We need effective leaders of worship like never before. We need songs and services led by authentic and healthy people. In a day when celebrity and fame are sought after, we need servants to our congregations rather than platform-building personalities. Through musical leaders, the Bible has been put to music in the form of Psalms and hymns. In history, both soaring and humble melodies have arisen in the Western Church over the years. Today, the proliferation of worship leader training programs at the university level is a sign that there is a need for both the leadership of churches and worship leaders themselves to be effective. Why is this so? And, what does the recipe for an effective worship leader look like?
Leading Worship: Three Musts of Effective Worship Leaders – Growth in Faith, Theology, and Music
I believe that there are three areas for the worship leader that must be sharpened over time. Obviously, as a leader in the faith, the heart and experience that is rich and connected to the Holy Spirit, will ground us. The wonderful times we serve in music cannot be the only occasions for inspiration, however. Our well must be deeper than that. As far as theology, we partner with the pastor in teaching the great truths of the faith. The more we grasp the foundations of biblical truths, the richer our ministry in music becomes. The vehicle of music cannot be forgotten or an afterthought. If a preacher of the Word is to be effective, learning effective speaking and communication techniques will obviously be in order. To be one who leads the church in prayer through songs and music, the skill of a music leader then can only be a positive quality, as well.
Basically, you need to follow hard after God, learn the Bible like a pastor, and become the most skilled you can as a musician. This trifecta can be a recipe for effectiveness in the nebulously defined role of worship leader. It means dedication on several fronts of your life as a worship leader and years of commitment. Talent alone will not sustain any of us in ministry. But, without the proper tools and disciplines, we shorten our shelf life at best, and wash out at worst. While honing our heart is central, it is not going to be enough as a leader. Both skill and heart together–with the Bible as the anchor–is the formula we should consider. As we consider the huge task, let us also anticipate the huge reward in being able to serve the local church as worship leaders. We “get” to do this! It is a joyous challenge. The longer we can sustain and serve, the more of this joy we get to be a part of.
With that being said, let’s look at reasons why these three areas matter by answering some questions widely asked by worship leaders.
Were worship leaders in the Bible (and history) paid or volunteer?
You are not alone in your calling, as there have been many before you. Understanding the history of the Church and of your local church will greatly aid you in addressing a topic, such as who to pay in leading worship, for instance. Like I said in a previous article, “Worship Leaders Are Not Superheroes”, the term “worship leader” is not an official title or office found in the Bible. What we find in the Old Testament, however, are priests, musicians and servants in the temples from the tribe of Levi. This group of servants started with the Tabernacle worship and then the Temple of Solomon and beyond. They were paid for their duties, receiving income from a portion of the offerings given. So, even though the title “worship leader” was not official, these Old Testament Levites had the professional task of leading worship, paving the way for what some of us do today in the Christian church.
The tribe of Levi is where the priests were also called from. Not just anyone could be a priest or a temple musician. King David seemed to personally appoint musicians and leaders. It was a humble yet highly honored post. King David, the army man he was, organized these musicians and priests in military fashion. There were leaders and musical directors and an obvious hierarchy in the Old Testament worship. (1 Ch 6:31, 1 Ch 25:1, Ps 68:25)
We also have counterparts in history in the early church. In the New Testament, we have music as a part of worship (Eph 5:19, Col 3:16, Jas 5:13). However, we have no such office as a stated profession from what we see in the letters. There were “ministers” or deacons or deaconesses who were likely paid along with the Apostles and the elders of the church. (Ro 16:1, Php 1:1, 1 Ti 3:8) This even included women, by the way, such as Phoebe who was mentioned by Paul (Ro 16:1), and the “widows” who served had a special place in the early church as employed ministers. (1 Ti 5:3-12). The Apostle Paul mentions public worship and “singing” in his letters multiple times. So it seems sure that singing and music were part of the ancient church practice, just not as grand as in the Temple of Solomon. The activity of worship originated in homes, after the synagogues were no longer friendly to Peter and the other Apostles and as the Church grew beyond the Jewish people (Ac 13:14-43, Ro 16:5). The Church was almost underground by the time the Apostle John wrote The Book of Revelation. Music, we can easily assume, was underground in the church, too.
