worship leader

i. How have I chosen my songs?
Are your songs all lively, all calm, or a mixture of both? (Note the deliberate avoidance of the somewhat erroneous terms ‘praise’ and ‘worship’ here). And is there a progression in the songs throughout the service?

When you meet up with a friend, you first greet them enthusiastically and tell them how pleased you are to see them. Then you might sit down, have a cup of tea and begin a deeper, more intimate conversation. Finally, you will end with a positive farewell, saying: ‘It was good to see you’ or ‘I hope we meet again soon’. A church service often follows the same pattern: (i) Lively start (ii) Intimate middle (iii) Triumphant end. That’s why this format works well, but this doesn’t have to be overly prescriptive – be prepared to deviate from this depending on the type of service/congregation etc.

Are all your songs from the past five years? If so, aim for a more balanced set. Are they all from two or three decades ago? Are they all over 100 years old? Try and choose the best songs from all eras, depending on the theme of the service; this will enable more of your church to feel part of what’s going on.

#1 Hy.hymn choice

Beware of including too many brand new songs in one service. My rule of thumb is this: no more than one brand new song in any service. With this, I might also include a ‘semi-new’ song: one which has only been used once or twice so far. If there’s an opportunity to actually teach the new song just before the service starts, then do it.

Finally, remember to choose all songs carefully and prayerfully. A worship leader also has a prophetic role, and the songs you pick need to be inspired by the Lord, as well as based upon logic and understanding.

ii. Have I thought about the lyrics?
Do the words make sense? They don’t in all worship songs! If you are going for older songs, beware of archaic or plain ridiculous, language. For example, ‘Thy couch was the sod, oh thou son of God’ or ‘We soon shall hear the archangel’s voice; the trump of God shall sound, rejoice!’

In modern songs, the danger is more to do with lack of meaning, or superficiality. Be prepared to exclude a song on this basis, even if the tune and beat are catchy. A chorus like ‘Yes Lord, yes Lord, yes, yes Lord’ is rousing, but is there enough substance to it? You decide. Some of the older generation in my church object to songs which include ‘yeah’ or ‘wanna’ – this leaves me with something of a trilemma: I can sing them anyway, I can not sing them at all, or I can modify the lyrics to please everyone.

#1 Sheet Music

iii. Have I considered the flow of the songs?
It’s very common to run several songs together in a medley these days. If you are doing this, do the songs link well together in terms of tempo/beat/key? If not, plan how to make smooth transitions between songs – sudden stops, or changes to an unrelated key can break the flow, and hinder the sense of worship. (Here’s a good article, explaining how to transition between songs). And what about the message/theme of the songs? Is there a link, or could there be?

Finally, is there a logical progression to the songs, so that the congregation makes a journey towards Christ. For example: ‘In Christ Alone’ (Eb) to ‘Once Again’(Eb) to ‘My Jesus, my Saviour’ (Bb). These three go from recognizing who Jesus is, to meditating on his crucifixion and then to praising him for who he is. ‘Third person’ to ‘first person’ and then ‘second person’ is a good guide here (ie ‘He’ then ‘I’ then ‘You’).

iv. How am I playing the songs?
Firstly, are they in a suitable key for the congregation to sing? If not, be prepared to transpose! 10,000 Reasons is a great song, but in G major the highest note for the ladies is F# (top line of the stave), and this is too high for most singers. I always do it in E major; much more manageable. My rule of thumb for range is ‘A to E’. That is, ‘A’ below middle C as your lowest pitch, and ‘E’ on the top space as your highest (and an octave below that for the blokes, of course). Even a top ‘E’ is something of a chore, and I would prefer Eb, and only for a short burst.

Is the tempo too slow or too fast? Listen to a few YouTube examples if you are unsure. Does the feel/tempo match the mood of the words? One worship leader I knew used to do a bouncy stop on the word ‘holy’. Catchy, and jolly, but not reminiscent of holiness!

Is every verse the same, or have you thought about varying the instrumentation/dynamics in each (and noted this down, so everyone remembers)? What about cutting the instruments for one chorus, and singing three-part harmonies? This mustn’t be overdone (tempting as it is), but once or twice in a service can be very effective, and the same goes for instrumental interludes.

Position of band

v. Am I prepared?
How much preparation have you put into the music? Has the band rehearsed together? If so, when, and how long for? If you are winging it, it will show at some point. Also, what proportion of your rehearsal time was devoted to prayer? None at all? One minute at the start? The first half hour of the rehearsal? You know which I’m going to recommend!

