Where can worship leaders find wisdom for their leading?

John Leach writes: The role of the ‘worship leader’ and the ‘worship band’ are relatively new on the church scene, coming into mainstream denominations with the rise of charismatic renewal from the 1960s. Before that a worship leader, at least in Anglican circles, was the minister (often but not exclusively ordained) who led the congregation through whichever prayer book was being used or, in free church circles, who led throughout the whole act of worship. But nowadays the term ‘worship leader’ usually refers to someone who stands at the front, guitar in hand, fronting a band of other musicians and leading the sung worship of the people. In some churches this character is a paid member of staff, and is often called the ‘worship pastor.’

With the growing popularity and visibility of this new role, resources and training have abounded. My new Grove booklet aims to explore whether there might be some wisdom to be gained in all of this from other disciplines, even ones which might at first seem unrelated, unnecessary or even hostile to this new world. It is an attempt to introduce into the thinking of those who are highly skilled with their guitars and songs, some other areas from which different but complementary skills might be acquired. I want to bring to the task of worship leading (as defined above) some insights from three different worlds—those of musicology, theology and liturgical studies—believing that they can and should provide wisdom which will make the whole worship-leading project richer.

Musicology is the academic study of music as a subject, as opposed to studying to sing, play or conduct. It is about how music works, what it does and what effects it can have on people. Like any academic discipline it has many subsections, but for our purposes I am concerned here with what joining in with music does to worshippers.

Music memory concerns the past associations that particular music has for the listeners or performers. Even without the trauma, we still associate music with other events and the emotions attached to them. That’s how the ‘Darling, they’re playing our tune’ factor works. It is likely that some of the most significant hymns or songs for each of us are significant not because of the wonderful tune or the powerful theology, but because we once sang them in a Big Top with 5,000 other people after a particularly powerful message, or because we had it at our wedding, or at the funeral of someone we loved dearly. And, of course, as we rehear music, the sense that we know it well and that it is meaningful increases.

If music memory is so significant, one of the challenges is how to get the balance right between new songs and those we already know. Sometimes worship leaders can feel under pressure to be constantly introducing new songs. Whilst there is good scriptural warrant for ‘singing a new song to the Lord,’ there is no doubt that at least in part this is driven by less worthy motives, which have to do with the extremely lucrative business of what Pete Ward calls Selling Worship. I write just after the death of my 95-year-old mother who right up to within days of her death was still able to remember and join in with the traditional hymns of her younger years, as well as some 1980s vintage worship songs, even if she could not always remember who I was. It could be that in today’s fast-changing worship scene we are in danger of giving the enthusiastic teenagers of today no anchor points for 70 years’ time, musically, liturgically or spiritually. So there are immense implications there for our repertoire of songs. Does keeping in step with the Spirit really mean running quite that fast?

Another trigger for emotions in worship is what is known as architectural pleasure, an overwhelming frisson of pleasure at the sheer cleverness of a musical event. Not everyone will be a ected equally by this factor, but many will. Some approaches to worship seek to strip away anything which might point to or glorify human performance, because that would only draw attention away from the God on whom we are increasingly focusing. But perhaps in doing so we are robbing at least some people of opportunities for pleasure, and I can only say that for me delight in human skill in the context of worship very quickly leads me into praise to the creator of all that is creative.

One of the main ways in which music affects us is by building up tension, and then resolving it in different ways. Musicologist L B Meyer notes that emotions are commonly aroused when we find we cannot respond to something in the ways we might like to. So if tension is built up and resolution delayed we experience that event as an emotional stimulus.There can be great delight in this tension and resolution dynamic, and it is particularly great to use some of it during Advent.

To take this a little bit further, one important subsection of tension and resolution is the violation of people’s expectations. There is much evidence to say that emotion is triggered when the music leads us to expect that it is going to do one thing, but then suddenly does something else. There are several ways in which this can happen, but the common elements have to do with setting up the expectancy by doing something enough times, then to do something different, but to do it in a way which does make sense. That is why cathedral organists will often give the hymn a lift by reharmonizing the last verse, having played it straight for the previous verses.

