As with any job or task in life, there are often moments where you think, “I wish someone had told me about this before I started," and worship leading is no different. Even as a young worship leader, I’ve already seen and experienced so many things that have shaped me and my ministry that no one ever told (or in some cases, warned) me about. When you encounter these things they will always point you in one of two directions; further towards your goal, or further away from it. They will either help you grow, or leave you saying "I didn’t sign up for this."
These are the moments you rarely hear about from the platform, whether at a camp, during a service, or attending a worship night, but they’re the moments that aspiring worship leaders need to be aware of. While the age of the internet and social media has opened so many positive doors for worship leaders, it has also created a glossy, larger than life image of what a worship leader is. It shows only the highlights and leaves out the struggles. It shows you the latest debut album, but not the 20 years of ministry-building to bring the church to that place. It shows you the bright lights and big stages but doesn’t show the hard work and labor leading into it. So I wanted to write this letter, speaking from my own experience as well as words of wisdom that have been spoken into my life by men who are much farther down the road than me and who cared enough to look back and help show the path for those who are following.
So if you’re reading this and you’re hoping to become a worship leader someday, or have already started, I’m going to present three questions for you to ask yourself that I hope you will dwell on and ponder, and I pray that the answers you find will be beneficial in your journey.
1. Are You Called to Lead, or Called to Pastor?
I could spend an entire blog post discussing the nuances of titles (worship leader, worship pastor, song leader, etc,), but while the responsibilities of these titles are often the same, the clarification is important. If you say that you feel called to be a worship leader, what do you think of first? Being on stage? Writing and leading original songs? Getting a record deal and going on tour? Or does your mind go to praying with your volunteers? Visiting a sick church member in the hospital? Having the hard conversations of confronting sin people's lives? Because unless you’re stepping into a megachurch that only wants someone to lead the songs and look pretty on stage (and yes, sadly there are churches that don’t look for more than that), you will be responsible for shepherding your church in some way, shape, or form.
In an average week I’ll spend between 40 and 50 hours working. We currently only have one service on Sundays that lasts an hour and 15 minutes, and of that service we’ll have 20-30 minutes of singing where I’m on stage leading. That means that less than 1% of my work week is spent on stage in front of the congregation. The rest of my time is spent either directly or indirectly shepherding my volunteers and my church through providing resources, planning and preparing services, making chord charts, troubleshooting tech in the Worship Center, meeting for lunches and coffee, and leading a small group in my home. Many of these tasks were things I had never been warned about or prepared for, but I enjoy doing them now because I see the fruit that comes from shepherding and loving my church in this way. I do enjoy that <1%, but it’s not what drives me to do my job well. In John 21 when Jesus is asking Peter if he loves Him, the command that follows is to "feed my sheep." If you desire to be a worship leader but do not desire to be a pastor then perhaps your desire is simply to be on stage. Which leads me to my next question for you to consider...
"If you desire to be a worship leader but do not desire to be a pastor then perhaps your desire is simply to be on stage."
2. Do You Love to Worship, or Do You Love the Stage?
Biblical worship is not confined within the 4 walls of a church building, it does not require lights and in-ear monitors, synths and large pedalboards. Those can all be helpful (or harmful) to creating an environment conducive to worshipping, but they do not make or break a time of worship. S,o when you say "I love to worship," does that statement come with caveats? Do you love to worship just as much by yourself or with a small group of people and an acoustic guitar? Or do you find that your love for worship is only felt when you’re standing in front of people on stage? A love for true worship will create a deep longing in your heart for others to see more of Jesus. A love for the stage will create a deep longing for others to see more of you (in the immortal words of famed news anchor Ron Burgundy; "Hey everyone! Come see how good I look!").
"A love for true worship will create a deep longing in your heart for others to see more of Jesus. A love for the stage will create a deep longing for others to see more of you."
As worship leaders we are called to do just that; lead. And the funny thing about leading in any aspect of life is that you can only lead someone where you have been before. Whether it’s hiking a mountain trail you’ve been down dozens of times or simply walking through the snow to create footprints for your children to step into after you, true leadership comes from having been there before. So if we are to point people to the glory of the gospel from the stage on a Sunday, we can’t do that with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength unless we have been gazing into the gospel for ourselves Monday through Saturday. If we love to worship, finding times to do it during those other 6 days will become easier for us over time; if we love the stage, finding those times will become harder and harder and we’ll fall farther and farther into the trap of trying to make people worship (something we cannot do) by something more compelling than the gospel (something we do not have). There is nothing wrong with loving the stage or wanting to be a professional musician in the sense of being an entertainer, but be very careful that the local church does not become a casualty of your ambitions. She is the bride of Christ, to be cherished and loved, which leads my to my final question.
"You can only lead someone where you have been before."
3. What Do You Love More, the People or the Music?
As I previously mentioned, one of the greatest gifts I’ve received as a worship leader is the wisdom and experiences shared by those who have gone before me. Countless pieces of truth have been spoken into my life by men I deeply respect, but one that has stuck with me more than any other was advice from my friend Andi Rozier of Vertical Worship; "love your people more than the music." So what does that look like, and how can you do it well?
"Love your people more than the music."
First and foremost, in order to love your people you need to know your people. After your service is done, do you immediately hit the green room? Or do you take the time to have conversations with your church family? Knowing your people, their stories, their struggles, and their victories will allow you to love them as you plan each week. Singing songs that relate to the season of my church as a whole or even to specific families or individuals has been one of the greatest blessings for me, because I get to see first-hand how they are impacted by the words we sing; their countenance changes, a look of peace comes across their face, sometimes there are tears. That is one of the greatest blessings in ministry that I could ever hope for, seeing people impacted by the beauty of the gospel.
Second, it is important to know and remember that Sunday morning is not your personal Spotify playlist (or anyone else’s in the church for that matter). I’ve told my church family on several occasions, there are songs we sing at our church that I don’t really like. They wouldn’t make it into my itunes account, they don’t get stuck in my head, my heart doesn’t skip a beat when I put them in the service plan, and that is ok. But I intentionally choose to sing them because I’ve seen the way these songs minister to our church body. We need to be willing to put our own personal preferences aside for the good of the body. We should first consider the songs substance before considering it’s style.
"We need to be willing to put our own personal preferences aside for the good of the body."
Third, it’s important to love ALL the people of your church more than the music. The body of Christ is diverse racially, but also generationally. Because of this. we need to intentionally be seeking to love every generation within our church family. Far too often I see worship leaders who take a callous viewpoint of the older generations, even going so far as to ignore them for the sake of trying to be culturally relevant to the younger crowd. While I'm not advocating for us to go back to pipe-organs and hymnals, we can love the older generation by finding common ground. Whether it’s a re-tuned hymn, a new arrangement, or even new songs that have a hymn-like cadence or feel to them, it’s possible to love them (not pander to them) in a way that can serve the church as a whole. I intentionally keep a handful of hymns in our song rotation, not to keep a quota, but as a reminder to myself that I am not the first to stand and lead the church in song, and I won’t be the last. Psalm 78:4 says, “We will… tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done.” We need to be intentionally providing ways for the generations who came before us to share and reflect on how God has worked and moved in their lives. This can also help us keep an eternal perspective on the vapor that is our existence on this earth.
"We need to be intentionally providing ways for the generations who came before us to share and reflect on how God has worked and moved in their lives."
Contributor / Brad Spead
Brad Spead is the Pastor of Worship Arts at Bridge Bible Church in Norton Shores, MI.