4 Characteristics of Great Worship Leaders
What a gig. The lights, the equipment, the fans--er, I mean "congregants". In our era of iTunes and American Idol, where worship bands go on tour and music is a major determinant of church membership, it's easy to forget what makes a church worship leader good. Here are 5 characteristics of great worship leaders (spoiler alert: shopping at Buffalo Exchange isn't one of them):
1. Great worship leaders lead the church in worship.
Yep, it's basic, but it's the only place to start. God calls worship leaders not for their musical ability or magnetic personalities or fashion sense (though they can be helpful tools). He calls them and gifts them to lead his people to worship him. They help people abandon their self-centered orientation for a God-centered one, and to join in the chorus of praise for our triune God that rings out across the universe for eternity. Worship leaders show how, why and, most importantly, Who to worship. Here are some practical ways great worship leaders do this:
- They help people transition. Most of the people who file into the service bring a truckful of stress, distractions, emotions, and nagging thoughts with them. Worship leaders help them set all of that down so they can focus on God, Scripture, and the community. Through the atmosphere in the room, to what they say, sing, and do, the tempo and lyrics and order of the songs, great worship leaders plan the service to help people orient themselves appropriately, not just for the service but for life.
They help the church know what to do. Anytime your people get confused, they snap from God-consciousness to self-consiousness. If lyrics are on the screen, but there's a solo on stage, people get spend more time trying to figure out whether they're supposed to be singing or not (and often feel stupid whichever option they--or those around them--settle on.) If there's a solo part, don't show the lyrics. If you only want the women to sing a section, let people know. If you're going to change the tempo or phrasing on a well known song, give them clues (like turning from the mic or casual hand direction) so they're not lost. Similary, when singers go off on their own riff in the middle of the song (mmmm, we love you Lord....oh yes we do, yes we do, yes we do...mmmm), they leave the congregation behind. They're no longer leading the church in worship--they're worshipping while the church watches and waits.
- They let the congregation be the "front man" of the band. One of my favorite professors explained this in a great course called "Leading the Church in Worship" (whichI highly recommend for any worship leader.) Ever wonder why it sounds like you're the only one singing? Because today's sound systems puts the emphasis on you, so the people in the pews don't have to pull their own weight. Mic the congregation. Amplifying their voices allows them to hear themselves. They'll be inspired by the sound of so many voices lifted up. The response? They'll sing even more loudly.
- They use a variety of worship methods. It'd take a whole other blog post to go over non-musical worship methods, so today I'm limiting myself to the band, but great worship leaders lead the church to worship through scripture, prayer, tithing, responsive reading, and other methods.
2. Great worship leaders don't compete with God.
As a worship leader, you know you aren't there to entertain the church, or get glory for yourself. But with church bands looking so similar to secular ones, and all the pressure and attention that is placed on the group, sometimes it's easy to forget. Centuries ago, the choir loft was in the back of the church. The choir's strong voices rose over the heads of the congregation, whose own voices joined them on the way to the cross or altar at the front. Now, bands play on stage, often under spotlights, in front of the church. Even if you're not confused about who the Audience is and who the performers are, your church might be. Here are some practical ways great worship leaders avoid competing with God for the glory:
- They get out of the spotlight (figuratively and literally). Dim the spots. Don't stand in center stage. Everytime you grab the attention or glory, your taking some away from God.
- If you project the lyrics on screen, avoid video feed of the band as the background (people stop worshipping and focus on the images--who's attractive, the shiny earrings that your guitarist is wearing, spinach in your teeth. It becomes less Amazing Grace and more Austin City Limits.)
When people applaud, turn that applause to God verbally like my friend Andy does: "that's right--let's give the Lord a hand for who He is and what He does" or non-verbally, like one friend does when she simply points up and, with her eyes raised, silently praises God.
2. Great worship leaders are intentional teachers.
No, I don't mean that you're delivering the sermon next week. I mean that you're already teaching, and you need to be intentional about your lessons. Gordon Fee says, "Let me hear a congregation sing, and I will tell you their theology." Think about it: most people will hear a specific sermon your pastor preaches once, but they'll sing the songs you choose over and over, many for years and some for a lifetime. The lyrics seep into their souls and shape their beliefs. If they sing self-centered, experiential songs, their spiritual life will be self-centered and experiential. If they sing songs filled with God's word and centered on Him, songs that reflect deep biblical truth about Him and His creation and His kingdom, their spiritual lives will absorb God's truth. Here are some ways great worship leaders intentionally teach:
- They choose songs on purpose, after reading the lyrics and thinking through the theology. Even if a song is popular on the local Christian radio station, weed it out if it teaches lies about God. Try updated hymns, or discovering new artists who write scripture-based worship songs--or become one yourself.
- They take time to teach. The great ones take time between songs to teach explicity. Perhaps helping people understand what worship is and why we do it, or the role of the band and the proper response of the church.
- They prepare. Many worship leaders take time to throw out encouragements or prayers in the middle of sets. Great ones plan out what they're going to talk about, and make sure that they don't pass on bad theology because they spoke off the cuff (How many times have we heard someone inadvertantly thank the Father for dying on the cross or living inside us?) They have the lyrics handy, whether on a music stand or a monitor. True, secular bands don't do this, but those guys sing the same songs at every concert for years. You're changing songs every week, and it's a lot worse to forget the words than to admit that you don't have the entire library of modern and classic Christian songs in your head.
3. Great worship leaders are pastors.
The great ones are pastors to their worship team. In traveling all over the country, I've gotten to attend tons of churches, and seen how the absence of pastoral leadership on the worship team can derail a congregation's worship. The "band" aspect of worship teams can bring out unique temptations. Oftentimes, band members are recruited for their musical ability despite low spiritual maturity. They're placed in an environment that feels like a normal gig and even gives them a little fame in the community. All eyes are looking at them, and there's pressure to look good, cool, cutting edge or even sexually attractive. Here are ways great worship leaders are pastors.
- They protect and disciple their team, even before individuals are on it. This means that they don't use people. They recruit people who can handle to position spiritually, and don't put a brand new believer into a position she can't handle spiritually simply because she has a rock star voice.
- They tackle difficult problems with truth in love. They don't avoid hard conversations about pride or jealousy or revealing clothing on stage.
- They know their people and their families, build into their lives, and do life with them. They put priority on the individual's spiritual life, emphasize on worshipping God humbly, and actually model these things in their own lives.
4. Good worship leaders worship God.
Above everything, good worship leaders love the Lord. It's easy to fake it for a while--to perform rather than worship. In fact, if you perform dynamically, your congregation will think your great. You're church might grow, and you might even get a raise. But that's nothing if your soul is withering. Here are some ways great worship leaders continue worshipping God on the inside while you worship him on the outside:
- They keep up their personal time with God. Though that can look different for different people, it includes scripture and prayer. It might also include things like spirirtual disciplines, time in nature, participating in a Bible study.
- They have authentic community. Small groups, accountability partners and friends are crucial to our walk. Have godly friend in and outside your own congregation, and make sure you have people who aren't impressed by you.
- They serve in other ways. You aren't just a worship leader. God has given you other gifts, abilities, talents and interest. Use those sides as well. Feed the poor, counsel the hurting, help build houses, raise money for a good cause.
- They remember that God loves them beyond their work. Leading the church in worship is a big and important job, but God loves you no more and no less because you do it. Thank him for the opportunity to participate in his work, and thank him that his love doesn't depend on that.
May God use you and grow you through your ministry!