Leading Worship in Song When You’re Not a Musician

Image Courtesy of Shutterstock

Image Courtesy of Shutterstock

I’m often asked if it’s possible to lead worship in song if you’re not a musician. In my response I usually make the point that leading corporate worship is pastoral function before it’s a musical one. So the answer is, “yes.”

Through the years I’ve had the privilege of training the men in the Pastors College of Sovereign Grace Ministries  in the area of music and worship. Most of the guys have at least one opportunity to lead the rest of the class in song, whether they’re musical or not. It helps them see what really goes in to leading, and also enables them to evaluate others in a more informed way.

They learn that you don’t have to know about scales, chord inversions, or time signatures to proclaim God’s works, word, and worthiness. You don’t have to be proficient on an instrument, or even know how to play the first note in order to direct people’s attention and affections towards Jesus Christ and his glorious work of substitutionary atonement on the cross. Your singing voice might sound like fingernails on chalkboard but you can still extend the invitation to, “Magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together” (Ps. 34:3)!

While most of non-musical guys in the Pastors College don’t end up having to lead songs in their churches, occasionally they do. Not too long ago I found out that Ken Delage (pastor of  Sovereign Grace Church in Fredericksburg, VA) was in that position and actually enjoying it. I asked him to write up a few thoughts on his experience, which I’ve posted below. I hope it will encourage any non-musical pastors (or any unmusical types for that matter) who find themselves having to lead worship in song.

I never wanted to be a worship leader. As I planted Sovereign Grace Church, my desire to not lead worship only grew! Don’t get me wrong. I love to sing, I love to lift my voice and praise God’s name. But I don’t play an instrument and my singing voice is best described as “adequate.” I didn’t think I’d do a very good job, so I didn’t want to serve.

So, about 18 months into our church plant, God called our worship leader to another church.  On the day he left, my music resume looked something like this:

1.  I’d sung in children’s musicals as a kid, before my voice changed.
2.  Ten years ago I sang in our church choir for 4 months
3.  I’d listened to lots of worship music.

When our worship leader left, I was left with questions. Am I willing to serve God in an area of personal weakness?  Am I willing to look (or sound!) foolish for Him?  Will I refuse to work for his glory, unless I’m guaranteed a bit of my own glory too?  

As God revealed my heart, I grew in faith to serve. So I jumped in and have been serving for about a year and a half.  Despite my lack of musical ability, God meets us each week.  The church is blessed and God is glorified. Here’s how it breaks down for me:

Administration:

  • I pick the songs we sing.  Songs teach, and pastors are called to teach.  So I’m in my ‘comfort zone’ doing this as a pastor.
  • I arrange the team schedule.  No big theology behind this, but this lets me put together teams that work together well and make up for each others weaknesses.
  • Each week, I try have at least one musician on the rotation who can pick the right key for the songs, arrange transitions, suggest arrangements, and help newer musicians.
  • Since I’m also serving in other ways in the church, I streamline by sending out a month of serving and song schedules at a time.

 Sundays Mornings:

  • I lead the congregation from the mic, center stage, as the “lead vocalist.”  My voice isn’t “solo quality,” but sufficient to lead.
  • I’m supported by two gifted vocalists each week.  One sticks to melody with me the whole time.
  • Since I don’t play an instrument, I direct the musicians by vocally cuing the congregation and using hand signals behind my back.

 Practices:

  • We practice once a week at my house, and get about 30 minutes to do a sound check and run through before the Sunday meeting.
  • I lean heavily on the team for musical suggestions, ideas, and creativity. We probably take more time on discussion than many worship teams, but everyone is included and I’m equipped to make decisions.  What God didn’t give me personally, He gave to the body. Worship leading meets 1 Cor 12.
  • I tell every instrumentalist that I expect them to ‘be the expert’ on their instrument. If they have ideas on what will sound good, then try them. Since I don’t have the creativity, the instrumentalists bring it!  This enables me to have a full buffet of musical options on the table from which to choose.
  • We take the first 5-10 minutes of practice to pray as a team, to focus on Christ, and perhaps to teach a bit on worship.  My hope is to build a culture on the team which treasures worship above worship leading.

I’d love to hear about your experiences or suggestions for leading songs when you’re not musical.

16 Responses to Leading Worship in Song When You’re Not a Musician

  1. John Bennett October 10, 2012 at 1:08 PM #

    Thanks for this. As someone in this boat, it’s very encouraging!

