simplicityI’ve been a delinquent at posting these past few months. On November 1st, my ministry responsibilities expanded to include Youth Ministry, right around the same time that Advent & Christmas planning kicked into high gear. It takes a -44 degree day, stranded at home, to compel me to write this first post of 2014!

I confess that, lately, in my own worship (which rarely occurs in my congregation), I’ve been drawn to simplicity. The King James-esque predictable liturgy of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer: one minister leading, very few participants or “special features” to usher on and off the platform, plenty of quiet time to pray and ponder and contemplate within myself. Or, the very different, but equally simple cadence of a more contemporary church: one blissful and  continuous block of singing uninterrupted by instruction, followed by one sermon that need not be hemmed in because of the need to fit multiple other components into a service. I’ve thirsted for times of silence, times for personal prayer, time to just soak in the Presence. Times of singing that go on long enough to enable me to open my heart, uninterrupted by the need to find page numbers or learn new harmonies.

1210ap-communityOur worship services at FMC seem to me so full and busy. At one point this past fall, there were 17 (17!!) people involved in one, one hour service. There has not been one Sunday when I have not been concerned about us running overtime. A very high premium has been placed on participation: worship is not just “vertical”, but, like the good Mennonites we are, we feel the need to have horizontal community relationships strengthened at every opportunity. I, too, freely and enthusiastically encourage the involvement of all ages, all genders, all languages and races. I could not imagine being part of a congregation that was so restrictive, as to prohibit a tween from trying her hand at worship leading and discovering her giftedness for it – or one that was so concerned about polished performance, that it would not allow for a group of children to share in leading a song.

Still. There is something about over-involved worship that disturbingly reflects the over-involvement of our lives. There is very little of the Sabbath quiet left in how we gather. Those who hope to find some moment of personal peace or release after a taxing and hectic week, may find our community focused worship services miss the mark. And personally, I think we’ve unconsciously been saying to these people: find your personal moments of peace elsewhere! Sunday mornings are community-building time!

But what would happen if we tried out a simpler approach to worship for a while?

No worship planner, no theme. Just a preacher with a Bible and a sermon.

Opening the service by singing for half an hour straight with no instructions.

No offering: baskets placed at the exits.

One long prayer: not broken up into pieces as the service progresses.

Would we alter our community’s genetics or our deeply-held theological convictions if fewer people were involved? Maybe so (Is that such a bad thing?)

I don’t know how to balance these two goods. The need for the community to somehow be authentically represented in how we worship is important. But I don’t believe it is any more important than our calling, as the church of Christ, to do our best to provide spaces and times within which people can be strengthened and repaired and refreshed by His presence. We have long assumed, as Mennonites, that (at least theologically) His presence is perhaps best experienced in the gathered body. But there are many ways to gather as a body. Do we experience Christ’s presence in the congregation any less fully by sitting and praying in silence together, than we do when 17 people in succession hop up and down from the platform, each with something to contribute?

I have no answers, but do hold these questions out for future consideration. As we move into 2014, I am not hearing a call from my brothers and sisters for more involved, more on their schedules, and lots of happenings in our worship together. I am hearing calls for simplicity, for silence, for some window in our week that provides a view out onto a much less complicated existence.

Do we worship lead like this? ...

Do we worship lead like this? …

Occasionally, I come across a book from the business world that contains useful nuggets for congregational life. My father recently lent me the book Be Quiet, Be Heard: The Paradox of Persuasion (Building Trust Through Conflict) by Susan & Peter Glaser, on the condition that I gobble it up quickly and return it into his hands ASAP. Having had a week off from congregational life, I dutifully gobbled in a timely fashion. (A review and recommendation will shortly be added to the “books” section of this blog).

The book is geared towards leaders of businesses and organizations, but reading it would benefit anyone who ever needs to talk to other people.

Chapter Two, The Hidden Dimension of Communication, in particular, contains some gems for worship leaders (and Scripture readers, and preachers, and anyone in the church who is tasked with speaking to groups, large or small). This chapter talks about the multiple levels of meaning unfolding in every communication: the

...or like this?

