September 29, 2014

You are not a Rock Star: 4 Guidelines for Worship Leaders

by Clint Archer

I use “worship leader” in the vernacular sense of the guy who leads the music. Of course, musical worship is only a smidgen of the worship that happens on Sunday. It’s one candle in the worship array of preaching, fellowship, serving, giving, and parking far away so that the elderly can park closer.

But when people talk about liking/hating “the worship” they generally mean “the band.” One congregant who should avoid this is the worship leader.

Here are four guidelines for the leader of a worship band...

1. You are not a rock star

Like a ball-boy at Wimbledon, the task of the worship leader in church is to get out the way. He is there to lift our attention to God. He cannot do this effectively if he is deliberately showing off his dextrous command of his instrument. Worship leaders need to be humble. They should dress modestly. Sometimes musos have a particular look they are going for in their midweek paid gig; that’s fine. But when they ascend the platform at church their personal brand is expendable. When a drummer complains about being caged in perspex you know he’s more interested in showcasing himself than the Lord. When the bass player requests a solo stint you may have sniffed out another prima donna in cognito. The pastor needs to take primary responsibility for the musical worship. If the band leader demands creative freedom, balks at stylistic input from the elders, or becomes impatient with the limits put on his song selection, then he is not the man for the job.

He needs to take his cue from Ethan the Ezrahite (see Psalm 89), not the pop band Better than Ezra.

2. Content is king

The leader needs to understand that the content of the songs is the primary concern. Solid doctrine should be the hallmark of every lyric. He may even need to alter the original lyrics (gasp!) to align them with the church’s beliefs.

We’ve altered words before at our church. The sentimental, “He thought of me above all,” became the marginally more astute, “He showed His love above all.” When selecting songs and hymns for the church service the priority of one’s personal preference needs to shuffle off stage and slink into the back pew. If the gray-hairs in your congregation enjoy “Mighty Fortress” and the elders agree that it is edifying to accommodate them, then play it. If the musos don’t like it…so what? This isn’t their garage band, this is the service of God and His people.

3. Less is more

The music is there to support the lyric. Worship fundi, Stuart Townend, at a music workshop seminar in Johannesburg reminded worship leaders that there are times to skip over the question:”How should I play to make this better?” and ask rather: “Should I play at all right now?” He meant there are moments when it may be best to mute the instruments and allow the congregation’s voices fill the air.

It serves as a good reminder that frills, whistles, and bells can be distracting if they trip up the congregation. Case in point: when a lead guitarist is performing a gratuitous solo lead break think of what the rest of us are doing. We’re standing there watching him. I guess we could be using that time to admire the glory of God in His creature’s ability to jam. But in reality most of us are just waiting for our turn to praise God.


4. Worship!

The band members are not performing, they are worshipping. God must remain their central focus. He is why they come early to rehearse and stay late to disassemble the drum kit. He is the reason they practice mastering their instrument on their own during the week. Sunday is their offering to the Lord. They need to take a page out the Little Drummer Boy’s songsheet and play their best for Him (pa-rumpa-pum-pum).

This mindset also helps the band to develop necessary thick skin when people complain to them.

In this iPodian era we have become accustomed to getting all the music we prefer on demand and at the volume we like. We can skip songs and change CD’s mid performance. Naturally the preference for style of musical worship has developed into quite a sticky wicket in churches.

Some would prefer more bass and less reverb, others wish the drummer would take a break from banging the kit for a stanza or two, or perhaps even take a six month sabbatical. Some like volume pumped up loud, others want to hear the voices of those around them (or at the very least their own voices!) The plethora of preferences clamoring for attention can be paralyzing for the worship leader. But when one remembers Who the audience really is it takes off the pressure to cater to congregational preferences.


Do you have any wisdom to share about how to do musical worship? 

Clint Archer

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Clint has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.
  • tovlogos

    Interesting essay, Clint — you had my full attention.
    This is not something often discussed, but has its place in the scheme of things.
    Yes, content and worship is king, without which we are not in the Lord’s fellowship. However musical arrangement is also a big plus if it’s sweet. Musicians, like everyone else should be qualified. Sometimes it appears that we are supposed to like something even it it tortures our sensibilities. I have attended services where the music was so beautiful it set up the worship — not that it had to, because without it the minister would have carried the flock by the Spirit filled message. But, as you indicated, it is part of a comprehensive worship service.
    Yet, I have visited some fellowships where the music, and the singing were so very bad, everyone needed significant time to recover.
    On one occasion the pastor picked up on the attitudes of the brethren, and scolded everyone, which was perplexing.
    On the other hand, you made a good point about the far-too-much-attitude of prima donnas who inadvertently seek to steal to spotlight from the Lord.

