The Difference Between a Music Performer and a Worship Leader
What Is Worship?
Worship is an integral part of Christian life. When we worship, we are connecting with God on a personal level. Depending on the song, we can praise, thank, and ask the Lord for forgiveness or provisions for our life. Worship is a time to connect with the Lord through songs.
A person who leads worship is someone who does more than merely stand in front of a congregation singing songs. When someone is called to lead worship, they have an obligation to help the congregation learn what it means to worship the Lord.
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the lands! Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing! Know that the Lord is God! It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him, bless his name! For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.— Psalms 100 (Revised Standard)
People who lead congregations through songs are generally known as worship leaders, but all worship leaders are not the same. Some who are called worship leaders are in fact, what I call, music performers. Rather than actually leading worship, music performers stand on stage and sing songs.
Music performers call themselves worship leaders when the truth is, music performers do not truly lead worship at all. The following leadership traits are hints that the person on stage in front of the congregation may be a music performer.
Note: The names of the people mentioned and critiqued in the "Music Performers" heading have been changed to preserve and protect their identity.
- Music performers usually only pick songs they want to perform. They don’t always have band practice and rehearsal. They don’t feel there is a need to practice because they believe the Holy Spirit will help them perform well. Instead of praying that the congregation will be elevated, they pray that they will sound great and that they will perform flawlessly. In fact, they seek edification for themselves and not for the Lord.
Some time ago, I attended a church where Sally (the vocalist) and Donald (the guitarist) showed up a few minutes before church services. Even as church members began taking their seats, Sally and Donald practiced the songs they would be performing for that morning’s service. They played a few bars of the selected songs, prayed on stage, and then commenced to lead worship for the congregation.
I spoke with Sally after church and she said she just shows up to church and decides to sing whatever songs move her in that moment.
- Music performers tend to play songs they wrote. I attended a church where Steve (a guitarist) started the worship session with a familiar worship song and then for the rest of the session only played songs that he wrote. He would preface each song with, “Here’s a little song I wrote…” and would then start playing and singing the song. It didn’t matter that no one in the congregation was familiar with the songs; and because the congregation didn’t know the songs, no one in the congregation sang the songs. Folks, that’s not worship leading; that’s not even song leading; that’s performing.
- Music performers believe their talent is what is important. Let us consider that most people who venture onto a stage to sing or play an instrument in front of an audience generally have confidence that they are musically talented. Music performers seek admiration and applause from the audience.
A long time ago, I attended a church where one of the guitarists was extremely talented. Every now and then he would play a well-executed guitar riff and, of course the audience would applaud. Well, one time the audience did not respond quickly enough and the guitarist stood with his hands out and a questioning look on his face as if to ask, “Where is my applause?” So, of course, the audience then applauded. That type of attitude is unbecoming of a person leading worship.
- Music performers have no regard for the congregation. Music performers sing the songs they want to sing, and in the key they want to sing without regard to whether or not the congregation can sing the songs as well. For example, I attended a church where Brenda sang an entire 30-minute session in a key so high that all the men in the congregation were forced to sing in their falsetto voices the entire time. Bless their hearts, they tried, but the combination of men and women singing in high voices sounded like a bunch of people screaming at each other. Surely, they were not able to engage in worship, as they were struggling too hard to eke out the songs to the point that their voices screeched.
Music performers simply sing songs and hope the congregation sings along with them.
Worship leaders know that although they are on stage front and center, they are not the main attraction. Worship leaders know that their primary purpose is to lead people to Jesus.
The following leadership traits are hints that the person on stage in front of the congregation is a worship leader.
- Worship leaders lead with humility. Worship leaders know that they are not on stage to receive applause and praise; instead, they are there to connect with the congregation and lead them, through song, to the Lord.
I attended a church where, prior to the worship session, the worship leader, Stacy would walk around introducing herself to the people in the congregation. She did this in an effort to help people feel comfortable. And after church service, she would connect with members to get as much feedback as possible. Without putting people on the spot, she would ask questions like whether or not they liked a particular song, whether or not a song was played in a key that was too high or too low, and whether or not the member had a favorite song or song request.
I feel this is a trait that shows how worship leaders care about the people they lead, honoring their position by connecting with the congregation so that they can refine future worship sessions.
- Worship leaders practice and rehearse songs. Worship leaders have regularly scheduled practices and rehearsals so that they can learn worship songs to the point where they know the songs by heart. This leaves them free to direct the congregation through worshipping the Lord. The worship leader’s time for worshipping is during practice, rehearsals, or whenever the leader wants to personally worship the Lord. When worship leaders are in front of the congregation, their focus should be on the congregation, leading them through worship.
