A few months ago I was asked by some aspiring worship leaders what it takes to stand up before a congregation and, well, “lead.” They wanted some advice from an old pro—me. So, after thinking about it for a little while, I came up with Ten Commandments for worship leaders—the people who greet the congregation, or pray, or introduce songs, or make announcements. It is an idiosyncratic list, based as much on my personal issues as universal truths. The list is not comprehensive. But based on the many years I've been a travelling pastor who sat in the pew for much of the service, before I preached, I thought I’d share this list of of advice I think people need to hear with my readers.
ONE: Thou shalt never use the word “just,” in worship, and especially in prayer. Worship is not “just.” It is actually a lot. Worship is special. Maybe even divine. Using the word “just,” as in “we’re just here to praise God,” or “we just love each other,” sounds uneducated, sloppy, dumb, and unprepared. Perhaps the fault here is that I'm an old English teacher. On the other hand, I've often noticed that the quality of worship leadership runs inverse to the frequency with which the word "just," gets used.
TWO: Thou shalt own your space, and smile about it. Worship leaders that slouch onto the dais, who don’t look the audience in the eye, and who frown seem insecure. Audiences catch on to such insecurity, and it unsettles them. So shoulders back, head up, and walk as if you know where you’re going!
THREE: Thou shalt not be trite, use clichés, or unnecessary God talk when leading a worship service. You know what I mean. The worship leader who insists, between every song, that “this is so meaningful to me. It is such a beautiful song. God loves it when we praise him. We’re being a missional, transformational church for him,” and on and on. Words in a worship service should be purposeful, intentional, and important.
FOUR: Thou shalt remember not everyone in attendance wants to praise God at this moment. Many come to church seeking comfort for sorrows, or encouragement amid anxiety, or meaning amid the chaos of their own lives. Include songs of lament for these people. Remember, there are more Psalms of lament than any other kind. A singular focus on praise and thanksgiving excludes far too many people.
FIVE: Thou shalt offer a clear lead-in with a clear cue to start the congregation singing. Pianos and organs and choirs are great for offering these singing cues. It can be done with guitars or violins—but it is much harder. Practice makes perfect.
SIX: Thou shalt sing new tunes through, especially with the help of a choir or a soloist, once or twice before you ask the congregation to join in.
SEVEN: Thou shalt keep a reign on your emotions. Naturally, worship leaders will always be wrestling with a range of emotions and feelings as they stand before the congregation. Perhaps there was an argument with a spouse before church. Perhaps a loved one is in the hospital. Maybe you just received a big promotion at work. As worship leader, however, you must not let such emotions run away with your leadership. Remember, you are there for everyone, not merely yourself. So, think slow. Speak with assurance and purpose. Know what you are going to say. Exhibit a range of emotions that resonate with the actual content of what you have to say to the audience.
EIGHT: Thou shalt especially beware of drums overpowering all singing, and instruments drowning out the voice of song leaders. In churches with praise bands, this happens all the time. I tend to think of it as an ego issue—some musicians just have to make a statement. But that is wrong—church musicians are supposed to help people sing. They are not there to be centre stage.
NINE: Thou shalt write out your prayers. I’m thinking back to numbers one and three, above. We put inordinate emphasis on the need for unrehearsed, spontaneous prayer. I’m not sure why. Surely the work that goes into crafting prayer is good work, spiritually beneficial, and a thoughtful way of being sure that you will pray for what really ought to be prayed about. If you want to memorize your prayer, or reduce it to notes, fine. But prayer is not the right moment for sloppiness.
TEN: Thou shalt remember that aesthetic excellence is excellent. Beauty is holy. God loves a lovely song played well. Not many of us can go to churches whose soaring arches remind us of the vaults of heaven and the mysteries of God’s love. But all of us ought to go to churches where even the simplest song does the same.
In summary, worship leadership is undertaken for the benefit of the audience, and especially their desire to worship. So lead with that goal in mind.