  2. West Breedlove (@westbreedlove) October 10, 2012 at 1:15 PM #

    Great post! A senior pastor & friend of mine can’t carry a tune in a bucket. But even though he doesn’t stand to lead singing, he’s definitely the worship leader. His gratitude for the gospel has affected me greatly over the years. It’s definitely an external expression of an inward reality.

  3. Jim Pemberton October 10, 2012 at 3:11 PM #

    I can’t speak to this because I am musically trained. However, noting that Ken Delage had musicians to work with I have to wonder if none of those musicians was otherwise suitable to lead the music (e.g. spiritual maturity, leadership ability).

    I have had the rare opportunity on occasion to lead music. But I have also been tasked with following people who didn’t know what they were doing. Sometimes I’ve struggled against pride where I knew I could do a better job. “Why didn’t they ask me to do this?”

    One thing non-musical worship music leaders may want to consider is that they may have some among their group who struggle because they feel their gifts are not being utilized with a non-musician up front trying to pull things together. Pray for them, identify them if possible, and use them wisely so as to encourage spiritual growth toward mutual submission and not exacerbate a negative spirit.

  4. Josh S. October 10, 2012 at 4:53 PM #

    Great post! I am actually a muscian and a worship leader, but I have worked with worship leaders who were not necessarily musicians or even vocalists… Praise God that we have non-musical individuals who are willing to leave their comfort zone and serve God in an area like worship leading! If we, as musical worship leaders, were willing to do the same thing (how about worship leaders leading childrens church, or preparing food on a fellowship sunday?) , I believe that more of God’s work would get accomplished! Excellent thoughts on this subject, thanks for posting!

  5. Stacy October 10, 2012 at 7:34 PM #

    This is a helpful post even in understanding the various styles of different worship leaders within a given church. For example, some WLs come in each week with a detailed idea of what arrangements they want, transitions/interludes, instrumentation, etc. Others come with a vague outline and they want your input, suggestions, or for you to just play what you think sounds good and they’ll let you know whether to use it or not. As a musician, it goes a long way to recognize who’s who amongst your leaders, and to seek to serve them and the team by being flexible and humble in the way that you participate and make suggestions.

    Secondly, I agree with Jim that at times it can be frustrating with a non-musical person leading others who have many more years of experience. A huge mitigating factor in this potential area for pitfalls is the leader being humble and asking for open and honest feedback. Even with simple things such as administration and management of a rehearsal (starting promptly, being organized and thoughtful about what the team should be working on & accomplish during practice), much benefit can be found in the backgrounds of accomplished musicians. Many have been part of rehearsals since their junior high school years and may have valuable suggestions. It doesn’t mean you get every single person’s input every time and bog down the system by not being able to make a decision, but there is so much skill and efficiency that could be tapped into by asking the right people a few questions. Another example would be making decisions *during rehearsal* about how things will happen musically during the service. Of course all musicians on a worship team must be ready to adjust as the leader may sense something in the Spirit or just want to change directions. But if the leader is constantly saying “just follow whatever I do in the service” in terms of transitions, etc., musicians can feel completely lost with no map of where things are headed and what they’re supposed to play.

    Thanks, Bob, for sharing this and starting a great conversation!

  6. Ryan Stockton October 10, 2012 at 9:25 PM #

    Good post. Thanks! For what it’s worth, here’s a bit of my church’s experience with non-musical worship leaders…

    I lead the music at our church and we only meet together as the whole body once a month. Two other weeks during the month we meet in each others’ homes around the neighborhood. When we moved to this model, this meant that there was no longer just ONE worship leader to lead the music in our church, but rather, the worship was to be lead by the various volunteer leaders that were stepping up to lead our various groups.

    In preparation for this, I put together a packet of materials (our church’s repertoire of chord sheets, documents regarding flow, step by step guide on planning a worship service, categorizing songs, etc…) to help them logistically plan musical worship. One of the biggest things I included in the packet however, was a list of ways to worship God without music. Since we were in smaller groups (15-30 people per group) we had the freedom to do different things to engage with God in worship. This has resulted in more creativity and more engagement from our congregation in worship. Music is still the primary worship language at our church, but sometimes it’s live, other times it’s a cappella, other times it’s singing along with Youtube videos.

