Worship Leaders

Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA
Peter Haynes, pastor

Some basic Guidelines


Why do we worship? 

        Listen to these responses to that question from persons who attended a worship leader training session:    "to refuel/recharge" ... "because Jesus told us to" ... "to praise and give thanks" ... "to respond to God's goodness" ... "to support and pray for each other" ... "to be cleansed" ... "to learn" ... "to set an example for our children" ... "to witness to our neighbors" ... "to express reverence for God" ... "to give" ... "to commit" ... "We were created by God and we worship" ... "to be in awe and wonder of a mighty God" ... "to touch holiness" ...   Okay, now - why do you worship?

        So, you've been called to be a leader of worship in this congregation. Please take the time to read through these guidelines. No doubt there are some things not said here that you wonder about. If so, make sure you ask about them. Behind it all, however, keep in mind the above question. Now for the guidelines.

1. Come prepared to lead. Read and ponder the scriptures & prayers beforehand.

        Allow the Word to touch you before it touches others. Read the scripture(s) first to encounter God, not to get the pronunciation right (that comes later). Often, reading each text through several times in different translations (if you have some) helps. Sometimes doing so out loud is invaluable. Remember, the Bible was first a spoken word. Speaking and Hearing are important, especially to you who have been called to lead worship.

        Feel free to make use of Bible dictionaries, handbooks, or commentaries if you have access to them. However, let the scriptures speak to you in their own way first. Keep in mind that these secondary helps donít have all the answers. Our tradition as Brethren has emphasized that the community of believers gathered around the scripture is the most important commentary. Explore the possibility of reading the text with another person - a Christian friend, a spouse. At the least, listen for how others might hear the Word. This may influence how you speak it later in worship.

        Somewhere along the line of preparation, start reading/listening with an eye/ear toward how you will read it in worship. Pay attention to the details. There are often clues in the text to how it can be read. For instance, consider John 11:43. "When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ĎLazarus, come out!í" To read this flatly or in a whisper will not do. With a shout Jesus raised the dead. Read it that way! If we look and listen closely, the text tells us how it is to be read. Donít leave your imagination at the door.

        If you are given prayers and other materials, look through them ahead of time. Know that you are free to adapt or change anything I (Pastor Pete) send you, except for responsive or unison materials read also by the congregation. Let me know if you would like to come up with your own. Actually, you lead me in worship better when I have not written your words. One of the struggles of being a leader is that we can fail to encounter the Lord in worship because the words belong to us. Somehow they need to be placed into Godís hands. Thatís why we prepare beforehand - not to have every word nailed down, but to be familiar enough with them that the Holy Spirit may turn us in different directions. Pray.

Coming up with your own

         Do you want to come up with your own worship materials? Great! One option, of course, is to operate in the moment and allow the Spirit to lead you in what to say. Some are gifted in that way, and/or have done it enough for nervousness not to block their ability. If you chose to go this route, do think and pray ahead of time about it. You'd be surprised how much preparation that operating "in the moment" really requires. Others work best by writing down the words (all or partial) they intend to use. Along the way, they may borrow and/or adapt prayers they find elsewhere.

         There is a shelf in our church library specially designated for worship leaders. On it you will find books such as Writing Your Own Worship Materials, by G. Temp Sparkman, which can answer some of the "how to" questions on this option. For those seeking to borrow or adapt, other resources on this shelf include We Gather Together: worship resources for the Church of the Brethren," an out-of-print notebook of which we have 2 copies, and another notebook full of periodic resources that were for many years (but are no longer) distributed by our denomination, entitled Living Waters. There are also books such as Bread for the Journey and Flames of the Spirit, ed. by Ruth C. Duck (see also her Touch Holiness, or Finding Words for Worship: A Guide for Leaders).

         Over time I have placed many of the prayers and other items I have written online. See Opening Prayers, Offering Resources (& Scriptural Offertory Sentences), or Prayers for Special Occasions. Since 2000, weekly worship services have been placed online which each include resources (indexed by date for 20012002, 2003, 2004, 2005). Special Services online include: Infant Dedication, Deacon Dedication, Godspeed, Prayer Chain Dedication, among others. See also Benedictions from the Bible and from various sources. Beyond my own web-pages, search the internet for worship resources available online. There are some marvelous Australian lectionary based resources - such as Liturgies Online, Stepping Stones, or Laughing Bird Liturgical Resources.