    • Jeff Schlottmann

      I used to attend a church that placed random tambourines in some of the pews for anyone to use as they wanted. I found out real quick who had rhythm and who didn’t. And as the drummer for that little church, it made my life difficult sometimes.

      • tovlogos

        Exactly, Jeff. A drummer can clearly understand my feelings, since he is the rhythm, the metronome of the band. Listening to edifying, holy words is marred by bad music. Thanks for pointing that out.

      • Awesome. Tamborines.

      • Robin Jordan

        I learned in the 1980s that nothing can throw off congregational singing more quickly than a “rogue tambourinist”. Placing tambourines in some pews is a very bad idea!! Playing the tambourine should be entrusted to someone who knows what he or she is doing.–not to anyone who picks up a tambourine.

  • Johnny

    So if we perceive worship as a dialectic exchange between God and his people (e.g. God greets us with His Word, we respond responsively with hymns/prayer/creeds/confessions, God speaks to us through his word as the pastor teaches expositionally, etc.) then what place in all of this does the long haired dude with the guitar hold?

    • I think God sees past most modern hairdoos. Love being in the New Covenant.

      • Johnny

        I see it as a distracting performance act frankly, but hey, if you think the rock band can fit into the regulative model, then more power to you. I don’t.

        • Cory

          Maybe you’re too easily distracted and too consumed with your own preference? I don’t say this to be rude, I just don’t know how else to phrase it.

          Psalm 150:3-5 comes to mind.

  • Joanna

    Ooops! You mean “balks at..” NOT “bulks at…” in point #1. Great article!

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  • Brandon

    Good comments… I’m more and more inclined to see guitars solos in church as analogous to withholding the cup.

  • Guest

    Very interesting, especially in todays world were many churches seem to be trying to sell themselves, and get more people than the church down the road through gimmicks and not necessarily relying on the Word of God and having faith in His working plan.

    Your first point you use “he”, does that mean you believe the role of worship leader is an authoritive/teaching role? Or is that just reading too much into it and making a mountain out of a mole hill?

    • It depends on how the church leadership lets the worship leader lead. If he is commanding authority over men in church, then he needs to be a man.

  • Cory

    I am currently and have been a part of various worship teams for the past 10 years of my life, so this topic always gets me fired up (in a good way). Just a couple thoughts…

    When a musician asks to have a “solo stint” as you put it, it doesn’t always mean that they are wanting to be showcased, or be put in the spotlight. A lot of the time it is just another way for that person to express worship. I think it’s easy to tell when someone is asking for a solo because they want to show off, and when they’re asking for a solo because they want to express their worship in the way that God has given them talent, and also because they feel that the Body would be edified by it.

    Second, I agree that the pastor should be involved with the worship leader and giving his input when it comes to the worship set sometimes, but I don’t think that he is the one who needs to take “primary responsibility for musical worship.” Our pastor has given our worship leader(s) the freedom to lead our congregation in worship however he feels led, because our pastor trusts him and knows his heart. Unless there is a biblical mandate that I’m not aware of that the overseeing pastor needs to be the primary decision maker when it comes to worship, I don’t think that rule should apply to everyone.

    • I believe in a plurality of elders, so I guess what i mean is that the worship leader isn’t an ultimate human authority, the pastors are.

  • Jeff Schlottmann

    Great tips. Its interesting to me how my taste for worship changed after my deliverance fromy Pentecostal ways. I used to love anything that made me feel good. But i started to have a new love for hymns. Then i discovered sovereign grace music. I had never heard modern music like that. I couldnt even listen to anything else. That was followed by the Getty’s and townend. But my best discovery was Enfield. Amazing. Im slowly purchasing their music.

