Music can make or break someone’s opinion of a church. As a new worship leader at a brand new church plant, I feel this responsibility. In fact, when I first accepted the position, I experienced both the anxiety of not being sure if I knew what I was doing, and the freedom that comes with no strong traditions or entrenched dogmas. Using experience and intuition to fill the gaps, my pastor and I designed the church to operate effectively, as well as to function as a church that we would want to attend.
Before arriving here, I discovered that many churches have very little interaction between preaching and music, with the two teaching leads basically staying out of each other’s worlds. If this is a situation that you find yourself in, I’d like to make the case that the pastor and worship leaders work side-by-side in teaching for a more effective service. For my pastor and I, this practice has been a positive experience.
Here are four components that have been key in our ability to teach cohesively. Naturally this is limited to my experience, so any questions, or stories of your own are welcome.
1: Plan teaching together
Our plan from the beginning was to be a church plant that plants more churches. As of this writing, we have two autonomous congregations, with a third launching in several months. Each week, we have a meeting of all three pastors and associate teachers, as well as a lay volunteer (a very qualified dude currently sitting on a Masters Degree in Biblical Literature) who coordinates our teaching. I also attend these meetings, partially to lend a voice to how the concepts can connect to the congregation, and partly to have bead on the upcoming sermons. The big picture is sketched out up to a year in advance, but we mostly focus on the next few weeks of preaching.
With knowledge of not just upcoming events and series, but more granular understanding of how a verse or a story will be approached, I can plan music that reinforces the message more effectively. In our particular liturgy, most of the music comes after the sermon as a response to the teaching, so it’s very important that we are on the same page to relate to the teaching.
2: Mutual respect
I doubt very much that there is some cartoonish level of disrespect between most pastors and their worship leaders, but I have spoken with a number of pastors and worship leaders over the years and certainly seen a general dynamic that I would not consider healthy. There’s a sense in which the musician is the weird artistic guy and isn’t expected to have any theological depth, and the pastor is the serious guy who is not even convinced that congregational worship is totally necessary. Neither of the two stereotypes I just described wants to be in the world that the other lives in, but that’s not how it has to be.
Mutual respect starts with an understanding that the worship leader is also a teacher, simply using music as a medium rather than preaching. Often times, worship leaders shy away from this responsibility, but I would encourage them to lean into it. My pastor knows that I teach, and often tells the congregation “I preach to give you something to sing about.” After all songs are easier to remember, so why not teach with them?
During the week, I have a lot of contact with my pastor, and in some cases he changes part of his sermon based on the musical direction. If my service planning and prayer lead me toward a particular song or direction, I share it with him and we work together to make sure that A) it’s a good direction, and B) the sermon will lead into it. Even if it doesn’t happen this way, this makes sure that we are both feeling the weight of teaching our congregation. This affects song selection, so…
3: Prioritize songs that teach
Nobody would criticize a pastor for preaching a sermon that they hadn’t heard before, but worship leaders are frequently criticized for using music that is not familiar. Now obviously the expectations are different, because worship is a participation activity. I am certainly not a worship leader that never repeats a song or throws a ton of new material at people. What we have done at Valley Life is to build a catalog of songs that are supportive of our teaching, teach them carefully, and encourage participation. Our music is familiar to our congregation, and they sing hard.
This just requires a different way to find music. While we do have a few songs in our catalog that might show up on CCLI top 25 or Christian radio, that’s a coincidence. I go looking for music that is:
- About God, and not about me or how I feel
- Something that can be readily sung and learned by average people
- Something that our congregation engages with (which I won’t know until we try it – not every song I choose passes this test)
The net result of looking for music without familiarity/popularity as a priority is that I don’t have a bloated list of “have-to” songs that don’t actually teach. I can support the teaching with what I already have.
Part 4: Build the message into your liturgy
There’s a trick to our Sunday services at Valley Life: whatever scripture we are in or topic we are on, the end is the same: This game is rigged and you can’t do it right – but Jesus has done it right and you can have the credit. Since there’s always a gospel theme underlying our teaching, I can lay it into our liturgy and express it in every service regardless of the message. A typical service liturgy will look like this:
- Call to worship (can take a number of forms)
- Teaching music (new music, explanation of sermon, etc)
- Preaching (reading scripture, sermon)
- Communion (music acknowledges our sin and our need)
- Truth (music which takes us to the cross)
- Celebration (music which tells of the work and glory of God)
The above list is not a template for everybody to follow. It’s just to get across how our focused planning works out. Your church may have a different emphasis in its typical liturgy, so make sure that you serve that.
Music is a powerful force in people’s lives. Take it seriously, and don’t just pick songs. Teach. Feel the responsibility for your congregation and their spiritual development. And work with your pastor to lead them to see their creator God.