Principles of Worship Leading

Recent Posts: The Path of Life Daily Devotions

Artistry: Leading Worship

Principles of Worship Leading

Let the River flow!


(Author’s Note: This article is actually an appendix in my book, Worship that Pleases God: the Passion and Reason of True Worship. It was written in the early 1990’s. The technical and cultural changes in how worship is led should be in the mind of the reader. The main subject, the principles of worship leading, are timeless.  Thanks, Stephen Phifer June 24, 2016) (Revised again, July, 2019 to include male and female worship leaders.)

We must take all that we have learned about worship: the attitudes of the heart, the relationship we have with God, the concepts of the priority of worship, the principles and directives, and the confidence in our anointing to worship and apply these things to the actual planning and execution of the worship service. We will look at worship leading with two lenses: a wide view that looks at the whole service from beginning to end and a narrow view that looks at the congregational praise and worship time.

The Entire Service of Worship

It is essential that the worship planner keep the whole service in mind. If one is a musician he/she will naturally focus attention on the music segment of the service. If one is a pastor his/her primary concern will probably be the sermon time. Both the chief musician and the pastor are worship leaders. Each must follow the other’s leadership: the pastor worshiping God with all his/her might and the musician intently following every word the pastor speaks. In this way both deflect attention away from themselves back to the leader in the pulpit whether he/she is leading in praise and worship music or preaching the Word.

When a chief musician first learns about the destinations of worship services (the Throne Room, The Holy of Holies, and the Lord’s Office-Place) it is natural for him/her to want to take the people all the way into those places while the praise and worship music is being offered to the Lord. This is not necessary. We need to pass through the veil at some point during the service, but not always during the praise and worship music. Again, I am indebted to my friend Larry Hartley for an illustration from his ministry.

A Revealing Experience
His worship leading was doing well. The people were following him and in every service they were moving through the outer courts and having powerful times in the Holy of Holies. Larry’s pastor began to withdraw from his normally unrestrained worship. After a few weeks, Larry was greatly concerned. (A good chief musician wants to please God and his pastor!) As men of God and pastoral team members must do, they talked it out. Larry’s pastor’s wisdom does much to ease any strain between the forces of “spirit” and the forces of “truth.” “Why do you have to take them all the way into the Holy of Holies every time you lead worship? Why can’t we stop for a while in the Holy Place? That is a good place to be, the place of prayer and the Word in the light of the Holy Spirit.” Larry told me this and then went further with the truth. “It’s OK, Steve, to stop in the Holy Place for a while. The veil is torn. We can see the ark from there! All is well in the Holy Place!” I too, had been struggling with the strain of feeling that I was supposed to bring the congregation all the way to the goal in praise and worship time. I can remember how this revelation relaxed that drive in me. God is interested in the whole service not just the music time or the preaching time.

With all that we have learned we can now chart the worship service from beginning to end. We will look at only the spirit and truth elements in a service 90 minutes in length. Of course the amazing thing about a worship service is that it is essentially a spiritual event and can never be nailed down as neatly as this chart. This chart only serves to illustrate the flow from praise to worship, from spirit activity to truth activity. Different biblical models are charted by this illustration.

God’s Holy Spirit can do thousands of different things all at once in the same room. One worshiper may have a Throne Room visit beholding God’s majesty and submitting to His sovereignty while the next person may be exchanging his weakness for the Lord’s strength in the Holy of Holies and another may be visiting the Lord’s Office-Place just to be held for a while in the arms of the Lord. It may be that the Holy Spirit desires to take the whole congregation into one of these manifestations of the Lord’s presence all at once during the music time. It would be wonderful for an entire sermon to be a visit to the Holy of Holies. Remember these models are merely illustrations. They are clay in the hands of the Holy Spirit to be molded by Him to reveal Jesus to us. Our role as worship leaders is to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s wishes when we plan and execute the service.

Congregational Praise and Worship Music

Terminology is important. Will we have a “song service” or a “praise and worship” time? Will the leader be a “song leader” or a “worship leader?” What is the difference?

A song leader leading a song service is this:

  • a person leading other people singing songs and
  • instrumentalists accompanying them.

A worship leader leading a praise and worship time is so much more:

  • people praising and worshiping God with and without songs;
  • instrumentalists praising and worshiping God with the sounds of music;
  • people praising and worshiping from their hearts while the instrumentalists play (which may be what “selah” meant);
  • gifts of the Spirit in scriptural operation;
  • Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” flowing;
  • the Lord indwelling the praise of His people and finding our praise worthy to be His Throne;
  • the Lord using our worship as His Office -place;
  • the River of Life flowing from His Throne to our restoration and the healing of the nations;
  • Heaven and earth coming together at Mt. Zion in the unity of praise and worship to the Lamb on the Throne;
  • the call of God going forth to those He has anointed to specific areas of service;
  • the church moving forward in unison in the will of God;
  • the testimony of the church that Jesus is alive validated by the manifestation of His presence; and
  • unbelievers falling down and worshiping God with us, saying that God is in us “of a truth.”

Given a choice of these two things, a song service or a praise and worship time, we would certainly desire the latter. This is exactly the choice we have. It takes leadership to transform a song service into a worship service. God is always the same. God is not on a circuit whereby He only visits us once in a while. He wants to tabernacle with us every time we gather to worship! The River of Life is always flowing from His Throne. If there are inconsistencies they must be ours, inconsistencies in the way we lead worship. We need to closely examine the leadership of the praise and worship time within the service.