So, feel free to come up with your own!

2. Which translation?

        There are plenty of them out there today! From which one should you read up front in church? Unless told otherwise, you may use any that speaks to you. If it speaks to you, your voice will speak it better so others might hear. There is something to be said for using the RSV translation found in the pew Bibles. This allows others to read along, especially if you tell them the reference (and even the page #), allowing them time to find it. If you do this, wait until you hear the page "shuffling" to end before beginning to read.

        There is also something to be said for people "hearing" rather than "reading" the scripture. Recall that the word "obedience," in both English and Hebrew is connected to "hearing" (think of "audience"). Sometimes, as Eugene Peterson says, the "printerís ink" can become "embalming fluid" if the Word is only flat on a page. Instead, as Hebrews 4:12 says, "the word of God is living and active..." Speaking of Peterson, his new translation, The Message, is very good, though it is a paraphrase - not an exact word-for-word translation, better for devotional reading and interpretation than for study.

        Generally speaking, I use the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) for my study, as well as in the pulpit. In addition, I also use the New International Version (NIV) and the Contemporary English Version (CEV), along with The Message, among others. You are not limited to these. Just find one that speaks to you. Donít be intimidated by the multitude of versions available. Rather, be awed by the God behind them. See "Online Translations of the Bible."

3. What to wear?

        Rather than set a dress code, perhaps it's better to say that what we wear should not draw attention to ourselves. Of course, we have no control over what other people think, what distracts them from what God is about in our worship. A parishioner in a previous church was highly offended when I wore anything but a white shirt in the pulpit. For this person, "white" spoke of purity, something important to her development as a Christian. To this day, I have to think twice before wearing another color shirt. The older generation was taught that it matters what you wear, especially to church, that we should seek to please God in our apparel. This seems strange to younger generations, but perhaps it's something we need to reclaim in a new way.

        When getting ready on Sunday morning, ask yourself what would please God the most in what you wear. Furthermore, ponder if your clothing is such that it turns people's eyes toward you rather than God. Yes, we believe that what is on the inside is most important, that our apparel is but a "surface" concern. Even so, as our youth know very well, what we wear is a reflection of what we desire to be. Is it our goal to be what God wants us to be, on the inside as well as on the outside? "Tis a gift to be simple," the old song goes, "tis a gift to be free, tis a gift to come down where we ought to be..."  Dress appropriately, brothers and sisters.

4. Try to arrive as early as you can.

        The truth is, there is never enough time or energy to adequately prepare. Thatís where Godís grace and the wind of the Holy Spirit come in. We are not coming up with something "perfect." We are in the process of being perfected, sanctified (a verb, not a noun), made holy. That doesnít mean we do shoddy work and expect God to pull the slack. Itís just that our own efforts are not what make this body called the church function. Everything doesnít depend upon us. As leaders, we are only the means God uses to convey truth in this place at this time. The emphasis is upon God.

        Not enough time... Some of us may be in a mad dash to get self or family to church on Sunday. Try to arrive as early as you can. Find a space to STOP, to cease the hurry, and just be - even if only for a moment. "Be still and know that I am God," Elijah was told. My office is open to you for this purpose. You donít have to wait for me to get there. Go right on in, sit, and rest. Pull your thoughts together (or try not to think for a moment). Pray. Look over what you are to do. Somewhere around 9:40 a.m. Iíll be looking for you. If youíd like, we can pray together. Feel free to pray aloud with me, or just let me pray.

        After that, you can stay in my office a bit longer, head to a spot in the pews, or go up front and sit on the bench behind the piano. You know your need better than I. Perhaps the "Morning Praise" time before worship helps center your mind and heart. Maybe the continued quiet of my office is best. Where you sit until the Prelude is not important. Singing with others in the pews emphasizes that leadership comes from among the people. Starting out up front puts you where you need to be. It doesnít matter, just so long as you are in place once the Prelude ends.

5. Be "in place" at the right moment.

        Try to move to the lectern so that you are in place when it is your time to speak. For instance, donít wait until a hymn is finished to start moving. Be there, ready to go, when it ends. Now, there is something to be said for silence in worship. However, it should be intentional. What spiritual benefit is there from watching you walk from pew to lectern, and shuffle your papers? Godís moments need to be treasured, not wasted. Be ready to go!