Theology is an interesting term. For many churchgoers it conjures up images of academics in universities wasting time on obscure and pointless discussions, and for many Christians it refers to the domain of the professionals, that is clergy and ministers. Yet to go back to its literal meaning, ‘words about (or the study of) God,’ it is actually perhaps the most important thing the church can be engaged in.

Those who serve in worship bands might not automatically consider that thinking theologically is a key part of their role, but one important truth means that we simply cannot leave theology out of worship leading. The fact is, as the great Methodist hymnwriters John and Charles Wesley knew only too well, we learn much of our theology through what we sing in worship. The words we put on our screens and into people’s mouths will shape their understanding of God, and their relationship with him, to a much greater degree than will the sermons they hear or the Bible studies they join in. Stephen Land refers to charismatic songs as a major means of repetition and therefore reinforcement of belief in Pentecostal churches, and Anglicans believe specifically that their liturgy (if not their hymnody) enshrines their doctrine. If you want to know what Anglicans believe, listen to how they worship.

There is a long tradition in the worlds of hymnody and song lyrics of setting scriptural texts to music, and of course many biblical texts (such as the psalms) would originally have been sung. But I think there has been a subtle shift in the way that we sing Scripture. In the recent past a scriptural song might have begun with one particular passage, and set it to music. But I detect in many more contemporary songs a different approach. Rather than setting the words of a passage to music, they bring together a (sometimes seemingly random) collection of different scriptural ideas and images gathered from a number of different biblical locations. This is biblical in one way, but theologians would warn us that when we take Bible passages (or ideas and images) out of context, we risk making them a pretext—that is, an excuse to say something that might not have been intended in the Bible itself. Neither does this approach help in the important art of memorizing Scripture.

One of the most helpful things that theology can teach us is how to ask the right critical questions of anything we are singing. ‘Critical’ here is being used in a technical sense—it does not mean negative or judgmental; it means analytical or reflective. In other words it means checking whether there might be other perspectives. A knowledge of theology can help to give us a wider range of perspectives beyond those we bring from our own life experience and background.

To some worship leaders, the subject of liturgical studies may feel less like drystone walling, and more like suggesting that a skilled carpenter might have something important to learn from the world of IKEA flatpacking. Is not the whole idea of charismatic sung worship about liberating the church from the prepackaged uniformity of liturgical worship? What on earth could we learn from the very world of liturgy which it often feels like we have been led by the Spirit to leave behind?

Well, it depends what we mean by liturgy. If we are referring merely to dull-sounding words out of a dusty book that is one thing, but actually the discipline of liturgical studies is about a lot more than words on a page. At its best it is the study of how worship works, how it can be well-ordered and helpful, and above all how it can help people connect with the living God, including thinking about what worship is, how the spontaneous relates to the well known, and the shape of the journey that worship takes us on.

To engage with questions of liturgy, spend some time together as a band thinking about a worship set you have used recently. Spread the lyrics out in front of you, and think about the journey which worshippers were taken on through your set, both emotionally and theologically. How might this exercise inform your choice of songs for next time? How did the journey through the songs connect with the wider journey of the whole service?

If you wanted to lead worship on Good Friday as though you had no idea what was coming in three days’ time, what songs might you use?

What alternative sources might you explore in your quest for quality in words and music? How might you go about evaluating the words of songs, not just for their theology but also for their beauty?

I hope that by listening to the voices of other disciplines you might be inspired to question, to rethink, to try going off in some different directions. If these extracts have whetted your appetite, then you can buy my Grove booklet Wisdom for Worship Bands: Advice from Unexpected Places from the Grove website for £3.95 post free in the UK, or as a PDF e-book. The booklet includes fuller and in-depth exploration of each of these issues, questions for reflection for worship leaders and worship bands, and links to further resources.

