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by Kelly Carpenter

Here are a few of my thoughts about what is involved in leading worship. If you are someone who has played and/or sung on a worship team and are now starting to do some leading, you may have noticed that there are a lot more things to think about then just knowing your part and supporting the worship leader. To be an effective worship leader, you need to be able to multi-task.

The Worship Set

First, you need to learn to hear from the Lord about what songs to do and in what order to do them in, otherwise known as the "flow" of worship. The vast majority of the time, the Lord will give you an idea of what songs to do many days in advance of the worship event. There are some who claim that advance preparation stifles the spontaneity of the Holy Spirit, but I have found that it is always wise to have something prepared beforehand. Sometimes, due to a variety of reasons, it may not be possible to discern what the Lord is doing during a worship set. (More on this later.) Having a prepared set protects against that situation. A prepared set is also essential if your team needs to know what you're doing prior to the worship event.

How do you know what songs to do? The obvious answer is to ask the Lord. This may involve setting aside a particular time where you wait on Him to lead you. Sometimes the Lord may give you ideas intuitively while you are doing other things.

Sometimes you will get one or two particular songs that keep coming to your mind and heart. You can then build a set of songs around those one or two songs. On the other hand, you may feel led to do more songs than you can typically fit into a worship set. If so, just rehearse them all. It is actually a blessing to have more songs than you need so that you can better respond to the Lord's leading during your worship event.

The Lord is training you in learning to hear from him and to follow his lead. So, he may use a variety of ways to guide you in preparing a set so that you can develop such receptivity and flexibility.

Another factor in choosing songs are the guidelines specified by your senior pastor or worship pastor. For example, one church I frequently led worship in had a policy to always start a Sunday morning worship set with at least two "upbeat celebration" songs, followed by one or two "medium" drawing-closer songs, no more than two "intimate" songs, and ending on an "upbeat" song. I put the adjectives in quotes because the definition of upbeat, celebration, medium, and intimate are largely subject to interpretation but are always defined by the senior or worship pastor in your particular church. So it is your responsibility to understand what their definitions are.

The Flow of the Spirit

Having prepared your set of songs to do, you need to be able to respond to last minute directions from the Lord as you begin and lead through your set. An old friend of mine put it this way: Preparing for the set is like a pilot filing a flight plan with the airport authority. Once its time to actually do the flying, you must be in communication with the tower to receive any course changes necessary to work your flight into the flow of all flights being handled by the flight controllers.

Before you begin your set, you need to check in with the "tower", that is God, to see if you are supposed to start with the song you planned to start with. As you work through the first song, you need to check in with God to see if the next song is the right one. And so on. As you are in a song, you need to determine whether the Lord wants to you to depart from the rehearsed form of the song to repeat a section more than you had planned.

Obviously, having a team that is well rehearsed in being flexible to last-minute and mid-song changes is critical to supporting the worship leading process. I will go into leading the band in a subsequent section.

In addition to making set adjustments and song form changes, you need to hear from the Lord about any spontaneous verbal direction and exhortation to the congregation. You also need guidance regarding prophetic singing (i.e. "song of the Lord") and prayers to the Lord in the midst of your songs or between songs. Your freedom to speak and sing spontaneously during the worship set is governed by the boundaries specified by the senior pastor and the worship pastor. In most cases, you may not have permission to speak the same things in a Sunday morning worship service that you would in a Sunday night service. In one particular church I was in, I did not have permission to speak at all between and during worship songs.

Occasionally, the Lord will give you a "dark night of the soul" experience while you are leading a worship set. This means that you don't have a clue as to what the Lord is doing and it seems like you have lost all communication with the "tower". It is very easy to become discouraged and think that you have lost all ability and qualifications to lead people in worship when this happens. It is like driving a tour bus in such heavy fog that you can't see anything in front of you and you are afraid that you are going to crash or go off a cliff. Don't despair when this happens. Just be glad that you did file a flight plan--your prepared worship set--and forge ahead. You will find that in these particularly dismal times that someone will come up to you later and testify how the Lord had ministered powerfully to them through worship. God gives us these times to remind us that worship is not about us. In reality, most of the time we don't have a clue of all that God is doing; we are just being faithful.

The Mood of the Congregation

The "leading" part of the term "worship leading" has to do with guiding the congregation (or small group) through the worship experience. In a previous issue of this column, a guest author likened the worship leader to a mountain guide: someone who knew how to get around on the mountain themselves and could lead others to go along with them.

Therefore, leading requires paying attention to your mountain hikers. A good guide knows the experienced from the inexperienced hikers. A good worship leader is able to be sensitive to the seasoned and the novice worshippers.

I have found that in a typical church service (making a distinction here from a conference crowd or a home group) about 25 percent of your congregation are experienced worshippers (and don't need a guide), about 25 percent don't know or don't care about worship, and the 50 percent in the middle are the "swing" group, meaning they can swing either way between involvement or non-involvement. It is the middle group that you will be primarily leading.

If the mood of the day is up and there is expectancy in the air, then it won't take much for the middle group to swing into a high level of involvement. On the other hand, if the collective mood can best be described as "lights on; nobody home", then it will take much effort to coax the swing group into engagement.

Your chances of successfully drawing your people into worship depends on five factors: First, do they understand what worship is? This all depends on what they have been taught regarding worship. Second, your level of equity with the congregation. Do they know you; do they hold you in high regard; do they trust you? In other words, are they willing to follow you? Third, your level of anointing. How much is God "on you" to lead worship? This is also related to the equity issue. If people are for you, they will be much more willing to believe and see that God is on you when He is indeed on you. Fourth, your skill at leading. Do you know what it takes to guide, encourage, and exhort the people? And fifth, the level of freedom you have been given to verbally direct and exhort the congregation.