What is being done to allow the worship band to really gel together? As well as regular rehearsals and prayer, why not organize a social day, form a Bible study group, hold some informal jam sessions, or have a meal out together. The more comfortable you are with each other, the better you will perform together, and being spiritually in tune (no pun intended) with each other and with God will make a world of difference.

vi. What about intros and outros?
How are you starting the song? Strumming the opening chord and beginning immediately is neither helpful nor conducive to worship; if you do so, you’ll leave the congregation behind, and they won’t be able join in until half way through the first line. Our aim is to lead the congregation in worship, so anything which makes them feel uncomfortable, confused or alienated will hinder worship. So, there needs to be a cue of some kind, which says ‘the song is going to begin now’. This can be a musical, vocal or visual clue (or, ideally, all three at once). A musical cue would be a chord sequence which signifies a lead in (ie IV-V); a vocal cue means saying, ‘Let’s sing’, or reciting the first few words of the first line. A visual cue means you’re looking at the congregation with that anticipatory look: head up, taking a breath, eye contact with them.

How are you ending the song? There usually needs to be some way of signifying the ending – slowing down, repeating the last line two or three times, or an instrumental ending. In the same way that the congregation needs preparing for the start of the song, they also need to know the ending is coming, rather than being surprised that it’s all over so suddenly. Will you resolve a dominant chord, or just leave it hanging? Back in the 80s and 90s, the latter would never have been acceptable; these days, it is more and more common (and I quite like it!)


vii. What about amplification?
Now, I don’t want to teach granny to suck eggs, but have you thought about how many instruments need lines, and how many vocalists need microphones? Do you need fold-back monitors? Do you have a sound man who can balance these effectively? In a very small gathering, you might go for an unplugged set. In some medium-sized churches, the sound system isn’t always up to mixing an eight-piece worship band with a drummer. Personally, in such a case, I’d rather use a smaller band or three or four and have them well-amplified, than a large band where nobody can hear each other.

And, in terms of microphones, don’t try and use a ‘Britney mic’, unless you’re performing at a Britney’s standard! It may look ‘cool’, but unless you can go through every song without having to communicate verbally with your band, then a head mic is not for you. And even then, you may still feel led to do an a capella verse or repeat a chorus, and you’ll need to turn away from my mic to tell the band this. One worship leader made a mistake when singing through one of these mics, and promptly groaned loudly. This was, of course, heard by the entire church. With a mic on a stand, he’d have turned away instinctively and the congregation would hardly have noticed!

Eyes looking

viii. Where am I looking?
You basically have three choices of where to look: (a) At the congregation, (b) At each other, (c) Into your sheets of music. The amount of time given to each of the above should be in that order: ie congregation first, each other second and your printed music third. As it is, many churches settle for (c) (a) (b), or worse still (c) (b) (a). In fact, I’ve seen groups which exclude (b) altogether! In order to achieve this, you also need to position your band in a way that everyone can have eye-contact with everyone else, whilst still facing roughly towards the congregation. A ‘V-shaped’ formation works well for this.

To do this you’ll need to learn your chords/words/tune well enough. Once you do, you’ll free yourself of the restraints of sheet music, and be able to truly worship God, and lead the congregation before His throne.
Remember: you have to have eye contact with individuals in the congregation as you sing – there will always be some people looking at you – look back at them as you sing, just as a good preacher, teacher or public speaker does. This is especially important at the start/finish of every song.

ix. How are my humility levels??
Lead by example, and in love and unity. Although the buck stops with you as the ‘leader’,
this should not be a hierarchical position, where you laud it over the rest of the band.
Avoid saying things like: ‘Well, I’m in charge, so we’re doing it this way whether you like it or not’; this is only likely to offend or hinder your musicians. Rather, say something like: ‘Can we try it this way, and see what we think?’ Then, once you have, ask the whole band whether they’re happy with the new way of playing it. If some aren’t, either be prepared to withdraw it, or say something like: ‘Can you humour me this time, please, and if it falls flat in the service, we’ll never do it like that again.’ It’s all about relationships, people skills and building bridges. You can do it!

focus on christ

x. What is my main focus?
Is it musical excellence, entertainment, or performance? We should always strive for a high musical standard, but Christ is the reason for this, not our praise or merit. So, our music should be so good that people don’t notice it. Does that make sense? In other words, if everything flows musically and is free of wrong notes, awkward changes and uncomfortable faces, then the entire church will be able to focus on Christ through the music, and everything will be leading towards Him. So, remove anything which could distract from the Lord – this includes how you dress, comments you make between songs, and solos which focus merely on your talent. Always remember: ‘He must increase, I must decrease.’

Rob Baker is a musicologist and worship leader, who has been involved in church music for the past 30 years. His book, Adventures in Music and Culture, describes his discoveries about African music and worship, and his thesis, about Vodún music in Beninese churches, can be read here.

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