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June 30, 2022

Back to Basics: Why Leading Worship Takes Skill

Unlike other professions, which may have agreed-upon curricula and competencies, there are no established competencies for worship pastors.

In college, I took a course on planning and leading special worship services. One of the assignments required each student to memorize the words of institution and then “preside” over the Table in front of the class. It was a more informal matter. In place of a chalice, we used a water bottle. In place of a loaf of bread, we used a tissue box.

Our class fell into an interesting habit of falling (literally) into the rhythm of the liturgy, lifting our arms and swinging down the “loaf” according to the cadence: “Take. Eat. This is my body, which is given for you.”

After enough of us had fallen prey to that liturgical faux pas, the professor offered a short suggestion: “Don’t bop to the beat when you hold up the tissue box.” It was a strange comment—and one which I would have never considered otherwise—but that advice has stuck with me, and it still comes to my mind whenever I am privileged to raise an actual loaf and chalice before a congregation.

Why Skills Matter

In the Reformed Worship blog, Greg Scheer recently wrote an article calling worship pastors to pursue professional development. Such skill-building activities, argues Scheer, facilitate “learning and growing outside of our comfort zones.” He rightly observes that in our theological education and ministerial preparation, we often focus on establishing orthodox theological boundaries. While I, by no means, intend to diminish the importance of forming doctrinally sound pastors, I worry that an unbalanced approach to worship leadership can neglect the practical skills that support our services of Christian worship. When theology overtakes practice, we might form pastors and worship leaders who can distinguish between transubstantiation, consubstantiation, and pneumatic presence—but who cannot deftly preside over a service of Communion. Thankfully, we don’t need to choose between the theological or the practical; it’s a both/and issue. We just need to get the balance right.

John Witvliet offers a helpful framework for arranging “levels” of conversations when we talk about worship: conversations on the logistics, style, form, and essence of worship. Witvliet locates logistics or mechanisms at the lowest level of discussion, an important way of protecting the theology and meaning of worship. This placement does not mean, however, that we should neglect or undermine the priority of logistics. True enough, these skills serve as the foundation of worship leadership, supporting its higher-order components.

At Trinity Christian College—the context where I am presently honored to serve—nursing is one of our most distinguished majors. Our program prepares students to pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NLCEX), a rigorous exam with four established assessment categories. Each of these categories have been deemed by their board to be essential practices for nursing professionals. No such exam—short of an ordination examination—exists for worship leaders. Unlike other professions, which may have agreed-upon curricula and competencies, there are no established competencies for worship pastors.

To be sure, some seminaries or denominations include liturgical practice in their outcomes or standards. More attention, nevertheless, tends to be given to the skills of preaching, pastoral care, leadership, and administration than the microskills of worship leadership. Among the library of excellent books on liturgical theology and praxis, very few include practical exercises to develop these skills, standing against other disciplines, which have workbooks abounding with supplemental practice assignments and answer keys.

A Microskill Approach to Worship Leadership

Perhaps it is too cold and sterile to impose standardized competencies and rubrics on sacred acts of worship, but I wonder if there might be more organic ways to develop our worship-leading skills. What if there were a way that our worship training—whether it be through formal theological education, informal mentoring and reading, or a combination of both—could balance our deep commitment to maintain a vivid theology of worship with an equally deep commitment to skillfully lead services of worship?

These skills take many shapes and sizes. Here are three ways that I might initially categorize our skills of worship leadership:

  • Skills of preparation: How do you write a prayer of invocation? How do you prepare the ashes for Ash Wednesday? (Hint: Mix with oil, not water, to prevent burning others’ foreheads!) Where do you get the palm fronds for Palm Sunday? How warm should the water be in a baptistry?
  • Skills of execution: How do you read Scripture publicly? Should you preach with a music stand or a pulpit? How do you transition between two songs? How do you lead a pre-service prayer huddle? What should your hands and eyes do with the Communion loaf during the words of institution? When should you press the spacebar to move between PowerPoint or ProPresenter slides?
  • Skills of evaluation: How do you determine if your worship service was “good”? How do you select worship songs? How do you give feedback and critiques to preachers, worship leaders, Scripture readers, and musicians?

This article hopes to start a conversation on why worship pastors and leaders should readily reclaim the development of liturgical microskills to support a genuine theology of worship. I would argue that these essential skills for worship form the building blocks of faithful habits to express our devotion to the living God. And, of course, we know that we are not alone in this task. Above all, we engage this skill development with the hope that the Holy Spirit takes our shaky hands and our wobbly words, bringing our offerings to perfection for God’s glory alone.

We’d love to hear what you think. The above article seems to suggest that the college (undergraduate) or seminary training that worship leaders receive is unbalanced. Is that your experience?

Whether a worship leader is trained through a formal education process or mentored by a more experienced leader, what are the 4-5 non-musical skills that they should be taught? What are the 4-5 biblical and theological perspectives that have impacted your worship leadership that you would pass on to the next generation of worship leaders? Email with your responses or share them on our Facebook page.