Practical Experiences to Help Young Worship Leaders Grow

No worship leader ever stops growing. If they do, they’re in trouble. There’s always more to learn, more to understand, and more experiences to have. Likewise, no worship leader becomes “seasoned” overnight. If they expect to, they’re in trouble.

But if you’re a young worship leader and just starting out, and you want to grow as a worship leader, there are some crucially important experiences you have to have.

Here’s a list of 13 of them, in no particular order of importance. They’re all important.

1. Retreats
Lead worship for 3 or 4 retreats and you’ll realize that they require an incredible amount of planning, coordination, logistics arranging, and flexibility, and leave you utterly exhausted. You need to get good at leading worship on retreats and remember to bring your own pillow.

2. Weekly leadership
It’s one thing to lead worship on an occasional basis, and this is a good place to start. But the next step is finding an opportunity to lead a regular congregation on a regular basis with a regular worship team of some sort. It’s a roller coaster of ups and downs that you need to learn how to ride. Sometimes you’ll feel sick, but it’s actually a lot of fun.

3. Weddings and funerals
There are no do-overs when it comes to weddings and funerals. These are profoundly emotional, high-stakes, memorable, photographed, and meaningful services. You will mess up at them for sure, but you better make sure they’re small mess ups or there will be people who remember you for the rest of their lives (and not in a good way).

5. Fill-in
Serving as a guest-worship leader for a church that isn’t yours, with musicians you’re unaccustomed to working with, and using a repertoire you haven’t built is disorienting and a lot of work. Learn how to listen to what they need, serve them with humility, and come back to your home church more grateful for the blessings you don’t appreciate like that nice gentleman who always makes fun of your pants.

6. Small group
It requires much more sensitivity and pastoral skill to lead worship for 10 people than it does for 1,000. Don’t underestimate the life-long difference that leading worship in someone’s living room can make to your worship leading skills, especially when you’re interrupted by a screaming baby.

7. Big group
You can get away with things in a small group that you can’t get away with in front of a big group (200 or more people). Leading worship for a large number of people requires you to muster up a level of planning, preparation, and leadership authority that will seem impossible at first but will begin to feel natural the more you do it.

8. Christmas Eve and Easter
Mature worship leaders learn, through years of trial and error, how best to carry the burden of planning music for the two biggest-deal services of the year, in a way that doesn’t totally consume their lives (or their volunteers’), provides their congregation with a genuine encounter with God, and includes everyone’s favorite songs and ensures no complaints (I’m joking).

9. On-the-side services
Occasional healing services, vow renewals, baby dedications, church staff meetings, Veterans’ Day services, and any other service that requires a time of singing that isn’t on Sunday morning, will cause you think outside the box and factor in a whole different slew of things while planning a time of worship that will engage people.

10. Kids
When adults aren’t engaged in worship they’ll stand there like a robot. When kids aren’t engaged in worship they’ll get really loud and ask their mom for a snack or jump on their friend’s back and try to tackle him. Learning how to lead kids in worship will prepare you for the grumpiest of all adults.

11. Elderly
The older generation isn’t looking to be impressed. They would like to actually be able to sing along with you, hopefully something true, meaningful, and familiar.

12. Hostile
My experience as a teenager leading worship for a congregation in which one-half of the room would stand while the other half would remain seated with their arms folded, while staring at me angrily, was the most valuable worship leading experience I ever had. Leading worship for hostile groups will force you to grow in dependence on God, and confidence in who he’s gifted you to be.

13. Meetings
This has nothing to do with playing an instrument or singing. It has to do with the fact that if you’re a worship leader, you need to learn how to run a good meeting. Have an agenda, move things along, get results, and adjourn it before it goes too long and people start throwing things. This will serve you for the rest of your life, and help you run good rehearsals as well.

Don’t Be A Monkey

1Early on in my experience as a worship leader, I was pretty convinced that whenever I ran into any sort of opposition or problems or inertia, the solution was that I needed to get my way.

Service feels dead? I should be allowed to do whatever I want to do. 

Musicians not performing well? You should let me clean house or crack the whip.

Only time for two songs? If you loved Jesus you’d give me time for at least five.

You don’t want to project lyrics? Then obviously you’re a neanderthal.

I’m supposed to get advice from a committee? A waste of my precious time.

I can’t have my own office? I’ll make as much noise for as many months as it takes for me to get what I want.

No one is singing? They’ll catch on soon enough once they come to appreciate my underlying brilliance.

You thought I repeated that song too many times? I should have repeated it more.

You want me to submit my song list to who? I hear directly from God.

