If you are anything like me, you landed in worship leadership quite by accident. Not by accident to God, of course, because He knows the end from the beginning, but by the kind of accident that says, “Oh, you play piano? We need you to lead worship at …” and then blows up from there. If this has happened to you, then you know that you just jumped in, trembling, with one and a half feet, and relied upon what you know: your instrument, your voice, and an arsenal of songs from CCLI’s top 100.
And you were suddenly in an assignment over your head with your line of sight not far beyond the black keys.
Chances are, you now know your voice and instrument a little better, and by the virtue of the ever-expanding World Wide Web, your song list has moved even beyond the top 100. Your music is getting better; the hours you spend searching out songs, practicing scales, memorizing lyrics and earning your chops are the meat and potatoes of a week in the office. And if you are anything like many of the worship leaders I regularly come across, these are still the things upon which you rely to plan and lead worship on a consistent basis.
So I want to challenge your planning paradigm today. If your auto-pilot method when staring at a blank worship planner is to start by plugging in a song (that new one you want to do, or that one that’s just catching on, or even that one that everyone always responds to), and then to fill in songs around it (because they flow well by theme or key or mood), I want to flip your start-point on its head for a minute. Because in that paradigm, scripture tends to be minimized, prayer can become a transition to cover over a set-change, and your voice is often the loudest in the room.
In many evangelical churches today, we’re no longer given a starting point from a common lectionary. This ‘freedom’ leaves many worship planners scratching their heads, looking for a springboard. Often, the first place we look is the theme of the message, or perhaps its central Scripture passage. And that is not a bad idea! Services that spring out from the Word of God and move deftly towards the central idea of the day’s message are often very meaningful, and help the congregation to focus in on one biblical theme. Musicians-turned-worship leaders love to run to theme browsers on worship resource sites, and to artfully weave together a song set that beautifully integrates a theme throughout the music.
But, could there be another way to plan? Are there other valuable places to begin?
How about the people?
You know them…the ones who will be there on Sunday. The ones who, on Tuesday—while you are planning—are sweating it out at a factory, or gathered around the casket of their precious departed, or pulling their hair out because the baby just won’t stop screaming. What will their heart cry be on Sunday morning when they manage to straggle into the sanctuary, worn and weary? How will they need to call out to God? What words do they need help expressing?
Or how about the ones who are returning from their honeymoon on Friday, or on Saturday are celebrating 53 years of wedded bliss, or are running to the sanctuary on Sunday for the first time alive in Christ? What will their prayer be? What words can you give them to express their joy?
This kind of planning starts not with a musician choosing keys and key changes, but with words and prayer and deep expression. This kind of planning envisions the people of God, one by one, family by family, as the pastor in you plans their time of worship. This kind of planning focuses on heart cries, and longings, and mountaintops, and valleys, and springs out in prayer and scripture before songs ever land on the planner. And it looks much more like shepherding than it does cheerleading.
If you are anything like me, you landed in worship leadership quite by accident. But it was not an accident, and God has handed you the hearts of the people in your congregation. Maybe as you plan the next service on your radar, you can try not starting with a song. Instead, start by envisioning your people, reminding yourself of their stories. Better yet, listen for heart cries as you sit by the casket with them, or take them for coffee after a long day at the factory, or pray over them at their 53rd wedding anniversary…I guarantee that worship planning will become more a joy than a task, and worship leading will become more a pastoral role than a gig.