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When You Lead Worship: Practical advice for worship leaders

What does it take to lead worship well? As anyone who has prepared to step in front of a congregation for the first time knows, leading worship successfully takes more than courage or a mechanical awareness of what to do when. Good worship leadership demands knowledge, ability, and preparationó and it begins with a good theology of worship.

In his classic piece "And Then What Must I Do?" Kierkegaard chastens Protestant congregations for approaching worship with the same attitude with which they approach a concert or a playóas if they are the audience and the speakers (preacher, musicians, liturgists) are the actors. The churchgoers respond to the performance as criticsóinterested, bored, or deeply moved. Kierkegaard goes on to suggest that while worship might well be compared to a theater, the worshipers are actors, not critics. The worship leaders are prompters who help the congregation perform the act of worship.

The goal of worship leaders, then, is not to star in a great performance, but rather to become transparent prompters who help focus worship on God. How does that happen? By eliminating both the stumbling blocks and the theatrics that draw attention to the leader and away from God.

Visual Presentation

Good Grooming Is Essential.
It may seem obvious, but the worship leader's visual presentation begins with grooming. One should certainly not have to be a fashion plate in order to lead worship, but basic cleanliness, modesty, and good taste are essential when setting a tone of reverence. Torn or unkempt clothes are obviously inappropriate, but in many contexts so is a too-expensive suit or party dress. Men and women will want to avoid suggestive clothing and garish jewelry, and women will want to keep makeup understated.

Consider the style of the worship service.
The formality of worship varies greatly from church to church. An effective worship leader will be aware of the culture, style, and formality of the service that he or she is called to lead. For the most part, the style of the service should inform the way in which the leader conducts himself or herself, not vice-versa.

Good "Stage" Presence Takes Practice.
Effective presence begins with good posture and attentiveness. Erect posture is both reverent and commanding, and indicates to the worshipers that you are prepared to lead them.

Good eye contact encourages the congregation to listen carefully to what you are saying and invites them to participate fully in worship. When singing hymns or leading a responsive reading, you should lift your book so that your voice still projects and your eyes connect with the congregation.

If another leader is speaking, all attention should be fully directed to that person. If your attention wanders to your notes or to gazing out at the crowd, the congregation will be distracted too.

Gestures need not be loud to be effective.
Often the smallest movement speaks volumes. If the congregation fails to rise to sing a hymn, for example, stand yourself. If they still don't respond, raise your hands to prompt them once more.

Your role as a prompter is to help the congregation worship God.

Oral Delivery

Oral delivery is one of the most criticized areas of leadershipóand one of the easiest to change. We all know the frustration of trying to follow a speaker who talks too quietly or too quickly. These problems are heightened in sanctuaries that have poor acoustics.

Practice diction.
To improve your diction, try reading aloud privately or with a friendly "coach."

First, practice slowing down your speed until you are comfortable hearing yourself speak at a slower rate.

Then pay attention to the consonants: Are you speaking each one distinctly? Many speakers make the mistake of dropping the consonants off the ends of words or of running two words together.

Once consonants feel comfortable to you, pay attention to the vowels. Each one requires your mouth to form a different shape. Practice saying phrases like "lips, teeth, tip of the tongue" to become aware of what you're doing and to make your mouth more flexible. It may feel strange, but it works!

Learn to adjust volume and pitch.
If you have a microphone in your sanctuary, practice using it before leading worship. Sometimes a quiet voice is most easily amplified by adjusting the microphone, but almost any voice can gain volume.

The first step is to concentrate on how far the words need to go. Try getting your voice to reach the farthest corner of the sanctuary, the back row of the balcony. Then, try breathing more deeply, using more of your lungs than in normal speech. A voice backed by diaphragm and lungs will carry many times further than an everyday speaking voice.

However, sometimes being louder is not enough. Sometimes pitch needs to be adjusted as well. People with hearing problems lose their ability to hear higher notes first. If a worship leader has a very high-pitched voice, it may be difficult for some people to follow. With effort and time, a speaker can learn to lower his or her voice. One of the easiest ways to practice using the lower register is by singing. Instead of reading the soprano or tenor line, try singing the alto and bass notes—or try dropping your voice an octave.

Use appropriate expression in your speaking and reading.
If you have ever listened to a great actor or storyteller, you know that interpretation can transform the written word into a powerful experience. Worship leaders must learn to use their voices to convey the word in an expressive style that fits the content of the message.