    But all that to say, i feel hymns are the best ways to honor God. In my experience they often help prevent showboating from the band. I think a lot of modern stuff is a temptation to showoff and remove the focus from God. This was my attitude for a long tme. I used to hate hymnals. I only wanted to play the upbeat cool songs.

    Also, im frustrated with churches singing songs that make demands on God. You know those old Pentecostal feel good choruses. One that comes to mind is Jesus On The Mainline. Bleh.

  • Michelle Dacus Lesley

    I have been married to a minister of music for over 20 years. That’s right, not a “worship leader,” a “minister of music.” I’m not sure how or why someone decided to change the terminology, but I have found that, generally speaking, each of those titles lends itself to a very different mindset. “Worship leaders” tend to be your younger, less spiritually mature, rock star types. Ministers of music tend to be older, more mature, ordained, and more focused on serving the congregation using doctrinally solid music as a vehicle to do so. Even if the title “Worship Leader” must be retained, I’d like to see churches move back to the “Minister of Music” mindset.

    • Scott Fuemmeler

      While this may just be semantics, we have adopted the term “Lead Worshipper” as opposed to “Worship Leader”. The intent is to emphasize that while there is someone who’s leading things out of necessity, everyone in the congregation as well as up front singing/playing is a worshipper. It’s intended to emphasize that everyone is a participant, and downplay the idea that worship = music. How well it accomplishes that intent has proven to be somewhat of a mixed bag.

      • disqus_i49hn6Dtrd

        “there is someone who’s leading things out of necessity”

        It isn’t necessary! I’m tired of “leaders” cycling and recycling through words projected, sometimes too early, sometimes too late, sometimes misspelled if not flat-out wrong, “leading” us like a third-grade class trying to guess what the tune might be.

    • 4Commencefiring4

      That point is a home run, Michelle. Maybe it’s lost on the younger set, but for those of us who have a few more miles on our treads, we have a completely different expectation from the church experience when a “worship leader”, rather than a “minister of music”, is in charge of the singing.

      If nothing else, the latter is normally someone who has a classical–or at least an actual music–degree and has spent a lot of time playing “compostions” and not just “tunes” or “songs.” Given the choice between guitars and basses amped up, a drummer who thinks he’s the second coming of Buddy Rich, or a song by a “christian artist”, and a pipe organ whose deep base registers get you right in the chest, please–I’ll take the organ every trip of the train. At no time has the former ever brought tears to my eyes, but I’m literally weeping as I type this thinking of how majestic and powerful the latter can be. Sorry, but no contemporary song writer I’ve ever heard will ever have anything on Bach.

    • LIke it. It’s just that all the band members are ministers too, right? So they are all ministers of music; the worship leader is the one who leads the band and the congregation.

  • Scott Fuemmeler

    Good article, but I’d like to point out that unless you have a license that specifically allows you to alter lyrics (or other similar permission), changing lyrics is not an acceptable answer. For instance, CCLI license agreement specifically forbids altering lyrics without contacting the copyright owner.

    Our practice at my local church has been to just either A) not do the verse with the questionable lyric or B) not do the song.

    • Stephen Jennings

      Exactly. That was the first thing that came to mind (as a worship leader), was that the “changing of lyrics” is illegal unless you have direct permission.

      • mel mariner

        In Christ Alone immediately came to mind. No one asked their permission to change the lyrics and once they were asked, said no.

        The other that came to mind was How He Loves by John Mark McMillian and the change of lyric from “sloppy wet kiss” to “unforeseen kiss” by David Crowder. That was done with permission.

    • I like B.

  • Randy Littmann

    As a 50+ year old musician, I have had the opportunity to play, lead and teach in various churches. The hymns of my youth still hold my attention the best because the WORDS are what I use for worship. Having said that, there are some real stinkers in that era as well (I come to the garden alone…). As I have been getting older I see the typical progression of new musicians discover a talent and want to use it for the talents’ sake. It usually takes some time before they start to realize that is self-serving and selfish. I always make a point of teaching the upcoming worship leaders the guidelines of selecting music for the upcoming Sunday; 1) are the words consistent with orthodox Christianity? Does the song mention my offense and what Jesus did? 2) is it a performance piece or something the congregation can sing? and finally 3) does it have musicality? Other things I make mention of is not playing music from ‘Christian’ groups that espouse heretical beliefs (Phillips, Craig and Dean, etc)
    There are usually some deer-in-the-headlights stares at first but they usually start to get it after awhile.

