Recently, Charisma Magazine has published an article by J. Lee Grady: “Seven Things I’ve Always Wanted to Say to Worship Leaders.” Now that a couple of friends have linked the article to my Facebook page, I decided to take a stab at this question. It’s long been a topic of obsession in past years. I’m no longer a worship leader myself, but I’ve performed offertories, played piano, and led congregational singing, choirs and prayer for dozens of services. I feel that I’m entitled to at least a bit of say in the matter. And right now, the thoughts are gliding through my head like monkeys through Oz!
1. Don’t Be Manipulative!
Especially in Charismatic and Pentecostal circles, the force of the music (or the Holy Spirit) is supposed to lead you to an experience with God. Ever looked out at the crowd and thought they’re singing like (shudder) Lutherans? So we double down from our place on the stage: we try to look more worshipful, and sing Super Extra Spirit-Filled so the congregation will participate more responsively. I’ve done it, so I’m not casting blame. Just think about it before you lead. For good worship, you don’t need a reactive crowd. You’re not Tom Jones and you want those old ladies (for goodness sake) to keep their panties on. If I can tell the difference between manipulation and worship, I’m pretty sure God can.
2. Be Musicians
You’ve either been asked to lead worship because you’re extremely brave, or because you have musical ability. Don’t sell yourself short: it’s probably the latter, or the church could have hired four-year-olds with pans and a wooden spoon. If you want to worship God, do it to the best of your musical ability, and do it every time. THAT is your gift to God, and you owe it to the congregation. Oh, and practice, and take it seriously.
3. Stop Comparing Yourselves to the World
For at least 1800 years, the church was the primary source of innovation, experimentation, and excellence in music. Music as a publicly consumed media to be shared with the huddled masses is a relatively new thing outside the church. If you want to do something amazing or new, by all means go ahead. You can only be fired once, right? I’m sick of this dichotomy between “the music of the world” and “the music of God.” Stop comparing yourselves to “them” because there is, frankly, no them. Be brave and try something new, musically.
4. Words Matter
Words matter–a lot. There’s a reason I can’t recall a single song by Don Moen, but I can remember every word, from every verse, of “How Great Thou Art.” That reason is substance. This is a pet peeve of mine, so I’m going to shut up, and will probably write a post dedicated to this topic alone, at some point in the future.
For now, let me interrupt with a brief video clip of Elvis performing in one of his last public concerts: it’s possibly the most moving 3 minutes in the history of his career. He’s completely tuned out the crowd. All his focus is pointed to this single moment. He’s probably even stoned out of his mind (he sure looks like it), but his attention is on his Offering to God at this moment, even as he careens out of tune. We don’t care. Elvis got it. Something amazing is happening: it’s one of those rare moments where believers are made, and not from a holy, smug minister, or a practiced, oily music minister, but from a broken king, 45 days from death on the throne.
5. Make a Plan
Homework time. Worship isn’t all about the moment. Have long-term plans. Write out your style, your goals. Make sure, with every service, every song, and every note, you are achieving those goals. We so easily say “It’s just church music.” Pardon me, but bullshit. If there’s anywhere to strive for long-term goals, and musical excellence, it’s in the church, where we should think that music actually means something. Share your goals with others: the more they understand you, the more chances #7 won’t happen (or at least they’ll be more forgiving if it does). By the way, I never did this when I worked for the Church. I wish now that I had. Not everything need be “Led of the Spirit” to be excellent.
6. There Is No Rule Six.
For you Monty Python fans, eh, Bruce?
7. You Will Get Complaints.
If you’re leading corporate worship, somebody is bound to complain. Nobody’s style will please the entire congregation. You will eventually hear through the pastor, or from the complainants themselves, how they just didn’t like this-or-that moment, or the way you sang such-and-such, or how much you’d remove a song. Take them in stride, hopefully gently, and then and then pray that God smite them with boils and scabs. God probably won’t honor your prayer, but you’ll sure feel a heck of a lot better!