A few weeks ago, one of our leaders asked me to come speak to a group of worship interns, telling them “everything I thought pastors wanted worship leaders to know.” When I agreed to do it, I thought it would be a stretch to come up with three or four things. That was a bit naïve. By the time I was done, it grew to a list of 14!
I’d love to see a corresponding list of “What Every Worship Leader Wishes His Pastor Knew,” but for now, here is my advice for growing worship leaders:
1. Teach the people how to respond in worship.
Our impulse is to blame the congregation for being too cold. But as leaders, we need to assume that the fault lies with us. If people aren’t responding to God in worship, the easy way out is to gripe about the people. The leader’s way out is to ask how we can disciple people to grow.
Responding appropriately in worship is something that has to be taught. In fact, the Bible commands postures of worship. Part of your job as a worship leader is to do something similar with your people, calling them to the postures of worship that we see commended throughout Scripture. Two of the most frequent commands we see throughout the Psalms are to praise with lifted hands (Psalm 28:2, 63:4, 88:9, 134:6, 143:6, et al.) and to shout (Psalm 20:5, 22:22, 35:27, 47:1, 66:1, 81:1, et al.). In the context where I preach—a majority white church—these are not intuitive modes of worship. So we constantly have to call our people to use their bodies and voices in a way that reflects the majesty of the One they are worshiping.
On the practical side, it helps if you start by teaching those who are already bought in to the mission. Teach the staff and leaders, then lead in concentric circles.
2. The posture guides the heart.
We were created as holistic beings—with intellects, emotions and bodies all working in concert with one another. Studies show that anywhere from 70 to 95 percent of communication is nonverbal. We say a lot about what we think and feel without uttering a single word. This is why the Bible commands us to kneel, stand, sing, shout and lift our hands. It doesn’t say, “Shout to the Lord if you have that kind of personality and the mood strikes you.” It simply says, “Shout.” Our hearts often guide our posture in worship, but it is equally true that our posture guides our heart.
The objection I hear to this is that people don’t want to be inauthentic. But that’s not a great way to approach the commands of God. I don’t say, “It would be hypocritical for me to be faithful to my wife, since my heart often desires adultery.” No, I oppose the sinful desire and choose the godly one, because obedience shouldn’t rise and fall based on feelings.
3. Your people need a pastor, not a performer.
By this, I don’t mean that you should intentionally sing poorly—any more than I, as a preacher, would intentionally speak poorly. But you aren’t there to simply sing in front of folks. Don’t hide backstage before and after the service. Get out there and mingle with people. Be available. As a worship leader, you should be leading people to worship with you, not merely in the same room as you.
4. Talk with your pastor about what you’re trying to do.
The more you talk with your pastor about why you want to do a certain song (or avoid one), the further you’ll get in actually achieving your goals together. Worship should be a rhythm of revelation and response. Once you and your pastor agree on that, the specifics of songs and sets becomes easier to manage.
5. It’s not illegitimate to take audience mood into consideration.
You aren’t a performer. I’ve made that clear. But don’t be so “theological” that you ignore the artistic side of leading worship. You’re dealing with music and singing, which brings certain sociological elements into the picture. So don’t be surprised if you do three slow, soft songs in a row and find your people checking out. They aren’t necessarily being unholy. They’re following the mood you set.
There’s a reason we generally start off with a more upbeat song in our services, rather than a contemplative and mournful one—just like I usually start my sermons with an illustration. You can easily go overboard on this, but don’t ignore it altogether. Setting the mood and using artistic style is one way of honoring God with your talents and leading your people well.
6. Don’t say embarrassing things.
I know that not every worship leader prides himself on public speaking. But you will be doing some speaking up there, so be smart about it. If you find yourself saying things to the crowd that are more befitting of a rock show (“Come on, I can’t hear you!” or “Are we ready to have some fun?”), maybe you should write out precisely what you want to say. After all, if the lyrics to the song are scripted, it’s not a terrible idea for the lyrics to your introduction to follow a pattern, too.