  • Greg Pickle

    Can you imagine if the same standards of freedom demanded by the typical modern “muso” were applied to preaching or praying?

    Actually, I supposed you don’t have to imagine – just look at mainstream charismatic/Pentecostal preaching and prayer. To say it’s like the Corinthian church would be to give too much credit, because at least Corinth really had the gifts that they were guilty of showing off.

    This self-centered approach to so-called worship has infiltrated otherwise faithful churches through music under the ruse that corporate church gatherings are the time to maximize all of one’s Godward feelings with little-to-no concern – or maybe even awareness – about the corporate purpose of music (especially that pesky “teaching and admonishing one another” part in Colossians 3:16). People are deceived into thinking that music in the church exists for the same purpose for which they have music on their iPods – to enjoy the experience personally.

    A lack of a developed theology of corporate worship, along with a culture built upon experiential emotionalism, makes for massive difficulty in helping believers and music leaders properly utilize music, whatever the style may end up being.

  • Ray Adams

    Wonderful! Excellent thoughts which struck a significant chord in my heart. Thank you.

  • JoyfulNoise4Him

    I found this very interesting, since I’ve been involved in various ways in music ministry for about 15 years. I agree with almost everything you said…but the bit about the “gratuitous guitar solo” gets under my skin a little. I think that people need to be careful about judging the heart of any musician who is performing a solo. Some of the most talented musicians at my church have the most humble, servant like hearts. When they are performing a solo, it is not gratuitous, it is an offering to The Lord from a grateful heart. And yes, I use the word “perform” because I don’t think that performing and worshipping are mutually exclusive. When I hear disparaging comments about soloist, it just makes me wonder whose heart is truly engaging in worship….

    • Problem with guitar solos is that my mind is ripped away from worshipping God and forced to watch someone jam on their guitar (usually with that pained wince that proves he is feeling his music).

      • Cory

        The guitar solo isn’t what’s ripping your mind from worship. Youre allowing preference issues to cause your heart to not be fully engaged in worship. And the “pained” expression on someone’s face when they’re playing an instrument can mean a variety of things (concentration, passion) but to immediately assume that their facial expression is proof that they’re just “into themselves” is an extremely judgemental attitude to have. I’m speaking as a musician who leads worship on a regular basis.

  • h

    I find it interesting that whenever the topic of “worship” comes up, everyone automatically starts vaunting their own opinions and very rarely do we see appeals to the authority and sufficiency of God’s Word as THE guiding force in orchestrating correct worship of a holy God.

    Another thing that is rarely mentioned is the seriousness and importance that we see God place on correct worship of Himself. And we better get our heads straight on this real quick! I point to, among many other examples, the account of Nadab and Abihu as to the consequences of engaging in incorrect, false worship.

    The fact that we might not see such things today does not mean that violations of God’s prescribed means and methods of worship for the NT church are less serious now. Whenever I sit through a “worship” service in my local church that broaches on the “rock star” ethos, I come away from there thanking God for His grace in not slaying us on the spot in the same manner as He did those two sons of Aaron…

    I think we would be better served with this attitude, and in doing so I bet all our questions about worship would clear up real quick!

    • disqus_i49hn6Dtrd

      “…means and methods of worship for the NT church are less serious now.”

      Indeed! Saddening experience Sunday in my church: Watched gleeful singing as words were projected – – God hasn’t failed “YET.” So we’ll stick with it (for now, I guess). The song title? No one said, but it might have been “Anyhow,” judging from the repetitive use of the word.

    • God also leaves the issues of style out of his regulations. I think this allows variation of style and methodology for various cultures and eons.

      • mel mariner

        Thank you As soon as we get on our high horse about how someone else worships we need to ask if our expression would translate to the jungles of South America or the streets of China? Isn’t it racist to assume that only the English hymns with accompanying piano or organ are the only acceptable method of worship?

        I have absolutely no doubt that God is not praised when I have to sing some hymn that sounds like it came from Yoda (to me) and I need to have an hour long class to understand what I just sang. My heart isn’t praising God. My head is trying to translate and make sense of it.

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  • Jason

    you missed the point Clint, you’re gonna want that cow bell.

