Lead with skill

To lead Church music is an act of service and so it’s important that we do so with thought and skill.

I have to admit that I’m slightly confused about the role of a Worship Leader because it inevitably refers exclusively to music and I believe that worship is so much more. I’m also concerned that I cannot find any Biblical mandate for this role.

I grew up in a Church where there was no such thing as a Worship Leader and the quality of congregational singing was superb. Over the years, throughout my travels, more and more Churches I’ve visited have chosen to appoint a Worship Leader and, in general, the quality of the congregational singing is, well, not great! (I’m sure there are exceptions…)

When a Worship Leader and a band of musicians perform, in my experience, the quality of congregational song is significantly compromised. The musicians are frequently very good and the presentation often quite professional but, somewhere along the way, we’ve become consumers of Church music rather than active participants. I suspect the main reasons are that Church music has become performance-based, congregations are no longer taught to sing and there’s no real sense of ‘ownership’ of a core repertoire.

Another concern is that many Worship Leaders seem unable to resist the need to articulate their own opinions and impose their own ad hoc version of theology. This begs the question as to the role and remit of a Worship Leader.

Perhaps one exception to the idea of the need for a Worship Leader is the role of a precentor in Churches who observe exclusive Psalmody and unaccompanied singing. A competent precentor is a truly valuable resource. Their role is to start the singing, establish the melody and keep the congregation in tune and in time. Over the years, I’ve attended a number of  Free Churches and, in general, the skill of the precentors is consistently high. In one particular example, the precentor not only fulfilled the key tasks required but also demonstrated the tempo by hand signals. The effect was demonstrably impressive. The role of a precentor is very similar to that of a Choirmaster; to bring out the best in the congregation and not to draw attention to him or herself

Do we need someone to direct congregational song? Choir trained congregations who sing well and who’re familiar with their repertoire – even quite an extensive one – require surprisingly little guidance. However, for an assembly that’s relatively new to congregational singing, there’s a lot to be said for some kind of direction and that’s very hard to do from the piano or the guitar or from any other instrument. Believe me, I know – I’ve tried!

Whatever the skill-set and experience of your congregation, a well-trained and competent director / precentor really can bring out the best in them and the services of a confident leader are absolutely indispensable whenever you want to introduce new music. In general terms, their job is to introduce the music, perhaps with the appropriate Scripture references, and then to direct the assembly in song bringing them in on time and keeping them there. (Bringing them in on tune and keeping them there is a matter for the musicians!)

Leading with confidence

Here are a few thoughts about what would make an effective leader:

• Know your congregation
Like any good choirmaster, we need to be aware of the skill, abilities and musical preferences of our congregation. If most of our members are a little older or if they’re inexperienced singers, they probably won’t thank you for very modern pieces that may be quite irregular in form and, therefore, difficult to sing. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t try new things but rather that we try them with care and sensitivity.

• A certain degree of musical knowledge
Although it’s preferable that a leader would know music, it’s not absolutely necessary provided they work and practise with the musicians. Like any other act of service, leading congregational song requires certain skills and this necessarily takes time, effort and commitment.

• Fundamentals of choir leading
Given that they’re directing the congregation in much the same way as a Choirmaster directs a choir, a leader should know how to bring the congregation in on time, maintain tempo and direct simple dynamics such as crescendo, diminuendo and fermata. Basic choir directing skills are even more important if you intend to have the congregation sing without musical accompaniment.

• Basic singing training
A wonderful, choir-trained voice is absolutely not a pre-requisite for serving as a leader but it’s important for any leader to train with your singing group so as to be with familiar phrasing and expression for each individual song.

• Familiarity with the core repertoire
You can’t lead what you don’t know. This is especially true when introducing new music. The leader needs to know the song as well as the vocalists and musicians. Whenever the congregation is unsure of a new song, they will look to the leader for clear direction.

If we’re going to lead congregational song, it’s important that we do so with skill and confidence because this is an act of service, primarily to God and then to His congregation.