I was first drawn to the ministry of worship because I was a Musician, a vocalist, and a Christian. When you add those things together you get today’s western definition of a Worship Leader. It took me a couple years in the role before I realized this definition is a farce. I was a great Musician, but I wasn’t a Worship Leader.
As a Musician, I would focus on the type of song (tempo, style, energy) more than its content; I would consider what key in which I could best sing a song, not what was best for the congregation; I would change time signatures to make new ideas work, I would sing the obscure melody line or reach for that random high note the last time through the chorus—and I’d do it because I could. I was a Musician. I was a bad Worship Leader, not because I was a fool, but because I didn’t know better.
A New Question
Two years into my role, the church leaders made the decision to end stylistically different services and allow everyone—no matter their generation or stylistic preference—to experience the exact same service. It was this decision that would determine if I was going to be a Worship Leader who used music or if I’d remain a frustrated Musician in the role of a Worship Leader. Sometimes I think back to that first week we made the switch—I still blush at the decisions I made. But all the sweat and nerves I felt as I crammed 7 songs into a 20 minute medley (because I wanted to make everyone happy) forced me to ask a question I had never asked before: How can I get the congregation to sing?
It’s a rather simple question but it changed three major things in how I viewed my role (and ultimately brought a more holistic understanding to the title of Worship Leader):
#1. Song Selection:
I could no longer just choose songs the congregation knew, because our congregation didn’t agree on what they knew. I had to have a better reason for selecting or teaching songs. Robert Webber explained worship as “doing God’s story.” Worship needs to be a re-telling of the story of God—a rhythmic revealing of God and his nature paired with the harmonious response of the entire congregation. Webber’s pretty smart because when you begin your planning by asking, “What does my congregation need to remember about God and his story: creation, incarnation, resurrection & recreation?” it makes song selection about something greater than the song itself. Now conversations aren’t about “Do you like this song or not?” but rather, “Which song tells the story better?”
#2. Song Execution & Creativity:
As a Musician, I love coming up with new arrangements of songs. I love using unique instruments. But creativity must be tempered by functionality. If the goal is to let people engage, then you have to build trust with them. Sing songs in keys that they’ll sing best, don’t surprise them with random time signature changes, help them know when they’re about to sing by using vocal cues, don’t do instrumentals at the biggest part of the song—let THEM sing then (not just the electric guitar). But still be creative—don’t feel obligated to achieve a style or mimic a radio version; change dynamics and instrumentation, but keep the melody lines intact or teach them to your congregation for multiple weeks so they feel competent. Let your people sing!
#3. More than Singing:
Lastly, using other elements in your service besides singing can actually prompt greater engagement when you do sing. As a Musician I naturally thought first about music, lyrics, melodies, and how many songs I could fit in the time given, but a Worship Leader is a storyteller first. You can tell the story of God without a single song; you can reveal his nature and respond to it without playing a single note. Using music in worship is beautiful, but we should never bend the story to fit our music but rather always bend our music to fit the story. This means that a Worship Leader opts to remove a song (or part of a song) and add a scripture element, a congregational reading, a testimony, even silence if a part of the story calls for it. This may take a while to get used to because it feels like nothing is happening (what a Musician thing to feel). But remember, you’re prompting your people’s conversation with God—there are many other ways to prompt than just singing and there are many prompts that indeed lead us to singing. But either way, be creative: write underscores to scripture, have a chorus that you sing between readings. Start with the story you’re trying to tell, then let music and song share in that retelling.
I’m still learning these things and always will be. Personally, I think being a Worship Leader that uses music is a lot harder than being a Musician tasked to lead worship, but being a Worship Leader is a lot less frustrating. There’s something beautiful and sacred about wrestling with music and song to serve a congregationally friendly function in the telling of God’s story. It’s a sacred role because it’s the only story that gives us hope, that can bring reconciliation, that can be a means of grace and transformation. And what a gift that we can use music to be an underscore to that story!