Being a well-rounded and effective worship leader requires a lot more than knowing how to play four chords on a guitar, having a decent voice, and wearing skinny jeans. A lot of aspiring worship leaders don’t have a firm grasp of the various facets of worship ministry. In this article, I’m going to share with you the five pillars of worship leading that are key for developing yourself as a worship leader and growing a healthy ministry.
Many people are drawn to worship ministry because of the music. When I was in sixth grade, I started playing bass guitar for my church’s worship band. A few years later, while in high school, my passion for music grew and I learned how to play a few guitar chords and sing. Quickly I developed an interested in leading a worship band. Next thing I knew, when I was a junior in high school, I was leading worship on a weekly basis at my small church in northern Vermont.
Chances are you can relate to this story. To be honest, there’s a “cool” factor that comes with worship ministry. Who doesn’t want to earn a living as a musician and also serve the mission of the church? It’s a pretty sweet gig.
But there is so much more to leading worship than what people see on a Sunday morning.
I quickly discovered this while still in high school. I found myself responsible for preparing charts and practice resources every week for my band. I needed to understand the song arrangments and how to communicate with my band. I needed to understand how the sound system works and troubleshoot issues. I needed to prepare lyric slides every week. I needed to know what to say or pray between songs.
I quickly discovered the five pillars of worship ministry. These pillars are the five categories of skills and responsibilities all worship leaders must develop to grow themselves and grow their ministry.
#1 - The Pastoral/Spiritual Pillar
As the author of one of my favorite worship ministry book says, “ready or not, you’re a pastor.” Sadly, the glamour of becoming a church rockstar has overtaken the pastoral weight that goes along with being a worship leader. It does not matter what your title is. If you are planning worship gatherings and leading worship gatherings at your local church, your role is a pastoral one.
In most contemporary evangelical churches, the worship gathering is split evenly between songs and preaching. At our small church plant, I lead the congregation in roughly 30 minutes of music (Three songs before the sermon and two songs after.) Our pastor preaches for approximately 30 minutes, and we have another 5-10 minutes spent on announcements and giving.
Whether we are listening to a sermon or singing songs, the things we do in worship gatherings form our faith. Worship leaders are not “just” song leaders. The songs we sing, the prayers we pray, and everything we say or do have an impact on the congregation’s understanding of God and their faith.
There is a lot at stake pastorally and spiritually as a worship leader in the way you lead yourself, your band, and your church. Scripture makes it abundantly clear that those placed in positions of leadership in the church must intentionally pursue a life of holiness and spiritual maturity (1 Timothy 3). There may be a higher weight of responsibility for preaching pastors and elders, but worship leaders are not far behind with their burden of leadership.
#2 - The Musical Pillar
Worship leaders must be competent musicians with better-than-average vocal skills and mastery of their instrument. For some, this is a longer journey than others. When I began leading worship, my vocal skills were what one might consider below average. I was a teenage boy. I had no clue what my voice would do. But I pushed through the awkwardness and in college I made voice my primary instrument. I also took formal guitar lessons, but without a doubt, formal voice training has been far more beneficial to worship ministry.
Having a basic grasp of music theory is another essential to developing a robust musical pillar. Of all my college courses, the first two semesters of music theory were the most practical training I received. They helped me understand keys, chord progressions, transposing, and other concepts I now use on a daily basis in worship ministry.
Most worship leaders are music directors. In large church worship bands, there is usually a music director who is the bridge between the worship leader and the musicians. He or she will call out cues through a talkback mic for the more spontaneous moments. They will know exactly how the arrangement should go so they can answer any questions the band members have or identify mistakes. In most small churches, the worship leader must also function as the music director. Understanding the anatomy of a song arrangement and communicating that to your team is essential for leading them musically.
#3 - The Administrative Pillar
No one goes into worship ministry because they love organizing chord charts, audio files, and managing volunteers. But without administrative systems in place, your worship ministry will quickly fall apart. The good news is that staying organized is not rocket science. Any worship leader can find a system that works for them.
Planning Center Online is the best software to manage your worship team. With it, you can build worship plans, schedule volunteers, host your entire song library. If you are not using Planning Center (or comparable software), your ministry is in the dark ages and a lot of the administrative headaches you face as a worship leader could be solved within a few minutes of signing up. I’m not being paid to promote Planning Center. I’ve been using the service for ten years, and it has never ceased to impress me and make my life easier.
#4 - The Leadership Pillar
There’s a reason why we call this position worship “leader.” First, you must learn to lead yourself. Have you developed habits and routines to make you godly, healthy, competent, and overall a person other people want to follow? Next, you need to lead your band, tech team, and any other volunteers for whom you are responsible. Remember, just because you have the title “worship leader” does not mean your team automatically wants to follow you. Develop a relationship with them to earn their trust, then focus on making changes and increasing excellence. Create avenues and systems to develop other leaders in your ministry.
The most obvious leadership aspect of worship ministry happens on Sunday morning. Your congregation needs you to lead them through worship. The same principles apply to them. Get to know them. Don’t be afraid to share a little bit about yourself during a service. Bonus points if you can directly tie it into a song or prayer. Pay attention to your stage presence. Smile and make eye contact with your congregation! If you want your church to be expressive in worship, it starts with you.
#5 - The Technology Pillar
Worship leaders in the 21st century cannot ignore the latest advancements in technology. There’s an unfortunate assumption that adopting technology in worship is “selling out” or “idolatrous.” Anything can be idolatrous, even the stubborn opinion that worship gatherings should be anti-technology.
I would propose that taking the raw materials (light and sound), God has given us and making something better out of them to give Him praise and glory is without a doubt biblical. Churches have been doing this for centuries with elaborate architecture, stained-glass, art, and organs. Churches are doing this today with PA systems, lighting, video, and (God-forbid) haze.
Worship leaders, especially those in smaller churches who also oversee production ministry, must develop an understanding of how to use tools like sound consoles, lighting controllers, digital audio workstations, and Presentation Software. With the proper training, any worship leader, including the self-proclaimed “non-techy” ones can master these tools.
I hope these pillars provide a clear roadmap for your continued growth as a worship leader. Ask yourself, which pillar is the strongest for you? A lot of us start off with a strong sense of musicianship. We can play a few guitar chords and sing decently well, so we jump right into worship ministry. There’s nothing wrong with that.
The problem is when you fail to pursue growth in other areas. The weakest pillars are most commonly the pastoral and leadership ones. My weaknesses in these areas have caused the most pain and frustration in my ministry. But when I finally decided to pursue growth, no matter how uncomfortable it would be, God did some amazing things in my life and ministry.
If you’re ready to pursue growth as a worship leader, check out Worship Leader School. It’s an online school where you’ll find all the essential training, advice, and support you need to plan and lead worship.
Let me know in the comments which pillar is the strongest, and which one is the weakest in your worship ministry!