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Worship Basics For Church Planters

Steve Nicholson

A conversation with Steve Nicholson

Cutting Edge: There are new church planters who have never been on a worship team, never led worship…and now they need to start thinking about it. Where should they begin?

Steve Nicholson: Figure out your basic worship philosophy: “What are we doing here, and who is it for?” There are several aspects to that.

One goal we have for worship at our church is that it is participatory. A big goal is to get wide participation. We want everyone singing together as much as possible. That turns into an immediate goal. It’s not so much about the performance as it is oriented toward what gets a group going. So the songs you choose must be singable by the average person.

Another aspect of worship philosophy is, how are you going to handle the people who have never been in church before and then come through the door? The lyrics must be understandable without somebody having to know Bible terms or religious lingo. For example, we don’t sing songs about the Lion of Judah, because that won’t make any sense to some people. They might think, “What is this? Some kind of cult that worships lions?” So we don’t do that.

If you’re going to do a song that has an obscure word or a biblical reference, either don’t do it, or explain ahead of time what it’s about. Once in a while, a worship leader can get by with putting an asterisk in the lyrics and then something at the bottom that explains what it is. But the point is, you must consider all these things. What are your requirements for the worship team? Do they need to be members? Do they need to attend the church at all? Are you going to pay them?

There are a lot of churches that pay all their musicians. You receive a certain quality when you do that, but you also give up certain things when you do it.

CE: Many non-musicians don’t understand how complicated music is. There are instruments and sound systems and lyrics and chords and rehearsals. How can we bring this whole set of issues to their awareness, particularly on the technical side?

SN: The more people that are involved, the more difficult any job is going to be. In particular — for example, with sound systems — it’s important to consider whether a key value your church is going to have is volunteer usability. When you’re making those decisions, you may not want to buy a sound system that is so complicated that only a professional could run it.

Usually it’s better to have something that’s both simpler and more limited in what it can do. If it’s easy, you can train volunteers to use it.  By and large, volunteers are who you’re working with unless you get to to be a really big church. If you’re Willow Creek, it’s not an issue, but  it is for just about everybody else in the universe. Those are important questions.

Also, the worship leader is probably the most important part. A pastor needs to understand that a worship leader leads people into worship with his voice — not with his instrument.

A worship leader might accompany her voice with an instrument, but there are many very good worship leaders who actually don’t play an instrument. And you don’t have to have somebody who plays something. Far more important is the ability of somebody to worship  “on the outside,” so to speak…a person who can emotionally connect with a group of people such that she draws the people into worship.

Some people are excellent musicians, but they can’t do that. Being able to play an instrument fantastically doesn’t mean you can be a worship leader. Even if you can sing fantastically, it doesn’t mean you can be a worship leader. There is a very particular emotional relational component that is absolutely essential. That is far, far more important than the musical capability.

Now certainly, if a person can’t sing at all or they can’t hold a note, that’s a pretty significant inhibition! But you just need to understand what you’re looking for.

The best worship leaders are able to have just the right touch of not just singing, but also the right words, the right exhortation, the right prayer just at the right moment. They stick things in at certain places, not only between songs, but sometimes in the middle of a song. They do things that emotionally impact the group and draw them deeper into the worship. If you can find somebody who can do that, then you have gold.

CE: Is there a way to train people in those things?

SN: I have never been able to train somebody to do that. They’ve either got it or they don’t.

CE: They can get better?

SN: They can, mostly by hanging around somebody who is better, and sometimes by gaining confidence. Occasionally it’s just a confidence issue. Maybe someone is just not used to being in front of people. But in general, somebody who has difficulty relating to other people emotionally is probably never going to be able to get there.

CE: That said, let’s talk about quality control. When a church is smaller, the quality can typically be lower. It generally increases as the church gets bigger, and there have to be trade-offs. Sometimes there have to be difficult conversations. What does a pastor have to be ready to think through and do as the church is growing?

SN: I think the biggest thing is that you should never make long-term promises to anybody. Maybe have people join a team for a set term. At the end of the term, you have to decide whether you’re going to “renew” with them or not.

Ask them, “Would you consider being on the worship team for the next six months?” The key is “for the next six months.” Maybe this is where pastors and leaders fall off the wagon. But after the musician says yes, you should send a letter or e-mail back that reiterates what you said: “My understanding is that you’ve agreed to do this for the next six months,” etc. Then keep it on file. Six months later, you can pull it out and say, “Our agreement was for six months.”

That’s generally good advice for dealing with any kind of commitment that might be ticklish in the church. Have the conversation. Then put the conversation in writing right away so that the person has the record on the front end, rather than a cloudy memory six months later.

CE: In the relationship between a pastor and worship leader, tension and even a sense of over-dependence can sometimes exist — especially with a pastor who doesn’t have musical experience and who relies on the music leader. How can you work to set up this relationship in a healthy way?

SN: I’ll say two things. First, the biggest thing that leads to tension with pastors is when there is not a clearly articulated philosophy of worship. What happens is that the pastor tries to micromanage worship: “Show me your set list.” “Tell me exactly what you’re doing.” “Don’t sing this song — but do sing this one.” That generally creates conflict.

The most important way to avoid conflict is to clearly articulate your philosophy. Lay down some lane boundaries. For example, you might agree that songs have to be singable and understandable.