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  • Kent

    I am a 67 year old former worship leader, former Christian broadcaster, former Christian record label owner, former Christian concert promoter. That being a given I, of course have an opinion on the way music is used in the church. Given the fact that I have seen many ends of the spectrum, I worry about the issues you have covered here as well.Those musicians and singers in CCM range from “barely Christian” to fully committed to the Gospel being spread evangelists. I fear that there are far too many local home church “worship leaders” who secretly envy the “stardom” of artists who are gold and platinum selling “performers”. I often wonder about CD selling so called “worship leaders” who are so well know for their thousands of CD’s and DVD’s that are sold across the CBA. Lucifer, is characterized by many pastors as the first “worship leader”. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned by the temptations which are almost inherent in the position.

  • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

    This may sound terrible, but I have often wished that the worship team were behind the congregation instead of in front of it. I find myself closing my eyes, trying to concentrate on the words vs. being distracted by facial expressions, hand raising and even clothing. Please don’t get me wrong, I love to worship God at home, but at church I find myself too often frustrated. I continue to ask God’s forgiveness for this.

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  • Christian Ives Del Aguila

    Thanks Clint for the article. We are all creatures of our earthly culture striving to attain a heavenly culture, and one of the most obvious places that can be seen is music in the church. Amen to your content statement. Worship is in “Spirit” and “Truth”. In fact, I would submit that Music is not synonymous with worship, but simply an adornment to worship. When we live the reality that Worship is exalting God, bowing down to him, offering every part of our lives as a sacrifice (John 4, Rom 12); then congregational singing becomes an extension of what we’re already doing.

    One question regarding your last statement ” But when one remember Who the audience is”. Considering Ephesians 5:19, it seems like there are 2 audiences in congregational singing. I think we would both agree that God is the ultimate audience, the one to whom Worship is directed. However, practically speaking, we are also to “sing to one another”. I think this does have practical ramifications in regard to how a Chief Musician (I like that better, because I think the elders are the “worship leaders” ) develops their methodology of ministry. As I serve in music, I find that there are many variables, (complexity of rhythms, how long should the instrumentals be, is the song in a singable key, how am I integrating with the sound team whom I consider part of the music, balancing the retaining of great hymns along with introducing new songs, is the volume too awkwardly low or overwhelmingly high. I think based on these passages, I’m convinced it’s my responsibility to firstly sing things that are profoundly biblical, but I think it is also my responsibility to facilitate to the best of my ability, congregational singing. Would appreciate your thoughts!

    • Good point, we do sing to one another, but we do not perform for one another, we perform for God.

  • Jerry Dodson

    Superb article. Right on. Sharing this one all over the web.

    Just wanted to let you know that “CDs” is plural, not possessive. Doesn’t need the apostrophe.

    • You’d think as a writer I’d know that. But I guess that’s what keeps editors in business! Thanks.

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  • Best INotSay

    As a deeply wounded lead guitar playing veteran of the worship wars, I could write pages from personal experience, but it’s futile. So I’ll summarize my thoughts to young people by advising that when your church leaders choose to be legalistic, judgmental and inflexible, then simply shake the dust off your shoes, take your family, and move on to a healthy new church. Who was it that said “Let the dead bury the dead”? Oh yeah, it was JESUS.

  • PRW1957

    I attend a church where the songs are sung in a key that the average person can’t sing, which doesn’t matter much because the songs have no tune and the lyrics have little meaning. I looked around the auditorium and no one was singing.

  • Spence

    “I guess we could be using that time to admire the glory of God in His creature’s ability to jam. But in reality most of us are just waiting for our turn to praise God.”

    I guess we could be using that time to pray silently with our brother as He’s leads prayer out loud instead of waiting for our turn to pray in front of everyone, I mean God.

    I agree with what is being said, but the argument falls flat on its face, especially, “When is it going to be oooouuuur turn to worship.” We worship together, doesn’t mean we all have to be singing or playing at once, or praying at the same time (unless you go to a pentecostal Korean church of course, then you all pray out loud at the same time).
    If it was a flute solo, people wouldn’t raise their eyebrows as much, the guitar has a sort of prejudice against it. But, if we are contentious about any of this instead of what matters, perhaps we should just be an a cappella church :).