1. Who is a worship leader?

A worship leader is a man or woman who is called of God to lead in worship. If we want the power of God to flow in our worship, the leader must be a person GOD has selected. The anointing is as essential to this ministry as it is to any other ministry. Those whom God calls, He also enables. Without this enablement the worship time will be mired in imitation and fleshly effort. Many congregations are waiting, week after week, for song leaders to become worship leaders or yield the position to a worship leader. Anyone who is so prideful of the “song leader” position that he will not share leadership with other anointed leaders is probably not called of God. Leaders who are anointed of the Lord hold their positions among men with a light grip. They have no trouble making way for others who are anointed. However, those who have been placed in a leadership position by the hand of man must hold tightly to it with their own strength.

Musical skill and understanding are essential. Music must be handled properly or it will inhibit the flow of God’s Spirit. A skillful musical mind can release the powers of music to support the expression of God’s people. On the other hand, unskillful handling of music can spoil the sacrifice of praise of the whole church, the Holy-Royal Priesthood.

The worship leader must be broken before the Lord and remain broken. Through Isaiah, the Lord makes it clear that He visits His presence upon those who are humble before Him.

For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones. (Isaiah 57:15 KJV)

Thus saith the Lord, the heaven is my throne, and the earth my footstool: where is the house that ye build unto me? and where is the place of my rest? For all these things hath mine hand made, all those things have been, saith the Lord: but to this man will I look,(“This one will I esteem”, NIV) even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word. (Isaiah 66:1, 2 KJV)

Music and music ministry can be done in a prideful manner, lifting the musician up with pride in performance and position. Worship leading is the exact opposite. Pride is incompatible with God’s presence. When the performance musician succeeds, all eyes are on him and the applause of men floods his heart. When the worship musician or worship leader succeeds, he disappears for all eyes are on Jesus and all applause goes to the Lord. Because they are soulish and physical in their origin, music, thanksgiving, and even praise can be humanly generated. But the manifest presence of the Lord is a heavenly visitation given to those who have a poor and contrite spirit and who tremble at the Word of the Lord. It cannot be generated by man; it is a gift of God. Of all musicians, the worship musician must be humble. The difference between church musicians who are performance-oriented and those who are worship-oriented is obvious. Performers are proud and worshipers are humble.

A Worship Leader is someone who is…
-called of God to lead in worship,
-musically skillful and/or understanding,
-Spiritually broken before the Lord.

2. What is worship?

The relationship between praise and worship has to be held clearly in the mind of the one who plans and leads a worship time.

Praise (thanksgiving and exaltation) should precede worship (adoration and communion). This praise-worship sequence is the reasonable order of worship referred to in Romans 12:1. This is not to say that a sovereign God cannot short-circuit this order and visit us with His manifest presence in times when we have not praised Him. We all may have experienced such astounding times of visitation. But, the goal of the worship leader is not the occasional sovereign move of God, but the pattern God’s Spirit has given us in Scripture. God has also sovereignty chosen to move in the logical, praise-worship sequence. If we are to lead worship, we must understand and submit to this.

Praise is an action of soul and body, a time of thanking the Lord for what He has done and exalting His name, His character, and His deeds.

Here are the gates to His presence and the outer courts of His dwelling place. This is wading ankle deep and knee deep into the River of Life. It is ascending the hill of the Lord where the Tabernacle of David is found. This is the presentation of our bodies to Him. By these things we establish His throne as we minister to the Lord with our Living Sacrifice of Praise. Through praise we prepare ourselves for the revelation of His glory.

Worship is a response of the spirit, a time of expressing our adoration and devotion to God, giving Him an exclusive place in our hearts.

Communion with God is abandoning ourselves to His presence, contemplating His glory, dwelling inside the veil, and drinking in His righteousness. It is the solemn sovereignty of His Throne Room, the holiness of the Holy of Holies, the deep waters of the River of life, the tenderness of His Office-Place, the renewing of the mind, and the glory revealed. True worship transports the worshiper out of time and into eternity. There is a timeless quality to these spiritual destinations.

The worship leader must be careful not to stop with praise. Our goal is to enter His presence with praise so that we may respond to Him in worship. Of course it is always proper to thank and praise the Lord. We begin these expressions in the outer court and bring them with us into the inner court.

These differences can be seen in the music itself. The music of thanksgiving and exaltation can be either upward in direction, thanking and praising God, or it can be outward in direction, speaking to others about God, encouraging them to praise. The music of worship is almost exclusively upward in direction, speaking directly to God. The pronouns in the text signal the direction of the song. A song of mine illustrates.

From Psalm 29:1, 2 comes a song of praise:

Give unto the Lord, O ye mighty.
Give unto the Lord, glory and strength.
Give unto the Lord the glory due His name;
Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.*

From the Revelation comes a second part, still in praise:

Give Him blessing; Give Him honor;
Give Him glory; Give Him power!
Give unto the Lord the Glory due His name;
Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.*

To use this song in a worship time, after we have praised the Lord, I would adapt the lyric:

We give You blessing; We give You honor;
We give You glory; We give You power!
We give unto You, Lord, the glory due Your name:
We worship You, Lord, in the beauty of holiness.*
*”Give Unto the Lord” ©Copyright 1986 by Gospel Publishing House

By adjusting the pronouns we personalize our expression, sending it upward to the Lord. The worship leader must be sensitive to the direction of the songs. I keep this in mind by imagining the heads of the people turning upward when we sing to God and from side to side as we sing to one another. If I look at a series of songs I have planned and see the people getting sore necks from all the direction changes, I have to re-think that sequence. When we see an entire congregation actually looking upward for substantial periods of time as the music carries their individual sacrifices up to the Lord, do we really want to give them a song that brings their attention back to earth to sing to one another about God? How much better it is to sing to Him! God knows the end from the beginning and so must the worship leader—praise leads to worship! It is the revealed pathway to the presence of God.

