Leading worship through music each Sunday is a privilege and a responsibility. Guiding a group of people who come from different socioeconomic, cultural, and racial backgrounds has many dynamics to it. It begins with unity, the expertise of the leader, and the supporting cast of musicians and singers. I recognize differences exist, but I carefully consider preferences and biases. Sometimes changing the rhythm or instrumentation of a popular praise song or hymn can add a layer of diversity to the song.
Diversity in music can show our willingness to reach other brothers and sisters in Christ with what is familiar to them while celebrating the differences that God intended. We must remember, although God loves our differences, our goal of worship is not diversity. How do you choose songs that speak truth, will prove easy for the congregation to follow, yet challenge the music team toward excellence? While many ways to do this exist, I believe the following six points are essential for the worship leader.
1. Know Your Congregation
I can’t stress this enough. It is challenging to effectively lead people on a consistent basis if you don’t know them. Interacting with them beyond a surface level will help establish trust. I’ve found that when congregants trust their leader, they remain willing to receive or follow the direction the leadership takes.
I love participating in a worshiping community, and it’s a privilege and honor to have the trust of the people to lead them each week in that which has an eternal impact on the life of the believer. While many differing opinions concerning worship through music exist, I think we can all agree that worshiping through music is biblical and extremely important to our God.
While Scripture does not give definitive specifics on style, instrumentation, or arrangement, it does provide clarity on substance. Our music must exhort, admonish, and encourage us as believers while also remain pleasing and glorifying to the Lord. Thus the content of our songs must include holy words—God’s Word.
Paul writes, “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts” (Col 3:16).
2. Get Your Leaders Involved
The worship leader should confidently trust that the leaders of the church will remain involved in worshiping with the congregation. Worship to God is both corporate and private, which needs to be modeled by all.
When ministry leaders consistently fail to participate in the worship-in-song portion of the service, it can lead to the false belief that the time of praise and worship has less significance than other parts of the worship service. Yes, sometimes ministry leaders need to stay somewhere else during singing to prepare and/or help with the next portion of the service, but available ministry leaders and staff should participate in the church’s entire worship service.
Why? Because people watch their leaders and they will model their behavior. It is especially crucial for the new believers in your congregation. They need to see the different ways God’s people worship God—singing, prayer, and the hearing of the Word— modeled by those who have followed Christ for a little longer than they have. Help educate your pastoral staff in the vital role they play by merely arriving at the beginning of the service, participating throughout, and greeting the congregation following the close of the service.
3. Cultivate Your Worship Team
The relationships developed between the worship pastor and the musicians, singers, audiovisual crew, ushers, and greeters are key. Take a pastoral and family approach to this. It goes far beyond taking basic prayer requests and making casual conversations. The leader must interact with his team on a weekly basis. It means making an effort to share life together.
Rehearsal times should not only include music, but should also consist of learning how each person thinks, challenging the group biblically, weeping and rejoicing together. The energy and community that comes from this has a significant impact on the congregation, especially in corporate worship.
Encourage band members and vocalists to think outside of the box when learning a song. When a diverse group collaborates on a song, it takes on new character. Everyone in the room will have their preferences and ideas. Blending these into a cohesive whole will naturally add to the unique quality of the music presented to the congregation. This will, of course, also require more than an hour of rehearsal. Prepare teams of musicians and singers to invest time so that they can offer an excellent praise to the Lord!
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34–35, NASB).
4. Eliminate Personal Preferences
The congregation won’t submit their preferences to God if the leader refuses to let go of them first. Many music wars in churches have started because people want leaders to cater to them in their walk with God. Diversity in music is about reaching beyond our personal preferences to unify people to express their love and commitment to God corporately. It centers on Christ. Many of the songs I choose in worship sets seldom describe my style or preference. If the message is clear and the melody is good, I can work with it.
I grew up in a church that was 100% African American. There were lots of blue collar jobs and not a lot of education, but we loved God, and we loved each other well. Many of the songs we sang focused on the power, healing work, and life of Jesus Christ. The songs had words of hope in God for a better future than the present.
The joy in singing with other believers, the accompanying melodies, and music arrangements gave way to emotion, struggle, and hardship. It provided hope and endurance for overcoming hardships. From a genre perspective, many label these songs as gospel music. It includes a particular sound with choirs, organs, drums, and vocal acrobatics. When I play it, sing it, or hear it, it takes me to a familiar place in my heart and spirit.
In college, the experience was different. No choir at all and not many vocal acrobatics. But wow! Where did those acoustic guitars come from and how could they change how I worship? Sometimes it had a little too much pop or country for my feeling, but I have to admit that the lyrics of contemporary Christian music and praise songs often made me reflect on Scripture. They helped me contemplate whether or not I consistently applied what I said I believed. Did my behavior and interactions display my love for God?
Then I attended DTS. I knew they sang hymns in chapel. I grew up singing some of these songs. Our hymnal at church, however, either had the accompaniment different or perhaps someone had embellished them as the congregation followed the melody. This was not my style of worship or was it? The theology and message proved right, so I got over my preferences and sang with the community as one voice to God. When we aim to worship God, and the content of our song is biblically accurate and gives praise to God, we can worship in spirit and truth.
“Speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph 5:19–20).
5. Take Risks
Listen to music and messages outside of your comfort zone. Being uncomfortable takes faith, but it is worth it. Start with old hymns. Get a subscription to Spotify or Napster and find a playlist of Christian or gospel music by unknown artists. Listen to Christian rap and Google the lyrics. Discover how much various styles of Christian music represent truth and Scripture. Style can vary as long as the words remain solid and scriptural.
Try your hand at writing music. To do this with excellence, it will take time, relationships, patience, and truth. But remember, “In the beginning, God created . . . .” God loves our creativity, and it can add a layer of diversity in and of itself. For instance, planning a worship set that incorporates an original song and a traditional hymn with the same theme can illustrate two different approaches to worship in song on a specific subject or topic.
6. Focus On Your Goal
Diversity is not the destination. Worship in spirit and truth is the goal. I remind myself of this truth each week, even if the rhythms aren’t to my liking, or the songs don’t feel like what I think they should, or if it’s not my favorite topic. My job involves worship so that I can lead others in worship. I cannot take the congregation where I have not gone or where I refuse to go.
Again, when it comes to music, keep in mind that diversity should not be our destination, but worshiping our Lord is priority. Although specific styles of music can bring us to an emotionally familiar place, it can supersede the intent of why God would want us to worship through music—to see him in a greater light so that we can continue to live in worship to him.
“God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth” (John 4:24, ESV).
Employing musical diversity may allow different individuals to identify with a song in hopes they reach a place of surrender so that they can worship. A familiar genre sometimes helps a person to relax and focus on the lyrics so that they can fixate on the main idea—worshiping God.
However, if diverse styles of music are used without attention to the content of the song, then it will lead to an empty, people-pleasing effort. True worship includes songs that go across the cultural and racial divides that plague our churches. These songs stay focused on Christ, our Redeemer, our hope. Their message includes less opinions and more about God’s character, mercy, and grace.
I seek the gospel theme when planning a worship set. As a leader, my responsibility includes helping usher people into the presence of the Lord, not providing personal preferences. I recognize that differences exist, but I carefully consider the one who broke all barriers. The gospel—the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—is where the power is, and the reality that unites all believers, regardless of our need for diversity in presentation.