This coming Sunday I’ll have the privilege of filling in for a friend who’s the worship director at a local church. He’s on vacation and asked me to be the guest worship leader. Since he’s filled in for me in the past, and it was easy for me to find a sub at my own church, I said yes. It will be kind of fun.
I wanted to share how I approach serving as a guest worship leader for a church that isn’t my own. This kind of opportunity pops up for me 3 or 4 times a year, and I’ve made enough mistakes and learned a few lessons that I thought sharing them might be helpful.
1. Approach it as a servant. You are not a celebrity.
2. Don’t just come in and do your own thing, in your own way, with your own songs, and your own personality on display. You’ll know you’ve succeeded when some people in the congregation didn’t really notice that you were there.
3. Ask as many questions as possible about what they’re used to. Have them walk through a normal rehearsal, and a normal service with you. Once you’ve settled on a song list, ask them if they do any of those songs differently from how you do them. Get lots of details.
4. Collaborate on a song list. You want to pick songs that the congregation knows really well. You’re a guest, so it’s OK if you err on the side of really familiar songs. Ask what songs they might suggest you lead.
5. Come alongside their musicians. Get a feel ahead of time about the skill level of the musicians you’ll be working with. Tailor your song choices to them. Come to the rehearsals and services with a lighthearted, humorous, and humble spirit, and the musicians will look forward to when/if you come back.
6. Lower your demands. One of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made when serving as a guest worship leader somewhere was, in essence, insisting on my own hotel room, when a room at a home was available to me not very far away. The budget was already very tight for this group, and I was extremely insensitive to this. It wasn’t worth it and I handled it poorly and fairly arrogantly. Don’t have a big list of demands. Know what you’ll need, and graciously accept whatever hospitality they are able to extend, but don’t demand special treatment.
7. Arrange all the technical stuff in advance. One time I traveled all the way to San Diego to lead worship for a conference at a church, and when I arrived I realized they had no cable or direct box for my guitar. They assumed I’d be bringing my own. I led worship for the whole conference with a lapel mic strapped to the front of my guitar. Arrange these kinds of things in advance.
8. Make sure the lyrics have been checked. When you say you want to do “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” and they say “great! We know that one!” it doesn’t mean they do the same verses with the same wording as you. Make sure there aren’t any awkward surprises on Sunday morning. This
9. Try to be low-maintenance. It’s a lot of work for a church to bring in a guest worship leader. Once they secure one, they have to worry about travel details, accommodations, honorarium, rides, meals, all the correspondence in advance, getting them up to speed, etc. You think it’s a lot of work for you to fill in? It’s more work for them to make it all work. Do what you can to make it easy on them.
10. Preach the gospel. I’ve been asked to lead worship occasionally for conferences or retreats for groups that are Christian in their statement of faith, but in reality have members from all over the spiritual, theological, and political map. When this is the case, it’s even more important to choose songs that focus on and preach the good news of Jesus Christ. It’s good to do this at a normal Sunday morning service too, of course, but you’ll find yourself seeing and depending on the power of the gospel even more when you find yourself guest leading for a diverse group that isn’t usually assembled together. Even if no one is really “into it”, you’re still accomplishing quite a lot.
The role of a guest worship leader is not to come in and perform and leave his mark. The role of a guest worship is to sneak in and point people to Jesus and then go back home. Of course there are more details to work out, but it really is that simple.