How to be a worship leader without being a performer - part 1

Posted by Mike Pilavachi on 10 June 2014

There seem to be two similarities that unite people who get up and lead us in worship. First, many of them are very good at getting the spiritual things right. They often have an ability to respond to the prompting of the Holy Spirit and the mood of the meeting, steering things this way and that.

Second, they can often be utter morons.

Common sense and practical, logical thought seem to go out the window like last year's boy band. Not that having the brain of a particularly ingenious scout will necessarily make you into a champion worship leader, it's just that getting those things wrong can often hinder the anointing.

And so, for those of you who are worship leaders, and for those of you who aren't but who like to tell those who are how to do it, I present the Mike Pilavachi guide to doing it (without being a donkey).


What has God been saying to the group recently? What is the group thinking, worrying, rejoicing about? How can I reflect this in the choice of song?

What does God want to say to the group? What do the other leaders think we should be focusing on? How do I prophetically address this in the choice of songs?

I think that the worship leader in a sense should be both pastor and prophet. As a pastor he/she should be asking during the days before a meeting: 'What is going on in the congregation that needs reflecting upon and needs to be expressed in worship?

It's an obvious point, but a recent bereavement can't go unnoticed in the worship. A seemingly endless stream of chirpy numbers when there is weeping and wailing all around could be classed as inappropriate.

Times of repentance, rebuke, harmony and struggle are just a few of the many different circumstances that need to be reflected on from the front.

It's an example I've used before, but Matt Redman's song Coming Back To The Heart Of Worship was a specific reaction to the tone of our church during the first few months of 1996.

It was, and still is, a pastoral song, even more than it was a prophetic one. It expressed our feelings, and helped us through the transition of refining the way we worshipped. In worship we express; we bring our lives, we bring our concerns our anxieties, our joys, our praises, our questions to God.


I don't know how many times I've been in a meeting where thousands have been singing along to Did You Feel the Mountains Tremble? When the masses reach the bit in the song where it's their cue to cheer, the atmosphere is usually pure electricity.

Yet, take the song back home and try to recreate it with a homegroup of six and you end up with something closer to a glib whimper than the intended glorious cheer.

In such a situation, I would suggest that the most appropriate course of action would not be to halt the meeting and individually interrogate all those present, forcing them to disclose their deep sin which has so hindered the worship. Instead, try using your head beforehand.

Also, if there is only one male or female in the meeting and he or she does not sing in tune, then maybe lots of songs with male/female repeats aren't such a good idea. Try common sense. It may not seem as impressive, but it winds people up a lot less.

There is a skill to getting the balance of songs right. Ideally there will be some new ones, keeping the time fresh. This needs to be balanced by a sensitivity to not overdosing on new ones. It can be a killer to spend a worship time doing little more than trying to work out how each song goes.

Probably it isn't sensible to start a worship time with a new song as it can sometimes set the tone for the meeting, encouraging people to watch rather than get involved. The second and third slots are good ones for new numbers, particularly if they can be repeated at the end.

When selecting songs we also need to get the balance right between content and engagement. There are some songs (usually the more 'hymny' ones) which are packed full of scriptural truth but are quite difficult to engage with God through.

At the other end of the spectrum there are songs (Isn't He Beautiful) which are tender and intimate (and even quite romantic in style), which, however, don't say very much. We need both.

As any good nutritionist will tell you, we need a balanced diet. Too much content and the worship can become 'stodgy' and hard going. Not enough content and we can sometimes forget who we are engaging with!


I feel fairly comfortable in suggesting that a seven-piece band for a midweek meeting in the front room is over the top. Considering exactly who will be in attendance at a meeting is hardly brain surgery, but the benefits are enormous.

Deciding to ditch a load of drum and bass tunes will win you points with the congregation, should they be big fans of the 1662 service.  

The word is 'appropriate'.

When people like me write these things, there is often a tension between the ideal scenario and the harshness of reality. We've had plenty of musicians to choose from at Soul Survivor, and your choice may be more limited. It's important to remember to find your own balance between compromise and integrity.

First of all, band members need to love the Lord and be worshippers. I know some say that it doesn't matter if the rest of the band aren't worshipping as long as the worship leader is, but if a band are not united on this fundamental issue, how can they fully function as a band? Worship is a spiritual thing and these are spiritual principles we mustn't lose sight of.

At the same time the band members need to be as musically competent as possible. They need to work together well, there needs to be a humility and they need to defer to one another.

