I was listening to some music from a popular ministry the other day, and the idea for this article came to me. After the completion of one of the songs, the worship leader began what I affectionately term “praise venting.” “Thank you Jesus! Praise you Jesus! Lord, you are wonderful! Majestic!” Forgive me if I don’t have the quotes down correctly, but you get the idea. “Praise venting” has always bothered me. When I hear it, I find myself thinking, I’m glad he’s enraptured. What’s my problem? Would I ever have the guts to do that publicly? Why does that always sound fake? What am I supposed to do while he’s doing that? While pondering praise venting, I have been reading several books on worship that have stirred my heart on the issue of congregational worship. Thus, I’d like to scratch out my musings (or ventings) in this plea to worship leaders.
While I am a pastor, I would like to speak as just an average church member to worship leaders. I have been in church for 33 years, and I have sat under the leadership of more than 10 worship leaders in my home church. Besides that, I have visited more than 100 different churches of all denominations and worship styles. If I calculated the total number of songs I have sung under the leadership of different men (and women) in evangelicalism, the total would be more than 20,000. Suffice it to say, I have experience. Not in leading worship, but in being led.
My presupposition is that I believe it is your job to lead the congregation in worship of Almighty God. (This responsibility does not diminish the role of the senior pastor. He is a worship leader as well.) Colossians 3:16 tells the congregation to sing “with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” In Acts 16:25, Paul and Silas, bound in chains, were God-directed in their worship as they “sang praises unto God.” You are facilitator for that noble time when the people of God gather corporately to bear witness to their love for God.
Let me also admit my weakness. I am a weak worshiper. I am easily distracted. To stay focused on God during the musical part of the worship service is mental sweat for me. I want to share with you some things that would help me as you attempt to fulfill your responsibility. You can greatly help me and many who sit in churches each Sunday.
My overarching goal is to stay attentive to the subject at hand: God. R. Kent Hughes says,
There is an intrinsic downward gravity in human-centered worship … God- centered worship begins with a focus on the awesome revelation of God, the God of Holy Scripture who is the omnipotent Creator who spoke everything into existence; who is likewise omnipresent, being about everything, below everything, in everything, but not contained; who is omniscient, even numbering the very hairs of his children and knowing their thoughts before they become words; who is transcendent and omni-holy, and who dwells in the unapproachable light of his own glory.” 
This is the God who is worthy of our worship. The following pleas will help us stay focused on the glory of our wonderful Lord.
Prepare the Service. I don’t know where it happened, but somewhere along the line, some fundamentalists became sloppy with their liturgy. Some of you may be laughing as you read this because you wonder if any Baptist fundamentalists have liturgies. A liturgy is nothing more than a prescribed form for public religious worship.  All churches have liturgies: some are careless, some are beautiful. Spontaneity and lack of preparation in preaching have become scorned by fundamentalists, and rightly so. But we seem to tolerate the same carelessness in congregational singing. Perhaps it is because we are “people of the book.” We believe the preaching is the center of the service and thus everything else takes a secondary role. I believe that to be unwise. After Luther split from the Catholic Church, he put great effort into reconstructing a meaningful worship pattern for Protestant churches. He labored to produce a translation of the Scriptures, a catechism, and a hymnal. Music wasn’t a secondary concern. It was vital breath to believers gasping to express God’s truth with their hearts. To relegate any form of worship of the true God to a position of less importance than another is a dangerous misstep.
Not long after a church service begins, it becomes increasingly clear how much time the worship leader put into planning the service. All worship leaders plan their services; however, the time one spends in preparation has a huge bearing on the quality of the service. Some may object to the formality of a “liturgy.” Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York, has some good thoughts.
In a thoroughly non-liturgical service or in a highly liturgical service there is less need for the leaders to prepare. (They either make some off-the-cuff remarks, or they simply read elaborate prayers and formulas.) In our approach to corporate worship, the leaders not only have much material to prepare, but they also have a great deal of spiritual preparation to do. Their attitude of heart and demeanor is as important as what they say. The remarks and spirit of the leader are therefore extremely important. 
So prepare the service and prepare your heart.