John Leach works in the Discipleship Team in the Diocese of Lincoln. He has been a parish priest for over 20 years, as well as a diocesan officer, Director of Anglican Renewal Ministries, and an IKEA truck driver. He is currently researching for a doctorate concerning ‘Anglican Vineyard’ churches.

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7 thoughts on “Where can worship leaders find wisdom for their leading?”

  1. What interests me is the way some individuals seem acutely gifted in leading worship, while others do not. I have known a church be richly blessed by one particular worship leader, a quiet and self-effacing young woman of great sensitivity.

    Her fundamental ability: the ability to listen to the Holy Spirit, in the ebb and flow of a service, and a willingness to adapt, and hear that collective movement of the Spirit in the congregation.

    Conversely, there is disappointment when a less adept worship leader fails to recognise that movement and touch of the Holy Spirit in the congregation, and misses the moment, or curtails the music… or conversely, misses the mood and opts for loud and jubilant music, when people’s hearts have been quietened and are at the point of being gently touched.

    A Spirit-led worship leader is one of the greatest gifts a church can have, and without exaggeration can open up a whole church to greater receptivity to the Holy Spirit, gifts, and awareness of the presence of God.

    It is therefore really important that a worship leader is not only a skilled musician, or clever at planning services, but is also a person of prayer and daily devotion, given to God in their life beyond music itself.

  2. Thanks John – this looks really good
    May I also recommend on similar lines, Martin Jones’ excellent booklet “Called to Worship – a Practical guide of worship leaders’ – and Neil Bennetts web site & resource ministry ‘The Worship Foundation’. Both Martin and Neil are very gifted and widely experienced worship leader with much wisdom they are seeking to impart.

  3. This Grove is excellent – have recommended it to a number of people. Seeing how music so beautifully feeds the souls of those with dementia it is great to see the concept of music memory explored…

  4. May I commend Rollin Gram’s blog post on this area:


    I would also commend another Grove booklet by John Leach: Encountering Vinyard Worship. This draws out the very modern trend to have the structure of a service in blocks, with a significant gear change between them. In contrast, older structures weave together the words, prayer, readings, talk. In that, someone other than the organist or choirmaster would be choosing the songs, and other elements in order to create an integrated theme.

    Having just a block of ‘worship’ (meaning ‘singing a certain kind of song’) leads to a very retricted understanding of the word. Theologically, ‘worship’ should be expanded out from our meeting together to all we do, not narrowed down to only part of what we do wheb we meet.

  5. I feel this is a very timely piece given the range, scope, variation (or even lack of) and amount of songs of worship that are currently out there and available at the click of a button. There is, I believe, great value in those, especially younger, worship facilitators who look to the content of both new and older songs and allow their choices to be shaped and reshaped by what is contained in the words. The tunes and melodies will always be subject to the cultures at the time (though as with all ‘classics’ there will be those that just take people to a place -and maybe time- e.g ‘I stand amazed in the Presence’). Teaching on how and what sung worship is and why it is done is always relevant in every generation… this conversation should really be a continuous one for all our churches and denominations

  6. This is excellent material.
    I wondered if John deals with song writing as an important part of this field? Do writers begin with an inspirational theme or prayer and develop music around it; or start with a riff and then add lyrics? I’m sure a certain shallowness has developed over this decade wherein songs aim to create an emotional experience rather than instruct and inspire. The poetry is often of poor quality and the theology even thinner. I’m intrigued by the musicology focus. This is also often bare; whenever we learn a new song I usually immediately join in singing harmonies as the melody lines are so predictable that this is possible. It also seems that these songs are designed to be sung as performance rather than congregational. This is why I really appreciate the Getty’s work which seems entirely designed to maximise congregational engagement.
    (PS I am trying not to be a grumpy old man)


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