How to be a worship leader without being a performer - part 2

Posted by Mike Pilavachi on 8 August 2013

Mike Pilavachi likes worship leaders. Some of them are his best friends. But sometimes friends have to be honest with each other…

If you feel a particular and specific calling to enter a time of prophetic singing, dancing or clapping, I'd suggest that you open your eyes at some stage to check that everyone else has not either left, fallen asleep, died or joined the Moonies.

We need to pursue the goal of accessible worship. Not to say that accessible worship is code for nice, sensible dull worship - just worship that doesn't' require a degree on the subject.

This is all common sense. Yet it's amazing how often, in our desire to go deeper, we forget the simple things that make worship work. The temptation, especially if you've been leading worship for a while, is to consider that familiarity equates a lack of creativity.

Instead of returning to the heart of worship, it's easy to subscribe to the idea that when things start to seem 'common', then it's up to the music to recapture the sense of wonder.

It may well turn out that it's the music which receives an adrenaline boost. But it is to Jesus that we should first turn, rededicating our worship back to him In all these things, there's one maxim I like to go by: KISS - Keep It Simple, Stupid.


It makes sense that the abilities associated with 'creative types' who perform in public transfer over to a worship context. To be a good worship leader is, among other things, to be able to create music that reflects God's own creativity.

But if those skills and attributes work on both sides of the church doors, so too do the problems. Worship is not a performance, and God doesn't need entertaining, looking after or cheering up.

We worship because it gives him his worth, something that's far too important to be contorted by our egos and insecurities. And so we come to the perennial tension: if arty types tend to make good worship leaders (better, at least, than ex-accountants like myself), then how to avoid alienating and confusing the masses?

Creatively challenging and dangerous it may be, but freestyle Warholian-dub-worship-in-French probably would leave them confused at St Botolph's in the Marsh.

Performance often seems to be a main point of conflict between pastor and worship leader. I believe worship is not about performance. A performing worship leader will distract attention from God and should be reminded that their role is to draw the congregation into the worship.

That having been said, the example of David springs to mind. That whole dancing in a linen ephod thing was hardly shy, and we know for a fact it got people's attention.

However, when his wife criticised him, David's response was simple: 'I will celebrate before the Lord'. David's only audience was God. David's dance fell into the 'exuberant and spontaneous act' category than in the one marked 'showing off'.

Some would say it's unrealistic to tell a worship leader or a worship band to squash their performing instincts. They may also go on to suggest that speakers do their fair share of performing too, yet no- one tells them to cut down on gags and tonal variation.

I think it's misleading to compare giving a talk with leading worship: the speaker imparts information, the worship leader ministers before the throne of heaven. No contest.

Speakers need to attract attention to better their chances of getting their point across. The main aim of leading worship is not to impart information, it's to minister to God. First and foremost they're not even there to encourage the congregation to do the same: the first directive is to worship God themselves.

If it happens that it's natural for someone to dance whenever they worship, then fine. No-one would call that sort of genuine expression a performance.

There's also a danger within this that, if you are a worship leader, you will finish reading this and step up to the mike at your next meeting looking as miserable as sin and staring at your feet. That too is a performance, my friend. Sorry.

The truth is, we need to learn to be natural before God. It's not a question of trying to impress him, nor is it a chance for us to try and fool him. It's a chance to be genuine before him.

This is not an oh-so-subtle way of my declaring my hatred of performance music (look through my CD collection and you'll see plenty of recordings by the king of performance rock - the mighty Meatloaf).

I'm thrilled with the way many have taken music from the Church out into the charts. And I'm not advocating that we become boring and uneventful so that no-one will want to watch us. We just need to make sure we're being appropriate.

The best worship leaders lead strongly and visibly enough that people will follow, but not so strongly that they become the focus. While the prime directive for the leader is to worship God themselves, they mustn't forget their second aim - to encourage others to follow.

They're not there to create observers, but to ignite and direct others. The Church has struggled for long enough to get people involved. The last thing we need to be doing now is to create observers.


Lately there's been a fairly lively debate going on about how complicated our worship should be. The discussions focus on the nature of the music, and are a reflection on the way worship music has developed over recent years.

As more resources have been directed towards the 'industry', so there's been a pursuit of quality - particularly in relation to many of the albums that are recorded. Magazines now produce charts of the most popular songs, which themselves are increasingly influenced by mainstream music tastes.

Alongside the debate is the feeling on the ground. For some people, many of these new songs are naff. A classically trained organist at a church I belonged to refused to play modern worship material as he found it so musically retarded.

At the other extreme, it doesn't take much in the way of imagination to envisage a bunch of teenage punks rejecting the comfortable sweaters and rainbow guitar straps of contemporary worship music.  

Let's be honest, much of what comes out of the worship scene bears more than a passing resemblance to Retro Folk.

While I'm too scared of the classically trained organist, I do feel I have a few things to say about the attitude that bemoans the lack of musical innovation in church.