…or like this?

surface “content level”, which contains the factual information being communicated, and the subtle, complex, “relationship level”, which is completely loaded with nuances having to do with the past and present dynamics of the relationship between the speaker and the listener.  Essentially another take on the by-now well known idea that the effect of any communication is determined far more by non-verbal cues than by verbal cues. And every single message we send gets decoded at the relationship(or non-verbal) level, whether or not we want it to.  The happy news is that, by crafting how our content is delivered, or packaged, we can help it to be perceived the way we want it to be perceived.

How is this dry communication-talk all relevant to worship leading, you ask? I’m getting there. I’ll hurry up now.

Well for one,  while reading the details in this book about all of the ways in which we work at the delivery of our content, it strikes me how much time, as a worship leader, I spend determining content – and how little time I spend deciding on how I’m going to deliver it. I spend hours reading Scripture, writing or finding prayers and litanies. But on Sunday morning, I simply stand up and “wing it”, having put little to no thought into things like voice inflection, speed, volume and tone, body language and gestures, times for pause and silence. Piled onto that, is the reality that most people, while public speaking, tend to fall into a certain kind of monotonous cadence that is far less interesting than everyday speech (especially while reading Scripture. Have you noticed? Even the most dynamic speakers can fall prey to reading Scripture like they’d read instructions out of a recipe book).

And it makes a difference…of course it makes a difference! As a worshiper, I am drawn into the presence of God more compellingly by the worship leader who infuses a prayer with thoughtful silences and varied tones, than I am by the one who stands and delivers content. And while some folks are naturally experienced and dynamic public speakers, who may not need to take time to think, in advance, about these things…the more introverted, or inexperienced, of us, may need to practice a prayer several times in advance, experimenting with their voices and bodies, in order to become comfortable with delivery.

And, one more thing. As worship leaders in a large community that is constantly shifting and welcoming new folks, worship leading may be your first opportunity to develop a relationship with a newcomer.  Every Sunday, when we walk up to the microphone, we assume there will be newcomers in our hearing. People who don’t know us. People who aren’t familiar with congregational life. People who don’t know about the Good-news message that underlies everything we say. The “relationship-level” behind our communications may not be very active in these kinds of situations, since we don’t have any pre-existing relationship with a person, but worship leading provides one of the congregation’s first and most powerful opportunities ts start building up this relationship-level. And that relationship-level is going to be strengthened more significantly by the worship leader who takes care to warm the environment with things like voice tonality, body gestures and eye contact, than by the worship leader who functions as a reader-of-content.

That’s an incentive to spend time thinking about delivery, if I ever heard of one. And a shift in thinking.  Suddenly, the worship leader is not an Emcee. Not an administrator, and not even just the person at the worship service’s steering wheel. The worship leader is a relationship-initiator, the first welcomer and hand-shaker in the line of other welcomers in the congregation. And a newcomer’s desire to keep moving through the line, may well rest (at least in part) on how the worship leader first drew them in.

No pressure, or anything.

But I’d highly recommend reading the book.




Man Holding LoudspeakerDoes the reading of Scripture seem flat or even boring? Come to a workshop and learn how to read Scripture for a church service with power and conviction. John Epp, a master biblical storyteller, will lead us through discussion, exercises and readings. Scripture will come alive in a new and fresh way.

Saturday, November 2nd, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Pioneer Park Christian Fellowship, 68 Biehn Drive, Kitchener.

Participants are asked to bring: a small favourite story from the Bible (approximately 10 verses); a bag lunch; and a $20 registration fee. You may register by contacting Jan at 519-748-5241/

Listen to this…I promise you’ll be blessed.–3994.html

Like probably most congregational leaders, I have majorly mixed feelings about September. The first week back to school so often feels as spasmodic as a sudden, violent volcanic explosion after a hot and sleepy summer dormancy.  The electric red and oranges hues of the explosion are beautiful and vivid to watch (as long as you’re doing so from afar)…but bring chaos and panic into the lives of all those whose paths happen to pass too close!

Voosh! September explodes in the congregation!

Voosh! September explodes in the congregation!