By the time of AD 325 when Emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicaea, the Christian church was finally declared legal in the Roman Empire and practices of worship came out from hiding from all over the known world when Constantine issued the Edict of Milan. (Galli, Mark, and Ted Olsen. “Introduction.” 131 Christians everyone should know 2000 : 307) By 397, our Bible was widely recognized by the Council of Carthage–the official list of books accepted as the Bible we see today. (Bruce, F. F. The Canon of Scripture. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988 : 97.) The Nicene Creed was acknowledged and accepted as the global Church statement of faith. (Historic Creeds and Confessions. electronic ed. Oak Harbor: Lexham Press, 1997) From here, church music and worship became a professional post as clergy and laity are employed to lead worship—both as priests and musicians, respectively.
In our Western church history, there was mainly vocal music expressed in worship until about the 12th Century when music harmony and the organ grew to accompany singing. (Dickinson, Edward. Music in the history of the western church, with an introduction on religious music among the primitive and ancient peoples. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1902 : 129) After the Reformation in 1517, liturgy and worship began to be sung and spoken in the native tongue, outside the Roman Catholic Church. The Bible was translated and printed in native languages, giving access to people like never before. Of course, sacred music would follow suit. The Protestant worship music we sing today grew to be more congregational rather than the performance from professional choirs or cantors singing Gregorian chants.
Being a paid or volunteer music leader depended on the wealth of the church and season in Church history. Today, we seem to be in a similar situation in the United States. We have both. Some lead our worship as professionals while others lead as lay volunteers. Both must be respected and valid, as they were both biblically and historically. I cannot see a historical or biblical argument that fairly prohibits payment of musical leaders of worship and there seems to be no argument on the other side to exclusively demand this, as well. What history teaches us is that with everything from church furniture placement to our songs, the challenges we face today as worship leaders may not be as unique as we think they are.
How do we not let skill get in the way of the Holy Spirit? Is preparation a block to the Spirit’s leading?
What do you do when you are seasoned and prepared enough to rely on your honed routines, rather than on the power of the Holy Spirit? First off, I think we need to be clear that preparation, talent, skill and the gifts one may have are not obstacles to the Spirit. Why would they be? After all, our mind and body were ordained by our Creator. When we apply the material that God has given us to excel, then I think we are being a better vessel for the Holy Spirit, not a detriment.
The point here is this. We can often forget who is really the Author of our ministry and the one responsible for the results. The truth is that our gifts often do not match our inner character. We can observe what others see in the power of our spiritual gifting and mistake that for God’s endorsement of our attitudes and choices. This is when our skill or gifts get in the way. We let them be the only feedback to our ministry and possibly damage the ability to serve with these gifts.
The humble worship leader will be confident in the skill and gifting, but not so much in our human limitations. We need rest. We need friendships and community. We need God’s presence when we are not in front of others leading them. The skill will not do any of these! Our hearts are fragile, even when our ministry may be a powerful thing to those we serve.
Therefore, we must continue to prepare in skill and hone both the human and supernatural gifting God has put in our domain. We must then learn to rely on that same Spirit who gave us these skills of ministry to minister to us, too. Indeed, we can learn to put on a show and do that well. God will use that if he so chooses, but our strength does not come from that; It comes from our relationship with Him. Why would we help others connect to God with our skill while not enjoying the same ministry for ourselves? Well, we are human and therefore forget. In this case, we forget that we are more than the things we do and whose power is the source of it all.
What do we do when we are more concerned with a sound or vibe than faith and spiritual growth? (The dangers of reverse engineering God’s work.)
What is our goal for the worship service? Working for a vibe or copying an experience seems common today, because the modern church in America has learned business growth practices and marketing like never before. For the most part, these skills can be good things. However, have our tools and practices been allowed to change our purpose? We can put on events with ease. We can market to a demographic and be on message with a laser focus. This leads to reverse engineering God’s movements in other churches. We would rather copy and paste a move of God than do the hard work of developing people. Do we believe that God works through people or through a system?