The list could go on but I’ll spare you any more glimpses into my immaturity (none of which still exists today, of course… ahem…) or self-centerdness. I was convinced when I was first starting out leading worship that I had (a) all the answers, (b) all the insight, and (c) all the skills rolled into one worship leading powerhouse package: me.

And my artistic temperament coupled with my sinful nature and with a dash of preacher’s kid-itis thrown on top resulted in a working assumption that my degree of satisfaction and my ability to thrive in ministry was directly correlated to much freedom I had to do things my own way.

I once heard a statement (I can’t remember from whom) that the higher a monkey climbs up a tree, the better you can see his butt. This would describe the worship leader I was when I first started out. A monkey who wanted to climb high, high, high up the tree all on his own and be allowed to swing freely from the branches doing his own thing.

The problem? I’d eventually fall off one of those branches and I wouldn’t be able to blame anyone else but me.

Here’s my point: don’t make the mistake of thinking that the solution anytime you face opposition, or problems, or inertia, is that you be allowed to get your way. Many times that is completely the wrong solution.

Consult with others, submit to others, team up with others, bounce your ideas off of others, learn the political landscape from more experienced people around you, listen a lot, keep your mouth closed in meetings unless you’re sure you have the right thing to say, pursue humility, and above all things, make it about Jesus, not about you.

Too many worship leaders make mountains out of mole hills when they reflexively turn away from conventional wisdom or common sense or pastoral restraint, and instead do things their own way. When you do that, you’re the monkey climbing the tree. You’ll have fun and get some “oohs” and “ahs” at first, which will feed your ego, but then you’re in for an embarrassing fall.

Take it from me! Getting your own way is not always a good idea in the long run. There’s a difference between getting your way and implementing a vision. Pursue the latter option.

Getting Into a Worship Leading Career After College


Last week I received an email from a senior in high school who’s discerning a possible call to a career in worship ministry, and is experiencing some push-back and questioning from her family who tell her she’s crazy. She asked a lot of good questions, basically trying to find out whether or not she’s… well… crazy.

Here’s what I said:

There are always churches looking to hire full-time worship leaders. Churches all across the country, in any city of any state. There are lots of employment options for people looking for worship leader jobs, but in order to be attractive to a potential church, you’ll need to able to show that you can do several things.

First, can you manage a music program? The budget/volunteers/scheduling/rehearsals/long-term planning/meetings/emails/auditions/Christmas/Easter/administrative/etc? To prove this, I’d recommend you start getting your hands dirty as soon as possible. Intern with a music program at a church somewhere. Start getting as much experience as you possibly can!

Second, can you lead worship well? Are you able to plan a cohesive service, effectively using songs to help people glorify God? Can you lead a band, or a choir, or an orchestra? You don’t need to be able to lead all of those types of ensembles, but if you can’t lead any of them, you’ll have a hard time getting a job. Again, the best way to prove this to a potential church is to do it consistently and well in some sort of setting. Most churches will not hire a worship leader with no regular worship leading experience. An internship somewhere can provide this, or better yet, enter into the “market” via an assistant/part-time/associate position, where you can gain experience, show your skills, learn your craft, make mistakes, and become more polished.

Third, are you a leader? Do people want to follow you? Will a congregation respond positively to your leadership and your musical abilities? Will a pastor look at your application and think “she’d help my congregation grow” or think “next…” The stronger you become as a leader, the better the odds that you’ll get a good position somewhere.

Start small. Build a good foundation. Pursue your education. Study music. Study theology. Lead worship/rehearsals/services as much as you can. Say “yes” to whatever worship leading opportunities come your way. This will help you grow!

Don’t worry about the naysayers, but do listen to whatever wisdom they have to offer. If you’ve been called by God to this ministry, then he will equip you.

(Related post: Getting Experience Makes You Experienced.)

Three Common Worship Leading Errors

1It can be dangerous when the role of a worship leader is over exaggerated. If we’re not careful, the worship leader can be elevated to the role of an Old Testament High Priest. Likewise, it can be dangerous when the role of a worship leader is under valued. If we’re not careful, the worship leader can be diminished to the role of a church jukebox: you put some money in it and tell it which songs to play.

Worship leaders are not high priests and they’re not jukeboxes. They’re pastoral servants, called by God to preach the message of the Gospel through song, and to serve a church’s musicians and congregation by helping them make much of the greatness of God. The role of a worship leader is crucial. When they get off track consistently (over months and years), they can get a congregation off track too.

Here are three common worship leading errors that can have a detrimental impact on the churches they serve:

1. The primary focus is on the wrong person’s surrender
In a laudable attempt to help their congregations worship God from the heart, many worship leaders put the primary focus of their leadership and songs on how much they’re surrendering. Their heart is in the right place. It’s their focus that needs to be shifted.

