Growing as a Worship Leader - Part One
Updated: Feb 4, 2019
I first started playing guitar in 1994 during the summer between my freshman and sophomore year of high school. I had always enjoyed music. In fact, I was part of our school choir and I even played tuba and trombone in our school’s concert and jazz bands. As much as I enjoyed playing in our school bands, in my mind, tuba and trombone weren’t exactly supporting my overwhelming desire to be cool. So, as many high school kids do, I began to explore options for enhancing my coolness and the guitar caught my attention.
The cool factor was not my only motive in wanting to learn to play the guitar. There was also a girl. There’s always a girl. She was a little younger than me and I had fallen for her. I was desperately hoping to win her over by playing guitar and singing her a song. I was convinced that the guitar was much better suited for this endeavor than tuba or trombone; but in the end my efforts failed at winning my crush over. The guitar, however, succeeded at winning me over and I continued playing and began writing songs for fun.
Even though I grew up in church, worship leading was never an aspiration of mine in the early days of guitar playing. The music in the church my family attended consisted generally of classic hymns and choruses accompanied by a piano player. Occasionally, some brave soul in our congregation would volunteer to sing a special song; which was essentially a Sunday morning karaoke version of something off of the current Christian radio top 40. There wasn’t much happening in that environment that inspired me to want to get involved.
However, at some point along the way our youth leader asked me if I would consider playing a song to open our youth gathering sometime. I reluctantly agreed and quickly learned how to play and sing a song called, “As The Deer”. I remember this well because there was a Bm chord in the song that I still hadn’t quite mastered by the night of the youth meeting. I am still to this day convinced that there has never been a more awkward three and a half minutes of worship leading.
Despite my early crash and burn introduction to worship leading, in 2004 I answered the long avoided call on my life and began leading worship consistently in a church. It has been, and continues to be, a wonderful adventure. I have had the honor of leading worship for all different kinds of conferences, gatherings and meetings over the years. In that time, I have come to the conclusion that the art of worship leading is not something that can ever truly be mastered. There are no experts; there are only those who are willing to step into grace and learn as they go.
I am consistently asked by other worship leaders that are just starting out for tips on how they can improve. These questions have inspired me to take some time and think about the things that I feel are necessary for growth in worship ministry. Now I don’t want to, by any means, try to pretend like I have the exact keys to produce growth in worship leading; but I do believe that I can offer some helpful suggestions based on things I’ve learned over the years. This post is only part one of a series that will be dedicated, in no particular order, to this topic of growing as a worship leader.
DEVELOP YOUR MUSICAL SKILLS
One of the most overlooked keys to growth as a worship leader is the development of musical skills. We often times forget that this particular ministry role requires more than just ministry abilities; we are musicians as well. It’s all too easy, once you have your five basic chords down in the key of G, to get comfortable and stop pushing yourself to grow as a musician. Most modern worship songs are not difficult for a mediocre musician to play or sing. Because of that, I’ve seen many worship leaders stop challenging themselves to improve in musicianship after they have acquired the basic skills to lead a set of songs. King David required the highest degree of skill and excellence of the musicians that played in his tabernacle and I believe that we should be provoked by his desire to give God our best.
Vocalists - Your voice is an instrument. Do you really know how to play it?
Even if you have already been singing for several years and feel like you have a good handle on what you're doing, it can still be helpful to get some singing lessons and work at taking things to the next level. Why not put the work in and get the most out of your voice? Singing lessons are a great way to discover your strengths and your opportunities for improvement. You will learn your vocal range and how you can expand it, as well as proven techniques for maintaining great vocal health. Do you know how to harmonize? I am often amazed at how many worship leaders have not developed this incredible tool for supporting other singers. A good vocal instructor can teach you this skill as well as much more.
It can also be helpful for vocalists that don’t play an instrument to take the time to learn one. This will not only expand your understanding of music but it will also enable you to better communicate with your team. Music is its own language.
Instrumentalists - How well do you know your instrument? Take some time to expand your skills by learning some new techniques or styles. You might even consider learning a new instrument. There is tremendous inspiration and growth that happens when we explore new instruments and new sounds. Learning how to play the other instruments on your team may also enable you to communicate, collaborate and work with your team at a greater level.
Music Production - Production, like performance, is wrongly considered a dirty word in many worship ministry circles today. It shouldn’t be. If we aren’t thinking about the production aspect our sets and songs then we aren’t really valuing excellence or making a full effort to give God and our congregation our best.
What does it take? I think it starts with simply paying attention. When you are listening to songs that you are learning, take note of the dynamics changing throughout the song. Are there sections where there are no drums? When does the bass come in? Does the music drop to only a keyboard right before the bridge? You can implement these same dynamics (or your own new creative ones) during rehearsal and experiment.
It’s common for young, excited musicians to feel like it’s their job to play continuously throughout the entire song. Don’t be afraid to stop strumming that acoustic guitar during a verse and let the drums and bass carry it. It will feel much more alive when you come back in with them on the chorus. Also, if you are leading, don’t be shy about communicating to your band what it is that you want from them musically. You are not only leading your congregation in worship, it’s your job to lead your band of musicians as well.
Some of the most influential worship movements at the moment have teams comprised of musicians that are also producers. This dynamic makes for some amazing creativity and collaboration of ideas. Challenge yourself and your team to begin to pay attention and try new things. If you really want to take it to a new level, find some online music production classes and begin to sharpen your skills.
Songwriting - Along with production, there is something in songwriting that sparks inspiration and growth. There is a creativity that is cultivated and developed through the process. Give it a shot. You will be amazed at the outcome.
If you are a musician, you have been given a beautifully wrapped gift from God. Don’t settle for only untying the bow; get excited and dig into that box! Discover all that’s in there for you! I guarantee there’s a lot more to be found than you are currently aware of and exploring your gift will spark growth in you as a worship leader.