Tools for the Non-Musical Worship Leader

I was recently reading Chris Falson’s old book¬†Planted by the Water and came across this (at page 150) which I thought was interesting:

It is not essential for a worship leader to be a skilled musician. A reliance on skill and talent hinders the move of the Holy Spirit. Some of the best worship leaders I have seen have been people with no understanding of music theory but whose open heart and willingness to serve made them a wonderful guide for others to follow. Having said that, a skilful musician who lays his or her gifts at the Lord’s feet has the potential to break new ground in worship as well as to gather, nurture and mould other gifted people into a ministry team.

I am encouraged by this. The only formal music training I have ever had was in primary school, when they taught me to play the recorder. I still visualise notes on the staff using “FACE” and “Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit”. But as Chris Falson says, skilled musicianship is not essential to the task of worship leading.

I always come back to Kirk Franklin, a guy who doesn’t sing but leads worship by simply saying things at the right places. He’s so good at what he does that he has live worship albums, on which he doesn’t sing a single note!

So here are five tools for those of us non-musical worship leaders which can help us lead better:

1. The Word of God. Sounds obvious, but it’s often lacking in the modern worship movement which emphasises so much on skill and artistry. Yet, letting the “Word of God dwell richly amongst us” is a Biblical command as we sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Col 3:16). We need to understand how the message of Christ can be “read” (or better still, “heard”) through our choice of songs. A clear Biblical message and theme should be deployed each time we lead. Scripture reading and scriptural praying should also be part of a worship leader’s repertoire.

2. Musical Taste. So, a worship leader need not be skilled in music theory, but it is hard to avoid the fact that worship leading entails an appreciation of music. The unmusical worship leader should develop musical taste by listening to a wide range of musical styles (at the very least, worship music from different eras of the church) to get an understanding of what works musically and what doesn’t.

3. Humble Teachability. I rely a lot on my musical director. Having developed (hopefully) some semblance of taste, and a good handle of how to put songs together, I have to approach worship with an open hand and take on board suggestions by those who are more skilled at music than I am. Over time, as trust has been built with my musicians, I am able to allow the music director and the band to run the musical side of the worship after I set an overall vision and flow of the worship set. Remember, no matter how good your idea, don’t be too precious about it. Collaboration with musicians not only leads to better musical results, but also builds a sense of ownership amongst your team.

4. Stage Presence. A worship leader needs to be able to connect with the gathered congregation and influence them to follow. So, a worship leader needs to communicate the message through the things they say, their expression and their gestures. Make plenty of eye contact with the congregation, and smile! My worship director tells me that one of my greatest gifts is my “off-time bouncing”. If you want the congregation to be expressive in their worship, you need to lead in expressiveness.

5. Off-Stage Presence.¬†Worship leading starts before you even get on stage. Real leadership begins in your relationship with the congregation and how you model your life when you’re not leading worship. Get involved in the life of your church and help out whenever you can, like packing up chairs, going to prayer meetings, actively participate in cell group etc. Then when you lead worship, people will happily follow you, not because you are awesome, but because they like you.

What other tools can you think of which should be in the non-musical worship leader’s toolkit?

The Art of Midflight Song Changes

This post (like the previous one) was also inspired by my emerging worship leader friend whilst unwinding after a game of tennis. He made the remark that he really doesn’t like it when worship leaders make a habit out of changing songs at the last minute (e.g. on the morning of the worship service).

I have to admit: in my younger days as worship leader, I used to make last-minute song changes quite regularly. For me, it was a mark of great spiritual maturity. It gave the image of my being “tight” with God and being able to respond quickly to his promptings (those promptings usually happened in the shower on Sunday morning whilst getting ready to go to church).

I think I must have also had this sadistic bent to keep my worship team in suspense and “on their toes” because if they were really as spiritual as me, they would be able to pick up the surprise new song without any problems.

On reflection, I no longer think it’s a good idea for the worship leader to change songs at the last minute.

Think about it: all the musos have prepared and practised based on the songlist and charts that you put together. The dancers (if you have a dance team) have already put moves to the lyrics. And now, all of that practice has (on its face) gone to waste and everyone is going to be put out of kilter by trying to figure out how to deliver the new song instead of preparing their hearts for the upcoming session.

There’s a flip side, to be fair. Last minute changes can be good if they are not made into a habit.

In a particularly memorable worship service I led in my old church, we had just gone through a really intense time of worship singing “One Desire” by Joel Houston and then I felt really strongly not to proceed with the next song but instead to sing “Heart of Worship”. I didn’t warn anybody about this; I just took the step of faith when the music died down. My then awesome music director Darren Woon simply accompanied me on the acoustic guitar and much of the congregation ended up on their knees. It was a really powerful moment because I was flexible enough to respond to the Holy Spirit.

Sometimes, when you feel the need to change songs midflight, you just need to take the step of faith and do it.

But most of the time, I would suggest that good worship leadership means that we look out for our team members more than our own need to look awesomely spiritual.

Perhaps one day, when I have a team like Kent Henry’s or a band that just plays together week-in/week-out or a group of accomplished jazz musicians, I might dispense with a songlist all together! But for now, I want to encourage worship leaders to avoid the temptation of changing songs too late in the piece. You can hear from God weeks in advance of the worship session if you want to! And it takes just as much faith to go with your prepared songlist as to spring a surprise song on your unsuspecting team!