There is also a manifestation of “spirit and truth” in the character of praise and worship music.

Paul told the Corinthians that he was determined to sing “with the spirit and…with the understanding also.” (I Corinthians 14:15b) Some praise and worship songs are very much “truth” exercises having many verses and developing complex messages of theology or exhortation. These are songs we sing with understanding. Other songs have only a word or a phrase repeated again and again as in “Hallelujah,” “We exalt Thee,” “Worthy is the Lamb,” and “I Love You, Lord.” Some musicians and theologians have decried the lack of content in such songs. But as we sing these vital words again and again our spirits soar. We are singing “with the spirit.” Of course, we have all heard worthless little songs that say nothing and give no important expressions of praise and worship. These have nothing to recommend them. Paul’s testimony gives us biblical permission to enjoy songs of spirit and truth, those presenting great truths as well as those whose simplicity lets our spirits minister to the Lord.

Understanding Praise and Worship

  • Praise is an action of soul and body, a time of thanking the Lord for what He has done and exalting His name, His character, and His deeds.
  • Worship is a response of the spirit, a time of expressing our adoration and devotion to God, giving Him an exclusive place in our hearts.

3. How does one lead in worship?

he first rule of worship leading is this: a worship leader must himself worship God without reservation. He must give himself to praise and worship, hungering above all things for the manifestation of the presence of the Lord. There have been times I thought my heart would pound its way out of my chest as the awe of His majesty broke upon me. With rule number one in mind, this is the step-by-step procedure I recommend. The worship leader must do these things: Prepare his heart to approach the Lord with the people of God. Prepare the leadership for positive change. Prepare the people for a systematic way of approaching God. Prepare a sequence of songs that will take us on that journey and communicate the plan to all the singers, instrumentalists, and technicians who must know where we are going and the musical route chosen. Execute the plan as he is led of the Spirit and as he praises and worships God with all his might, whether the people follow him or not.

Rule Number One:
The Worship Leader must worship God
with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength

Prepare the heart. In preparing the heart to lead worship, a vision for worship is essential. My prayer is that by now your vision for worship has expanded beyond a “song service.” We must have a vision of His majesty. The critical phrase from Psalm 29 is “the glory due unto His name.” This is the biblical standard given to the worship leader. Until a leader has the vision of the majesty and glory of the Lord Jesus, he cannot be an effective worship leader. Throughout the Bible a transforming vision of God is the turning point in the lives of the leaders of God’s people from Abraham to Moses to David to Isaiah to Peter, James, John and to Paul. One of the greatest evidences of the resurrection of Jesus is the refusal of the witnesses who saw Him after His death to retreat from their vision of a risen Lord. A vision of Jesus our Sovereign is the goal of every praise and worship time.

Prepare the leaders. The Lord must awaken a hunger and thirst for this vision of Jesus the King within the pastor, the board, the worship leader, the music department and the people. The pastor is the key personality. The church cannot go deeper into the presence of the Lord than the pastor will go. If he watches his watch during the praise and worship time, or talks to the person next to him, or studies his notes or is merely passive while the people are offering their sacrifices of praise, the church will never surmount the pastor’s personal obstruction.

To illustrate: a worship leader moved to a new church, one that was more involved in praise and worship than his previous church. At his former church, the revelation of God came through preaching not worship; worship was seen as an altar-time experience. The first time this man led worship in his new church he was amazed that so many of the people were worshiping God with all their might. After a few minutes the worship leader’s old instincts told him it was time to stop before this thing got out of hand. He stole a glance at the pastor to see if he was checking his watch. What he saw explained everything. The pastor had no thought of the time. His hands were spread out toward heaven and his head was thrown back with his eyes closed. A broad smile graced lips lost in the praise of His Redeemer. The worship leader then knew why the church was worshiping—the pastor was worshiping! And so it will always be. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all pastors and guest speakers worshiped with all their might like King David. However some do not even come into the service until after the corporate praise and worship time, sending the message that it is really not that important, only a warm-up for the main event. Such non-verbal messages are hindrances to the revelation of Jesus through corporate worship.

On the other hand, the worship leader must not go beyond the pastor’s vision for worship. Conflicts result when musicians are exposed to the kinds of biblical truths we have explored in this study but the pastor is not. When this is the case, the worship leader must be very careful. Usually the flow of theological instruction goes from pastor to staff member, and not the other way. Hopefully, two spiritual leaders can sit down and discuss Scripture and arrive at a mutual plan. The three questions posed in chapter one (Will I worship to please myself? others? or God?) will simplify the process. The heart of a true worshiper is a patient heart submitting to the pastor’s vision. God is never pleased if His truth is used to divide a church or to cause turmoil. The worship leader must never allow a “worship party” to form. God is not in political processes. A “party spirit” is something God hates.

How can a worship leader proceed if his pastor does not share his vision for worship? First, he must realize that worship is not his property. It is God’s. Second, he must realize no one knows better than God how to work in the pastor’s life. Remember that the true-hearted worship leader never touches the Lord’s anointed. Next, the worship leader must pray as he has never prayed before. It may be the Lord is doing something in his life that cannot happen in his current location. We must remember that God is not as wrapped up in our present situations as we tend to be He loves us more than He does our ministries. If he has birthed a ministry in our hearts, He will find a place for us to fulfill it. If He has called us to be a worship leader, He will find us a place where we can lead worship.