    We tried not to be so formulaic with our packet of materials, it was mainly to help give guidance to folks who had never done anything like that before.

  7. Jerod M October 11, 2012 at 5:41 AM #

    When I read the heading, I thought, “Did he write one for me?”
    I’ve been the primary worship leader for over three years now in a very small congregation of people who worship with whatever we have. For some time it was karaoke style, but we’ve had a few musicians come and go. What a learning opportunity for me, as well as a chance to help people hear, read, sing, pray things they might not have otherwise. Even when we’re talking about 30-40 people there can be hurt feelings and differences in style and preference–situations that must be approached in humility and reverence no matter how many people are affected.
    As much as I yearn to play piano and guitar, you’re so right–one does not need to know music to lead worship. He needs to know the One to worship.

  8. Benjamin October 11, 2012 at 9:35 AM #

    Am I willing to serve God in an area of personal weakness? Am I willing to look (or sound!) foolish for Him? Will I refuse to work for his glory, unless I’m guaranteed a bit of my own glory too?
    This really struck me, still thinking about it.
    Thanks for posting this. It’s very encouraging!

  9. Neil Renicker October 11, 2012 at 1:01 PM #

    Thanks for this encouraging post, Bob. As a worship leader with limited skills, the letter from your pastor friend pointed me to remember where my strength for the task really comes from.

    “…we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” –2 Cor. 4:7

  10. John October 12, 2012 at 1:16 PM #

    This is a timely topic for me because I am wrestling with this issue as I write. A job change meant a relocation for my family, which meant leaving a church where I’ve led worship for six years. With decades of experience as a WL, it’s been a challenge for me to sit through poorly planned, poorly enacted services led by non musicians who have neither the skills nor the discernment to know how to lead a team of singers, musicians or the congregation. With no musical skills or training, singers who believe they have a gift (think American Idol) run rough shod over the non musical leader in practice and during the service. I’ve witnessed services where one singer with a tamborine take the congregation and band hostage to her tempo because she believed she was gifted and the non musician leader was helpless to stop the ensuing train wreck.

    Would you call a pastor to the pulpit without formal seminary training? Why would you ask someone to be a worship leader with no musical training?

    • Bob Kauflin October 12, 2012 at 3:20 PM #

      John, thanks for sharing your thoughts. Without humility on the part of the musicians and the non-musical leader, no arrangement is going to work. As I wrote in this post, I would distinguish between leading “worship” and being a musician. Worship involves captivating people’s hearts and minds with the glories of Christ. Music is one way of expressing that, but certainly not the only way. Sounds like it might be helpful (if you haven’t already done it), to talk to your pastor about what you’re observing and offer to help in any way. A non-musical leader should generally have enough authority to be able to say to a musician that something they’re doing isn’t helpful to the people you’re leading.

  11. Gabriel Polanco October 13, 2012 at 5:19 AM #

    Hi, it’s been a blessing to read this post (and comments also), because i saw myself in the mirror, seeing you reminds me the verse “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” i´ve read it in your post, i have seen it in my life…God’s grace is sufficient, and we need it above skills or anything else.

  12. Shadrak Bediako October 18, 2012 at 9:03 AM #

    I wasn’t into music at all, but my first time of leading worship at a prayer meeting was very powerful. You know it’s all about being in the spirit and acknoledging God in his greatness. One major thing that has also helped me much is my eyes are always close when am leading worship to prevent distraction.

  13. Stephanie Mitchell October 24, 2012 at 7:50 PM #

    This is so me! Thank you for the encouragement!!

  14. The Believer November 8, 2012 at 4:27 PM #

    One of my previous church ministry involvements was with our Praise & Worship Team as one of the back up singers. I don’t know how to play any musical instrument, nor can I claim to have excellent singing voice, only able to carry the right tune and hit the note. By God’s grace, our worship experiences were fulfilling, and we were blessed.

  15. Michelle December 8, 2012 at 12:44 AM #

    Thanks for this post. It interested me because i have been in this position, sort of, as a children’s Sunday school teacher asked at times to lead children’s worship. Thank you for articulating the obvious, that my responsibility is first of all to point the children to God – not to provide music for them but facilitate a way for them to respond to the gospel. While my job at those times is nowhere near as involved as Ken’s, i have learned a lot reading this. Thanks for equipping me to be a better teacher and servant.

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