When the primary focus shifts from us and our surrendering to the cross and Jesus’ surrendering, then a congregation’s heart begins to be warmed and freed and affected by the shout from the cross that “it is finished” rather than the shout from the worship leader to “sing it louder”. Heartfelt worship springs from the gospel.

2. There is no primary focus
The worship leader without a focus is like a broken clock. He’s right sometimes but not on purpose.

This song is about that, and that anthem is about this, and this Sunday we’re singing these kinds of songs, and that woman is singing this kind of solo, and this group is leading that kind of music, and all your congregation can say is “huh”?

What makes you tick? Anything? If nothing, then you’re a broken clock. Not terribly helpful. But when the gospel makes you tick, then you start pointing to the right things whenever people look at you.

3. There is no passion
Passion-less worship leading could be attributed to a whole host of factors: maybe crippling criticism, burnout, pressure, or a lack of any support. If a worship leader experiences any of these things, he’s not likely to throw himself into the ministry or into his role on Sunday mornings. Likewise, a worship leader who feels really safe and comfortable is not likely to want to rock the boat either.

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Power. He is the Spirit of Freedom. And he is the pointer to Christ. The absence of passion in a worship leader or in a worship ministry shows an absence of the Spirit’s empowering presence. When the Holy Spirit’s power is at work in a worship leader and in a worship ministry, the result is a passion for the glory of God above all things. And this passion will inevitably result in the boat getting rocked. And so be it.

When worship leaders stay focused on the Gospel and stay dependent on the Spirit, then their congregations will stay well served. May we resist the pull to focus on our meager sacrifices, and instead give ourselves to passionately and consistently point our congregations to the glory of God in Christ, by the power of the Spirit.

Figuring Out Who You Are

1When I was first starting to really get into worship leading during middle school, I was spending a lot of time listening to a Pentecostal worship leader out of Florida. You wouldn’t know who he is, since the only reason I could listen to him was because my Mom had subscribed to that church’s sermon ministry and when they sent the tapes they included the whole service.

So I’d listen to those tapes and sit there transfixed. The worship leader (and team) was really good. This stuff wasn’t edited or produced or anything. This was live, straight-from-the-sound-board, as-it-happened worship. In classic Pentecostal style, they could take a 3 or 4 minute song and make it go (and go) for 15 minutes. And the more they repeated a song the more people seemed to get into it.

You can criticize that style all you want, but for me at that point in my life, attending and leading worship in an old, dead Episcopal church, listening to those tapes was like water to my thirsty soul.

Naturally, when you listen to a particular worship leader and/or style of music for a while, you start to copy it. And so I, a middle school boy leading worship at a little Episcopal church, began to replicate the Pentecostal worship leader I was hearing on the tapes.

The guy on the tapes could hit a high G and make it sound like he wasn’t even trying. When I tried to hit a D it sounded like I was mimicking a farm animal. The guy on the tapes would add all these phrases and runs and cool embellishments and it made the congregation respond with more vigor. When I tried to do something cool it just sounded like I was… well… trying to do something cool.

I was over-doing it. Big time. Instead of being who I was, a fourteen year old guy who had an average voice, was pretty good on the guitar, and loved to worship, I was trying to be the guy I was listening to on my Walkman after school every day.

I began to become aware of this problem when I started recording our times of worship and listening back to them. As much I wanted to convince myself that I sounded awesome, I couldn’t. I was embarrassed. I felt bad for the people who had to endure my attempts to hit high notes, do cool embellishments, and be somebody I wasn’t. Thank God that the youth group I was leading worship for was gracious and encouraging and never critical.

So for several years, into high school and college, I began an adventure of attempting to lead worship as myself. I would swing from trying to be Bob Kauflin to trying to be Stuart Townend to trying to be Tim Hughes to trying to be like Matt Redman.

But eventually the time came when I had led worship for long enough, gleaned different positive things from different worship leaders I had seen or heard, made enough mistakes, and had enough freedom to stretch my own wings, that I began to get comfortable in my own skin. I was figuring out who I was as a worship leader, and who I wasn’t.

This process is ongoing. I still catch myself trying to be someone I’m not. But, by God’s grace, I feel less and less pressure to be someone I’m not.

How about you? When you lead worship are you trying to be someone else? Have you picked up things from other worship leaders that just aren’t who you are? Are you over-doing? Maybe you just need to relax and not try as hard to be who you think you need to be when you’re leading worship.

Incorporate all the good things from other worship leaders that you see or listen to. Learn as much and as often as you can. Always be eager to make adjustments to how you lead. But at the end of the day, be yourself.