Prepare the people. Together, the pastor, the board, and the worship leader must obey the command of Isaiah 40: “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” There may be valleys of insufficiencies that must be built up: insufficient vision for what true worship should be, insufficient understanding of how to go about worship, insufficient time (importance) given to worship, or, insufficient musical skills to release worship. There may be hindering mountains that have to come down: mountains of religious tradition, mountains of attitudes based upon cultural factors, mountains of musical or spiritual pride, mountains of false spirituality (fads, false teachings) or, mountains of insensitivity to the Holy Spirit on the part of those leading various parts of the service. Crooked places in the church procedures may need to be made straight: worship practices that are non-biblical; worship practices that are simply not anointed of God (yielding no supernatural results),or, worship practices that emphasize things neither spirit nor truth. The people may have grown used to rough places that need to be made smooth: careless service planning careless praise and worship planning, careless musicianship, careless treatment of the congregation by failing to provide words for songs, or, careless purchase and maintenance of instruments, materials, and facilities.

These types of hindrances can reach so deep into the life of the congregation that only a united effort by the pastor, the board, the worship leader, and the church musicians can root them out. Yet, this is exactly what is needed if the worship service is ever to be the highway of the Lord.

Prepare the sequence of songs. The pastor and the worship leader must find God’s will for each service. God’s agenda for each service includes the songs (to be found by the worship leader) and the message (to be found by the pastor). Prayerful sensitivity during the week is the key. Just as the pastor must start thinking about the message before Saturday night, the worship leader should have the worship music close to his heart all week. In fact, the music of praise and worship needs to be a part of the worship leader’s daily life. Songs of praise, prayer, and worship should abide in his mind and dwell in his heart. He is constantly stocking his storehouse of new songs. Learning new hymns and choruses is his passion, making them a part of his private devotions long before they are given to the congregation. As early in the week as possible, if the pastor senses a certain theme or emphasis, he needs to point the worship leader that way.

The song sequence should be worked out by midweek, at least. This means the leader has time to do some important things: prepare his heart to lead this set of songs through prayer and meditation; prepare materials needed to execute the plan; prepare the singers and instrumentalists and teach any new songs, and, refine the plan in consultation with the pastor. By preparing through the week the praise and worship plan becomes the prayerful product of the worship leader’s heart. It must establish and maintain a flow of worship and every element should be connected so that it flows together effortlessly.

Two biblical illustrations of excellent preparation come to mind: the seamless robe of Jesus and Solomon’s Temple. The robe the soldiers gambled for was valuable because it was woven in one piece. If the Lord is to wear the robe of praise we prepare for Him, our motivations must be woven of one material: His glory, not ours. We are not showcasing our talents; we are honoring Him. We are not pumping up the people; we are praising the Lord. We are not performing for men’s applause; we are humbling ourselves before men, seeking God’s presence. The temple of Solomon was so well planned the workmen did not need to use the hammer or the iron tool to make the blocks of stone fit together. That is the way a praise and worship plan should be. For me, there have been times when things went wrong. Perhaps chords were mismatched among the keyboards or a transition was muffed. (Any number of things can go wrong!) The thought in my mind was “Oh, I just heard a hammer!” “Wow, I had to use an iron tool to get between those two songs! Forgive, me, Lord, I’ll plan it better next time!”

What makes praise and worship flow?

Connections. Thoughts flow together when the last line of one song connects to the first line of the next. Thanksgiving flows into praise, which flows into worship. Moods flow together also: joy gives way to majestic wonder, which leads to reverent awe. Musically, the praise and worship will flow when songs are grouped together by their musical elements: key, tempo, and style.

The music of congregational praise and worship differs in this respect from the music of performance, even when that performance is ministered unto the Lord. Performance musicians are trained to surprise the listener with all sorts of musical devices: sudden modulations, sudden stops, rubato, fermatas, contrasts in style and tempo, and so forth. The purpose of these things is to keep the audience’s attention riveted to the performer. The goal of the worship musician is to point the listener’s attention to Jesus, not to himself. Therefore these elements must be used in ways that support the praise and worship, not detract from it. Music that is constantly jumping back and forth in tempo, or style, or constantly starting and stopping, or attempts to defy the natural flow of music from key to key will not flow as a corporate worship experience because it is constantly calling attention to itself. When ministering to the congregation, we can let our creativity and craftsmanship soar, but when ministering with the congregation, we must use our musical skill to facilitate the flow of the music. The skillful musician must be careful not to leave the congregation behind on his personal ascent of Mt. Zion.

A praise and worship experience will flow if it has a destination.

Many times the pastor knows what should happen in the service and gives the worship leader a theme: missions, the Lord’s Supper, Prayer, and so on. Often, however, the worship leader must depend on the Lord for direction. God always knows what He wants to do in a service. Through the Holy Spirit we can be guided to the right ideas and find the songs to carry them. Through our musical understanding and our sensitivity to the Holy Spirit we can craft these songs and thoughts into a plan that God can use.

I will outline my process.

Planning worship is such an interplay of songs, truths, and the personality of the worship leader that I hesitate to generalize as if all worship leaders plan the way I do, or that they should.

  • I think of the models as basic guidance from the Holy Spirit. When I begin to plan the worship I will sometimes sense a desire to crown Jesus King among us, so I put together a set of songs that take us to the Throne Room. At other times I will sense that we should really celebrate the Lord’s presence so I put together a musical ascent of Mt. Zion to worship at David’s tabernacle. At still other times, I will sense the Lord’s desire to dwell with His people in the healing fullness of His holiness, and I will let thoughts of the Holy of Holies guide my selection of music. I think of what I am planning as the Living Sacrifice of Praise for the Holy-Royal Priesthood. On and on we can go through all the models. They serve this dual function: to help us understand worship and to guide our thinking as we plan worship.
  • Many times the Lord impresses me first with how He wants the praise and worship time to end and I work toward that specific goal. At other times a certain chorus or hymn will be the definite starting point and I start connecting last lines to first lines, keys to keys, and styles to styles until I joyfully discover, song by song, where the Holy Spirit wants to take us.
  • However God leads the worship leader, the worship plan is not something that is just thrown together at the last minute. The worship leader seeks and prepares it as a pastor would a Word from the Lord! It is a product of the worship leader’s devotional life, his sensitivity to the Holy Spirit, and his musicianship.