One of the things musicians tend to do (apart from sleep) is to want to experiment. When something new is being created, something that pushes against the boundaries of experience, then two things happen:  the musos get very happy, the congregation leave.

Because innovation can mean so much to the band, it often becomes inaccessible to those they're supposed to be leading. Surely, for leaders, accessibility should rank as highly on the 'Most Wanted' list as skill, creativity and the ability to drift off into space at a moment's notice.

I'll never forget how Kevin Prosch led worship at a Soul Survivor festival for an hour without singing one song. It was prophetic and intense. Kevin blew his horns, hit his ethnic percussive instruments and sang spontaneous refrains.

The response among the musicians and those with their Degrees in 'Worship' was phenomenal. For many, it was without doubt the best time of worship they'd ever experienced.

However, nearly ten per cent of the congregation left the hall, scratching their heads and wondering what on earth it was all about. I was confused, too. How had so many been so blessed, when so many had been put off? After much thought I came up with the following three conclusions:

1 Liturgy is important.

I'm not talking about specific liturgy here, just the concept of having a structure for saying something through the worship time.

We need to make sure our services are Christ-centred, that he is at the heart of them. We need to sing about Jesus as well as to him, and we need to focus on the single most significant act in the history of the universe - his death on the cross. These are vital ingredients. Without them there's little more than the music for people to catch on to.

Having said that, there also needs to be time and place for spontaneity, for silence, for music without words, but in the context of people expressing their own worship to God. That will be hard to do if they've spent the previous 45 minutes wondering what sort of socks the person in front is wearing.

2 While this particular time was great for the musos, non-musicians felt marginalised and excluded.

Perhaps there are times when the worship leader needs to hold back - just enough to encourage the people to follow. As the overall leader of the meeting I should have explained and given a reference point for what was going to happen beforehand.

3 I have to deliver some bad news: the music is not the meat in the worship's the serviette that helps you not to get your jumper dirty. Music is a tool, not the goal.


The role of the worship leader is to act in the same way as an Old Testament priest. Thankfully that doesn't mean going as far as the home-spun robes and questionable personal hygiene, but it does involve representing the people to God, and God to the people.

Worship leaders need to be asking God regularly for direction. 'Lord, what are you wanting to say to the people?' might be one thought that is on their mind during the week. They also need to stay close to the rest of the church so they have a sense of what is already going on in people's lives.

If the worship leader only ever worships with eyes closed, it sends a message out to the congregation that it's the leader alone who can commune with God. That can be arrogant.

The Holy Spirit can lead the worship through the whole congregation - and sometimes if the worship leader isn't in tune with them, he or she misses what the Spirit is starting to stir up in the congregation.

For example, it may be that the Spirit is moving in the congregation so that a number seem spontaneously to go to their knees in a sign of reverence and brokenness. Miss that and go into a turbo-charged version of Joy Is the Flag and some of the magic is gone.


While musical ability is important, it's not the first thing one is looking for in a worship leader or band. The most important attribute is a desire to be a worshipper.

Great skill alone won't be enough. It can turn heads and hearts, but to draw people into God's presence needs something special: anointing. Anointing is one of those strange things that you know when it's there and you know when it's not, but is hard to define. Having said that, let's have a little go.

The word 'anointed' comes from the Hebrew word for Messiah. The Greek word used for Christ throughout the New Testament translates as 'anointed one'. So to be anointed means to have something of the Messiah, something of Christ, something of heaven.

You know when a worship time is anointed, as there's a sense of the presence of Jesus, the glory of God, the activity of the Spirit. When the anointing is around there's a real sense of both excitement and unpredictability in the place. That's what we should all be praying for.

But how do you get the anointing? Certainly it seems to co-exist with prayer. When a congregation comes together with a common desire to give to God, there often seems to be something special about the worship that follows.

It reminds me of the verse in Psalm 22 - 'the Lord inhabits the praises of his people'. God's anointed presence is more likely to come when hearts are ready, rather than far from him. So anointing has something to do with expectancy, with being prepared to give in worship.

The logical progression is that if the congregation is obeying God in the week and worshipping him through times on their own, the anointing will come.

Although God's blessings cannot be turned on like a tap, I'm sure that choosing to follow a lifestyle that disobeys God's commands isn't the best way of inviting God's presence.

Thankfully, however, God is a good deal more gracious than we are. And he throws into the mix things like grace and compassion, bestowing his anointing wherever he sees fit.




More like this

Lessons From The Life Of Samuel

Mike Pilavachi on death, divine revelation, arrogance and why the next generation matters.

Why being an ex-muso isn’t so bad after all

Why being an ex-muso isn’t so bad after all. Craig Borlase looks back and for a few years back at the start of his twenties he took delight in the way those name badges and event passes would define him by that single word. He was a musician. Enough said. Fast forward 20 years... | WeAreWorship

Rachael Phillips - Christians you should meet

Meet Rachel Phillips, the former soldier who found faith near the battlefield.

Free Songs

with chords, lyrics and MP3