I recently attended a Christian conference in which the sessions each opened in corporate worship. The music leaders were top-notch musicians and very sincere. The quality of the music was excellent, but I found myself rather disconnected from worship most of those times. After the conference, I tried to take stock of my experience to figure out what happened, and that brought me back to this list of rather common mistakes worship leaders (including me) make.
The New Testament does not speak directly to the “mechanics” of worship leadership, but it does speak to worship in the churches. I believe Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 14:26-35 can actually help worship leaders more than we might realize:
What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church. If anyone speaks in a tongue, two–or at the most three–should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God. Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. For God is not a God of disorder but of peace.
We can identify three principles from these words that can guide our decisions in some very important areas:
- Everyone present in a worship service should be engaged in worship, if not individually then at least corporately.
- Everything done in a worship service should serve to build up the body by instructing, encouraging, and glorifying God.
- The overall vibe of a worship service should be one of peace and order.
Now, how do we translate those into specific actions that will help us do our jobs? Here is a nonexhaustive list that comes to mind:
- Have a meaningful relationship with your church members.
The people leading worship at that conference did not know us, and that is not their fault. And that tells me that our relationships with our church members is the difference between the attitude that we are hired to do a job and the understanding that we are all the church worshiping God together. That takes time and energy, and it is crucial to our effectiveness in leading worship that engages the people.
- Involve as many church members as you can in leading an element of worship.
Your church is probably too large for everyone to “bring a song” every week, but with some planning, you can uniquely engage many church members in worship over the course of a year through Scripture reading, testimonies, prayers, readers’ theater, instruments, and even announcements. The more church members involved, the more your church will see worship as a work of the people.
- Set your lay leaders up for success through your hard work and preparation.
You know what tends to cause disorder, distraction, and disengagement in worship: major fails. Yes, sometimes people make mistakes, but often those mistakes occur because a lay member who does not have a lot of experience in worship leadership was not adequately prepared for his or her role. Talk through that person’s role one-on-one. Make sure every musician has exactly the music he or she needs. Make sure the techs and pastors know the whole plan.
- Do as much rehearsal as necessary so that every leader’s focus stays on God.
The more complex a service, the more opportunities for distractions and breakdowns. Rehearse (more than just the music) as much as necessary so everyone plays a God-honoring role. But do not over-rehearse such that the people see their involvement as a performance rather than their own worship of God. That is a fine line that you must be aware of as the leader.
- Make music choices that engage your congregation.
Frankly, it does not matter what your vocal range and musical interests are. It only matters the range and interests of your church body. Most people cannot sing very high (certainly above an Eb) or very low (below an A). The moment someone gets to a note he cannot sing, he disengages. Choose a singable key for every song, even if it throws off the “perfect” medley. And make sure you are choosing songs that relate to your congregation. If you introduce something new, balance it with something very familiar. Keep your people engaged throughout the service.
- Be seeker-accessible but God–centered.
When Paul says that everything must be done for strengthening (or edification), he means to build up the church in discipleship. When we “dumb down” the worship service to make sure everyone feels good and wants to keep coming, we are falling short on the purpose of worship. Yes, we want even a first-time visitor to be able to follow what’s happening, but we also want to create an accurate perspective of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ in our language, our actions, and our focus.
- Intentionally lead your people through the worship service.
One of the ways you can keep people, including visitors, engaged is by giving clear instruction throughout the service. Let the people know what is about to happen and what you want them to do, and do that in as few words as possible (please). Mentally play through the entire service through the eyes of a first-time visitor and look for things that might be confusing or distracting. Unexpected musical interludes, unidentified times of silence, unindicated responses, all of those things are very distracting to visitors.
I summarize all of that into these simple words for leading worship: worship personally (that means you and your leadership team), engage the community (build up your church), and connect every individual with God (or rather remove obstacles). That is your responsibility as a worship leader. With God’s help, we can do it.
Matthew Ward is the Associate Pastor of First Baptist Church Thomson, GA after 14 years of music ministry in Missouri and Texas. He has a PhD in Baptist and Free Church Studies and is the author of Pure Worship (Pickwick, 2014). He is married to Shelly, and they have two kids, Micah and Sarah.