Thinking Out Loud

July 30, 2016

Self-Centered Worship Leading

A few years back I was sitting in the large auditorium on the grounds of a denominational campground. We were just coming up to the message, and the person chairing the service remarked about the great acoustics in the place and suggested we stand and sing the simple, one-word chorus, “Hallelujah” acapella. I was looking forward to this.

He started us off, but then, instead of going off-microphone, like you do in these situations, he just kept wailing into the mic, with the result that while we got to hear a little bit of what it might sound like if it was just the sound of our voices, we mostly got to hear the sound of his voice.

leading acapella in churchDoing this correctly is a worship-leading technique that is basic. I would have thought everybody knows this.

I should say that this a very, very personality-driven denomination, and one in which the parishioners play into the leader-driven culture by not doing anything unless their pastor tells them to do it. So while it’s a bit of an exaggeration, it’s entirely possible that the second he appeared to stop singing, they would have all stopped. That would be funny.

(The solution to that, by the way involves leading with your arms. The rhythmic one-two-three-four type of hand waving you often see done in older churches is actually orchestral conducting, what you really want to do is accent the sung syllables, which is closer to choral conducting, which is also visually more worshipful.)

Anyway, I told all this to my wife a few days later — this actually happened several times, involving How Great is Our God and one other song — and she very accurately said, “that is so very dumb and so totally self-centered.”

Self-centered. Ah, there’s the problem. The secret of church leadership, no matter what your role, is to know when to get out of the way. By that I don’t mean knowing when to retire (although that’s important, too) but knowing when not to take center stage, when to let things just take place organically; when to let things be congregation-led and not top-down.

In a modern church culture that is saturated with rhythm sections (drums, bass, lead guitar, rhythm guitar, keyboards, etc.) singing acapella is a refreshing change. But the entire point of the exercise is to allow the congregation to hear the sound of their own voices in a single blend. The smallest measure of musical instincts would tell you to set the microphone aside and if absolutely necessary, lead with your hands only.

That didn’t happen. It’s why it didn’t happen that concerns me. It betrays an ego so incredibly large that it affects the quality of the ministry taking place. It’s an obstruction a time in a worship service where you want to minimize distractions. Granted, I suppose you need a bit of ego to want to be on the stage, or want to write the book, or want to go on Christian television. Introverts don’t gravitate to those positions.

However, let me go on record as saying that introverts probably make the best worship leaders. Choosing a worship staff member for your church? Pick the person who exhibits the greatest humility.


  1. Of course you’re right; I have reminded myself that “I don’t need anyone to help me sin” – so when I am in this situation, all my (self) righteous judgment comes out. I just have to leave if I can’t worship with some pure sense of joy. We’re all worshippers – thing is – who are we worshipping? I suspect we will have “greater humility” (a funny way of putting that) when we know the One worthy of greater worship. Thanks for your post.

    Comment by R.H. (Rusty) Foerger — July 30, 2016 @ 6:10 pm

  2. Wow, great post. I have to think about this because I’m probably guilty of it at various points in the past.
    I’d *like* to think that (at least in my case, but maybe this man’s?) it can be ignorance or lack of thought about the purpose behind the a cappella moment.
    “It would sound good if we all stop playing and it’s just voices at this point. I’ll just keep singing into the mic so we know where we’re at in the song.” is different in intent from “hear me sing! It’s all about me! Listen to me!”
    But if it comes across that way, and since I’ll agree it likely takes away from what makes those moments so special, then definitely this is good advice / critique to adopt and change how we lead.
    Thank you for posting some illuminating thoughts on the idea of a cappella singing.

    Comment by sonworshiper — July 30, 2016 @ 6:22 pm

    • A guy I greatly admired taught me a few things on this. One technique is to move completely off mic but still sing strong (at first). The congregation is “keyed” to your voice at this point and you’ll carry the melody to get them started. But the other thing he taught me was to continually be backing off in vocal volume as a song progresses (regardless of whether you’re doing anything a cappella). He just did this as a matter of course until the congregation was mostly hearing themselves; the sound of their own voices.

      This guy had a really thought-out methodology, but sadly dropped out of sight about a decade ago. It’s unfortunately, because he taught me and so many others so many things which became part of our basic worship toolkit.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — July 30, 2016 @ 9:49 pm

  3. Totally agree, Paul. Ironically, it was watching my yet-to-be-husband quietly and humbling playing his bass in the back of the stage that attracted me to him. He didn’t draw any attention to himself but it was wonderful watching him worship God.

    Comment by Diane — July 31, 2016 @ 8:49 am

    • It’s exactly the right attitude to have when you’re on the platform, although, in the context of the article, the phrase, “that attracted me to him,” was somewhat ironic. The human situation will always compete with the attempts at the divine focus. (There’s a sentence for you!)

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — July 31, 2016 @ 9:01 am

  4. It’s obvious that a worship leader, with a band behind him, feels it necessary to sing into his microphone or else there’s no need for him. Most church goers know when to start and stop singing hymns with just an organ accompaniment. My favorite modern worship experience was when during whichever song was being played, the leader was playing a guitar solo and on the screen was written ( guitar solo ) … as though we didn’t know.

    Comment by The Purging Lutheran — July 31, 2016 @ 10:00 am

    • “Guitar solo” seriously? To think that I cringe when I see “repeat.”

      On a more pragmatic level though, while I don’t favor instrumental interludes, I love it when the worship team thought to post a scripture slide at that point in the song.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — July 31, 2016 @ 12:31 pm

      • Yes, they did that. I wonder if they did it to avoid a blank screen. Parishioners might wander away if they think that’s it!

        Comment by The Purging Lutheran — August 2, 2016 @ 8:01 pm

  5. […] Self-Centered Worship Leading […]

    Pingback by Our views on Christian Worship Music | Belgian Biblestudents - Belgische Bijbelstudenten — August 6, 2016 @ 6:49 am

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