Back to Basics: Ten Lessons From Leading Small Group Worship For Those Leading Large Group Worship

1I wonder if some worship leaders who have become accustomed to leading large numbers of people in worship (and by “large” I mean “any number too large to fit in a living room”) have gotten the wrong impression that the rules that apply to encourage people singing in a living room don’t apply in a sanctuary or auditorium. While the trappings, instrumentation, volume, etc., might change from the living room to the church building, the principles you learn in a circle of 5-10 people don’t/shouldn’t change at all when you find yourself on a stage with a sound system.

Here’s what you have to learn in order to survive as a worship leader in a small group setting:

1. The songs need to be singable
Hard melodies, intricate rhythms, and weird syncopations won’t fly in a small group. You might cover them up a bit better in a large setting, but they’re just as hard for people.

2. The key is key
You’ll learn really quickly in a small group that if you’re hanging around Ds and Es and (please, no) Fs or Gs, things get awkward really fast. You might mask this with the amplification and anonymity in a larger setting, but it still makes Joe the Plumber give up singing just as much. (I’ve written on this in detail before. And here too.)

3. Show offs are turn offs
Try pulling a guitar solo while leading worship in a small group. You might not notice the weird glares as much in a large group as you would in a small group, but epic musical moments with no other purpose than to showcase an epic musical moment leave just as large a percentage of people scratching their heads.

4. Competence begets confidence
The best kind of small group worship leader is competent. He or she doesn’t need to be amazing, know more than three chords, or even just know how to press “play” or put together a song list/play list. He or she needs to be competent in their calling. People respond well to competence. They are scared by weakness and they’re turned off by arrogance.

5. People follow your melody
If you start to go off of the melody in a small group, everyone wonders whether they’re supposed to go with you or not. Same thing in a large group, but you can get away with it a bit more for some reason. But when you go off on vocal embellishments, you leave people confused. Vocal embellishments could be tanking your effectiveness level as a worship leader and you don’t even realize it.

6. Less is more
When you pick too many songs in a small group, you can begin to feel the collective sense of “really? another one?”. You can become numb to that in a large group. It’s better to leave people wanting more than wanting you to just put your guitar away and sit down. Same principle applies in a large setting. There can be too much of a good thing.

7. You really want people to sing along
If you’re leading a small group in worship and you’re the only one singing, you know you have a problem. But why is this dynamic OK in a larger setting? I don’t think it should be. The inherent power in congregational worship is congregational singing, and thus the congregational exaltation of the one to whom (or the one about whom) we’re singing. When we lose our focus on facilitating congregational singing, and settling for congregational spectating, we have successfully missed the whole entire point of why we’re there in the first place.

8. Relationships matter
Try showing up in the living room just one minute before leading singing, and packing up and leaving the room immediately after the singing. Things won’t go too well for you because people won’t really trust you, and you’ll have no idea who you’re leading. Same thing in a large setting. People are watching you to see if you love them or if you’re just there for a gig.

9. New songs need to be taught
Even just saying the words “we’re going to sing a new song, so listen to me for a moment and then join in when you’re comfortable” will go a long way towards helping a new song go well in a small group setting. Just launching into it will leave people wondering if they’re supposed to know it, if they’re supposed to sing it, and if they’re supposed to even try. Taking time to teach a new song will help people feel confident, whether there are five of them or 5,000 of them.

10. You’re there to serve
It’s hard to get a big ego when you’re leading worship in a small group setting because you’re keenly aware that you’re one of them, that you’re there to serve them, and that you really need God to help you if it’s going to go well. When and if you step into a larger role in a larger room with a larger congregation, don’t ever forget that your role is first and foremost the role of a servant, and that if things are going to go well, you really need God’s help.

Before you can ever drive on the interstate, you have to learn how to navigate your own driveway. Before you ever cook a culinary feast, you have to learn how to boil water. And before you ever lead a large group in worship, you need to learn how to lead a small group in worship. Because the essential principles that you learn in a small group that help you facilitate the glorious act of congregational singing will never (and should never) change regardless of where you go from there.

Never forget the basics!

11 thoughts on “Back to Basics: Ten Lessons From Leading Small Group Worship For Those Leading Large Group Worship”

  1. One thing that applies to both is don’t talk too much when leading into a song. You either end up preaching or looking prideful about how muxh of an awesome Christian you are. If there’s a cool piece of background to a song, or if God really worked through that song and it would edify the group, that should be the exception, not the rule. We want/need less of you and more of the Holy Spirit.