The power of grass-roots growth cannot be understated. The original followers of Jesus were only a dozen close disciples with a hundred or more other committed people. Jesus spent his three short years of ministry with a small group of people, even though the crowds were a part of it, as well. The crowds were not his main focus, however. His most powerful teachings were spoken to his twelve. They heard the rest of the story when Jesus puzzled the crowds with challenging parables and we see Christ in many personal conversations with foes, as well as outcasts.
Does the sound or vibe we desire in our church come from our desire to quickly see the results of another ministry’s years of grass-roots work? Hillsong, for instance, has been making worship music and training its own people for decades. For a church to simply copy what they do in public without training and developing people like they do off-stage is foolish. On top of that, are we sure what God chooses to do with one group is meant for our group? Maybe God has a different plan for your ministry.
Spiritual growth should be our value, not recreating the feel of a successful ministry we have visited at a conference or seen on a YouTube video. It is true, many pastors and leaders think success will come from reverse engineering successful ministries. However, discipleship is a slow process that involves developing people—not developing a vibe or sound! What would we rather have? Do we want the appearance of success, or the transformation of lives? That is the question we should ask. And, as worship leaders, we are at our best when we learn to develop other worship leaders for worship, not just what is put in front of people.
Why does it matter for a worship leader to spend regular time with the Lord in Bible study and prayer?
We as worship leaders are not immune from the human condition, even though many are blessed spiritually when we serve them. We need Jesus. But there is another reason we need to have a personal discovery with the Bible. We simply cannot take others where we have not been ourselves. Otherwise, we are not leading. When we lead in prayer, but have not prayed, what does that say? As worship leaders, we need to experience God’s presence, not just invite others to do so for themselves.
Prayer can have many forms. We surely should pray in our private moments, but all settings of prayer matter. As for my family, we pray at the dinner table as often as we eat together. Unfortunately, this is not daily–at least a few times a week. When worship leaders do not pray off the platform, what happens? We are left out of the stream of the Spirit and community. We become disconnected and lonely. We forget to confess that we actually need God. We neglect practicing thanksgiving and then become more prone to damaging selfishness. In our hearts and minds, we may even lose the reason why we lead worship.
How about the Ten Commandments? Are these to make God’s needs met, or ours? Obviously, God does not need us to love him. Our deepest need is found in a loving relationship with our Father and with and through his people. All of these ten commandments are about relationships—both to God and to others. We shouldn’t refrain from coveting or stealing just because that makes God unhappy. It also helps to love our neighbors and strengthen our relationships. Loving God and loving our neighbor matter.
Our personal devotional life matters, too. If we don’t warm our hearts to God and others, we will not be very loving people in any sense. Time with God is one way to grow and protect all our hearts. Reading the Bible for personal time with God is different than preparing a service or a sermon as it seeks for us to hear from God, personally. Praying to God and seeking his presence outside of our leadership of worship is essential. Why? Because we forget. This is why “regular” time with God is called for.
How do we measure if worship is Spirit driven? (Why qualitative evaluation is better than quantitative evaluation.)
The Bible says to “test the spirits”, so how do we “test” to see if a worship service or ministry is Spirit driven? (1 John 4:1) Some have checklists to measure how loud the people sing. Others will determine Spirit-led worship through the process of planning. How many prayers and thoughts were put into the creation of the worship plan? Does the service put Christ as supreme or emotion? Was the worship leader open to seize freedom in any moments in the service? Did the offering meet expectations? How many complaints were emailed by Monday morning?
All of these and more look like the jumbled data leaders might use to evaluate a service. We look for metrics, like in any important activity in our culture. The problem is that we seek to explain the wind of the Spirit by what we see that moved. I suggest that counting might be harmful to our evaluation of worship. If we seek to only point to objective criteria, it may be disastrous to our actual goals. The “data” we collect is anecdotal at best. At worst, it is highly biased. People come in with expectations that are unbiblical and yet we often tell the worship leader he is on thin ice because of data based on emotional responses and outward markers.
