Leading Worship at Weddings

This afternoon I have the privilege of playing piano and leading the singing at the wedding of some friends at my church. It’s always a joy to be a part of a wedding, but it’s even better when you actually know the people! Leading worship at a wedding can be tricky, so I thought I’d share ten lessons I’ve learned over the years.

Make sure they’re Christians
When I first started getting asked to lead worship at weddings, I always said yes. Then I showed up at a wedding when I wasn’t even sure the bride and groom were Christians. The Mother of the Bride knew me from church and asked me to sing, and I accepted since I was flattered and eager for some extra cash. But I should have declined, and now I always make sure the couple are Christians and committed to a church.

Be clear about what you will and will not sing
At the same wedding I was just talking about, I was asked to sing one of the worst songs in the history of the world. I don’t even remember the name of it, but it was a John Tesh song with the line, “there’s nothing I wouldn’t do to make you my wife”. Could there possibly be a more awkward line to sing at a wedding? Well probably. But who am I supposed to look at as I sing that line?

Needless to say, now when I’m asked to lead worship for a wedding I’m clear from the beginning that I will only sing hymns or worship songs. If they want a song outside those genres, I’ll have to read the lyrics first and think about it. And in both cases, I need to be able to approve or decline their choices. (It’s helpful to give them a list of 15 – 20 hymns/worship songs that are most well-known, Gospel-filled, and wedding appropriate.)

Be honest about what you can and cannot play
I cannot play classical piano. If a couple asks me to do the music at their wedding, I tell them up front that if they want particular classical pieces for the seating of the family, bridesmaids procession, or bride’s procession, they’ll need to find someone else to play those pieces. I’m happy to play hymn tunes or make something up that sounds classical, but I can’t play the real deal. Most couples are OK with this. Some are not, and they want some genuine classical pieces played, so they find a friend or someone else to play those.

Talk about money
It is standard practice for the musician(s) at a wedding to be paid. You don’t have to be paid, of course, and you can tell the couple this when they ask. But the default is that you should be paid, anywhere from $100 – $250 or more depending on the situation and your experience. It can be awkward if you wait until the last minute, when the couple is dealing with a billion details, to talk about this. Just mention it at the beginning and get it out of the way. You’ll be one the least expensive things they have to worry about.

Don’t assume they’ll have sound reinforcement covered
I’m continually amazed at how people overlook the need for a sound system and a qualified person to run it. I also can’t understand how people think a microphone – on its own, no cables, no sound board, no amps, and no speakers, just a solitary microphone on its own – will magically project sound into a room. This is one of life’s greatest mysteries to me.

But people do overlook it, especially couples planning a wedding. Make sure they’re aware of your needs, whether it’s for a sound system, a sound engineer, equipment, etc. Don’t show up to the wedding and be surprised.

What about the lyrics?
Similarly, I’ve had occasions when I’ve shown up to the wedding, picked up the program, and been surprised by the lyrics the couple chose. Either they’re wrong, they’ve thrown in extra verses, or they’ve left random parts out. Send the couple the lyrics you want to use, and ask to see a draft of the program before they all get printed.

To attend rehearsal or not to attend rehearsal?
Should you be expected to attend the rehearsal and the rehearsal dinner? This depends on three things.
– First, do you want to? If yes, then go. If not, then…
– Second, does the pastor expect you to be there? If so, then you’ll probably want to go. If not, and he’s mainly going to run through procedure and placement with the wedding party (which is the case most of the time, in my experience), then you don’t need to go.
– Third, is it necessary? I’m usually comfortable showing up a couple of hours before the wedding, connecting with the wedding coordinator, talking with the pastor, and running through the songs, leaving plenty of time to get comfortable without having to give up my Friday night as well (and make a bunch of small talk too).

Going out of town
If you’re asked to lead the music for an out-of-town wedding, you’ll need to really consider whether or not it’s wise for you to accept. If you know the couple well or feel compelled to, then by all means do it. But if not, it is an awful lot of time, energy, miles, gas or airfare, hotel reservations, and hassle. You will also oftentimes end up losing money. To avoid this, if you accept an invitation to lead music at an out-of-town wedding, you would be wise to communicate up front that you’d appreciate an honorarium (be specific), and your expenses covered. And yes, this is totally appropriate unless it’s immediate family.

When it’s at a different church
There’s a rule, whether it’s written or unwritten, that the music director(s) at a particular church has “first dibs” on weddings at that church. Also, depending on the church, they will have certain rules about what kinds of songs and instruments can and cannot be played. If you’re invited to lead worship at a wedding at a different church, either you or the couple will need to contact that church’s music director and make sure he or she is comfortable with you doing the music, and with the music you all have planned.

Have realistic expectations 
Weddings are unique affairs. This is the day the couple has dreamed of their whole lives. Friends and family, many of whom don’t know one another, have all flown in from around the world and are sitting in one place. There are family dynamics that you might know nothing about. The ladies are in fancy dresses. The guys are in fancy suits. It’s an unfamiliar venue for most of the people. Many may not be Christians.

So have realistic expectations when you’re leading worship at a wedding. Some will sing, and others will stare at you with hostility. Some will seem genuinely engaged, and others will be taking it all in since they’ve never stepped foot in a church before. Don’t expect a huge response. Just serve them as well as you can, faithfully point them to Jesus, and don’t take it personally if you’re one of the few people singing. Just no John Tesh songs.