'm screwed if I trust myself, trust me. :-)

Vitamin Z said... has a great post with some great resources right now. Check it out. Bob Kauflin has some great stuff.

Jen said...

Another great post, Jared.

As a female vocalist, I appreciate your pov about the female vocalist.

One of the things I most appreciate about our worship leader is his sense of balance - he puts together a good set of songs and integrates pertinent Scripture or some other reading. There is always prayer and he often ties the set to the message. The Gospel is always present as well.

I've taken the next semester off from the worship team because of other commitments. This post almost makes me regret that, although I know that this is what God wants me to do for now. Thanks.

David Regier said...

Can I add a # 25? If you're introducing a new song to the congregation, teach it to them. Step out of "worship" mode for just a minute, and just teach the congregation like you taught your worship team singers. At least a verse and a chorus. Maybe it breaks our idea of "flow", but when everyone realizes that they're all learning it together, they will be more confident in singing it with the band.

Thanks for the great "nuts and bolts" suggestions.

Andrew said...

No. 14: Can you chide them for looking like someoone kicked their dog week in and week out while we are all singing about how Jesus set them free? ;-)

Haha, it is really tempting isn't it? I'm certainly guilty of doing it, and I've done it more than once. However, I've learned that God will be lifted up no matter how the audience responds (and once in my chiding, I told them that). God will be lifted up no matter what.

Jen said...

david - good point. Counterpoint: when we do a new song, typically the leader/team will do the first verse and chorus twice. He won't overtly say, "Hey this is a new song," but he does give folks a chance to hear a bit of it before pressing on.

Plus our church is large enough (with 3 services) that I'm sure a song or two are always new to someone.

Jared said...

David, that's a good addition!

Daniel, I'll be honest in saying some sort of "chiding" like that may be appropriate now and then. A good worship shepherd can do it well and humbly. I was mostly referring to when a congregation is chided for not clapping enough, being "excited" enough, not raising their hands, or otherwise not responding with as much enthusiasm as an enthusiastic leader would like.

Hope that makes sense.

Anonymous said...

I wish I had more time to read all of this but I need to build the worship slides.

Daniel said...

Jared, I would never chide the congregation for not clapping (see no. 13) ;-)

When we were a smaller church in a warehouse, the clapping would seriously mess up our drummer (we're pretty white, of course, the whole county is)


Anonymous said...

Jared, A few questions here. Wouldn't it have been a bit more honest to position your "tips" as personal music/worship preferences? Did it really require twenty-four points of pontification to voice your disdain for speechifying, chiding and female-vocal gymnasticizing?
With so much commentary in the Christian and secular press regarding the lyrically lame nature of today's praise and worship music, why didn't you add a 26th point dealing with this equally conversation-worthy topic?
Just wondering.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tips! great. Thanks for sharing. We are all helpers one to the other.
God be glorified,

Anonymous said...

No arguments with any of this. At the Worship Leader Conference in Austin, I saw a lot of what you're saying about male and female leaders. It's funny. When tenors lead, the keys are impossible. Women have no choice but to either sing in the rafters or the basement. Which you can get away with when your audience is 3000 trained musicians - but not so much with the average congregation.

When women lead, you get much more singable keys...but yes, a whole lot more vocal gymnastics. So on the whole, there was more participatory worship going on when the men were leading.

Anonymous said...

Dave, yes about teaching the congregation. Nobody wants to feel like an idiot--better to at least say it's new and sing when you're ready...

Also I have trouble smiling when I'm singing about how wretched I am and I think a lot when I sing, so I tend to look like my dog's been a victim of kicking. I try to look pleasant and as much as possible, eliminate the "music concentration" sort of grimmace, but to smile for no reason, I cannot do.

Diana said...

12. and 13. made me LOL! I rarely laugh while reading a blog. Great article! I am going to go lead worship for our ladies' bible study for the first time and this was a very helpful read. Thanks for being a caring and observant audience. We musicians need you non-musicians to keep us in check. ;) God bless!

Anonymous said...

Wow this really helped me! I'm leading the worship in a big event tomorrow and was really nervous but this helped a bunch thanks! I'm a very young worship leader (14) and a girl so it makes it harder. It doesn't help that I don't have a great voice and that all my musicians are older than me. But I know that the music is for God not a concert so I just hope he'll give me the words to say to encourage the youth at this event. Thanks for writing this!