A Sensible Approach to Christian Truth


Suggestions for Worship Leaders

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A few years ago our son-in-law was asked to become one of the music leaders in his church. The following is based on a letter in which we responded to his questions and request for prayer as he assumed this responsibility.

Dear Richard,

Mom and I promised to write you at greater length concerning your role as music leader. The many tasks of music leadership you described, which will now be your responsibility, are important, and we would like to comment on them. No doubt many of these views represent your own convictions as well. Please indulge us the satisfaction of expressing them anyway!

Selecting songs for worship is not a simple matter. Of course, music is often selected with some particular theme in mind, based on the emphasis the pastor wants to bring out in his teaching. But even when this is the case, there are other and more important factors that go into effective song selection. Music does much to help create the ambience conducive to entrance into the Lord's presence. Worship, we believe, needs to build to that point at which the Lord "appears" to his people. If the Psalms are any indication, this appearance of the Lord seems to have been a high point of the festivals of Israel. Granted, because God is sovereign we can't contrive his appearance, but Scripture teaches that the Holy One graciously consents to be "enthroned on the praises of Israel" (Psalm 22:3). Appropriate music helps to enthrone the Lord in our praise.

Of course, in the eucharistic liturgy there are two special high points when we sense the Lord's presence: the reading of the Holy Gospel, and the sharing of the bread and cup. But music throughout the service contributes to our total awareness of the movement of God's Spirit in the assembly, beginning with the songs of entrance which lift up celebration before the Lord in a majestic and joyful way. Music during other parts of the service, such as during Communion, may be of the more meditative type. Songs need to be chosen based on where they are going to come in the historic sequence of worship: Entrance, Service of the Word, Service of the Lord's Table, Dismissal.

Of any song we select to use in worship, Richard, we need to ask the following questions. These apply whether we are planning the music in advance or whether, during the service, the Spirit leads us to do something we had not planned.

  • Is the song trite and shallow, or does it possess a depth and strength both in its text and in the musical setting? Music doesn't have to be old to have dignity and strength. "Our God Is an Awesome God," for example, has a haunting solidarity to it. Conversely, many of the older songs and so-called hymns are sadly lacking in both musical quality and appreciation for the full breadth of Christian experience.
  • Does the song celebrate us — our feelings, our spiritual experience — or does it direct us to God's action in Christ? Songs that focus on the worshiper rather than the One who is worshiped destroy the buildup to the appearance of the Lord. Even the song that says, "Let's forget about ourselves and concentrate on him, and worship him," makes me think about myself and whether I'm concentrating, instead of about Christ!
  • Is the song overused in our congregation, or would it be better to introduce something new or not so well known? On the other hand, it is not the time to teach a new song when worship is approaching its highest moments. Unless your congregation is especially sharp at picking up new music, it is probably a good idea to use more informal times (perhaps during the pre-service announcements or the offering) to teach new songs, and then bring them back at the right point in worship after the congregation has learned them.
  • Does the song flow logically and easily from the one that precedes it, or is the transition awkward? Work out your key and tempo relationships in advance so that transitions are seamless. Interruptions break up the flow of worship and we have to begin approaching God all over again. It is important for the leader to avoid introducing the songs with comments or announcements. ("Okay, now let's sing such and such.") The only exception might be a well-chosen passage of Scripture that illuminates what has just been sung or is about to be sung. We have heard this used very effectively to maintain the thrust of worship.
  • How should I, as worship leader, sing this song? You have already been a member of your worship team, and you are used to singing a harmony part from time to time. But the music leader functions as "chief worshiper" and needs to be the spokesman for the whole congregation before the Lord. It is not his role to exercise musical inventiveness; instead, he should usually sing the melody along with most of the people. If the leader sings harmony, the congregation may think it is the melody. To this day, in a church we used to be part of, everyone sings "Bless the Lord, O My Soul" on the wrong notes because the pastor sang a harmony part and the people picked it up. If you want to sing harmony or embellishments on a song, perhaps you could ask another team member to lead that song. It is frustrating to be in a worship service where the songs aren't familiar and it's impossible to tell which voice to follow!

In addition to questions about songs we are thinking of using, there are some questions we need to ask of ourselves as worship leaders. Among them might be the following:

  • Does the way I present myself as a leader call attention to me and my role, or does it faithfully lead the congregation toward a vision of the Lord? In this connection, what we wear can be important. Clothing that is too brightly colored or bizarre can distract other worshipers. I am reminded of the preacher who began his sermon by praying, "Lord, hide thy servant behind the cross . . . ," and then preached while wearing a bright red jacket and garish tie. (This was the origin, no doubt, of the song "Blest Be the Tie that Blinds.") Clothing that is too casual also sends a message: "It wasn't important enough to me to prepare to 'worship the Lord in holy array' (Psalm 29:2), and it's not really 'a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God'" (Heb. 10:31).
  • What applies to our clothing applies to our whole manner of presenting ourselves before the congregation. The use of humor, for example, calls attention to ourselves instead of to the Lord. You may be tempted to exhibit your clever wit, but we suggest you save it for your next back yard barbecue with your friends. Inappropriate humor can destroy the solemnity and intensity that characterize true worship We have seen both pastors and worship leaders dissipate the sense of God's presence with ill-timed jokes and other asides, even when presiding at the Lord's Table! We think this practice arises from discomfort in getting too close to the intimate presence of the Lord — what a tragedy for a Christian leader!
  • At a deeper level, is our life and demeanor outside the walls of the sanctuary consistent with the desire to present ourselves as priests unto the Lord? What is the witness of our speech patterns, as well as our actions and personal behavior? Do we use crude language, carry on conversation as though the feelings and ideas of the other persons present were of no importance, or otherwise behave in a self-centered way? Or do we listen for the thoughts of others, and conduct ourselves in their presence with the view that, come Sunday, we might be leading them into the high praises of God?

Richard, I think I have just written an article! We hope it adequately responds to your questions and the things you told us about your new duties. Be assured that we will continually pray for you as a music and worship leader. You have been chosen for a weighty responsibility and we appreciate the fact that you are taking this commission seriously.

Love, Dad and Mom