Qualitative measurement can start and end with what we value. Do we value excellent music? Then we can, over time, easily see if the musicianship is stronger. But do we allow our spiritual meter to work this way, as well? Counting raised hands does not mean the Spirit is moving or not, does it? I suggest we can look for attitudes, instead. Imagine if we attempted to measure how people were less selfish about their preferences in church over music. What if the congregation claimed more and more that they were singing the songs on Monday and the effect was a lifted attitude? We can set outward markers, and should, but if we only count the shallow things, we only program for the shallow things.
The Spirit-driven worship we all want sometimes is not accepted or seen by all at the same time in the same moment. Church leaders need to be aware of this. The one warning is this: Maybe it is not about last Sunday. Maybe it is about comparing what things were like a year before. Are we deeper in love with Jesus as a church? Do our people invite their friends more than last year to worship? Has the level of thanksgiving grown in our church people? Metrics are fine if you measure the right things. Sometimes these may be less dramatic and devoid of the buzz we are all addicted to, but the Spirit speaks in a still small voice. We need to stop waiting for the thunder.
Why is Biblical education for leading worship important?
Outside of our own personal devotional discoveries, the worship leader is a prayer leader. Knowing the Bible is essential in this regard. Every song we choose and every word we speak needs a plumb line to measure up against. Do we know enough theology to know if our music is correctly expressing truth? Do we as worship leaders know how to partner with our pastors in their teaching of the Word? Is our knowledge of Scripture strong enough to field the many questions parishioners may have about our music?
Formal biblical education allows a strong historical base from what early church fathers wrote, to recent scholarship. When we know that the Dead Sea Scrolls buttress the validity and trustworthiness of the Old Testament, it can give us confidence and reasonable arguments to those around us who have questions. When we read the early Christian creeds and see that they were written as the canon of the Bible was accepted, we see the Bible as an amazing collaboration of people used by the Holy Spirit over hundreds of years.
Knowledge of book authorship and times and dates may seem boring or pointless to a musical type person bent on a good experience, but we are more than experience facilitators. We are vessels for our congregation’s prayers. Helping our church pray is a high calling that must be centered on the Bible and built upon a strong theology.
Why does musical education for leading worship matter?
Music is an artistic medium for telling stories. It is also a vehicle for prayer. The better we are at expressing music, the better we are at leading music. As I already mentioned, it would not be so great to be called to preach, yet never hone the skill as a public speaker. Music being our vehicle of leadership means that the more adept we are at music, the better we are as musical leaders. But, why is music education necessary when modern music is solely used?
There is a difference between the self-taught guitarist and the schooled musician. One can pick things up by ear without a score, using a very limited level of music theory. The schooled musician is required to read from a page and write to the page the music he or she plays. Often, how good a musician is, in my experience, has little to do with a degree. It has mostly to do with the application of raw talent that is then transformed into an artistic skill. Whether your lessons are YouTube or Berkeley College of Music, the process has a lot of similarities.
If you want to be a musical leader, and not simply play off of current music, music education broadens your horizons. Sure, you can learn how to play a Hillsong tune on your guitar, but what happens when the style goes to synth-pop? What happens when choirs become popular again as a worship team? When your skill is limited, you have less ability to play multiple styles, lead different musical groups, and write arrangements for differing levels of skill. Music education, when it is done right, prepares you to lead music. Those who can produce have a longer shelf-life as musicians than those who can simply play, but every musician has to play well.
The street musician can often school the academic musician. Music education is not a pathway to musicianship, per se. However, it opens up the worship leader to lead in music–the very vehicle that is central to his or her ministry. So whether it is composition or performance, I think all worship leaders benefit from some formal music training.
How Worship Leaders can make time in their schedules for growth.
Many of you are worship leaders who are reading this and desire to grow, but are pressed with your schedule. If you are a part-time or volunteer staff member–the majority of worship leaders–then you struggle to wear all the hats of worship leadership and still afford to pay the rent. If you are a full-time worship employee, sometimes that means more meetings than developing yourself or others. Indeed, the struggle is real.
The first thing I can suggest is understanding that your role as a worship leader really has at least six hats to wear. I wrote a little book about this, but the main takeaway is that you need to focus on your strengths and develop others to wear or share the hats that you either cannot, due to time and space, or that others can do a better job with. For instance, some of us artistic types are not great accountants or project managers. The best thing we can do, besides learning personal organization, is to pass on those types of tasks in our ministry to others who excel in them. You can wear a hat, share a hat, or give a hat away.
