It's the Thursday evening between Christmas and New Years—a week when most regular activities and meetings are suspended. Yet by 7:45 P.M. the Celebration Team members have formed their customary informal circle at the front of our church's sanctuary, just as we do every week.
What motivates this group of people to meet together while so many others are taking a break? That question only briefly crosses my mind as I join them on the carpet and take part in the sharing and prayer time that opens our practice sessions.
We hear a personal testimony of how the Lord is meeting a financial need; a discussion about the use of banners during a particular song; a prayer request for those who are hurting at this time of year and for whom a worship service may only emphasize that pain. As we pray about these and other matters, our hearts and minds become focused on the reason we share for being here again this week. We are, whether singer or musician, dancer or banner bearer, members of a worship team, and as God's people fill this room on Sunday, we will be ready to approach the King of kings and Lord of lords with them.
I marvel at how the Lord has gifted and called these people to share in leading worship with our pastor. We are part of a Reformed denomination in which the minister typically conducts the entire service, a denomination in which the participation of a worship team is not the norm. Yet because of the Lord's direction, we have spent the past nine years focusing on worshiping in spirit and in truth (John 4:23 ntv) and on what that means for our particular congregation. Indeed, our worship team is on the platform as much as the pastor is, and over the years, we have become a welcome and expected part of every service that takes place in the life of this congregation.
A Place to Start: The Worship Director
How does a congregation go about developing a worship team? Once pastor and consistory have agreed that a different approach in worship needs to be implemented, they may be eager to see change. But it's important to recognize that organists, choir directors, hymnals, and liturgies already in place need not be dismissed. Only when any of these positions or tools become inflexible is it a hindrance to a new movement of God. Actually, an organist or choir director who is enthusiastic about worship and growth may be just the right person to take on the role of worship director.
The worship director holds a crucial position, one that requires a mature Christian who has at least some musical expertise and who is able to give leadership not only to the anticipated worship team but to the entire ministry of worship. Ideally, the worship director is a committed member of the congregation (one year or more), familiar with its history and dynamic and with the philosophy and vision of the leadership. Because of the nature and amount of effort involved in a worship ministry, neither the worship director nor team members should overextend themselves in other areas of service.
Once the worship director is in place, he or she will need the full support of those in authority while also agreeing to submit to that authority. The pastor and worship director will want to discuss at length how they will work together to introduce changes. Issues such as the traditional use of hymnbooks, choir selections, special music, liturgy, and so on are best considered in terms of how to better use them rather than how can they be phased out. The introduction of new songs and the use of an overhead screen and projector will require careful thought. Colleen Reinders and I share the position of worship director in our congregation. We are responsible for overseeing the worship team and for the overall vision for worship in the congregation. Under the worship directors are the worship leaders, chief musicians (pianists in our congregation), and other musicians.
As worship directors we are not involved in every service. I am one of five worship leaders and Colleen is one of the chief musicians. Each worship leader is responsible only for the services assigned to him or her. For those services he or she must choose music (which is reviewed by Colleen), hand out the list of songs to the worship team on the preceding Sunday, participate in Thursday-night rehearsal, and then lead in worship 0n Sunday.
Pastor and Worship Leader
In many churches, the worship leader is the pastor in charge of a given service. These pastors not only administer the Word and sacraments but are also responsible for choosing the hymns, designating the choir's participation and—whether the pastor is musically inclined or not—leading the singing.
Pastors who are willing to share the service leadership with musically gifted and spiritually sensitive worship leaders will be able to devote more preparation time to their sermons. At the same time they will be giving a musical leader the opportunity to grow in his or her gifts. Above all, both the Word and worship will be enhanced as each one is given more thought and prayer and is presented more effectively by its respective "minister."
Week by week the worship leader (not song leader—an important distinction) will prayerfully choose hymns, songs, and choruses that are, first of all, scripturally sound and then also musically worshipful for each service. Since it is important that all parts of the service be an integrated whole, the worship leader is kept informed about sermon topic and service theme and encouraged to select music that supports or enhances that focus. Other factors the worship leader should keep in mind when selecting music are the importance of maintaining a balance between the traditional and the contemporary (probably a unique blend for each congregation); of introducing no more than one new song per service; of remembering to musically enhance/support sacraments; and of being conscious of the timing and overall length of the service.
What ties all of these considerations together is the worship leader's desire to plan and lead a meaningful time of praise and worship that has direction— a sense of movement from the "outer courts" to the very "Holy of holies."
Role of the Musicians
Working very closely with the worship leader is the chief musician, the instrumentalist (usually a pianist or organist) who takes his/her directions from the worship leader and then sets the key, tempo, and "feel" of the music accordingly. Any other instrumentalists follow the chief musician in musically supporting what the worship leader is doing.
Joining the musicians in following the worship leader's direction are the singers. These people sing with the worship leader, demonstrating vocal parts (e.g., SATB, echoes, rounds) and especially the expression of worship. Their faces, posture, and body movements encourage the congregation to also use their physical as well as intellectual and emotional selves to show love for the Lord. When appropriate, the singers (and the entire team) may decide to function as a choir, and present a musical selection—an effective way of introducing new material to the congregation.
Organizing the Worship Team
The worship team concept can function and be effective as soon as a worship director, worship leader(s), and chief musician(s) are in place. It is desirable to invite more people to that core group, however, since it gives those in the congregation with musical gifts an opportunity for growth and service.
Additional vocalists and instrumentalists enhance a worship team in a number of ways. First of all, each voice or instrument adds to the flavor of sound that the group creates. Also, having more members means a large group which can be divided so that no one has to lead in every service, thereby avoiding burnout. A large team may also consider outreach opportunities (e.g., prisons, nursing homes, conferences) where members could lead in praise and worship on a regular or onetime basis.
A weekly practice gives the worship team opportunity for developing musical excellence while also enjoying good fellowship and spiritual encouragement. Joining these rehearsals (though not necessarily involved every Sunday) may be dancers, banner bearers, overhead-projector operators, sound technicians, and, as the need grows, a secretary. Especially because each team member has a unique gift and role, weekly and pre-service prayer times help to build unity and are as much a priority as warming up voices and instruments. The phrase "no pray, no play" should become the team's motto as they prepare to lead in praise and worship.
The worship team in our congregation began as a cell group, and prayer and fellowship are still an important part of our gatherings. But once our work as a worship team began, we had to come to grips with the fact that we are a task-oriented group. We now hold our sharing and prayer time from 7:30-8:15. Then we rehearse from 8:15 until 10:00. During that time we practice all the music for the following service as well as perhaps introduce some new material for future services.
All our musical arrangements are developed in rehearsal; nothing is scored. The team members buy their own music from collections such as Scripture in Song and participate in rehearsals for three months before they are permitted to lead in worship. They get the list of songs the Sunday before they are to participate and are expected to come prepared on Thursday night. The rehearsal is spent refining the ensemble. The worship directors discipline the group and shape the arrangements until everyone has every song right.
Some team members don't read a note but have excellent ears and pick up music by rote very quickly. The whole notion of using a musician who plays only by ear is rather radical. But many who don't read music are still gifted musically. There is no reason not to use them if they are able to flow along with those who are trained music readers. This approach stretches both groups.
Organizing a worship team is a process that does not happen overnight. What we have shared here has taken several years and much prayer to realize. And even now it is our continued desire to seek and obey the Lord's direction for worship in our congregation. Being part of the Celebration Team is a blessing—we are thankful for all we have learned together. It is whom we worship together, however, that makes the time and effort (even holiday practices!) a blessing and a joy. To Jesus be all praise and worship forever!