How does that happen? Let's use the reading of Scripture as an example. To effectively read a portion of the Bible, the reader should begin by becoming familiar with the passage. Look over the passage for any questions of pronunciation. Then read it through a few more times, trying to decide what the central message or high point might be. Look for repetitions of words or phrases; the introduction of new characters; a shift in plot; a surprise conclusion. Determine what type of writing it is (history, poetry, prophecy, etc.) and try to catch its tone. You might want to make a photocopy of the passage, jotting down notes to yourself about anything that catches your eye—words that you would like to emphasize.

Finally, practice reading the passage out loud. How does it sound to you? Are there other ways you could read it? Be careful not to over-interpret or get theatrical, but do use your best and most natural voice to get across the message of the Word. (For some additional insights into reading Scripture, see "When You Read Scripture ..." p. 41, and "Getting the Story Off the Page" in RW17).

Plan the words that you will say ahead of time.
Almost always, worship leadership entails preparing some of your own words as well as reading those of others. Your contribution may be as simple as introducing the prayer of confession or the Scripture lesson or as lengthy as offering the congregational prayer or preaching the sermon. Don't assume that you will remember what to say when you get to the lectern. Neatly type or write whatever you are going to sayóprayer, announcement, invitation to confession, assurance of pardon, the creed, even the Lord's Prayer. Obviously you know the creed and the Lord's Prayer by heart, but when you are under pressure up front, you always face the possibility that your mind will go blank. There is nothing wrong with thatóas long as you have prepared for that contingency by having the words in front of you.

Also, make sure before the service that you have all the written materials that you need in placeóat the lectern, at your chair, or in your hand. Usually these materials will include a Bible, a hymnal, and a bulletin (with your notes!).

Movement/Choreography

An often overlooked component of worship leadership is "choreography." The leader must not only know when he or she should stand, sit, or move but be able to help the congregation know their part as well. Once again, the leader is the prompter. The more confident the leader, the more comfortably the people will play their parts.

Plan carefully before the service.
Go over the service ahead of time, writing notes to yourself in the bulletin (stand, sit, move to podium, etc.) Where do you need to be when? Can you move to another position (e.g., behind the communion table or by the baptismal font) during a hymn, when it will be less distracting? Do the others involved in the service know their roles and positions? Are there some portions of the service that might be confusing to visitors and which, therefore, need some explanation?

Note ahead of time any misprints or confusing statements in the bulletin. Sometimes a hymn number is mistyped, or a change in the morning's order of worship isn't picked up in the bulletin. Decide if the problem warrants an oral explanation and determine when in the service it would be best to call the error to the congregation's attention.

Keep choreographic announcements brief.
Announcements are distracting. It is amazing how much you can convey just by your own movements. Without your saying a word, people will know they are expected to follow suit.

The only thing more distracting than too many announcements is a leader who doesn't know what he or she is doing. A poorly prepared leader makes people terribly uncomfortable and invites them to worry about the worship leader rather than focus on worship. So even if you don't know what you're supposed to do next, fake it. Look like you know. Someone has to lead—and in this case, it's you.

Content

What you say in worship is always more important than how you say it. A number of factors influence the content of the prayers and the selection of the readings for worship.

All of the elements of worship should be related.
As you prepare to lead the service, ask yourself some of these questions: What else is going on in the service? What is the theme of the primary Scripture and sermon? Do these prayers and readings relate to and enhance the focus of worship for this service? In other words, do the pieces fit?


The elements of the service should have theological integrity.
My preaching professor at seminary was a master at reading between the lines; he always pushed us to ask about the implications of what we were saying. That's a good rule to keep in mind as we evaluate our prayers, litanies, sermons, and even introductions. What do our words say about God, and what do they imply about us? There are obvious extremes to be avoided—from Kahil Gibran and New Age poetry to rigid fundamentalism and hellfire and brimstone. God cannot be so broadly or narrowly defined. Every time we pray, preach, and teach, we reveal our true theology.

Know what belongs in each element of worship.
While there are no absolutes, the form and length of each element in the liturgy is fairly standardized. The worship leader needs to be clear about what belongs and what doesn't. One seminarian I knew never got the hang of the pastoral prayer. She started with confession, moved to intercession and thanksgiving, returned to confession, and ended who-knows-where.

Use appropriate language.
The language of worship should never offend. It can challenge, confront, even judge—but it must not abuse. Language both reflects and shapes the way we think, and, as worship leaders, it is important that we choose words that reflect the love of God for all people. Language that excludes people because of race, sex, physical limitations or age displays our sinfulness and limitations rather than pointing to the embracing grace of God.

Great Rewards

Good worship leadership doesn't just happen. It begins with a good understanding of worship. It requires a great deal of thoughtfulness and practice. But, as you will discover, enabling and enhancing the congregation's worship of God is a tremendously rewarding endeavor.

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For additional material from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, click here.