Top 10 Things I Love That Worship Leaders Do
I wasn’t surprised by the big reaction to my recent post “Top 10 Things I Wish Worship Leaders Would Stop Saying” because I know that the subject is a particular hot button for evangelicals. And while I think too often we inappropriately insulate our preferences/traditions from criticism, I am of course sensitive to the request for a more positive, proactive help. I’ve actually written quite a bit on worship, both online and in print—The Prodigal Church and my Gospel Coalition church resource Gospel Shaped Worship are the most notable examples—but new readers triggered by yesterday’s blog post are not likely to be familiar with that work. I was already planning on writing the list below but decided to hasten its appearing. Here’s to hoping this list reaches the same audience as the last.
I love it when worship leaders…
10. Lead more than perform.
I am grateful for talented vocalists and musicians serving as worship leaders, but I’m especially grateful when our leaders don’t treat their position as a showcase for their gifts but as an opportunity to shepherd the flock. I love it when worship leaders choose songs that lend themselves more to congregational singing than band performance and lead in such a way that it’s easier to follow along—appropriate keys and pacing, not over-improvising, following the printed or projected lyrics, and so on. And speaking of shepherding, I love it when you…
9. Approach the worship gathering with a pastoral sensibility.
The worship gathering shouldn’t be some bland, un-creative exercise in avoiding anything remotely artistic, but I’m grateful for worship leaders who think primarily about what the flock needs more than what the flock wants—because they are not always the same thing—and seeks to steward the music time and other worship order elements with Christ’s glory at heart and Christ’s church in mind. (And pastors, this is why often the most gifted singers/musicians in your church are not the best candidates for worship leaders.)
8. Let theology drive their decision making.
Too many worship services are driven by a consumeristic or pragmatic ethos. Too many worship leaders (and their pastors and creative teams) over-busy themselves asking, “What else can we do?” as if the worship gathering is a blank artistic slate for creative expression. But as Jeff Goldblum says in Jurassic Park, “You were so busy asking if you could do something, you never bothered to ask if you should.” This is why I’m grateful for worship leaders who know how to evaluate songs for theological soundness, biblical coherence, and doctrinal clarity. And I like it when this commitment to theology is reflected in a fearlessness about old songs and a discriminating taste about new songs. But I also love it when you…
7. Think about the service beyond the songs.
And I don’t mean simply videos or whatever. I am grateful for worship leaders who think about the worship order as a whole, who think about the story a worship order tells. Every church has a liturgy, even if they don’t like that word or they’ve never even heard of that word! Your worship elements and their order communicate something about God, about his Word and about your church. I love it when it’s clear the worship team hasn’t just busied themselves picking good songs but has also thought about the progression of song content in relation to the different elements of the service (confession, prayers, communion, sermon, and so on) and how all the pieces together point to God in Christ as our hope.
6. Aren’t afraid of silence.
Not every space has to be thick with sound and visuals. I know silence between songs can sound like awkward transitions, but not every square inch of the worship service has to be “produced.” Is that fuzzy synthesizer ambiance in between songs and during prayers there to create a mood? Why? What for? I love it when worship leaders “embrace the real.” One thing my church’s worship leader does—after the sermon has been preached and before he leads us in the closing song—is give us a time to silently reflect on the message. It’s not a long time, but it’s long enough to start to feel awkward to those who are new to the practice. But there’s no ambient music. No vocal prayer. Just silence. You can hear those scattered coughs. Kids whispering. A Bible hitting the floor. The rustling of paper. But mostly just stillness and quiet. In our daily lives we are awash with noise. We are hurry-sick. Even when we’re alone, we’re taking in the “noise” of the Internet or something else. I think it’s wonderful to take this into account in our worship services, not feel inclined to mirror the constant noise of the world, and give us some time to hush. It’s good for our souls.
5. Pray for real.
I love it when worship leaders are God-conscious and their prayers sound like they’re actually talking to their Father. Sometimes it is easy for worship leaders to lapse into “stage prayers,” where the prayer is simply filler, a way to introduce the next song or full of verbal tics that don’t make it sound like the leader is well-versed in prayer outside the worship service (“FatherGod we just love you FatherGod and we just FatherGod just want to just…”). When you “pray naked,” even in your skinny jeans, I am inspired and encouraged to bring my true self before God. I am led to cry out to God myself when it sounds like my worship leader is crying out to God.
4. Prioritize the Word.
Feelings are great. It is unChristian to deny the importance of feelings. But it is unChristian to prioritize (idolize) our feelings. Our life is not to be dictated by our feelings—even spiritual feelings—but by the inspired, infallible Word of God. So I love it when worship leaders choose songs that reflect biblical truths, echo the full-hearted human experience of the Psalms and other biblical texts, and read or recite Scripture in their introductions and transitions. I love it when worship leaders begin the gathering not with a rockin’ song to loosen (or wake) everybody up, but with a Scriptural call to worship. This is a reminder that our worship gathering is a response to God’s active work in the world and his specific summoning of us through the gospel of Christ. I also love it when worship leaders remind me that the worship time doesn’t end when the songs do, and that the preaching of the word is both the continuation of—and the apex of—the worship gathering.
3. Lead with serious joy.
I always feel like I’m on a cruise ship or at a cocktail lounge—not that I frequent either one of those places!—when the worship leader is up there constantly cracking jokes and treating his banter like practice for his improv class. You don’t need to treat the service like a funeral, of course, and about the only thing as annoying as a constantly silly worship leader is a constantly humorless one—but I love it when worship leaders capture both the gladness and the gravity of responding to the Lord’s call to worship. So instead of taking on the personas of game show host on one hand or “I’d rather be alone in my room with my principles” artiste on the other, I love it when you are both happy in and humbled by the holiness of God.
2. Don’t try to out-preach the preacher.
OK, this is just a minor point, but I’ve heard this additional critique from enough folks in response to the previous post to know that it’s not just my own “pet peeve.” I love it when worship leaders shepherd the congregation well by introducing songs by giving theological context, praying in transitions, reciting Scripture and of course using non-singing time for equipping the congregation. But sometimes you guys just talk too much! This is especially notable after a sermon, when a worship leader will sometimes try to re-preach a particular point. The subtext sometimes appears to be, “Let me take a crack at this, because the preacher whiffed it.” Worship leader, I love it when you leave the sermon to the preacher (and when the preacher leaves to the songs to you).
1. Point me to the gospel.
This is why I’m there, whether I remember it or not. This is what I need. I need the announcement of the historical work of Christ on the cross and out of the tomb more than I need oxygen! So I’m very, very grateful when your song choice, banter, worship order and everything else makes it clear that the grace of God given to sinners through Jesus is your reason for being. I love it when you take care not to distract from the gospel, whether by content or creativity. I love it when you take care that your artistic efforts adorn the gospel and don’t obscure it. And I love it when you rehearse the gospel with us. It is the greatest gift you have, and it’s the greatest gift you can share.
For all those who labor faithfully in these things—including many, many friends of mine who serve their churches so well this way, some perhaps in the face of weekly criticism and complaints—I am eternally thankful for you. I love you.