Lead, then Get Out of the Way!

I had a great conversation yesterday with a new friend on the subject of worship. He once had a mentor who said the number one thing to remember as a worship leader is to lead the congregation to the Throne, then get out of the way. I heartily agree.

The difficulty in preparing for worship, and making plans to get out of the way, is it takes a lot of skill to make it look so simple—thus, the reference to Dolly Parton. I’ve had the rich experience of playing behind some of the greatest worship leaders of our time. I took the opportunity years ago, while being a back-up musician, to study the way an excellent leader bonds with and leads their audience. It’s hard to reduce a skill like this to a few points—and with such limited time—but there are some basic things to which a young or a new worship leader can aspire.

It’s important to have a worship plan, but be willing to abandon it to follow where the Holy Spirit leads. The crucial thing to remember is the Spirit is leading us during our planning time, too, and it has been the rare occasion I’ve ventured away from the original plan. So, the plans we make must be solid, Spirit-filled, and we must scrutinize every aspect in order to help the audience focus on God.

Our goal is not necessarily to have an impressive set of songs, or to create an opportunity to display our artistry. It’s always been, though, about leading our congregation to God and getting out of the way! Here are some things that help me every time I sit down to plan a service.

1) Choose congregational keys for the songs.

Some worship leaders blame the audience for not singing, but the reason they aren’t singing may be because they can’t sing the song in the key you’ve chosen. A congregation has a limited range that goes from B flat—below middle C—to D, an octave and a whole-step from middle C. Choose song keys where the melody stays within these boundaries. Worship leaders who are altos and high tenors can make the mistake in keying the songs to their own singing range. In doing so, they alienate John and Jane Q. Public’s ability to sing the songs!

2) Be prepared so you are at rest with yourself on stage.

Think through the transitions between songs—what you’re going to say and what you’ll play. Work out a seamless way to go from one song to another. Dead airtime in a service (mostly between songs) can be a trust-killer for audiences (sometimes in the middle of a sweet time of worship, though, silence can be golden). It’s smart to practice transitions in rehearsal. Make a “cheat sheet,” if needed, to lay on the stage floor in front of you. A quick glance downward can rescue you during a momentary lapse of memory. Know your chords, use a monitor for lyrics, make eye contact with your congregation and draw them in. Being comfortable on stage will help your audience trust and follow you. Confidence breeds confidence.

3) Don’t be afraid of dynamics in the service.

It’s OK to bring the music down to one instrument at times, especially during an intimate moment in worship. The stripped-down, single instrument can facilitate a “one-on-one” feel that will enhance an intimate lyric. Some people ask me why my sets usually start with faster songs and end with softer songs. I answer that it’s human nature. In other words, folks are coming in from the parking lot, hardly focused on spiritual things. Faster songs, with a “gather together” lyric, help focus attention toward the stage to begin the worship journey ahead. It’s our job as leaders to help the congregation focus ultimately on God and not themselves. I design a worship set to facilitate this journey for them—like concentric circles leading into the “bullseye” of intimate worship.

4) New songs may be cool, but a familiar song always wins.

Choosing songs from the CCLI top 25 may keep us from feeling stagnant and bored, but don’t underestimate the emotional power of hymns and of older worship songs. Why? Because people are already familiar with these songs; they’ve already made an emotional connection with them. Emotional connections and familiarity are important in worship because the congregation can close their eyes and sing without looking at the lyrics on screen. It’s important to teach new songs, too, just not too many at one time. Remember, it’s not about you but about the journey of the congregation and, more importantly, about God. Don’t let the need to be cutting-edge veer you away from the chief goal: to lead the congregation toward a deep and personal connection with God.

As we grow in our ability to lead people, we see it takes a ton of  life-experience and skill to make our jobs look easy, and it takes a considerable investment of time each week to be effective. It’s all about leading our church family to the Throne and getting out of the way, to leave them standing alone in the presence of God.