Lessons I've Learned (and Am Still Learning) about Leading Worship

It's hard to believe, but I've been leading worship for almost thirteen years. I remember when I could barely sing and play at the same time. Heck, I remember when I could barely sing. [insert "Was that last week?" or related joke]

I've been a part of several spectacular moments of worship where God was doing incredible things. I've been a part of several spectacular fails, as well. Here's some advice for free: Make sure your keyboard isn't transposed to a different key than the rest of your band. Thirteen years have taught me quite a bit about leading worship in a corporate setting. I thought I'd share some lessons besides some of the more obvious ones--worship is about God, it's about your heart, it's about how you live your life, and so on and so forth. Keep in mind that I'm still learning some of these myself, and all of these are subject to opinion or the style or context of your church.

Yes, there's a place for someone who's not a Christian on my team. I've read and heard from all kinds of "expert" worship leaders that one of the first requirements to be on the worship team is to be a follower of Christ. After all, how can we expect someone who isn't to lead others into worship? And what kind of message is that sending when this person is on stage in front of everyone? Here's the message it sends for me: I believe my worship team is a ministry to the participating congregation, and it is also a ministry to my worship team. I've been able to develop some great relationships with guys who have been on the fence about faith because of the worship team. We've baptized too many of my worship team members to not allow for a "non-Christian" on board. But that's risky, man! So much could go wrong...Yep. You're right; it is risky. Right or wrong, I will take that risk. If six of my seven team members on Sunday aren't Christian, then we're dealing with another beast, but there's always room for a couple of guys or girls who are still figuring things out.

Talent isn't everything... Exhibit A: yours truly. I'm sure there are worship teams for which I could audition and I wouldn't have a shot at making them. I stand on stage with the assumption that on any given week there's probably someone more talented than me in the same room. And as a leader, I've found that the people I value most on my worship teams are the ones who are reliable. They show up on time. They work hard. They're not above doing anything that needs to be done to make our service happen. I like those kind of people. Those people have become much more valuable to me than the razzle-dazzle rock-star types who are crazy talented, but are also kind of...crazy.

...But talent still matters. Call it superficial, but if your congregation isn't made up of Mother Theresa, Mr. Rogers, and the worship team's moms, then bad vocals, bad instrumentation, and/or bad blending is as distracting and mood-killing as anything else. And while everything we do needs to be measured with humility, excellence is a quality the church has ignored for quite some time (see: the 1980s, the 1990s, and probably your parents' church). I've been to far too many churches and church services that more resembled the first week of painful American Idol auditions than a worship service. This doesn't mean that you should just quit as a leader if you don't have the talent at your church, but this does lead me to my next point...

Work with what you have. If you don't have the personnel to be a Hillsong-type band, then don't try to be. If you can't sing in Shane Barnard's or Phil Wickham's vocal range, then don't try to. Work within the parameters of what you've been given, and do that really well. Simplify song arrangements. Simplify your band setup. Lower the key of a song. You get the idea.

You're leading a congregation, not performing at Madison Square Garden. I have struggled with this since high school. To be honest, I still find myself guilty of emphasizing performance. It's hard not to, at times. Over the last few years, though, I've let go of more and more gimmicky elements in worship. A couple years ago, I had the fortune to be at a leadership conference at a church around town, and for the first time in a while I was free to participate in worship rather than lead it. It was great. The band was really talented and was doing a great job leading us in worship. There was a moment, though, during one of the slower songs that gave me great perspective. I was really engaged, really caught up in worshipping, and then the band moved from the chorus to a guitar solo. The guitar solo was pretty darn good. The problem was that it snapped me completely out of the state of worship I was in, and then I found myself feeling very awkward and not knowing what to do while this guy shredded his guitar. That moment put me right in the shoes of every person who has sat through a guitar solo from one of my worship teams. It's easy to forget what your congregation is seeing, hearing, experiencing, and feeling. I still lose track of them. But the bottom line is that my job is to lead people to worship, not lead them to be in awe of the music.

On a related note, every worship leader is afforded at least one Coldplay moment. At least once, a worship leader has to act on his/her impulse to insert a Coldplay riff that fits oh-so-perfectly into a worship song. Then, repent and sin no more.