So many exciting things are bubbling up this Fall at FMC, in particular some events associated with our 200th Anniversary celebration. Planning is at it’s highest gear, and as I attempt to draw people into leadership for our Sunday morning worship service, I can already sense, barely 2 weeks into the month, that the Fall eruption is taking it’s toll on some peoples’ energy levels. I, myself, am completely swept away in the hot and frantic flow of planning, collaborating, promoting, and assembling all the details of our worship & music life together “just so”. I am excited, but having witnessed the degree to which this level of intensity in congregational programming can easily burn people out, I find myself holding cautiously close to concerns about long-term lay ministry sustainability, desiring to preserve the energy and joy levels of the good people in my congregation.

Many of you know that I volunteer, once a week, at a small downtown Kitchener organization that assists refugees with the claim and settlement processes. I’ve been doing so for about a year now, and on Tuesday, returned for my first shift after a month’s summer absence, to find the office just swimming in the anxieties of many newly-arrived refugees. I spent my afternoon listening to, and helping to write, the story of a young woman recently arrived after a close family member was brutally murdered. Now halfway across the world, separated from her surviving family members, with no financial resources, she faces the daunting task, like all who arrive at the Canadian border with a story of horror and loss, of somehow finding the strength to re-start life on her own in a foreign country. The rawness of her grief was visceral.  I found myself completely helpless to do anything but be present with her, giving her as many assurances as I could that she would not be left to fend for herself in this process. This was not really what I wanted to re-assure her about. But it is the only thing of which I am certain.

Later, I walked back….to my carpeted, air-conditioned office, where I have a job I love, and a community that cares for me…and drove home, to my comfortable house, filled with the re-assuring presence of a happy husband and dog, and the peace, quiet and luxury of an intact neighbourhood, relatively free from violence. A community in which I can walk alone, at night, and leave the back door open when I do. And I sat down at my computer to face the task of looking over our song choices for this Sunday’s worship service. Now, I adore music, and choosing songs for my congregation. But I know you’ll forgive me if I confess that I found it jarring to preoccupy myself with something that seemed so trivial, after the hours I had spent on the couch beside my new friend, who had invited me to step into that holy and enormous space of her grief, along with her.

One of the reasons I love working with refugees is a very selfish one. Their stories of horror and perseverance force me, weekly, to cut away the superfluous details of my life, and re-ground me in my calling, both as a pastoral leader, and as a disciple of Jesus Christ. I am reminded, every week, that one of the central purposes of worship is formative…must be formative. We worship, yes, because we are human beings wired for adoring relationships with God, but also because, in the process, we are shaped into more loving, more compassionate, more obedient disciples – the kind of disciples who carry light into dark spaces of grief. Disciples who incarnate Christ for the homeless, the poor, the addicted, the refugee, the grieving, the sick and the dying – whether that be in our homes, or workplaces, or communities. The Holy Spirit, present with us in worship, strengthens us  to be salt and light. And if that is not happening…then very little else about the way we “do” worship in the congregation matters. The to-do lists of details ring hollow, if they aren’t, somewhere at the root, grounded in the desire to strengthen us for witness and love.

And if I ever forget this – if I ever am so swept up in the hot flow of details that clutter up my impossibly large to-do lists that I forget that worship is meant to strengthen us to share Gospel love, and in turn bring light to the world – you FMC’ers have permission to pinch me (non-violently) and exhort me to dig in,  and get my feet back onto higher ground.

Won’t you join me in attending some of these workshops? FMC folks, the Friday night one looks particularly up our alley.

Click here for the PDF advert:   JOHN BELL WORKSHOPS

authenticThe big “A” word. Authenticity. I’ve seen it mentioned in almost every article, post or blog entry I’ve read that has something to do with the Millenial generation (aka MY generation…) and the church. This is a big word for us, apparently, and as more and more authors write more and more books about my generation, and why we are (or aren’t) choosing to commit to the church, the big “A” is being used so frequently it’s beginning to saturate the market. Authenticity is beginning to lose it’s luster for me.

