Worship is the strategy by which we interrupt our preoccupation with ourselves and attend to the presence of God. - Eugene Peterson
I’ve been leading worship since I was fourteen, so just over ten years now. There are probably a lot of older, wiser, more experienced people that could be writing this blog, in fact there probably a lot of other people who could write a book on the subject. So I’m not going to tell you that I’ve unlocked the secret to putting together the perfect worship set. This beautifully creative ministry is unique, and there are so many ways to go about doing it. Not to mention the fact that the way we do church can be vastly different depending on denomination, tradition, demographic, etc. So I’m just going to walk you through my process. Hopefully it’s helpful to you in some way.
Know The Message
As a worship leader, I try to minister in tandem with the teaching. I try to pay attention and listen for what God is trying to do in and through our time of gathering. Ministry can get redundant after a while, and we can forget to pray and ask for the Holy Spirit’s opinion on our song choice, but I find it important to do so. When I’m putting together a worship set, I consider what the preacher/teacher is going to be speaking about and what their main point is going to be. I meet with the speaker and ask questions about where they are going with the message, and I pay attention to reoccurring themes, main points, and we ask the question “What do we want the congregation to take out the doors with them?” At the front end of the set, I try to tease out certain themes from the message. For example, if I know that the speaker is going to emphasize a lot of language revolving the Kingdom of Heaven, I may want to include “Our Father” by Bethel Music. That’s a good one, and my wife sings it so powerfully. For the end of the service or the response, I try to choose a song(s) that really hit home the main take-away from the message. The response time is just that, a time for the congregation to respond to what has been revealed about God’s word and work in the world. That’s where we create space for the Holy Spirit to convict and move.
Know Your Congregation
Every congregation is unique and comes with a specific set of tastes, opinions, complaints, preferences, comfort levels, etc. Our job is to facilitate a space that makes it easier for the people to engage in worship. Now this does not mean that we are responsible for whether or not they engage with worship. At the end of the day, whether there’s a full orchestra with trained professionals or one tweenager with a kazoo, the only person responsible for my worship is me. No matter how smoothly we make each transition, no matter how perfectly we sing each note, each member of the body chooses whether or not they engage in worship. And let’s be honest, not everyone in your congregation is going to like what you do. We can’t please everyone, so take my advice, don’t break your back trying to make everyone happy.
That being said, we want to give God our best in everything we do. You know your congregation, you know what they are ready and up for and how they will best respond to what God is doing. If I introduce a new song (especially at my church with a large percentage of elderly folk) I will make sure that the rest of the set is pretty familiar. To the best of my ability, I try to create an environment that is without distraction. I take age demographic into consideration as well. If I have a group of 100 twenty-somethings, I can probably sing a lot of newer material and be progressive and daring in the artistic expression. If I have a group of baby-boomers and elderly, I will probably want to think about what will make it easier for them to worship. Oh, and word to the wise, if you are rearranging an old hymn to be more stylistically updated for elderly folks to sing, don’t mess with the melody. They will riot.
Know Your Team
My team has people all over the spectrum in terms of age. Our only drummer is fifteen, we have a violinist in her fifties, an electric guitarist in his twenties, and an 85 year-old saxophonist. I have to be aware of where everyone is in terms of skill and in terms of spiritual and musical maturity. Sometimes I have a musician who has been playing worship music his/her whole life, and I barely have to give them any direction, because they are musically skilled, and they have good instincts. Sometimes I have an inexperienced musician who is still learning the basics of playing music, and sometimes I have a musician who is the most experienced of anyone on the team but has a harder time understanding how to play with chord charts. I have to know the team. If my inexperienced drummer knows three beats, I probably don’t want to pick a song with complex syncopation and meter changes. If my violinist is classically trained, he/she may want me to have some notation written out for certain parts of the songs.
It’s also a good idea to take the people behind the instrument into consideration. Sometimes a person can come into that rehearsal having just gone through a break-up, lost a loved one, failed an exam, or have had to cover for their flaky friend the third week in a row. I try to check in and get a pulse on how everyone is feeling. I organize a time of prayer to invite God into what we are doing, to bring difficult requests to the Father, and to remind ourselves of why we are doing what we are doing. We are here to glorify our Creator and engage with His presence. I also have to be aware of myself for all of the same reasons I am aware of them. I have to observe how I may be coming off to people, checking my temper, and reminding myself of why I have been called to this kind of ministry.