Avoid Hard Songs. I was recently in a service where we sang “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds.” I felt like I was on a musical yo-yo. I’m sure musical purists will take me to task on this, but hear me out. Some songs are just difficult to sing. This goes for some hymns and some modern choruses. When I think more about the notes than about the lyrics, that focus leads my thoughts away from God. I start thinking about whether anybody else can hear me as I wonder up, down, and around the note, attempting to hit it. This problem applies not only to music but also to lyrics. Keller says, “Language should not be too archaic. It is dangerous to seek transcendence and dignity by using antiquated language, which can be stuffy, preachy, grandiloquent, pedantic, and over-stated rather than simple, immediate, clear, vivid, and direct.”  He goes on to warn against colloquial language such as describing God as “exciting” or “incredible.” Lastly, he warns against evangelical subculture terminology such as “Let us come unto the Lord” or “We pray for a hedge of protection around him, Lord.” He says, “Subcultural talk is at best highly exclusionary and at worst very phony, a ruse to hide a lack of actual heart engagement.” Songs that are easy to sing will help all of us keep our focus where it needs to be.
Bring Us to the Text. “Victory in Jesus,” the fundamentalist favorite, is often used to bring “life” to a song service. You’ve heard it before (probably from an evangelist). “Let’s have something fast and loud.” While the song won’t win any awards for theological depth, it touches on the atonement, redemption, and God’s seeking of the lost sinner. Yet when is the last time you heard someone highlight these truths before the song was sung? When the song becomes a means to an end — think “liveliness” — we have aborted the true goal of congregational singing. I’m definitely spoiled at my church. Brian McCrorie leads worship at our church, and he brings two indispensable assets to the ministry: musical training coupled with a degree in theology. The liturgy that Brian crafts is refreshing, theologically rich, and inspiring. Brian develops a service centered on a theme that is woven with biblical texts. He narrates the service and does so in a way that complements the lofty themes of Scripture. R. Kent Hughes puts it this way: “Music has validity in Christian worship only as it participates in, and contributes to, a service of the Word from beginning to end. That is why music must remain under constant scrutiny, and the ministry of music must be constantly reforming so as to be Word-centered.” 
Make Us Think on the Lyrics. Good worship leaders make the lyrics supreme with the music simply being a platter on which to serve the feast. When overemphasis is placed on the music, that overemphasis detracts from the primary message. During instrumental music specials in our church, we project the lyrics on the screen for this very reason. It takes the focus off the performance and places it on the message of the song. Wesley said, “Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself or any other creature. In order to do this, attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually.”  Good lyrics are essential to good singing, and the best lyrics are pure Scripture. Perhaps the Psalter needs to be revived in fundamental churches.
Avoid Cheap Tricks. Sometimes it seems to me that worship leaders find God boring. Because He’s the same throughout the ages, He’s become commonplace to the worshiper. God has been figured out. The awe and wonder have died. Worship leaders portray this attitude when they institute cheap tricks to keep the congregation “engaged.” This may seem odd to you, but the spiritual calisthenics of constant standing up and sitting down gets old. Perhaps it’s because I rarely understand why on some songs I stand and yet during others I sit. Another favorite is when the worship leader asks the ladies sing the second verse. It does not make sense to me. I find myself thinking, I bet you the men are going to have to sing the last, but those ladies sure sound nice. If you are going to have different people sing different parts, explain the intention and make the reason loftier than variety. My thoughts easily drift off God. If you are directing our hearts to the God who holds the universe in place, we should need no false stimulants. These tactics are a simple admission of how truly trite many feel God really is.
Don’t Attract Attention to Yourself. Mark Dever shared the following story:
I was once in a service where the music leader started crying uncontrollably on the platform after leading a song. Was this a healthy model of brokenness? Perhaps, and I have no doubt that he intended it as such. The purity of his heart is not at issue. It is the wisdom of his public demeanor that I would question. He was teaching people by example that privatized emotional experience, even though released in front of the whole congregation, is the ultimate expression of (corporate) worship. That simply isn’t true. 
I personally feel that fundamentalists with conservative worship can be just as performance-centered on Sunday mornings as Willow Creek or Saddleback. One can emphasize excellence to a fault, and the other can emphasize effectiveness to the same fault. Without careful attention, you can train the congregation to focus on the performance or on the performer rather than on God.
Sometimes worship leaders can unintentionally draw attention to themselves. Many leaders who are of the hand-waving style of leading have kooky hand flips or stilted arm movements. I sometimes feel like I’m watching a seizure, not song-leading. Mark Dever proposes a healthy solution.