And yet, I will admit (true to my generation, I suppose), that I was speaking keenly about authenticity in worship before I knew that it was a habit of my generation to do just that. And I’ve been pushing myself, lately – pushing myself to flesh out what authenticity in worship actually means, or looks like, to me. When I speak of authenticity, I speak of the kind of integrity that occurs when a person (or community) knows who they are,  and remains entirely true to that identity. No apologizing. No embellishing. It’s an integrity that comes when a  congregation is honest about itself – where it shines, where it struggles, what its future goals are, and where its true allegiances lie. If I were a free agent Millenial, and I could choose any church at all, I would jump for joy  to find a community who presented me, as a newcomer, with an honest assessment of itself (warts and all), and then warmly permitted me to choose whether or not joining my path with theirs was the kind of adventure to which God was calling me.

But what does it mean to strive for authentic worship – worship that reflects, and is grounded in, a congregation’s identity? Identities are not static things. Congregational identities are constantly in flux, just as personal identities are. We are always changing, growing, influencing others and being influenced by others in ways that fundamentally morph who we are. A congregation’s identity is not fixed in time. A congregation is permeable membrane – open to the world, with people and ideas always coming and going. Not even the oldest and most established congregations can claim a fixed identity – in fact, they are likely to have moved through more significant and challenging changes then their newer counterparts.

Thanks be to God, not all elements of our identity are moving targets. There is one aspect of who we are that always remains the same:  our God-given identity as redeemed followers of Jesus Christ. And our first challenge in authenticity will be, until Kingdom Come, to faithfully orient ourselves Christward in all of our worship (and, indeed, in all that we do and are). He is the tie that binds, when the rest of who we are seems to be in a confusing state of evolution.

But what about the other parts of our congregational identity – the parts that vary between denominations, and between congregations (and within congregations!), and are unique to us? The moving targets? Given that so much of who we are as people of God, and as congregations of God, is in a constant state of evolution, perhaps it is precisely an openness to evolution that will serve to make our worship authentic. Maybe it’s inauthentic to now say: “this one style of music reflects who we are the best!” or, “we don’t do liturgies, because we never have”. After all, as individuals desiring to grow our identities more and more into Christ-likeness, we know we must attempt to be open to fresh expressions of the Spirit moving and challenging us, otherwise we risk becoming stagnant in our spiritual growth. As congregations, desiring to be strengthened at our Christ-core, we are called to no less.



PentecostalOne of my favourite authors and speakers is N. Graham Standish, a Presbyterian minister in Pennsylvania who I had the good fortune of meeting at a conference several years ago (click here to see his website). In his book Becoming a Blessed Church: Forming a Church of Spiritual Purpose, Presence and Power, Graham talks about the rise of something called “rational functionalism” in the church. There’s a lot to rational functionalism, but it is essentially the tendency to view everything in the life of the church in an over-intellectual, a-spiritual manner, which results in functionalizing  “the life of the church, turning everything from worship to committee meetings into routinized events with little connection to a larger purpose… the focus is on maintaining the institution, not on creating experiences through which God can be encountered and experienced in our midst.” (borrow the book from me, or read this article for a fuller discussion).

For me, Robert’s Rules of Order epitomize rational functionalism. While I don’t have a particular issue with using Robert’s Rules in church meetings (particularly those involving many people), I have, at times, walked away from a worship service with a distinctively bitter “Robert’s Rules” taste in my mouth. No, I have never witnessed a worship leader call for someone to second the offering prayer, nor have I ever seen someone read Scripture on a motion from the congregation. (Cheesy…yes). But we do tend to like things rather structured and predictable, don’t we? Really, when you think about it, what’s the difference between a Meeting Agenda and a printed Order of Worship? The difference between the skilled Meeting Chair alerting the group to the next item up for vote, and the Worship Leader who walks the congregation through the Order of Service (…”and now we will [fill in the blank here]”)? The difference between a meeting around a table at which everyone sits composedly and attentively (while the children play upstairs), and a meeting in pews at which everyone sits composedly and attentively (while the children play…often also upstairs)?

The evidence speaks for itself. Our worship has become (at least partially) rationally functionalized.