Communicate the plan. A simple sheet of paper for each service should be provided to each singer, player, and technician who will help in the service. The number of things the leader can communicate with a one page outline of the service is amazing: keys, modulations, introductions, interludes, differing orchestrations on hymn stanzas, solos, anticipated transitions and repeats, anything that can be thought out ahead of time.

Execute the plan. Leading in worship only begins with the plan. During the time of praise and worship in the service, the worship leader has to exercise sensitive leadership as the plan unfolds. It is at this point that he must walk a tightrope: he must worship God with all his might, but still be thinking ahead in the plan; he must give himself completely to the praise and worship of his God, but still gauge how the people are responding to the plan he is giving them; and, he must take charge of the musical aspects of the sequence (tempo, transitions, etc.) but never feel like he is making something happen.

Leading worship is a process of letting something happen, not making something happen.

Prepare the heart
Prepare the leaders
Prepare the people
Prepare the songs (old and new)
Communicate the plan
Execute the plan

Signals These things need to be in place for this to come about: the plan must be available to all who need it, and signals must be used and the words must be provided. Use simple signals during the service. There are some things that cannot be planned ahead of time. The worship leader needs a set of signals. Again, let me share the ones I use as these are the only ones I can vouch for. Make eye contact with the pianist just before the next modulation in the plan. Because all the musicians have the plan, they are all looking for my signal as to the moment when we will do the modulation. The pianist makes sure the organist and the rhythm section know that the time is coming—and it happens! All from a written plan and a glance! I walk around quite a bit as I lead worship, so it is easy for me to give the signal without the congregation noticing. (I have had to work with the piano in all possible locations, behind me and to either side, but I have never had to abandon “the look” as a signal for the next modulation.)

A signal for a transition is needed. I put my right hand in the air and all the musicians know I am about to conduct something. I conduct all transitions, getting the tempo changes I want or creating pauses between songs. (I do not conduct all during praise and worship. Once a tempo is set, there is no need to beat it out. In this way, when I need to conduct something, my gestures have meaning.)

A “last time” or coda signal is needed so the musicians can know when the last time through a song is upon them, especially if there is a special ending. I use my right fist in the air. All of the signals only work if players are watching. With their utmost attention given to the worship leader, such signals can be discreet. The whole congregation should not be distracted by the signals used by the worship leader.

Providing the words People cannot be expected to sing songs if they do not know the words. As an act of invitation and courtesy, provide the words. The old ways of singing from memory do not serve the growing church of today. (Note: This article was written at a time when projection of words was a controversial issue. Thank God those days are gone!) When there aren’t a lot of new people coming to the church each week is little need to provide words for the home folk. When new people are coming to houses of worship, some were not raised in church. They may not even know the words to “Amazing Grace!” In an effort to reach out to them and make them feel welcome, we must provide words on all the songs we sing, new or old. Pastor Gifford (of the Wichita church I served in the early 1980’s) said this of memorized singing, “It makes the visitors feel like they are on the outside looking in, as if we were saying to them, `See all the neat songs we know! If you stay here long enough, you can learn our songs, too, and then you can join us.'” This is not the message the worship leader wants to send. On the other hand, if we provide the words to all our songs, we are saying, “We’re glad you are here. We love to sing unto the Lord. Many of our songs may be new to you but we want you to join us and sing!” This is the message of the effective worship leader.

The songs themselves have changed today; there are more of them and they are more complex than those of yesterday. To do justice to the songs we select requires visual help. Today’s songs have much more content and much less repetition; words are needed. God always has music for each stage of growth through which He takes the church. New songs soar on the winds of revival. They are the life of the praise and worship of the church.

A balance of old and new songs is best as we learn to value all anointed songs. Those who by nature love the new songs must learn to appreciate the old songs. Those who love the old songs must learn to respect the new songs. New songs are a command of Scripture but Scripture also says for one generation to declare God’s works to the next. Previous generations have left us their songs! Older songs still have much to say and their use can be enhanced by projecting of words as well. Old and new, songs that exalt the Lord, edify the body and flow decently and in order are works of the Holy Spirit and should be esteemed as such.

Rule Number Two:
Be prepared and be flexible.
Have a plan and know how to modify
it as the Holy Spirit Leads.

Let the Music Flow.

Music is designed by the Lord to flow. There are certain ways it will flow and other ways it simply will not. To illustrate let me recall an incident from the second or third grade. A taxidermist visited our class with a small, stuffed animal, a raccoon I think, on a wooden stand. The teacher carefully walked down each isle, letting each one of us touch it. When it was my turn, I stroked it from the back toward the head. The fur did not grow that way so all I did was disturb the work of the craftsman, making the smooth hairs stand up in awkward clumps along the path of my hand. The teacher corrected me, “Steve, the hair didn’t grow that way. Stroke it the way it grows!” I suppose it embarrassed me enough that I have never forgotten that moment, but in latter years I remember it with a musical application. Sometimes worship leaders do not understand the way music flows, and they try to make it flow backwards. Their praise and worship times end up being a series of awkward clumps, like that raccoon’s fur after I finished with it. To avoid this, let’s look at the way music is designed to flow.