  2. Awesome! I agree. I’ve led worship for three living room church plants in the last 15 years. As you say, what you learn in that setting is invaluable when taken back to the larger setting.

    I would say this; the more volume there is, the higher the melodies you can get away with (within reason). People are less self-conscious about belting out some uncomfortable notes if everyone else is singing very loudly. But like you said, repetitive Fs and Gs aren’t going to work in most congregational settings. Of course, volume can be its own worship-inhibitor with certain congregations.


    Sometimes, when I say this, I get pushback in the following form:

    “But, but, a lot of HYMNS hit F and G in the melodies all the time!”

    And the statement is accurate; many hymnals have arrangements of hymns that “break” this rule constantly, especially hymnals that are more than 30 years old. There is a reason for that, however. The hymnals we have been using (until recently) were designed for a music-literate culture. Almost everybody used to be able to read music in our country, at least a little. The hymnals were written in 4-part notation, with the expectation that if a part was too high for a congregant, they would sing a lower part. That’s why you’ll notice that the “tenor” lines in these arrangements rarely get higher than E, and sustained notes don’t even stay at E very often.

    I only bring this up to note that its important to remember how much context matters when we are making “rules” regarding the technique and application of form to worship.


    Some of the best communal worship I’ve ever been a part of has shattered a lot of these “truths”. Two examples come to mind.

    I traveled with a music ministry for a number of years. We had multiple teams of musicians that did concerts throughout the united states and abroad, and at the beginning and end of each tour, we would all gather together, about 50-60 of us, for fellowship and training. We would hold services in a large room with a piano, guitar, no sound system.

    Songs would regularly be too high, worship would go on for an hour, 10-15 songs, totally unplanned and completely spontaneous. There would be songs sung that half of us didn’t know, then songs sung that the other half didn’t. It was incredible, one of the most spiritual and godly thing I’ve ever experienced. And it happened consistently, 3 or four times a year, over a three year period. When your “congregation” is a group of professional-caliber musicians who have given up their entire summer or a whole year to serve as unpaid, support raising missionaries, who are unified in purpose and spirit… your worship is going to be amazing regardless of how many of the “rules” are broken.

    The other example is a number of Paul Baloche concerts I’ve been to (as well as other christian worship artists, but his stand out). True worship happened in those concerts, as true as any I’ve seen… and there was smoke, and there were lights, and sometimes he spoke too long, and there were long guitar solos, and minutes of instrumentals and… well, you get the idea. It was a rock concert, after all.

    But once again, WHO is there is the single most important factor in the quality of worship, not what happened, nor how it happened. The attendees of such an event by a prominent worship artist are primarily worship leaders themselves (and their worship teams). The attendees skew towards people who know the songs, are skilled musicians, and are committed to the Lord and worship in a way that the average church congregant, quite frankly, just isn’t.

    There was another commonality that both of these settings shared… the vast majority of attendees stepped into the room EXPECTING God to be there, and EXPECTING the Holy Spirit to move. Its that very EXPECTATION of the congregation that all but promises that God’s “tabernacle” presence will show up powerfully. No technique we employ, no prayer we pray, no planning, no quality of voice, no rules can ever come close to the effectiveness of the people we worship with EXPECTING God to move. We can’t manufacture that as Worship leaders, no matter what we do, and we shouldn’t try.

    1. So what key should we sing in? I like to use the G chords so I don’t have to think about playing as much as singing, especially when it’s just me( small group). I don’t know that much about keys but I do capo to A sometimes…

      1. Hi Beverly,

        It’s not so much about the key. It’s more about the range. Typically, from C to shining C is a good rule to establish the average comfort zone (or comfort octave) of most people’s voices. You can go lower to an A or B, but if the whole song sits down there, it’s tough for people. And you can go higher, to a D or E, but if the whole song is up in the stratosphere, then most people will either choose to not sing, or go down an octave, and be confused.


      2. Something that helps me is to sing the songs with less embellishment. Not watered down just without going all over the place vocally. You don’t want to lose your congregation along the way. It’s just that a lot of the modern worship songs are sung with some impressive range. I think it’s important to do our best but also to remember we don’t have to sing the song just it’s performed or played on the radio. Not everyone can sing like Phil Wickham or Kim Walker. You don’t have to prove anything vocally. We’re leading, not performing.

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