Besides knowing the role and managing it, we need to manage ourselves. I suggest that, as a more creative people, we worship leaders acquire personal organization. Imagine spending less time on the boring busywork and more on creativity and being with people. Whether you learn to use online tools like Evernote to keep notes or Google to keep your calendar and appointments, the principle is similar to wearing or sharing or giving the hats away. Let tools wear some of your hats, in other words!
The last thing I will say about your schedule is that you need to learn to communicate your work process to those around you. As a more artistic function, some may not understand the amount of time or energy creative work like music requires. Music is part of your work, whether acknowledged or not. How long does it take to prepare for rehearsal? How much personal practice time do you require? Take into consideration the administrative tasks, as well. Scheduling is not simply filling in slots for a team. Each person has to perform a unique function and they may not be interchangeable! Writing your process down and communicating it will allow everyone involved to see where you need growth, as well as help you gain assistance where needed.
How pastors and congregations can encourage worship leaders to grow.
When is the last time your worship leader took a music lesson? How far in advance does the worship leader receive the sermon theme, Scripture or readings? Does your worship leader, even if a volunteer, have a budget for going to a conference to learn best practices? As pastors and congregations have demands for fresh worship services, the worship leader often has to battle with no leave time in sight. Even with vacation time, the Sundays he or she is absent from still must be recruited for and prepared. It is not a solo task, for the most part.
Oftentimes, church leaders are like a hospital administrator who leads professionals who do things they cannot do. While the hospital administrator keeps things legal and financed properly, the doctors perform heart surgery. A pastor who preaches a 30-minute sermon may spend several hours preparing on top of seminary training and the tools of his or her library. But a worship leader may have less time to plan for the 20 minutes of music in a service, schedule a team, rehearse a team, and personally practice or prepare. What is not quantified at times is the personal interaction with teammates, recruiting and training new people, and seeing what is new in technology, practices, and music.
Give the worship leader time and freedom to grow a leadership pipeline as part of the job. Who will lead when the worship leader is on vacation or sick? Each church has an expectation of skill level of performance. We don’t want Sundays to be degraded musically, even when our regular worship leader is not available. What energy is spent helping the worship leader grow? When we answer that question, we then allow the worship leader to grow those on the team as well. No leader, even worship leaders, can be static and grow those around them.
10 Ways Worship Leaders can grow in faith, Bible knowledge and music education.
- Be a student of church history. Where did your church come from?
- Learn the balance between skill, preparation, and the Spirit’s move in the moment.
- Worry about spiritual growth more than creating an experience. Are lives being transformed?
- Be diligent to have personal devotional times. What is God speaking to you in your prayers and study?
- Be a student of the Bible and theology. How is the Bible a foundation of my ministry?
- Recognize how the Spirit works in your worship leading. Do you expect the Spirit to be there, both in the process and the moment?
- Evaluate values more than numbers. Are you measuring the right things?
- Learn to articulate your work process. What hats do I wear and how do I need to delegate leading worship?
- Grow in personal organization. How will I keep appointments and manage deadlines?
- Expanding musical skill is a must. What is my plan to improve my musicianship?
7 Schools of Worship That Offer Distance education and training for worship leaders. These are schools that either offer online study or cater to distance learners who are working in ministry. (Source: Sharefaith.com list of Top 20 Best Universities and Schools for Worship)
- Liberty University. Offers Bachelor’s as well as higher education degrees in worship. http://liberty.edu.
- IWS (Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies). Offers Master’s and Doctoral studies. http://iws.edu
- Azusa Pacific University. Offers Bachelor’s as well as higher education degrees in worship. http://www.apu.edu/
- Grand Canyon University. Offers Bachelor’s as well as higher education degrees in worship. https://www.gcu.edu/
- Dallas Baptist University. Offers Master’s degrees with online and hybrid courses. http://www.dbu.edu
- WorshipU. Offers training in practical skills for a monthly fee. https://www.worshipu.com/
- World Revival School. Offers certificates and Bachelor’s online. http://worldrevivalschool.com/