I recently talked with a young woman serving in a new role as a part-time church music director. After spending a couple of Sundays at her parents’ larger church, she became discouraged in her efforts: “I just can’t produce something as grand as what they can, and I’m not even a professional musician.”
I empathized as a fellow worship leader. My intended music degree didn’t happen; I serve part-time in a smaller church with limited resources; and, although I play the piano, I’m not a great singer so I struggle to lead vocally. I too have bowed to self-pity from time to time.
But that’s exactly what Satan uses to distract us from the ultimate purpose of this job. To lead God’s people in worship is to usher them to Jesus through singing, and it’s a grand and beautiful responsibility whether you’re leading with a choir and full symphony or a single voice and a guitar.
For music leaders with less resources, a few important considerations can help awaken the joy of this calling and create a beautifully worshipful atmosphere for your congregation.
1. Create a hospitable singing environment.
Hospitable worship is inviting, engaging, and gracious. For a music director, contributing to that environment means choosing songs and hymns that allow congregants to join in easily and eagerly. This is important no matter the size of the congregation, and it’s possible no matter the number of people leading. Top-level production and original compositions are wonderful and can add much to a worship service, but the simplicity of supporting the congregation in singing is powerful, and it’s not a minor responsibility.
Robust singing occurs when songs are familiar and singable, so it’s important most of the selections are ones the congregation knows and feels comfortable with. But we can keep our worship fresh by introducing new hymns and songs from time to time. As you introduce new music, listen to your congregation sing. Make note of whether or not they sing out on a new song. Keeping a running list of music that your congregation sings heartily will help you make good musical selections week to week.
Top-level production and original compositions are wonderful, but the simplicity of supporting the congregation in singing is powerful.
Consider providing sheet music for those who like to follow music or who are new to your church and unfamiliar with the songs.
Lastly, think about the key of the songs you select. If you lead as a male vocalist, consider asking for female input on the keys of the songs you have planned (and vice versa). If half the congregation is squeaking through the songs, struggling to hit the notes, it doesn’t foster bold congregational singing.
2. Know your theology.
As you listen to new music, pay close attention to whether the words are theologically sound. This makes a big difference in the robustness of a worship service. It’s wonderfully helpful to shed light on scriptural truths through music. But not all worship songs about God accurately reflect the truth about him. When in doubt about a song’s theology, ask your pastors and elders for help. A song may feel compelling, but your job isn’t to simply create an emotional experience—it’s to enhance the veracity of God’s Word through music.
You can’t do that effectively if you aren’t spending time with Scripture. Your personal study equips you to assess the theological merits of various songs. As you study, your relationship with Jesus is strengthened, and simultaneously, so is your worship leading. As the Holy Spirit works in your heart to help you know Jesus through his Word, so will he use that spiritual growth as you aid God’s people in worship.
3. Know your team’s musical capability.
Consider whether an arrangement of a song or hymn is one your music group can effectively lead. I love the opportunity to visit churches where the sanctuary is filled with the magnificent sound of a pipe organ and multivoice choir. It’s gorgeous. But I can’t emulate that in our church. What I can do is take the same moving piece of music and think through how it can be effectively communicated on a guitar or with just a few voices. And this can be done!
When my music team hears a recording of a new song we’re going to try, I always remind them, “We’re going to make it our own.” If you find a song that’s theologically rich and singable but seems too complicated musically, don’t toss it to the side right away. Try to adjust it to fit your musicians. There’s no rule you must play a song just like the recording. Know your team’s musical capabilities, and take the time to think through how you can adjust good music to fit your group’s abilities.
4. Pray for and model a servant’s heart.
This job, like many in ministry, doesn’t receive regular accolades—nor should it. As a music director, you’re there to serve. Each week, the labor is done on behalf of the congregants who come together for worship. Some will trudge in with burdened hearts; others will stream in feeling happy and light. Your job is to serve this diverse group by leading them in God-honoring worship that meets them where they are.
Take the time to think through how you can adjust good music to fit your group’s abilities.
The same attitude is necessary in how you view your music team. Especially in a smaller church, it’s likely most are volunteers. Encourage them in their efforts, thank them regularly for their time, and don’t ever stop modeling what it means to lead in worship. We can’t assume new singers and musicians understand the difference between a choral concert and a worship service. Serve them by mentoring, teaching, and guiding them.
And by God’s grace, don’t ever lose sight of whom you ultimately serve as a music director. This keeps self-pity at bay. We do what we do to the glory of God and in honor of his name. He will use our efforts. Come alongside your congregation, usher them toward our great God, and see how he creates something grand.