Leading Worship in a Smaller Church

Worship leaders at small churches can learn five principles from the life of a famous football coach to help them to better lead worship.

If most of us had our “druthers,” and we could choose between leading worship or being part of a worship team in a smaller church (75 to 100 members), or a larger church (500 to 600 or more), we would choose the larger. C’mon now, be honest! Fact is, though, many of the worship leaders and teams ministering today are serving in smaller churches.

Since 1975, I have helped build worship teams in five churches, mostly in southern California. Two of the churches grew quickly, having many musicians and creative people to work with. The other three grew quickly but had few musicians. All this is to say, I know how difficult it is to lead the people when you don’t have the luxury and the pleasure of having a good solid rhythm section, an inspiring improvisational keyboard player, a tasteful guitar player, and a woodwind or string player.

If you are currently in a smaller church, there are some basic concepts to keep in mind that will help you to accomplish your goal as a worship leader (or team). Lest I be misunderstood, I am presupposing that you are squared away on all the heart issues concerning worship: what it is, why we do it, and so on.

At a memorial service for the late NFL Coach George Allen, I was deeply moved and motivated by the impact that his life had on the lives of many great athletes. In twelve seasons of coaching pro teams, Coach Allen never had a losing season. But what was most impressive was that he accomplished that against great odds. His motto was “The Future Is Now,” which to him meant that his focus was on winning now. That meant winning with players that everyone else thought were “over the hill,” too old, and worn out, rather than building a team with a goal of winning in three to five years, the common practice for a coach starting with a new team. Coach Allen, a Christian, managed to accomplish his goals through the use of five essential principles. They are applicable to us and our goals for worship leading.

Leadership. The first principle is leadership. This may seem obvious, but sometimes this essential ingredient of worship leading is not there. The worship leader needs to lead. In the early days of our church, the Vineyard, the Lord led us in a direction away from the model of the “song leader” who functioned in many churches as a choir leader with the congregation as the choir. He or she called out the next number in the hymnal and directed it.

The Lord began showing us another way, which has become the general standard in Vineyard churches. We saw Vineyard worship leaders (and songwriters) Carl Tuttle and Eddie Espinosa stand up, start playing, worship the Lord, and not give a word of direction between songs. We learned to focus our attention on the Lord, and in our worship we learned that we could stand up, sit down, kneel, raise our hands, even sit on our hands as long as we were not drawing attention to ourselves.

Carl and Eddie were leading even though they did not say much. But in newer or younger churches where people are coming from a different style or from no church at all, they may not understand what’s happening. It would then be important that some explanation be given as to what you are about to do and why.

Moreover, we have begun to experiment with different styles of worship; namely, the approaches of Graham Kendrick from England and Kevin Prosch from Kansas City, both of whom address the congregation from time to time during worship—an effort to bring praise, honor, and adoration to the King. Although you should avoid being a “cheerleader,” don’t be afraid to lead the people!

Passion. The second principle that characterized Coach Allen and his leadership style was passion. Passion refers to strong feeling or emotion. Coach Allen was passionate about his commitment to his players and his goal to make them winners.

Too often worship leading becomes routine, and it is difficult to maintain our passion for that commitment. When we first begin, it can be quite exhilarating, but after we have conquered the stage fright and have become accustomed to seeing and being seen up front, the exhilaration fades and the routine takes over. This can be especially true in smaller settings.

This leads to sloppiness and poor leadership and can deeply affect the worship of the people. They may do it, but they will do it in spite of you. Some people are naturally more passionate than others, but it is a quality that can be nurtured. It is the quality I most appreciated in songwriter and musician Keith Green. It is a quality that the apostle Paul encouraged in the church at Rome—“Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord” (Rom. 12:11). The Lord condemned the Laodiceans for lacking in it (Rev. 3:16), and it is the quality that characterized the life and faith of Caleb, who followed the Lord wholeheartedly (Num. 14:24). Don’t draw back from expressing your love for Christ and your worship of him with passion, and your people will have the same passion for worship.

Enthusiasm. Third, Coach Allen was enthusiastic about his work. Enthusiasm is tricky. In my teaching on worship, and in modeling it over the years, I have been strictly against a “performance mode” for leaders and musicians. We have stressed, and I believe rightly so, that the preeminent requirement for a worship leader (or team) is humility, with a total focus on directing everyone’s attention and heart toward the Lord.

It is sometimes difficult for professional musicians to become worship leaders because they have spent years developing performance skills and entertainment skills. As soon as they are in front of a group, these skills automatically take over. This is not necessarily bad, but it does not necessarily help people worship, either. They may enjoy themselves, and so forth, but are they worshiping?

On the other hand, because you are in front of the people to lead them, there is much to be said for warm smiles and enthusiasm in singing and playing. Sometimes less-experienced leaders and teams have hearts to worship, but they are painfully shy, and this makes everyone uncomfortable and insecure. Sometimes we may not feel enthusiastic, especially in an early morning service, but it is our calling and our responsibility to lead the people, even if the audience is small. So “doing enthusiasm,” like “doing good works,” is something to consider. You must decide if you want to be effective. “Doing enthusiasm” can be a choice, and it can be a godly work. Try it—you’ll like it. And so will your people.

Discipline. Fourth, Coach Allen was extremely disciplined. The card on his desk read, “Is what I’m doing—or about to do—getting me closer to my objective?” His objective was to win. Our objective is to worship and to lead others to worship the Lord. To reach our objectives, we must be disciplined. God highly values excellence. A passage of Scripture that has long been a favorite of mine is Exodus 35:30–35. It says that when it was time to build the tabernacle, God chose the finest master craftsmen and designers to do the work. He had “filled them with skill to do all kinds of work as craftsmen, designers, embroiderers in blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen, and weavers” (v. 35). He had in mind to build a gloriously beautiful tabernacle that would express his own beauty, character, and creativity. The sight of it would draw the hearts of the people to him. I believe he desires the same from our music. If you have only a guitar or a piano, discipline yourself to play skillfully and creatively arrange the songs that you choose to fit your instrument. At my church, the worship leader and I played guitar, piano, mandolin, and violin (switching off) for two years, until the Lord brought additional players. The worship leader worked very hard to program drums, bass, and strings into a sequencer. It had drawbacks, but it filled out the sound until live players came.

If you can’t afford a sequencer, you can arrange the songs so they will work for you. But it takes work, time, and discipline. Let us not be lazy or negligent in perfecting our skills. Let us not depend on the old standby, “Well, the Lord will bless it anyway.” No! Let us do it right. Let us honor him with our craft, or let us not do it at all.

Love. Finally, the principle that impelled Coach Allen to motivate others was love.

In his retirement years, after leaving the NFL, Allen took a job that raised people’s eyebrows. He agreed to coach at Long Beach State. It was unheard of for a coach of his stature and age (seventy-two) to go from the NFL to a college that was not even a football school and to coach a bunch of kids who were not quality players.

Little by little, using all of these principles—leadership, passion, enthusiasm, and discipline—he accomplished what he (and many of his friends and former players) considered to be his greatest success. For the first time in years, and to the disbelief of almost everyone, Long Beach State had a winning season. How did he do it?

He practiced those principles, but there was one other principle. It was said that during the game halftimes, the main thing he told them was, “We’ve got to love one another!” What? In a halftime pep talk? Yes! Brothers and sisters, it always comes down to this, doesn’t it? The bottom line is, we must love one another. We want to be successful and effective worship leaders (or teams), whether our church has 75 members or 600. We can if we take the time and care to practice these basic biblical leadership principles, and if we love one another.

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