Dear worship leader,
You are one of the most important people in the life of our church.
You are entrusted with the task of standing before our people weekly and leading them into the very presence of God. Your role is to point people to Jesus, not yourself; yet, you do so through an art that is incredibly personal and that you’ve worked tirelessly to perfect. Your role requires you to be a gifted artist continually honing your craft, a theologian, and a leader. All of those things combined make yours an arduous task.
The Bible references the predecessors of the modern worship leader in several places, such as the list of people in 1 Chronicles 25 whose job it was to “to prophesy accompanied by lyres, harps, and cymbals” in the temple (25:1). The Scriptures are also filled with admonitions to worship, very often including song. “Praise the Lord in his sanctuary” (Psalm 150:1). “Let us offer up the sacrifice of praise” (Heb 13:15). “Sing songs and hymns and spiritual songs” (Col 3:16). So yours is, in my view, a clearly articulated biblical role.
Even so, your responsibility brings with it some pretty big challenges. Music can easily become one of the more controversial things within the life of the church. Everyone in our church has an opinion, often in direct opposition to another, and each will expect you to satisfy both somehow.
You will need to be more contemporary and less so, louder and softer, and create a “better mix” in the house sound, whatever that means, and you will need raise the ratio of one style to another and vice versa—all simultaneously.
As your pastor, I want to encourage you to feel free to to listen to people’s suggestions, but focus on pleasing the Lord in the manner that we, as a church and elders, have chosen to affirm, stylistically and culturally. Refer any concerns to me or the elders. We trust you, and we have your back.
That said, we as leadership in the church do have a few things we’d like for you to know that we believe to be best for the manner of worship leadership for our church.
This doesn’t necessarily mean it is the best or only way to lead, period. It is simply what makes the most sense for our people, that bears our particular emphases, and relates to both our theology and history.
Here they are:
1. As a church family, we’d like to collectively “own” only a certain number of songs from which we regularly draw.
We’d like for these to be “our” songs—songs that we love, that resonate with who we are, and that we enthusiastically engage as a church body. Worship leaders almost always know far more songs than the churches they serve and are tempted to constantly introduce new ones. We need to throttle that down. We currently have an active list of 100 songs that we’d like to keep in rotation. You are welcome to add new songs at the pace of about one a month and rotate songs off the list, if needed.
It is important that the church has that list, not just each worship leader. So, when you come in, you come into our songs and, as you add another, you take one out—but the list does not start over with you when you come to our church. 😉
Maybe that feels like we always sing the same songs. However, remember, you constantly think about music. You listen to and write new music regularly, both of which are great things. The rest of the church, however, is not like you in that way.
By the time you get to worship on Sunday, you’ve practiced at home, sung the songs as you prepared charts for the band, practiced with the band, and made changes in your head throughout the week. You know these songs well. The congregation, on the other hand, may sing them two or three times a year. Thus, it is important that we focus on our list of songs and shape it slowly and thoughtfully from there.
2. Please choose singable songs.
This may be one of the most important principles here, because it is not our desire that people see you and the band sing and play with excellence. We want the church to join in and sing as with one voice in worship.
Congregational singing requires that the congregation be able to sing the songs. That means that there are a lot of songs out there that, though they may be wonderful songs, are just not appropriate for corporate worship. That does not mean that we don’t use the occasional performance song, but the vast majority of what you choose needs to be singable.
So, there may be a lot of songs key of Tomlin, and that might work, but they all need to be in the key of Grace Church.
3. In that same vein, please sing the singable songs you choose in singable ways.
The congregation needs to be able to follow the prescribed melody. There is often temptation for worship leaders who are gifted vocally to sing extemporaneously, breaking out in ad lib lead parts. That can leave the (untrained) congregation without direction as to what they are meant to sing.
As the church grows and develops, we may become more apt to sing beautiful harmonies, so creative harmonies and lead parts may be more apropos. We’re not trying to stifle your creativity, but our concern is for the whole congregation to be able to sing along.
So be creative, but make sure the people know what they should sing. The best way to do that may be to have several carry the melody if you choose to harmonize. There always needs to be someone carrying the melody if we want people to have confidence to sing along.
Also, that means we tend to maximize congregational singing and minimize guitar solos, special arrangements, and even performances. It’s not that they are bad, it is that we have a limited time and want to focus on the congregation worshipping the savior during the time we have.
4. Our desire is for our own people to be leading us in worship.
We are still a young church, and we use a number of contract musicians along with our volunteers on both campuses. That is okay for now. Convictionally, however, we want to raise up, equip, and engage our own people as volunteers to lead worship in our church.
I understand this will mean more work for you. Nashville studio musicians can walk in and be ready to sing and play with little to no preparation. Volunteers will require a lot more time and energy to train and lead. I know you will have to work hard to build them up, but this is the direction we need to move. Please work hard with us to do so.
Tomorrow, I’ll post part two of my letter. Be sure to check back.