Practicalities of Worship Leading
Written by John Risbridger
Good worship needs a lot of thought in advance; and it needs good communication between you as the worship leader and the preacher, the musicians, and above all the Lord!
When the Lord first called Israel to be a worshipping community (you can read all about it in Exodus), he gave them his Word in the law, to which they were to respond with obedient faith, and his presence in the tabernacle, which they were to embrace with reverent joy. These two realities stand at the heart of what it means be a worshipping community, coming to their fulfilment in Jesus the Word made flesh, who came and 'set up his tabernacle among us' and called us to worship 'in Spirit and truth'.
Truly biblical worship, therefore, will always be shaped by the truth of God's Word and the experience of his presence, now opened to us through the cross and by the Holy Spirit. Worship is not a bridge we build out to God; it is a response to the initiative God has taken to us, as we respond to his revelation of himself, by the Spirit he has given to us. The following notes try to help us work out these principles very simply in practice.
Our aim as worship leaders must be to draw attention to some aspect of God's revelation of himself in Scripture, and then help our fellow-worshippers to respond to it. (Hence, just saying `Let's stand up and sing` is probably not the best way to start!) So there will need to be content in our worship (eg a theme, a sense of progression, a psalm, a sequence which makes sense); and there will need to be ways for everyone to express their response to this. The kind of response we are looking for is whole-person: response of the intellect, the emotions, the will, and afterwards in our behaviours. Our expectation should neither be merely of intense emotion nor cold formality, but of a true engaging with God himself.
1. Don’t begin your planning with your favourite songs. Instead, begin with the meeting’s passage and/or title, and prayerfully consider what would be ‘worship that makes sense’ around that theme. If there isn’t already such a theme, start with a theme or psalm or song sequence that have come to you in prayer, in your own study of Scripture, from a new song you are teaching, or from where you know people are at. Some examples might be:
- The Kingship of Jesus: his sovereignty, for instance in our suffering, and our submission to him
- The love of God: the security it gives us; its cost in the cross; its power to change us; our commitment to show it
- The holiness of God: his transcendence (and yet we can know him through the cross); his purity; his justice; his holiness reflected in his people
- Mission: the universal kingship of Jesus; his call to us to share in his mission; our commitment; our assurance about its end
- The cross: the holiness of God and the love of God, meeting in the cross; salvation through the cross.
Or we might simply follow the themes of a key Bible verse or paragraph, eg Hebrews 2.
Our role as worship leaders is not to convey lots of information (like a sermon will), but to direct people with a very few words to things they know, and then to help them respond to God in prayer, song, quiet, etc. Try to discuss your plan with the speaker, especially about where they intend their talk to `land`; discuss how you can help them, not by preaching their sermon or repeating it or competing with it, but by complementing it with relevant themes and helping people to respond.
Remember what the essence of worship is - response to God's revelation of himself. (That is why there may be a lot to be said for having the main time of sung worship after the talk.) Worship doesn't take place in a vacuum - 'Let's just sing a bit until we feel we're close to God'; it is a response to God. The more we understand of God's revelation of himself, the better we can respond.
2. Weave the ideas together prayerfully into a sequence that flows. This may be small blocks of songs, or one longer one. Generally, shorter songs only make sense as part of a sequence in which they help people respond to something which has already been conveyed. Longer songs are often more self-contained - but sometimes they lack the element of response.
Try to avoid a `song sandwich`; this creates a sense of something a bit rigid and formal rather than living and dynamic, and it tends to keep stopping and starting, which many people find stifling. Also, it can be too comfortable for us.
The larger the meeting, the more structure you will need. Often the songs are best linked together with a few words of Scripture, or a couple of sentences to pick up one idea and lead on to the next. Other ingredients may be liturgy, open prayer, led prayer, a poem, or a moment of silent meditation on a Scripture verse (perhaps on powerpoint).
Think hard about the tone: it may be celebration, awe, anguish, action, lament, encouragement. (The Psalms have the vocabulary for all of these!) Think especially hard about the tone at the start, and in the response at the end.
Make connections between the worship and life outside. The old testament reserves some of its harshest words for worshippers who make no such connections and so are hypocrites: look at Amos 4:4ff and Isaiah 1:11-17. And in the new testament the whole focus of worship shifts away from rituals to real life - to work, witness, character and obedience. So don't let people simply have a nice time when they worship; they are worshipping a holy God who knows all about them. Let his word challenge them, even as you lead them in worship.
