A brother recently asked me about my preparation to lead music for the Midwest Annual Reformation Conference. I shared with him my songsheet and how it was presented. He asked me about guidelines and suggestions for musical worship, and that got me thinking. As far as guidelines and suggestions I would recommend when it comes to leading worship in song, here are several—in no particular order—which come to mind:
Always strive to grow your knowledge of Scripture.
To properly understand the meaning behind the lyrics of Christian songs, one needs to know Scripture. A knowledge of Scripture is necessary to rightly evaluate the suitability of individual songs for worship. A knowledge of Scripture will also help in trying to match songs with sermon texts and themes.
Become a student of song/hymn lyrics.
Seek to understand what message the writer was trying to communicate. You can better communicate a song when you understand what it means. Yes, brothers and sisters, use a dictionary when necessary!
Understand the instructive importance of a church’s music.
See the sung music of the church as an extension of the teaching ministry of the church. As we sing Christian songs, we also sing theology. Strive to sing good theology and biblical truth.
Pray, learning dependence upon the Holy Spirit.
On this matter, John Piper has a helpful acronym he uses: APTAT (A: ADMIT that without Christ you can do nothing; P: PRAY for God’s help; T: TRUST in a promise suited to your need; A: ACT with humble confidence in God’s help; and T: THANK him for the good that comes). A fuller explanation can be found here. Bottom line: We need the Lord’s help. Prayer is an expression of dependence upon God the Holy Spirit.
Become familiar with the human singing voice.
Some music is not in a good key for congregational singing (especially contemporary songs which are transcribed from recordings by a performing artist). That is, the key may work for the artist (who may have a higher than average male voice or lower than average female voice), but the average person in our congregations cannot adequately sing the song in the same key as the artist. It helps to know something about the human singing voice. Know the ranges of sopranos, altos, tenors, baritones, and basses, and change the keys of songs from what is written to what will be most comfortable for the majority of the congregation. I try to keep melody lines somewhere between A4-E5 because to sing lower than A4 will be difficult for sopranos and tenors; to sing higher than E5 will be difficult for altos and basses.
Work to be the best musician you can be.
If you are a singer, strive to sing well. Take voice lessons, if necessary. Learn how to breath and produce sound properly, how to enunciate clearly, how to sing musically. Set a good example vocally for the congregation. Teach your vocal team or choir how to do the same. If you are an instrumentalist, strive to play well. Become good at your instrument. Take lessons, if necessary. Learn to play in multiple keys. Music reading is essential. Learn how to proficiently read a piano/vocal score, learn how to read a lead sheet, learn chords.
When leading singing, try to stay out of the way.
Obviously, if you’re on the mic, you’re in the spotlight. But try to keep the focus on what and who you’re singing about—i.e., God. Obviously, because of the nature of song leading, your skills will be on display to some degree, but try not to “show off.” There’s a fine balance here, and context is important. A style of leading that may be understated in one context will be overstated in another context. There’s also a difference in style between formal/liturgical and informal/non-liturgical, or between contemporary, traditional, or blended. So, whatever the context, “be yourself,” but consciously avoid “stealing the show.” Keep God central in worship.
Finally, don’t let praise and compliments go to your head.
Stay humble. It is a privilege to lead God’s people in song and serve musically. Don’t take the privilege for granted. Give all glory to God.