10 Lessons From Small Congregation Worship Leaders

I wonder if some worship leaders who have become accustomed to leading large numbers of people in worship (and by “large” I mean “any number too large to fit in a living room”) have gotten the wrong impression that the rules that apply to encourage people singing in a living room don’t apply in a sanctuary or auditorium. While the trappings, instrumentation, volume, etc., might change from the living room to the church building, the principles you learn in a circle of five to 10 people don’t/shouldn’t change at all when you find yourself on a stage with a sound system.

Here’s what you have to learn in order to survive as a worship leader in a small group setting:

1. The songs need to be singable.
Hard melodies, intricate rhythms and weird syncopations won’t fly in a small group. You might cover them up a bit better in a large setting, but they’re just as hard for people.

2. The key is key.
You’ll learn really quickly in a small group that if you’re hanging around Ds and Es and (please, no) Fs or Gs, things get awkward really fast. You might mask this with the amplification and anonymity in a larger setting, but it still makes Joe the Plumber give up singing just as much. (I’ve written on this in detail before. And here too.)

3. Show offs are turn offs.
Try pulling a guitar solo while leading worship in a small group. You might not notice the weird glares as much in a large group as you would in a small group, but epic musical moments with no other purpose than to showcase an epic musical moment leave just as large a percentage of people scratching their heads.

4. Competence begets confidence.
The best kind of small group worship leader is competent. He or she doesn’t need to be amazing, know more than three chords, or even just know how to press “play” or put together a song list/play list. He or she needs to be competent in their calling. People respond well to competence. They are scared by weakness and they’re turned off by arrogance.

5. People follow your melody.
If you start to go off of the melody in a small group, everyone wonders whether they’re supposed to go with you or not. Same thing in a large group, but you can get away with it a bit more for some reason. But when you go off on vocal embellishments, you leave people confused. Vocal embellishments could be tanking your effectiveness level as a worship leader and you don’t even realize it.

6. Less is more.
When you pick too many songs in a small group, you can begin to feel the collective sense of “Really? Another one?” You can become numb to that in a large group. It’s better to leave people wanting more than wanting you to just put your guitar away and sit down. Same principle applies in a large setting. There can be too much of a good thing.

7. You really want people to sing along.
If you’re leading a small group in worship and you’re the only one singing, you know you have a problem. But why is this dynamic OK in a larger setting? I don’t think it should be. The inherent power in congregational worship is congregational singing, and thus the congregational exaltation of the one to whom (or the one about whom) we’re singing. When we lose our focus on facilitating congregational singing and settle for congregational spectating, we have successfully missed the whole entire point of why we’re there in the first place.

8. Relationships matter.
Try showing up in the living room just one minute before leading singing, and packing up and leaving the room immediately after the singing. Things won’t go too well for you because people won’t really trust you, and you’ll have no idea who you’re leading. Same thing in a large setting. People are watching you to see if you love them or if you’re just there for a gig.

9. New songs need to be taught.
Even just saying the words “we’re going to sing a new song, so listen to me for a moment and then join in when you’re comfortable” will go a long way toward helping a new song go well in a small group setting. Just launching into it will leave people wondering if they’re supposed to know it, if they’re supposed to sing it, and if they’re supposed to even try. Taking time to teach a new song will help people feel confident, whether there are five of them or 5,000 of them.

10. You’re there to serve.
It’s hard to get a big ego when you’re leading worship in a small group setting because you’re keenly aware that you’re one of them, that you’re there to serve them, and that you really need God to help you if it’s going to go well. When and if you step into a larger role in a larger room with a larger congregation, don’t ever forget that your role is first and foremost the role of a servant, and that if things are going to go well, you really need God’s help.

Before you can ever drive on the interstate, you have to learn how to navigate your own driveway. Before you ever cook a culinary feast, you have to learn how to boil water. And before you ever lead a large group in worship, you need to learn how to lead a small group in worship. Because the essential principles that you learn in a small group that help you facilitate the glorious act of congregational singing will never (and should never) change regardless of where you go from there.

Never forget the basics!  

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Jamie Brown
Jamie Brown is the Director of Worship and Arts at Truro Anglican Church in Fairfax, VA. Born into a ministry family and leading worship since the age of twelve, Jamie is devoted to helping worship leaders lead well and seeing congregations engaged in Spirit-filled, Jesus-centered worship. He’s currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Religion through Reformed Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Catherine, have three little girls. Jamie regularly blogs at WorthilyMagnify.com and has released three worship albums: “A Thousand Amens,” “We Will Proclaim,” and “For Our Salvation.”