- Worship leaders have structure. A good worship session has a beginning, middle, and end. Good worship leaders have a structure for the worship session and they lead the congregation seamlessly through a gratifying time of worship.
The most enjoyable worship session I experienced is when the worship leader started the worship session with a fun, uplifting song. This helped me forget about the world outside the church doors and get into a mindset where I was happy about life and the time I was about to spend with the Lord. Then the tempo slowed down slightly and we sang a song of praise, and then a song of pure worship. And then the worship leader led us through two songs that reminded me of the Lord’s gift of forgiveness. Finally, we sang a song of praise and gratefulness.
Worship leaders make sure that there is always a flow and a message tied to the worship session. The worship session is not a time to preach. After all, that is the pastor’s job; however, it is appropriate to intertwine prayer and scriptures to help the congregation know the meaning of the songs they are singing.
Let us put all of our heart and soul into giving the Lord the one thing He seeks – Our true love for Him. When we lose ourselves to the Lord in worship, He will come to us.
But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.— John 4:23-24 (Revised Standard)
Let us worship the Lord with all of our heart.
Memories of a Worship Leader
My years of leading worship were some of the most fulfilling years of my life. When I retired from the corporate world, I moved out of the area and turned the worship leader responsibility over to a talented individual who honors the worship leader's role and commitment to lead others through memorable, life-enhancing worship sessions.
The Worship Band
Mark Cole (August 26, 2017), Going from Song Leading to Worship Leading. Worship Ideas. http://www.markcole.ca/going-from-song-leading-to-worship-leading. Accessed 9/20/2017.
David Santistevan (September 10, 2017), What a Humble Leader Looks Like. Church Leaders. http://churchleaders.com/worship/worship-articles/309790-humble-leader-looks-like-david-santistevan.html. Accessed 9/20/17.
Original King James Bible Printed in 1611. Website Published in 2007. King James Bible Online, https://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org. Accessed 9/20/2017.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Why do many churchgoers view allowing original songs during church services as unbecoming of a worship leader?
I believe all songs that worship the Lord, both old and new, are worthy of being played as worship music. When people deny worship leaders the opportunity to play all genres of music, they are merely placing their personal preferences on worship leaders. Sadly, many directors over-direct worship leaders, limiting their ability to lead a truly divine worship session.Helpful 4
How often should new songs be introduced to the congregation?
The frequency of when to introduce new songs is entirely dependent on the congregation. Learn what the comfort level of your congregation is with regards to song selections.
I can only speak about my personal experience. I learned that my congregation was comfortable with and looked forward to a new song once a month. And whever I introduced a new song I would make sure all the other songs on the list were old favorites like Amazing Grace. Everyone knows that song, so a song like that is surely going to be on the song list whenever I introduce a new song. And then I would keep the new song on the song list for at least a month so then it becomes familiar to them.
To make it a comfortable experience, I always finish a song set with a congregation favorite.
As a worship leader you learn by feedback what is comfortable and familiar and then adjust the worship session accordingly.Helpful 3
Is it appropriate for a worship leader/minister to preface or recite lines of lyrics to the congregation, even though they appear on an overhead display?
It is not inappropriate at all. Sometimes worship leaders/ministers recite the lyrics as a way of letting the overhead display operator know which slide they should be showing. Since the worship leader is looking at the congregation and not the overhead display, he/she has no way of knowing which slide is up on the screen. Also, the worship leader may be giving directions to the other band members. Reciting the lyrics is the best way to make sure that the worship leader, band members, and overhead display operator are all on the same page.Helpful 3
I am from India. I just wanted to know if it is okay for worship leaders to learn Hindustani. I think it is a compromise with the word cubic zirconium in that you sing all the mantras and their stories and all. So is it alright or is it a compromise?
I am not familiar with Indian culture and how worship is performed there. I am not familiar with Hindustani. Nevertheless, I believe worship leaders should strive to deliver music that their congregation can relate to and appreciate. It is not about our own personal preference. We are merely a vessel through which worship can be directed. If your congregation wants a particular type of music and if that music does not go against the lead pastor's guidance, then that is the type a music a worship leader should try to deliver. Each church is different, so the type of music is going to be different for each church. It is something that must be discussed between the pastor and the worship leader with considerable input from the congregation.
© 2017 Marlene Bertrand