Another issue is who is doing the leading? In the best of situations, your role is to act as a starter. Once people make the choice to engage in worship, you had best get out of the way and let the Holy Spirit take over the leading. Who is in control? If you are a cheerleader-type worship leader, then you will feel driven to direct every expression of the congregation. If you let God have control of the worship set, then you become the lead follower, and people will follow your example.

Knowing all these factors are important and helpful. However, you may experience from time to time an apparently comatose congregation, or one that seems unwilling to follow you. Again, you should not despair. It is important not to  judge what is happening solely on externals. God may be doing a deep work in people during worship that you can't see at all. On the other hand, people may have been so conditioned to clap and jump and raise their hands and yet their hearts may be far from true worship. You don't know.

Your Performance

I hate to use the "p" word here, but you actually do need to keep track of what you yourself are doing. Do you know how to play all the chords in the song? Have you memorized the lyrics? (A hard one for me.) Are you singing loud and clear and in tune? Are you confidently starting and leading each song? Exuding confidence is a big one for building up equity. (People are more comfortable following someone who seems to know where they are going.)

I have found that the more you have to keep track of your own musical performance, the less ability you have to sense the Lord's leading and read the congregation. Therefore, you must always play and sing beneath your level of ability. If you get too distracted playing that F barre chord because you are not sure you are going to be able to grab it in time, then you probably shouldn't do that particular song. (I can't lead "I Lift My Eyes Up" in the original key from the guitar for that very reason.) If this winds up limiting what songs you feel the Lord is leading you to do, then practice, practice, and practice some more until your ability well exceeds the song's requirements.

Leading the Worship Team

If all of the above is not enough to keep track of already, you also need to know how to direct your team. This is probably the greatest area of anxiety for novice worship leaders. They may have already had some experience leading worship by themselves in a small group, but now they have to direct a band.

Telling a band what to do requires some musical knowledge and an ability to communicate. Telling a band what to do also requires you knowing what you want them to do. This is an area of weakness for most novices. They don't know where to begin. If this is the case for you, then the best thing to do is for you and the band to try to emulate a particular recorded arrangement of a song. As you start to get more creative, you may learn how to point to the sound of particular recording artists as an example to follow, such as "let's try doing this with more of a U2 feel".

If you and the members of the band do not know how to communicate musically at all, then you are in for some long, frustrating rehearsals. Go find a musical mentor with seasoned musical ability who can lead you out of the forest. On the other hand, working with a seasoned band is like playing a high-quality guitar. It's just easier. If you are a novice and have been fortunate enough to be supplied with some seasoned musicians, they will make up for your inability to communicate. And, you will learn from them about how to communicate better.

When I raise up young worship leaders and insert them into the worship schedule, I tend to put them with the same band every time. Why? Because a band is a small group of people. They must all get to know each other and understand each other well enough to communicate at anything other than a shallow level. So much of playing music together requires good communication: listening and answering well. After a while of working with one another a band becomes a "team". A strong team dynamic is powerful in facilitating worship.

I have seen worship leaders employ a variety of methods of communicating with a team. Some use subtle hand signals or body language. For me, having spent so many years leading from a keyboard and not being able to move around and make eye contact, I have had to rely on verbal cues. Speaking clearly and slowly is important. Also a good monitor system is essential. I simply will say out loud over the microphone in front of God and everybody the instructions which enable the band to know where I'm going next. Typically, I will give the first few words of the next section of the song. Sometimes I will say "bridge" or "one more time". Amazingly, this method works well for leading the congregation too.

Common Mistakes

The following are common mistakes that have the potential of taking people "out of worship". Most of these mistakes can be avoided by simply choosing not to be stubborn about sticking to your original plan. It's pretty hard to ruin a worship set unless you are just being pigheaded.

Not knowing the song well enough to do it well.

Yes, faith is spelled "r-i-s-k", but to think that the Lord will make up for your lack of skill, practice, and preparation is downright presumptuous. If the band doesn't know a song you happen to pull out of thin air during a set, a "train wreck" is likely to occur, and the congregation will be distracted from worship.

Going too long.

This is one of the most common complaints that senior pastors make about their worship leaders. If you are allotted "no more than 30 minutes" then you must submit to their authority regardless of whether you "feel" that the Lord wants you to go longer. But the other aspect of this has to do with how much the congregation can handle. If you take worship too long, the majority of the "swing" middle will disengage at some point and you will have lost them.

Mis-reading the congregation.

You may believe with all your heart that "we're going to have a time of nothing but celebration" but you may find that a couple of songs into it, the collective mood of the people is anything but celebration. If you stubbornly plod ahead in a direction and it is obvious that they are not following you, then you will lose them and you will lose some of your equity with them as well. Always be willing to change course if the people aren't following. Meet them where they are at and lead them into God's presence.

Not hearing from the Lord correctly.

This is related to the last point. You may have just completely missed what you thought the Lord was telling you to do when you prepared that set. Or you may have thought that He told you to do a mid-set change, doing a different song than you had planned, and now you sense the anointing has completely left. Don't stubbornly plod through in order to save face. If you started a song and now know that you made a mistake, end it as quickly as possible (like by ending after the first chorus). As in the last point, always be willing to change course when you realize that you've missed the Lord's leading.


I hope I haven't overwhelmed you. Yes, leading worship effectively requires keeping track of all these things. If you don't run ahead of God's script for your life, He will train and release you into all these aspects a little at a time. If you believe you are called into this, then be prepared to be student about it for the rest of your life. I highly recommend that you ask the Lord to bring you a worship mentor to help you navigate through the learning process. Even going to a worship event they are leading a couple of times a year and attending workshops will help you greatly.

Leading worship is an awesome privilege. Know that you are moving forward in something that greatly ministers to both God and to people.