Many of us have been in churches where the music leader uses flamboyant hand motions, body language, or even facial expression. Vocalists who are intentionally self-effacing serve the congregation well by taking themselves out of the spotlight so that our attention is not directed toward them … Our leading vocalists simply stand to the side and sing into a moderately amplified microphone so that there is a strong lead for the congregation to follow. 
Don’t be sensitive. We really are your biggest cheerleaders. We want you to do well.
Minimize Distractions. It seems to be all the rage to amplify the instrumentation beyond need. I went to Andy Stanley’s church in Atlanta and couldn’t talk to the person next to me in any intelligible way. When I went to Tri-City Baptist Church in Kansas City, the organ cranked out enough decibels to make jet engines jealous. Musical instruments can be a great distraction. Dever continues to instruct:
We are persuaded, though, that sparse, lightly amplified instrumentation and unobtrusive leaders are best for the weekly corporate worship gathering. The main reason is the quieter instrumentation allows the congregation to hear themselves singing, giving the lyrics center stage and encouraging the congregation to sing all the louder. 
We should never try to minimize distractions to a fault, however. In order to minimize distractions, our churches have made some terrible compromises. D.A. Carson says,
We have become so performance-oriented that it is hard to see how compromised we are. Consider one small example. In many of our churches, prayers in morning services now function, in large measure, as the time to change the set in the sanctuary. The people of the congregation bow their heads and close their eyes, and when they look up a minute later, why, the singers are in place, or the drama group is ready to perform. It is all so smooth. It is also profane…Has the smoothness of the performance become more important than the fear of the Lord?…Have professional competence and smooth showmanship become more valuable than sober reckoning over what it means to focus on Christ crucified? 
Recognize the Body. Ephesians 5:19 says, “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” Good hymnody edifies the Church. The congregation is the greatest instrument of praise in the local assembly. Dever highlights this idea when he says,
One of the most important functions of congregational singing is that it highlights the corporate nature of the church and the mutual ministry that builds us up in unity. One reason we come together on Sunday is to remind ourselves that we are not alone in our confession of Jesus Christ and our conviction of spiritual truths we hold so dearly. 
Congregational singing is perhaps the most vivid picture of the life of the Church during a regular service. Even if you are in a local church where creeds and Scripture are recited, these verbal expressions rarely give the sense of the heart of a congregation. However, when the congregation sings, hearts open, and you can really sense the degree to which the congregation is truly serious about the message it heralds.
Walk with God. Believe it or not, the depth of your walk with God is on display every week. Worship leaders are leading the local body in a sacred exercise, and you can’t fake it very well. Don’t just prepare the liturgy. Prepare your heart. Don’t just worry about the performance. Worry about having a broken and a contrite heart before the Lord. A warm heart towards God will spill over into your communication with the congregation. R. Kent Hughes instructs us,
After selection comes the need for spiritual preparation. Musicians must see themselves as fellow laborers in the Word and must lead with understanding and an engaged heart. Those who minister in worship services must be healthy Christians who have confessed their sins and by God’s grace are living their lives consistently with the music they lead. The sobering fact is that over time the congregation tends to become like those who lead. 
In conclusion, I am writing to speak to worship leaders. Please take your task seriously. We are anxiously anticipating each week what you have prepared as you raise our affections to their rightful destination. Perhaps one of the great foretastes of heaven itself is the assembly of the redeemed proclaiming the praises of God with full vocal expression. Oh, and my wife adds, “Please smile.”
1. D.A. Carson, Worship by the Book (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), p. 150.
3. This quote is from Tim Keller in his chapter titled “Reformed Worship in the Global City,” D.A. Carson, Worship by the Book (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), p. 223.
4. Ibid., pp. 224-25.
5. This quote is from R. Kent Hughes, D.A. Carson, Worship by the Book (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), p. 166.
6. John Wesley, Select Hymns with Tunes Annext: Designed Chiefly for the Use of the People Called Methodists (Bristol: William Pine, 1761, ed. 1770).
7. Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, The Deliberate Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005), p. 118.
8. Ibid., p. 122
10. D.A. Carson, The Cross and Christian Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2004), pp. 38-39.
11. Dever and Alexander, p. 118.
12. This quote is from R. Kent Hughes, D.A. Carson, Worship by the Book (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), p. 171.