Successful Worship Music Leaders Get Out of the Way

One Good Thing About Hymnals

“One thing I like about hymnals,” the older church member told me, “is it gives me an idea of whether to go up or down when we sing a song.” He didn’t know how to read music. He just knew that when the notes went up on the page they were sung higher than those lower down.

I was leading music for the church services at the time. The pastors asked me to do it off and on, sometimes for a year at a time while they looked to hire someone as music director or worship pastor. I’m not a master guitar player, but I am good at leading singing and good enough on guitar to play rhythm while a group of much better musicians helps make it all sound good.

An old church hymnal on an old church bookshelf (Wikimedia)

The Point of Singing Together

The Bible is full of songs written by people who love God. Some of them are meant for group singing (Psalm 134’s song of ascent, for example) while other songs seem designed to listen to rather than join in with. (Such as Mary’s song.)

Paul tells us that it is good for God’s people to sing together:

Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. (Colossians 3:16.)

The Bible doesn’t get specific on the style of music, and if it did I don’t think we’d understand it today any more than Paul would have understood what we mean in describing the differences between hip-hop, blue grass, back-beat rhythm, and a waltz. Paul’s lack of specificity tells me that music offered in worship to God does not depend on style.

What matters is substance. Paul said hese psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit are to be sung to God with grateful hearts and to one another for teaching and admonishment. This can be done in a gathering of God’s people (corporate worship) by someone singing a song for the gathering or by the gathering of people signing together.

Trouble comes when the person leading the worship music mixes up those two modes of worship.

Sunday Morning Cover Bands

Most churches I’ve attended over the last 30 years have gotten away from hymnals and organ music, where a single person stands at the front of the body of believers and leads everyone to sing together what is on the printed page.

Rather, the music is presented by a group of musicians with one person (or perhaps two or three trading off) leads everyone in singing. Sometimes there’s “special music” where the musicians and singers present a song for the congregation to listen to but not sing along with. Both modes are great and the band can choose music of any style from any source as long as it follows Paul’s instruction to sing with gratitude to God and to encourage one another.

This includes choosing music being played on Christian pop music radio. I’ve heard a lot of good music on those stations, at times better than is found on some rarely used pages in a hymnal. Yet like the songs found in the Bible, not all of the music on the radio lends itself to corporate worship.

A person leading worship music needs to learn how to discern the difference. It can take experience and an understanding of what corporate music is for, and it can take an awareness of how to bring people alongside you in these opportunities for Spirit-led worship.

Some tips from a guy who did it for a long while:

  1. Get the basics right. Review the music’s words to make sure they square with scripture. There are a lot of songs, both on the radio and in hymnals, that don’t carry good doctrine. Just because a song has a good hook doesn’t mean it should be used in worship.
  2. Take a walk on the wild side. There’s nothing wrong with playing a song with a style wildly different from what the group is used to. But recognize there will be people who will find it hard to join in with you. Take the time to explain what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how they can come along with you in worshiping God through that song.
  3. Lead people to come along with you. If it’s a song everyone knows well – Amazing Grace, perhaps – this is a cinch. If it’s a new song, you might encourage everyone to take a seat as you sing through the first verse and the chorus, then invite them to stand and join you in singing that again and continuing through the song.
  4. Corporate singing is for singing together. Resist the temptation to take off on your own. Whether it’s a song familiar to the group or a new piece of music, the people in the congregation need your leadership, not your showmanship. Are you a woman whose ability to soar through the registers without breaking a sweat would impress Beyoncé and Celine Dion? Are you a man who can fly around a note and land back on it without ever going off key? Congratulations. Save it for the special music solos. Corporate worship is for singing together as a body and that means staying with the notes the congregation is expecting to sing.
  5. You’re not the worship leader. The person leading God’s people in worship is God himself, the Holy Spirit. When I led music for congregational singing my prayer with the music team every week was that we would set ourselves aside and that the Spirit would a) use us to show Jesus to the people in the congregation, and b) work in the congregation to bring glory to God.

Paul wrote on the subject of worship music to more than one church, but his instructions to the Ephesians below are strikingly similar to those he sent to the Colossians and are based on the premise that all of this is done by being Spirit-led.

[B]e filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 5:18-20.)

Notice how he directs your attention to God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in those lines. This is how you know you are presenting songs worth singing. When you are filled with the Spirit and bring people alongside as you sing you will find that you are making music together to the Lord.

***

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20 Responses to Successful Worship Music Leaders Get Out of the Way

  1. FW Rez says:

    Great article. Thanks for sharing. One of the criticisms I often hear about worship music is that the congregation doesn’t typically sing but becomes more of an audience. Your approach is very similar to that of my own church and my observation is that, when done this way, people do participate in singing (even some of the most curmudgeonist among us).

    • Tim says:

      I’ve been into congregational singing since my youngest days, but still find times when I feel like I’m being told to just stand there and watch the band play their music. I can’t imagine how hard it is for people who aren’t inclined toward group singing.