The goal is to get everybody participating in worship. Your boundaries are simple, basic things. But if you can agree on them, many conflicts go away right there. I think sometimes pastors micromanage because they haven’t actually stated the common philosophy. But worship leaders are generally artistic people. And artistic people have a tough time when someone else is trying to micromanage them.

On the flip side, the second thing I’d say is, sometimes the problem is the worship leader. The pastor has simply chosen the wrong person.

Occasionally, I’ve heard statements which indicated that a few worship leaders felt like the main purpose of their worship was self-expression.  It was the self-expression of their artistic abilities. I would immediately say to them, “Then this is the wrong business. This is not where you belong, because this isn’t about your self-expression. It’s about you facilitating a group’s expression.”

In a very real sense, the worship leader needs to be more pastor than musician.

CE: When would you advise starting to pay a worship leader?

SN: I would pay somebody when we’ve developed enough where we have multiple worship teams that need pastoring and training; where there are now three, four, maybe five actual worship leaders. I’d pay somebody to train them and coach them and so forth. That’s what we pay people for in the church in general. We don’t pay people to lead. We pay people to coach people who lead.

CE: There are so many opinions about worship. Opinions come from the people in church. They come from the outside. They come from other worship leaders. Early on in a church, especially, when there are so many ideas being tossed around, how do you weigh things? How do you know which opinions to take seriously?

SN: Someone leading worship needs to have a pretty thick skin, because it’s very typical to get at least a couple of comments every week. “I went to heaven. That was the best worship ever. I loved the way that song went.” And two minutes later, a different person will come up and say, “I couldn’t worship at all. I hated that song. It was terrible. Please don’t ever do that song again.”

It’s really a no-win scenario. Trying to please everyone’s worship taste is a losing battle. So you have to decide up front not to do that. The only measure that counts is widespread participation, and the only way you can measure that is by looking.

Look at people. Look at their bodies. Look at their mouths. Are they singing? Are they participating? Look at these things, because likes and dislikes will kill you.

CE: If the main value is participation, you may have to bring that in gradually — correct? For example, you might also be working on a degree of ethnic diversity or theological diversity.

SN: I’ve certainly done that. I’m not afraid to challenge people to stretch their “worship muscles.” In a sense, it’s like introducing a new song. When we introduce a new song, I understand that participation will be low at first. But we’re looking for it to get picked up. And there will always be early adopters. But that’s a reason why we don’t do new songs all the time.

I generally think that one new song a week is probably the limit that you want to do. That way we stretch people a little bit, but they still get to have something familiar the rest of the time. You can stretch people, and you can introduce new things a bit at a time, but your goal is still participation.

CE: That’s the overriding goal.

SN: Yes…that they will worship God.

CE: In the last few decades, how have you seen worship music change? And where do you see it going?

SN: Thirty years ago, the kind of worship we were doing in the Vineyard at the time was very new and revolutionary. That is no longer true. Many churches do the same kind of worship. You could walk into a Presbyterian church or a Catholic church or a Baptist church and, in many cases, hear much the same kind of music. There are still some really old fashioned, traditional churches still out there, but not very many.

The concern is that it has all gotten very commercialized, particularly in the last 10 to 15 years.

With the commercialization has come a tremendous loss of creativity. There is this mainstream taste that everything commercial caters to, and that’s all you ever tend to get.

Even if somebody comes up with something really good that’s different, how do you find out about it? It’s difficult. Someone can put it on YouTube, but how do you find this needle in the haystack? Sometimes it can be harder for creative people to get a hearing. Maybe young people today seem to be a bit slower at putting their own style  of music into worship songs than my generation was.

But then again, maybe it’s more complicated because there really is not just one style anymore. The flip side is that some things are easier. Again, you can do songs on the web, on YouTube, and so forth. There is a positive side to that too.

CE: It seems that in your generation, the music style was probably 200 years behind, and your generation of the Vineyard got it up to speed! Now, for us, it’s still relevant, even if we haven’t put our complete young-people stamp on it. It’s still rock music.

SN: Yes, maybe it doesn’t need to be as revolutionary now.

CE: And now good worship music exists without us having to be quite as creative. Modern worship’s not bad…even when it’s kind of bad.

SN: I think that’s a significant change in the past few decades. It has its pluses and minuses.

One other thing is this: I don’t think we have enough worship music that caters to men. I think the general repertoire of available worship music leans pretty heavily on the “Jesus-is-my-boyfriend” concept. I think it can leave many men kind of cold. The Vineyard’s tradition leans to intimacy, but then it also might mean it leans towards the feminine side.

CE: I don’t want to kiss Jesus at all.

SN: Right! I, at least, find that a little difficult to relate to. My feeling is that men need songs they can yell to.

When you think about where men sing outside the church, it’s at football games, or soccer games. They’ll sing fight songs. Sometimes in armies, men would sing. But it was a particular kind of singing. It was war songs. Fighting songs. That’s something we can work on. We need more songs you can yell to.

The overriding goal is for everyone to worship God.

Written by: Steve Nicholson

This article was originally published in Cutting Edge Magazine Vol.15 no10: Worthship
Image taken from the original Cutting Edge Magazine Design: Art Direction & Design by Spindle Studios,,

Added: 2012-06-11   |   Filed under: Interviews & Stories


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