The flow of tonality involves the relationship between keys. The worship leader cannot just simply put down songs without reference to their keys because music does not jump around from any key to any key. The major keys are related to each other by the interval of a fifth. The key of C is the fifth of the key of F, so it is quite natural to flow from C to F between songs. When planning a worship series and I am in one key searching for the next song, I search two lists, the one for the key I am in, and the one for the key up one fourth (called the subdominant). Adjacent keys (up 1/2 step, up 1 step) are also easy to move up to by playing the five (the dominant) of the new key. The important thing to remember is that keys flow upward, not downward. One can easily do a song once in Eb and then in F, but to do it the other way around is awkward does not flow. Based on these observations I use three modulations: up 1/2 step, up one step, and up one fourth. These three modulations simplify things for our musicians; they know the modulation chord is always the five of the new key.

Minor keys are more challenging. Once a minor tonality is established it is best to stay in that mode for a while. When it is time to leave, the options are to go directly to the parallel major (F minor to F major) or to go to the relative major (G minor to Bb major).

Major Keys: up perfect fourth/  up 1/2 step ‘up whole step

Minor Keys: up 1/2 step/up whole step to parallel major /to relative major

Tempos flow together also. Once a tempo is established, it is best to stay with it until you are ready to go to another tempo for another set of songs. It is distracting to change tempos on every song. Here is a common plan: fast tempo (several songs) / medium tempo (one or two songs) / slow tempo (several songs). Song sequences should not always start fast, move to medium tempo, and finish with slow songs. The models should free us from such rigid thinking. For instance, if we want to scale Mt. Zion to worship at David’s tabernacle, we may begin our ascent with slower songs, build to the medium tempo songs, then the fast songs, and finish with songs in a majestic tempo. There are many ways songs can flow together in various tempos.

Styles and meters need to flow together, too. As with tempos, songs should be grouped together according to style. Not all songs in the same tempo are in the same style. A medium tempo song can have a triplet feel or a 16th note pulse or an 8th note pulse. It can be distracting to try to “swing” one song and then do the next with straight 8th notes even though the two are in the same tempo. The same guidelines apply to meters. Music that is constantly switching from 4/4 to 3/4 to 9/8 to 6/8 and so forth, will not flow. Use one meter until it has served its purpose then go to another.

Flowing Elements of Music
Rhythmic Style


The worship leader must master the art of transition. Leading the singers, instrumentalists, and worshipers through the transitions between songs and sections of praise and worship is the most critical skill the worship leader must develop. Our songs might be well thought out, the keys may be right, and everyone prepared to the best of his ability, but that does not guarantee a smooth flow.

The worship leader must negotiate the end of every song and the beginning of the next in a natural, easy way that does not attract attention away from the worship.

  • Grouping the songs together by thoughts, keys, tempos, meters, and styles should make it easy to go directly between those songs without stopping.
  • When a change is necessary it should be well thought out in a sequence of changes with never more than two at one time. For example, suppose we had just led four up-tempo songs in F. They were all in the same meter and style so we simply went from one to another without stopping. The next song is slower, much slower, for we are moving from praise to worship, from singing about God to singing to God, and we are moving to Bb. To abruptly slow everything down and change tonality, the direction (remember the pronouns) and songs all at once will shut down the momentum the praise songs gave us. A transition is needed. Here’s what I would do:

STEPS IN A TRANSITION—A Sequence of Changes
1. I raise my right hand to signal that I am about to conduct a tempo change;
2. Conducting the new tempo, I repeat the last line of the final up-tempo chorus at a slower tempo; perhaps repeat it again;
3. I make eye contact with the pianist to signal that this is the last repeat—the modulation is next;
4. When I hear the 7th of F, I imagine the first note of the next song in Bb and start into it.

Analysis of Change Sequence

Let’s examine this common transition.

  • I took control of the tempo when I put my hand in the air and started conducting. (If I had been conducting all along, this would have no meaning.)
  • When I repeated the last line of the fast song at a slower tempo, I did two important things: I emphasized the truth of that song, and I signaled the end of a section and an oncoming change. People, from platform musicians to those in the pew, appreciate knowing that a change is coming. Changes are pleasant when we are ready for them.

Here are transitions I use most:

  • Repeated last lines or half choruses in the old tempo, (signals an ending or transition)
  • Repeated last lines in the new tempo (if slower)
  • Spoken prayer, praise or applause unto the Lord,
  • “Selah” times when the orchestra plays while the people praise and worship the Lord,
  • Instrumental interludes, introductions, or endings; and,
  • Vocal cues for the words we are about to sing.

There is a common transition I rarely use—talking!

Why should we stop people from worshiping to talk to them? They are going to hear a sermon in a few minutes. What they need to do now is sing unto the Lord. Never preach at the people. And, especially, never, ever chide them when they are not entering in the way you want them to. Why? Because it does not work. It is not your place and you only discourage those who are entering in. A worship leader should never give the impression he is expecting the people to perform up to his standards.

King David is my model. He danced before the ark with all his might with little thought for who was dancing with Him. When the congregation looks at the worship leader they should see a worshiper who is ministering to the Lord, not someone trying to get a response out of them. One more “never”—never teach about worship when it is time to worship. Worship leaders who talk too much are their own worst enemies. A few words of exhortation at the beginning of the praise and worship time is my limit. Those extremely rare occasions when God prompts me to exhort during praise and worship have a great impact because God is in it and it does not happen every week.

Effective Transitions
Repeated last lines or half choruses in the old tempo,
Repeated last lines in new tempo (if slower),
Spoken prayer, praise or applause unto the Lord,
“Selah” ,(instruments playing, people worshiping)
Instrumental interludes, introductions, or endings,
Vocal cues, (giving part of song to sing next)

Rule Number Three:
Let the worship flow
(the music, the message, the mood).
Master the transition.