Worship is not confined to music, so music is not essential if it seems culturally inappropriate (eg in a 'seeker service'), or if it doesn't work (eg in a small group). But God's people have always found music a vital vehicle for expressing their response to God (eg the Psalms), and we shouldn't throw it out too easily.
There is no single `right style` of worship; we all express our response to God within our own cultural background and preferences. Indeed, if worship is for the real world, we don't want our worship style to be disconnected from it. There is huge variety in the worship in Scripture: look at Psalm 95:1-7, Psalm 100, Psalm 96:9, Exodus 34:8, Hebrews 12:28, Deuteronomy 26:10, Psalm 134, Psalm 47:1, and Romans 12:1. So it’s important that we are ourselves when we worship and don't just try to copy what we’ve seen others do; God doesn't want us to try to be Matt Redman or Don Carson, he wants us to be ourselves. However, sensitivity to the preferences of others is not a copout, it is part of our freedom as Christians to be cross-cultural (1 Cor 9:19-22), and also part of our responsibility to give preference to the needs of others.
3. Put the ‘flow’ into a timed ‘skeleton’ for the service, which includes the essential and non-negotiable elements - sermon, Bible reading, prayers, news and notices, offering etc.
Fill in the blocks of songs, using good musicians to help you choose appropriate songs which address the theme and fit musically.
4. Check and adjust the timings, and write out your running order. It’s helpful for the musicians – but use it as a guide, not a straitjacket! Talk it all through with the musicians. Communicating well with them – and with the techies - is crucial, preferably well in advance. Concentrate especially on:
- Any new songs (keep these coming - have a New Songs list and try to use them regularly if they're any good – but they will need to be taught well or they will fall flat)
- Links: voiceovers, breaks, possible repetitions, songs with no introduction, etc.
- Any creative ways of using the music: music-only verses, unaccompanied verses (eg at the start of a song), solos
- Who plays when and who plays what - it's best not to have everyone playing all the time, and it's best not to have everyone playing the tune.
- If there's any uncertainty about arrangements, let one instrument (a guitar or keyboard) begin and end the song; others can join in afterwards.
- Make sure you know each other's signs!
- Decide who is in charge of rehearsal, and who is charge on the day.
- Pray together!
We musicians are a complex lot; all of us think our way is best! Our desire must be for the humility that is so greatly valued by God– for skill (1 Chron 15:16,22), but not exhibitionism. Musical ability (Psa 33:3) and good teamwork are both crucial. So have good ideas, but don’t be precious about them; openness to feedback is the only way for us to grow in excellence.
There is great benefit in growing familiar with a small music team and working together especially on things like introductions and endings, and how to teach a new song.
5. Make sure that you've got everything you need to hand (eg songwords, Scripture verses etc).
6. Pray and expect God to be at work!
The Art of Leading
There is much more to leading worship than announcing song numbers. Leading worship is leading others in responding to God. So:
1. Don't be afraid to lead clearly. God does believe in leadership! As a leader you are not `getting in the way` of God. Leading is right so long as it’s servant leadership, not dominating people. It's okay to say clearly what you want people to do; too much uncertainty can hinder some people from worshipping.
2. Try and keep the flow. The worship flow is often smoothest if you can lead vocally (ie sing!) - especially the beginnings, repeats, and endings. But the musicians also play a great part in those links. Good communication between musicians and leader is vital so that they know what you are doing, painful silences can be avoided, and flexibility is retained. It helps to develop a discreet system of signs that you all understand, for example for `Cut`, `Repeat`, or `Keep going with voice over`. It has to be the job of one musician to interpret the sign and then lead the others.
3. Try to keep putting yourself in the shoes of the congregation. Be aware that, when you are leading worship, you are generally thinking one step ahead of everybody else. When you get to the end of one song you are thinking about the next one, while everyone else is still in the previous one. If for example you’ve just sung 'Who O Lord Could Save Themselves` and there's a kind of hush as people are thinking about what God has done for them, and then you launch straight in with 'Now we're going to sing “God of justice”', the whole thing can come to an awkward halt. Try rather to express some of what the congregation is thinking and feeling, by praying, or reading a Scripture, or just saying a couple of sentences; and only then move them on.
© John Risbridger
John Risbridger is the senior minister and team leader of Above Bar Church in Southampton. Above Bar is the hub for Living Leadership’s School of Missional Discipleship on the south coast.