Know Your Method
When I first started leading worship at around fourteen, I didn’t exactly have what I would call “a method.” I would pick a bunch a songs I thought were awesome, I would put a fast one at the beginning, and I would end with a slow one. Jesus blessed my ministry despite my thoughtlessness, but as I got older and learned from wiser people. I observed a few different methods of creating the set.
- The Trinity Method
This one is fun. I come from a charismatic background, so I grew up used to having forty-five minutes of worship up front. As I got older I realized that not everyone does things this way. In fact, most evangelical churches have three to four songs up front. My church has three. Sometimes I will create a set based on the Triune nature of YHWH, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It’s a cool way to take a group of people through the personhood of God. The first song will be dedicated to God our Father, the second will focus on Jesus, and the third song will focus on God the Holy Spirit.
- The A.C.T.S Method
The A.C.T.S Method is a way of praying, but I like to use it in worship too. It’s an acronym, and it stands for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. I like this method, because it creates a fairly balanced more Psalm-like way of looking at our time. I love that it begins with Adoration. Even if I mix up the order of these for elements a bit, I still like to start with Adoration. It’s good to simply acknowledge that the God we are worshiping is worthy of said worship. A song of adoration focuses on who God is and why that’s awesome. A song of confession focuses on our weakness as human beings and his strength in the midst. Think of this as a lament. We confess to God where we have fallen short and why we need him. Thanksgiving is…Thanksgiving…We thank God for the great things he has done for us. And supplication is asking God to provide and to move in and through us. This is where we ask God to be God in our lives and through our partnership with Him. Obviously these themes can bleed over into each other in the songs that we choose. I find it helpful just to make sure that all of these elements are covered in the set, even if half of it is covered at the front end and the other half is covered at the end of the service.
- The Story Method
This method is a little more abstract, and I find this one helpful when I’m doing services that are completely dedicated to a time of worship and music. Although in these services people aren’t expecting a message or a main point, it is a great tool in ministry to use our worship to help instruct our theology and shape the way we think about God. In these services, I will try to take the congregation through a journey. Perhaps there’s a story that God has impressed upon me for the people, and I begin to see links and themes appear in the song choices. I try to pray through those impressions and follow my instincts. I try to focus on a theme, so that when the people worshipping leave that space, they have been reminded of a certain facet of God’s character that has moved them closer to His heart.
Know Your God
If I’m being honest, I tend to get caught up in the what and how and forget about the why. Without the amazing God who deserves our worship, what I do is utterly meaningless. There are three things I have to say about this.
If my devotion to God in my prayer life and personal worship through obedience is faltering, it will affect my ministry. This does not mean that God requires I be perfect and without struggle to lead worship. It does mean that the closer I draw near to Him in obedience to His word and the guidance of his Spirit, the closer I will be to His heart when I lead others into awareness of Him.
At my church, my title is worship pastor. At the end of the day, a title is a title, but what we do as worship leaders is at its very core pastoral work. We are helping to paint a picture of who God is and ascribe worth to Him and his attributes. In my opinion, that is a big responsibility. I take it upon myself to be sure that I can get behind 100% of what I’m singing theologically. I never want to paint an inaccurate picture of who God is. It’s important to reference what we sing about in Scripture and Tradition.
While I’m leading worship, I find it easy to become distracted with all of the things that I need to keep track of. That’s normal. But one thing I always need to remind myself of is that in that moment we are acknowledging the presence of God. He is always there, and everything we do is can be worship, but there is something significant, something special about the way we gather and sing as one body. What happens during a time of worship is profound. Take it in, enjoy the moment, and embrace the presence of God.
INSTAGRAM & TWITTER: @LANEGP
Lane grew up in Southern California and graduated from Vanguard University in 2013, where he met his wife, Jayna. They are currently living in Portland, Oregon, where they lead worship for their local church. They have a dog, Watson, and by October 10th, they will be sharing their home with their first kid, William! Lane also works full-time for a Christian, non-profit organization called First-Image as the director of their sexual integrity program. He loves the local church and has plans to attend seminary to earn his Master's of Divinity.