What is Worship Leading?

Worship leading is not making something happen, that would be more like cheer-leading. It is letting something happen, in your own heart first and in the service next. It is not a musical tour de force. However, it is a musical offering selected from our repertoire of the church to be the Living Sacrifice of Praise of the Holy-Royal Priesthood as the ancient Hebrew worshiper would select a spotless lamb from his flock.

The Three Rules of Worship Leading:
#1. Worship God
#2. Be prepared and be flexible.
#3. Let the worship flow.

Worship leading comes from the overflow of the worship leader’s life. A passage from Isaiah contains a wonderful promise to the worship leader.

Therefore the Lord, the Lord of hosts, will send leanness among his fat
ones; and under his glory He will kindle a burning like a burning of a
fire. So the light of Israel will be for a fire, and His Holy One for a flame.
It will burn and devour his thorns and his briars in one day.
(Isaiah 10:16,17)

The context of these verses is the wasting of Israel to prepare for the restoration of Israel. The nation had to go through the purging of fire to be at a place where God’s glory could shine. So it is with the worship leader. He or she must pay the price in the secret place if God’s presence will be visited upon him or her in the public place. Under a “canopy of His glory” (NIV) God will burn away that which does not please Him in our lives. We must not take the covering of His glory (His blessing upon our worship leading) to mean He is finished with us. It does mean that while He is using and blessing us, He is still at work under that canopy of glory, making us more like Him.

The worship leader must “tremble”(Isaiah 66:2) at the Word of God. Song leaders can immerse themselves in music only but a worship leader must also immerse himself in the Word of God. As we, under a canopy of His glory, seek to build up our personal valleys, bring down our individual mountains, straighten out our well-worn crooked places, and smooth out our rough, careless ways, He is revealed in all His glory as we lead the people of God in ministry to the Lord. And remember, “All flesh will see it together”! The revelation of His glory will bring the righteousness, peace and joy of His reign.

Worship Leading is not making something happen. It is letting something happen, in your heart first and then in the service.

Ten Tips for Worship Leaders
Advice gleaned from many years of worship leading

1. Make your own worship songbook. Some people use computers, some notebooks, but an effective worship leader keeps a copy of at least the titles and keys of the songs the church has used in worship. This is an invaluable tool. It should be organized by keys, function, subject, etc. and it should be easy to update. Source books and page numbers should be noted so that music can be quickly found.

2. Devise your own technique for teaching new songs to the church. Here is mine:

  • Step One: Teach the singers and players first. (Sight-reading is not a
    pleasant experience in front of the whole church.)
  • Step Two: Sandwich the song between two familiar songs.(Be sure to
    provide words for congregation.)
  • Step Three: Use the song again soon. (Learning must be re-enforced)
  • Other new song introduction techniques include using a new song to open the service or letting the singers do it first as a special. Don’t try to teach too many songs in one service.

3. Use lead sheets. Provide the lead sheets (words, chords and at least the tune written out in notation) to all improvising musicians and to all singers. It is essential that everybody sings and plays the same version of the songs the worship leader has selected. I consider the published version of the song to be the definitive version. Local “improvements” on the harmony or melody should rarely be used. Respect the songwriters. There has to be a standard, some way to settle on how a song should be played. I strongly suggest using the published version. This is objective and does not favor any local personality. If orchestra is being used, the rhythm chart becomes definitive. You should not expect to change orchestrations to match the chords that local keyboardists want to play. When orchestrations are being played, everyone is in subjection to the score.

4. Use the songs in their published keys. Lead sheets are the life line of a worship ministry but asking musicians to transpose is not generally well received. Songs should be pitched for the congregation, not for the comfort of the worship leader or musicians. Publishers usually place the song in an average range, not too high and not too low. If you place a song too far away from its published key you will make the congregation uncomfortable. That is never helpful when you want them to sing.

There are altos and basses who lead worship. Songs are usually published for the 2nd tenor/2nd soprano range. This means that these worship leaders must lower some songs slightly in order to sing them. To do that without losing the congregation, lower the song 1 half-step or at most 1 whole step. Transpositions down a minor 3rd will take many songs out of the average voice range. If half-step-down keys are difficult keys, (C down to B, F to E, etc.) a whole step must be used. Congregations can handle things down a little, but not more than a 3rd. If the song is still too high for the worship leader he or she must learn to depend on the higher voices in the worship team for a phrase or two. It is much better for the worship leader to be uncomfortable for a few notes than to place the song out of reach of the people he or she is trying to lead in worship.

5. Learn how to warm-up your worship team. It is so important to help your leaders focus on the business at hand. Adequate pre-service time should be allotted to learn or touch up any new music, and to teach any transitions, introductions, endings, etc. After all that is done, find a private place and pray together. Review the goals of the service, and the music you have planned. Help them settle in mentally and spiritually so they can help you execute the plan God has given you. The last few minutes before the service should not be spend in a frantic search for lead sheets or transparencies, or in last minute rehearsal. These moments should be reserved for spiritual preparation.

6. Stay within your time allotment. You have met with the pastor so you know what his goals are. You have prepared your music to fill the time allotted. Be sensitive to the Holy Spirit. If He leads past the time given to worship no one should question it. But if the worship leader artificially carries on beyond the time given, most people will know that, too. The worship leader has broken a trust. Those who know how to use wisely the time given them, will be asked to lead again. Those who abuse their time will most likely not be asked again.