6. Use the microphone.

        Our sound system is a tool - no more, no less. It is there so all might hear. Donít be afraid of it. Thatís easier said than done for some, I know. The more you lead, the easier it becomes. Make sure the microphone is pointed at your mouth, not your forehead or chest. Hint: use hymn time to get it aimed right, otherwise the screech of the gooseneck will draw attention to you and away from God. Donít swallow the microphone, but donít be too far away from it. Six inches from your mouth is a good distance. Talk into it. Donít speak into your Bible or notes.

7. Speak loud and clear.

        Having a microphone doesnít mean we donít have to speak up. People need to hear. Volume is only one of the controls we have for communication. Try to enunciate as clearly as you can. Speak each word so as to be understood. Be expressive. This may sound silly, but move your lips and open your mouth. Not only does that help you form the words with more clarity, but it also aids those who read your lips (there are more who do this than you might think). Speed is another control. Donít speak too fast or too slow. Finding the balance is an art. If it helps, focus upon one or two persons you know have a hard time hearing and speak to them, so that they might hear. If this all sounds too complicated, donít worry - it comes with time.

8. Pronunciation

        When it comes to reading from the Bible, many worry about getting the words right, especially all those strange names! I am not a stickler for proper pronunciation, mainly because language itself is very fluid. It changes with time. How we speak English today, for instance, is different from how it was spoken in colonial days. The same is true with the Bible. Remember that it was written over the course of many centuries. Furthermore, three languages were involved: Hebrew and some Aramaic in what we call the Old Testament, and everyday Greek in the New. Strictly speaking, Biblical Hebrew is made up of consonants to which vowels were later added. We donít know for sure the original vowels, just what Rabbis put in after the fact.

        All those (to us) troublesome-to-pronounce words may not have been originally spoken as someone a century ago determined they did. Therefore, donít get too worried about the absolute correctness of each word. Speak to be understood. If the word is pronounced rightly but folks havenít a clue what is being said, what good is it?

        Now, donít hear me saying pronunciation doesnít matter. Just donít live in fear over it. "The fear of the LORD (not of the text; furthermore - read in "awe" rather than fright) is the beginning of wisdom." (Proverbs 9:10a, Psalm 111:10a) Use your resources, like a Bible dictionary or handbook, to find out how they say you should pronounce a particular word that troubles you. Or, check out this link to an online pronunciation of Bible words website. If still in doubt, ask somebody such as myself. If I donít know, I can look it up.

9. Keep in mind.

        Remember a couple other things: First, you are not the only worship leader. The Holy Spirit empowers and directs us in what we have been called to do. It's not just "you" up front. God is present and active. Furthermore, there are other leaders in the pews, persons who "lead by following" your guidance, supporting you with their focused and appreciative attention. Some also take the lead in congregational reading by helping set the pace. You will discover who these persons are the more you lead worship.

        Second, those gathered on a given Sunday may include persons who have little idea of what we are doing in worship and why. She may be a Christian from a different tradition who has not worshipped in quite the same way as we do. Or he might be someone who has never been to church before, and is totally unfamiliar with what we so often take for granted. Don't assume "everybody knows what is happening." Place yourself into the shoes of a newcomer. Give guidance with that in mind.

10. After your part is over

        Sometimes the sermon is toward the end of the service, and your last responsibility is reading the scripture just before it. If so, you are free to either stay seated in the pew behind the piano, or go and sit with the rest of the congregation. When doing the latter, please go quietly. I, for one, would rather sit facing the speaker if I had my choice. What you do is up to you, however. The worship committee has decided that, instead of the preacher and the worship leader recessing down the center aisle after the benediction, it should just be the preacher (unless, of course, it is a guest preacher - in this case, you may be appreciated as a guide, leading her/him to the back, introducing those who come to greet him/her). The order of worship is not always the same. You may have responsibilities after the message, especially if it comes earlier in the service. What was said about the ending, though, remains the same. Your role as worship leader is finished once you've spoken your last word.

11. Remember to worship

        It is easy to get so caught up in all the details that, in the process, we who lead worship forget about worshiping God ourselves. As the saying goes, the devil is in the details. Above everything else, strive to keep focused upon the God of your salvation, to listen to the voice of the One who speaks to us. Yes, the Lord uses your mouth and mine, but it is his voice to which we harken, not our own. "...so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it." (Isaiah 55:11) Yes! Amen!

©2000, Peter L. Haynes

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