Posted by: tommybrennan | November 18, 2011

Confessions of a Church Worship Leader

I have been involved in Church worship since 1981.  I started playing bass at a small charismatic church in Clawson Michigan.  We met in the YWCA.  It was the typical “This is the Day”, “The Joy of the The Lord is my Strength”, “Allelluia” chorus material that was popular at the time.   From there, I wound up in a church in Detroit, and I was playing bass in a  black gospel music setting.  After this, I became a song leader in a traditional church in Royal Oak.  The songs were from the 1970’s and early 80’s and hymns.   I would stand in the pulpit and sing with  an organ and piano accompanying.  The congregation would always join in very enthusiastically, and with a lot of intensity.  I really sensed God’s presence in those worship services.  The fact that the congregation all sang made my job easier, as my voice is decent, but I am no Pavarotti.  I was merely a conduit, and I was in the background even though I was the leader.  Yes, I know.  A paradox.  But that is the way it was.

The next church that I was in was a less traditional church in New York.  I led worship then as well.  It was a songleader-behind-the pulpit arrangement like the last church in Royal Oak.  The church began to update its music, and began to experience a great freedom and intensity in worship.  I began to play bass in the worship services when I wasn’t leading worship.  This gave the music a new dynamic, and definitely made it more contemporary.  We were doing a lot of Robin Mark, some Hillsongs, Integrity, Tomlin, Townend and hymns.   There was a definite freshness in the music, and worship retained its strength.

This is a pretty common story in churches today.  I am wisely going to avoid the whole New vs. Old argument that is raging in some quarters.  I do want to stand objectively outside of the whole situation, and attempt to make a few observations.  If the reader will kindly allow my self-indulgence for a moment, I will offer some thoughts.

1.  The hymns are quickly disappearing from church services.  They seem to be regarded with very little respect in many places.  I think this is an absolute tragedy.  The hymns are precious treasures.  They contain a vast wealth of God-inspired wisdom, comfort and encouragement.  They are some of the best writing that has ever emerged from the English language.  They contain huge portions of scripture, they teach doctrine, they give the listener hope from saints of old, and they provide a solid foundation for faith.  From a strictly aesthetic angle, they contain some of the most sublime language, phrases and metaphors that have ever been penned in the Christian faith.  Most of the melodies are remarkably strong, and have a timelessness about them.  They are healthy food for the congregation.  So, I think churches shouldn’t shy away from the hymns, but rather showcase them.  Perhaps some will benefit from a more modern arrangement.  Go ahead and do it then.  But don’t feel like you have to make them contemporary or relevant.   They already are.  Simply let their message flow through your 21st century Levites.   The hymns carry their own anointing.

2.  Much of the music presently offered for worship is no longer congregational.  In other words, a large portion of the congregation doesn’t sing or won’t sing along with the worship musicians.  There are two main reasons for this.   First, many of the songs are simply hard to sing.  They have been written more as a testimony song rather than a congregational song.  They are more geared to showcasing a vocalist than allowing any person with a voice to participate.  This means that it is great if it’s meant to be a concert, but not so great in a congregational setting.  I am a purist in this sense.  The whole purpose of gathering together on a Sunday morning in one place is to lift up the name of Jesus, in prayer and song.  The purpose is not to come and listen to the professionals do it for you.  If a song is difficult to sing, people will just listen, and they become passive observers instead of dynamic participants.  I have seen and heard people try to sing a song, miss a few notes, and just drop out.  This is sad.  There are many songs that are very easy to sing, and the congregation will belt them out.  Give them a chance to sing, and they  will surprise you.  A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself  if you can sing a song by yourself without any instruments.  Can you sing it in the car by yourself?  Can the average person sing it by themselves?  If they can’t sing it easily by themselves, you have a song that can only be sung once a week in a very controlled environment.  Compare that to the old spirituals that can be sung while working in a field.  Perhaps this should be a test to determine what is a congregational song, and what is a testimony song.  Secondly, many churches treat worship more like a concert than a corporate experience.  The goal in a worship setting is not to be tricky.   Or to display the musicians’ and vocalists’ talent.  Or to see how cool we can play the latest top 40 Christian hit.  It is to bring the focus on Jesus Christ.   He alone is worthy.   In my humble opinion, the musicians should be invisible because the congregation has their eyes closed and is focusing on Jesus.  As a musician, I should be seeking to direct the attention to Jesus, and deflect the attention to the only One who is worthy.  I am not accusing here, I am making a studied observation.  We are human, and the tendency is to enjoy the attention that comes with playing in front of people.  There is a time and a place for performance.  Sunday morning congregational worship is not that time.  This goes for traditional churches as well as contemporary churches.  Let us ask the Holy Spirit to search us, and know our hearts, and find if there is any wrong motive in us.

Anyway, this is my two cents worth after leading worship for 25 years in a number of different contexts.  If this is helpful, use it.  If it isn’t, feel free to disregard it.   It may not be for you.   Don’t get condemned over this.  But if the Lord is saying something through these short observations, “whatsoever he saith unto you, do it”.

Brother Tom



  1. Cogent observations, Tom. Reading your post, I hear my own pastor’s voice. My pastor has said that hymns…at least one should always be folded into a worship team’s song list. Pastor Dave Beelen, would also agree….worship is NOT entertainment! We should always be active as a congregation in worship, as we enter God’s presence, and lift our hearts…and many of us, our hands, up to him.

  2. Tom…spot on!
    As a fellow veteran worship leader I now find myself getting invitations to come to a church/ministry and conduct worship seminars. Many of the points you made here (which I too stress) have never really been taught to the next generation of worship leaders. I call my conferences “It’s Not About You”; stressing the emphasis of a worship leaders’ responsibility to serve…not star.
    Blessings my friend…I look forward to experiencing some music and worship together God-willing this summer


  3. Bring on the hymns! What a painless way to learn doctrine! I read that when Jim Elliot had been martyred in the Ecuador jungle with 4 other men, the one thing that held Elisabeth Elliot was the hymns—she could think of nothing else.

  4. Even though I don’t go to church I see your point clearly. I imagine that singing as part of a large group brings with it a sense of unification. I guess the focus here should be on the message rather than the performance.

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