7. Lead worship, not just songs. When a congregation becomes dependent on songs, the people cannot give thanks, proclaim praise, express worship, or even pray unless they are singing. Many times the worship leader has done much to create this situation. If he or she hurries from song to song, showing more concern for each transition than for the worship that is taking place, then he or she is leading songs not worship. We must be careful to let people do express themselves and we must never hurry them. There is an element of waiting on God in worship leading. This is why transitions that involve the spoken praise, worship, and prayers of the congregation are effective. These transitions, allow praise and worship to happen between the songs.

Take special note of songs that give commands—“Praise the Lord”, “Exalt the Lord our God,” “Give Him glory”, etc. Many times these songs will be followed by a time when the order of worship is to obey the command of the song. The Worship Leader must allow time for this. I learned this when a friend was leading worship. He lead in a great song that invited me to spend time loving the Lord. I was ready to do this when suddenly we were starting another song. I couldn’t fulfill the command of the last song. It frustrated me. I cried in my spirit, “Let me worship my God!” I have never forgotten that moment. It has changed my worship leading. There is much more waiting now, more sensitivity to the moment. Really, the next moment is more important than the next song.

8. Listen to the people. The pastor and the congregation have entrusted us with planning and leading their sacrifices of praise. They should have a say in the matter. Not everyone who has a complaint is a critical spirit or a tradition bound saint. God will use people to instruct you as a worship leader. He will even use those with critical spirits and those who are tradition-bound because they are sometimes right. I wish it were not so, but it is. The fact is we need people who are watching because we can’t see ourselves lead worship. We are so focused in on what we are doing that we are blind to things that others see. God will help us sort out the truth from the negativism and learn from it.

9. Do not polarize the people. The role of the worship leader is to unite the people. But sometimes worship leaders unconsciously polarize the people they are trying to unify. They do this by constantly referring to the songs: old, new, high church, low church, Pentecostal, charismatic, Baptist, black gospel, southern gospel, hymns, choruses, scripture songs, traditional, contemporary. Really, these worship leaders are emphasizing the differences between the people who like or dislike those songs. They are building the walls between those people higher and stronger. They are causing the worship to be all about the songs. On the other hand, if we insist that the songs be all about the worship (thanksgiving, praise, humility, adoration, worship, prayer, testimony) then we can tear down the walls and unify the people.

10. Don’t talk too much. There really isn’t much to say to the people, if what we want to do is lead them in worship. Let’s get to the business at hand—worshiping God! Sometimes things need to be said. How can we judge what is proper and what isn’t?
Here are some good questions:

  • Is what I have to say about me or about God?
  • Does what I have to say bring attention to me or to the Lord?
  • Am I tempted to complain about how the people are or are not worshiping?
  • Am I seeking to vent frustration or anger?
  • Am I treading water, trying to figure out what to do next?
  • Do I have a word of exhortation or encouragement?
  • Am I emphasizing the songs or the truths of worship? (“Let’s all sing that great old song, How Great Thou Art”, my mother used to sing this to me…” or, “God is great and powerful. He is worthy of our praise today…”)

If you have planned well, your songs do most of the talking. All the worship leader needs to do is encourage the worshipers by keeping the focus of the proceedings on God Himself.


1. Make your own worship song book.
2. Devise your own technique for teaching new songs to the church.
3. Use lead sheets, not chord sheets.
4. Use the songs in their published keys
5 Learn how to warm-up your worship team.
6 Stay within your time allotment.
7. Lead worship, not just songs.
8. Listen to the people.
9. Do not polarize the people.
10. Don’t talk too much.

Semper Reformanda!
Stephen Phifer

© 2016 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved

Principles of Worship Leading


  1. Too often Christian artists, both local and professional, follow the culture instead of leading it. This makes too much of our Christian art—public worship is a work of public art—derivative, not original, and a poor imitation of the surrounding culture instead of a fresh word from God to the culture. We are called, as Dr. Robert E. Webber often said, to be a “holy counter-culture.” When we know what to change and what we must not change, we can function in this prophetic ministry—speaking eternal, universal truths into our times and places.

    • Vogel:
      I resonate with the principles you express: Public Worship is a work of public art. We certainly must be countercultural and we must never imitate or simply replicate the arts of the world. There is a function of the worship arts that goes beyond innovation to the use of intentional confession as we sing established songs and confess traditional expressions rather than creating original works of art. These repeated songs and confessions are devices used by the Holy Spirit to “write the Word into our hearts.” So, there is a time to create anew, and there is a time to join with past generations and confess the old. Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

  2. I read most of this and my opinion, this is ridiculous. I don’t agree that the song leader or what you’re calling the worship leader, has to have the songs on his heart daily so he’s prepared for Sunday or whatever day of worshipping is. One song or chorus has to be in the correct order so there’s a music flow? God wants a proper sequence of songs to get the minds of the congregation in the “mood” to listen to the Word from the pastor? That’s nonsense. So when I went to my Pentecostal church as a kid and we sang any songs out of our hymnals, we were suppose to have sang them in the correct flow? We don’t need sudden stops, change tempos, etc to keep the attention of the congregation. Churches are being invaded by Lucifer, and becoming worldly and this is an example, just as churches allowing women to be pastors.

    • Darrel:
      Thanks for reading so much of my essay. It looks like we are coming from two very different points of view although we both grew up in Pentecostal churches. Paul instructs us to “Let everything be done decently and in order” in our worship services. God is a God of order so our worship of Him should also be orderly. This is the way of the Holy Spirit! Remember the creation narrative: before the move of the Spirit, the world was “without form and void.” When the Spirit moved, creation came to order. This is still the plan of God for us. May the Lord bless you has you minister to Him “in Spirit and in Truth.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.