The last thing you need in a time of worship is to have the lead guitarist and the keyboard player competing for solos, producing the sonic equivalent of a motorway pile-up. The worship leader needs to have the final responsibility for the music, and so needs to know a little bit about arrangements.

Many times the band will be more musical than the worship leader, and a good worship leader will make space for band members to be creative and make their suggestions. The leader bottom-lines the whole thing, and must keep it from becoming musically extravagant.


Reading the words of the songs and having a good think about their meaning may not sound like a very ground-breaking suggestion, but it seems that many could do with taking the advice.

It can be hard for a congregation to focus on their Creator when the songs they are singing have been chosen more for style than for content. Ideally, each song should follow on from its predecessor, building on certain themes that help the congregation do business with God.

The results gained from such a selection will be noticeably better than from the set thrown together by the principle that the tunes are all quite nice. If we don't think about how songs link and where they fit in, we lose the sense of progression in our worship, that sense of moving closer towards the Lord.


Repetition is a big thing in worship. At times it's a good big thing, and at other times it's a bad one.

When singing one line for five minutes doesn't seem quite so anointed, I'll often wonder why the leader went for it. 'I felt led' seems to be the most common response, which I find puzzling: why would God lead you to do that? Does he hate us that much?

No, sometimes 'feeling led; is a euphemism for feeling stuck. Granted, certain songs contain bits that lend themselves to repetition. God Is Speaking Through The Music is not one of them.

I've been in meetings where the title line has been repeated 32 times.  

On lap seven I start to tire. Lap 14 usually sees me begin to lose the ability to focus with my eyes. I'm dribbling by lap 20, and when we enter the home straight, the battle to retain control of the last of my bodily functions is all but over.

'Stop,' I try to murmur with my last sane breath. 'Is there anyone here who doesn't know that God is speaking through the music?

That song is a classic illustration of the gulf between satisfaction on stage and stupefaction in the seats: each time I have taken part in the 'God Is Speaking...' marathon, I've noticed that the same line that tortures me, manages to send the musos into twitching giblets of delight.

Repetition should stem from a good reason, and should be carried out with care and restraint. If you want to repeat a song, have a reason in mind for doing so. Is there something new, which needs emphasising second time around? By varying the speed or musical accompaniment to the song, will it help to move from praise to adoration or vice versa?

At our church in Watford, we easily fell into the trap of stale unoriginality. We weren't repeating lines ad infinitum, but we were guilty of the same spirit of thoughtlessness.

Each time of worship consisted or roughly ten songs, with each one being repeated three-and-a-half times, with a double chorus added on at the end for good measure. You could set your watch by the songs (a boredom-avoiding tactic that many of the congregation employed).

When Delirious? were called the 'Cutting Edge Band', they came to lead worship for the youth meetings at the New Wine festival. One particular evening, things got a little interesting. Halfway through the worship, Martin Smith started singing his song I Could Sing Of Your Love Forever. He didn't get very far with it, as when the chorus came up, he simply repeated the title line of the song.

Panic set in. I had been here before, and had only just recovered from a particularly vicious encounter with a multiple rendition of Isn't He Beautiful? (Isn't he? We had asked, a lot).

Had he got stuck, I wondered? Should I do the decent thing and go and offer to administer the Heimlich manoeuvre to dislodge the offending syllable? Then I sensed that something was happening.

All around the room, people were engaging with God. As the next 20 minutes progressed, the song didn't. We repeated the line over and over, and the effect was amazing.

Some people were dropping to their knees. Other people were crying.  

Others were just standing there with their hands outstretched.

And as I looked out, it was like a bomb had hit the place. It was as though Jesus had walked in. Then the band just slowed it all down and did it with no instruments, then began building up to an almost screaming crescendo.

It has become my favourite example of how powerful anointed repetition can be. Part was due, I suspect to interplay between the words and our actions. We were singing of his love forever. It was magical, fresh and innovative.

The danger would have been for Martin and the band to turn up to their next gig, pre-armed with a load of Cutting Edge repeats. It would have become a tradition, a technique. It may well have worked, but with each use the danger would have increased to view it as the 'ACME Instant Worship Success'.

So far this whole bit with me cussing down repetition might have had you quietly fuming as you reach for Revelation and point to the bit about 'day and night they never stopped singing "Holy, holy, holy"'.

I know and admit my argument might not be the tightest ever constructed. However, there's one large difference between the biblical examples and our terrestrial practices: Revelation is talking about heaven.

God lives there and things are perfect. When we take things into our own hands down here, no matter how good our intentions are, we invariably end up producing a pale reflection of God's master plan.

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