  2. Jeannie Prinsen says:

    Excellent points here, Tim.

  3. Lea says:

    Interesting to hear from the person who couldn’t read music, but still understood it regardless.

    I prefer hymns, so I am biased, but I your points are good ones for people who don’t use them in worship. I recently accidentally went to the non traditional service and didn’t know the music for the songs (except one that must have been really old!).

    • Tim says:

      I’ve been to churches where it’s clear I’m pretty much the only one who doesn’t know the music, too.

      • Lea says:

        Most of them you can pick up because they are incredibly repetitive (which is another reason I like hymns!) but still, you can’t sing the until they’ve gone through it a bit…

  4. Elizabeth says:

    It’s always great to read such practical stuff…. we have a worship leader who for some reason thinks it’s cool to distort the pronunciation of words…. where Three in One becomes Three in Wine. I’ll never understand that… and he does it often with other words as well. The musicians are top notch, they are tight musically, we do worship God…. but why the change in word structure? That one little thing translates to showmanship. If the pastor did that, we would rightly be scratching our heads AND saying something about it. So I did…. to him and then to the pastor (his brother) as well. No go. (No way is my brother using showmanship!) Whatever. I barely hear it now, gotten used to it, and worship anyway… lol

    • Tim says:

      Did they completely discount your observation? Odd.

    • FW Rez says:

      Another mark of showmanship is that the “worship leader” with the loudest microphone will sing with an affectation to their voice. Some of the ones I hear sound like they might have a really nice sound if they would quit trying to tense up the sound with their neck muscles.

    • Gwen Jorgensen says:

      Elizabeth,

      It could be a vocal thing. Sometimes, modifying a vowel, will help a vocalist get better tonal quality. In fact, vocal pedagogues often recommend this , as a slight adjustment. Only trouble is, of it sticks out, it defeats the purpose.

  5. Gwen Jorgensen says:

    Stellar post, as usual, Tim. As a person involved in music ministry, 30 plus years, I can give a hearty ‘Amen!’, to this. 👏🏼

  6. Pastor Bob says:

    “…good enough on guitar to play rhythm while a group of much better musicians helps make it all sound good.”
    Talent and humility, a rare blend.

    “The Bible doesn’t get specific on the style of music, and if it did I don’t think we’d understand it today any more than Paul would have understood what we mean in describing the differences between hip-hop, blue grass, back-beat rhythm, and a waltz. Paul’s lack of specificity tells me that music offered in worship to God does not depend on style.”

    Oddly enough style of music can be very divisive with int he church. Should not be, but this means more to many than the theology of the church. I have shared with parents when complaining about the music choices of their kids, listen to the words, read the lyrics sheet, and then decide. Many have approved of the music, but insisted that the music be played at a lower volume.

    A point you did not cover (probably good) is this:
    The comment is that song is “spiritually dead.” It is NOT, but the person does not like the style, usually “too old.” Very often the tune is hard to follow, not popular, but the words are powerful indeed. Some of these old ones are better than the new ones, so….

    Personal taste does not a doctrine make.

  7. juliezcoleman says:

    Well done, Tim. Spoken like a man whose heart is always seeking the Lord. Church worship is not a performance–there is no community in that. I don’t know how we have so quickly moved to a performance model in recent decades. Flashing lights, big video: God gets lost in the drama. At least for me. I’ve been a vocalist on worship teams for decades. It’s pretty apparent when you look out and see faces if people are worshiping or not. It seems that the simpler the melody, the easier it is to sing, and the easier it is to get past the mechanics to the heart of the message.There’s so much good music out there– we shouldn’t waste our brief time together on super-repetitive lyrics. Give the people something to chew on as we sing. Loved this article. Am passing it on to our worship leader at New Hope Chapel.

    • Tim says:

      “Give the people something to chew on as we sing.”

      Exactly. Whether it’s hearty meat or a tender morsel, music of worship should nourish God’s people.

  8. Diana says:

    THANK YOU for addressing this topic, Tim! I appreciate what you’ve said here. I’ve been kind of not completely comfortable lately with the music our church worship group does because sometimes it seems more of a show than anything (lights, loud, at times concert-like). I’m not just saying that because I’m 60 and grew up with the hymnal in the Presbyterian church until 2010, because I really like a lot of that music on the Christian radio stations. Much of it resonates with me and my relationship with God. Looking at it from your perspective gives me a new view, especially your tips, which I’ll use to see if that’s being done. Again, thank you for this post! Blessings to you and yours, Tim.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks, Diana. I grew up with the Presbyterian hymnal as well, but haven’t been in a congregation basing its music on the hymnal for decades.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Contemproary Worship(TM) — formerly CCM — has managed to acquire all the bad habits of contemporary pop music:

        Points of Interest:
        “Contracting Sound Variety” from 3:00 to 4:50.
        “Millenial Whoop” from 4:50 to 5:20.
        “9/11 lyrics” from 6:30 to 7:10.
        “Range Compression” starting around 11:50.

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