And whatever you might say about how this may be good, or bad, or somewhere in between, we can certainly say that our current Sunday morning communal worship looks nothing like the outrageous, edgy, Spirit-filled, multi-lingual praise-fest that was Pentecost (Acts 2). The praise-fest that, ironically enough, got the Jesus-followers both labelled as drunks, and led to the conversion of 3000 believers (and just to prove how rational and functional I’ve become, I confess that such a sudden and en masse act of conversion makes me feel uncomfortable, despite the Spirit’s obvious presence in the matter. Should’t there have been a 6 month inquiry and catechism program before they got dunked? Where were their pastors, and the Elders’ screening committee?) Our bi-(and sometimes multi-)lingualism contains hints of wind and flame, but has our desire for calm, cool, comfort and orderliness, put a damper on our sense of the living Spirit of Christ in our midst?

There is nothing wrong with a little bit of predictability in worship. To a certain extent, knowing a bit about what to expect, can go a long way towards putting people at ease, and equipping them to prepare their hearts for worship. The difficulty is when we permit the desire for predictability, to outweigh or overtake the raw desire for God.

As worship leaders, our task (and joy!) is to help incline peoples’ souls to God…to invite people into a space of holy encounter with the Living Christ. We are not Emcees, or Meeting Chairs, pedantically running down a list of to-do’s. We are pioneers, brazen worshippers, leading the way into the Holy of Holies, holding out our hand invitingly to others, drawing them along to join us.  We are eagerly on our way to meet Jesus, grasping onto an enormous vacuum cleaner that we’re pointing at the bystanding crowd as we go, praying that others will be sucked in (but in a good kind of way, not in a cheap-sales-pitch kind of way). The things we do and say as worship leaders can go a long way towards inviting, and they can go just as long towards making folks feel as though they have walked into a committee meeting set to music.

I will be the first person to admit I fall into the Robert’s Rules style of worship leading more often than not. Lately, I have been trying to bring my vacuum cleaner along to worship, and thinking more about the things I might say and do in worship to counter my Robert’s Rules tendencies. Here are some things I’ve been thinking about, and trying, lately:

  • Resist the urge to introduce any prayer/item in the service with “And now we will [insert prayer/item here].” “Will you please join me in [insert prayer/item here]” is slightly better, but essentially no different. Instead of pointing out the prayer/item (which, by the way, they probably know is coming next, because it’s printed in the bulletin), point out the soul action, or spiritual disposition, that the prayer/item is trying to address. What is a Call Worship meant for? To afford our souls the chance to group with other souls / center / clear our minds of distraction / focus Godward.  “Let’s bring our focus to God alone as we pray together”, or “Let this first prayer draw us into a deeper awareness of the love in this room”, might be the kind of alternatives to try. If you’re going to pray, “Pray with me…” is a great way to go.


  • Resist the urge to script every prayer. When we use pre-scripted prayers, we risk putting words in peoples’ mouths that they are not ready to say, or that do not fully describe the spiritual state in which they currently find themselves. This can divorce people from becoming more fully attuned to their own spiritual state. Invite people, at least once in every service, to pray in their own way, either silently or out loud – whether that be prayer that draws people closer to God, prayers of personal confession/boundary removal, prayers of petition, prayers of thanksgiving, prayers of lament…name the soul action / spiritual disposition we are all aiming for, and then free people to aim for it in their own way. Praying the same words together also has great value….but if you permit individual prayer once in the service, there will still be plenty of opportunities for people to pray together otherwise.


  • Don’t list everything in the service in print. Not every detail of the worship service needs to be in the bulletin. Encouraging people to become less paper-reliant, and to get their heads up and out of books, increases a sense of spontaneity in worship. If there’s a prayer to be prayed together, put it on the screen. Even prayers that are chosen out of books can be put on the screen. Less book-organizing and frantic page-finding frees people to focus on encountering God. It’s also less confusing for newcomers who aren’t familiar with the volumes of books on the backs of the pews.


  • Look up. This is an easy one. Don’t bury your head in your notes, or read from a script. Look at people, smile at people. You’re inviting them to step into God’s presence with you. Pretend your eyes are tiny vacuum cleaners that have the power to draw people into relationship with Jesus. Why on earth would you spend all Sunday morning glaring down at the pulpit?


  • Catch the Spirit’s energy. There is nothing humdrum about worship. No matter how many times you’ve been to church on a Sunday morning. No matter how little things have seemed to change over the years. Worship is not monotonous, and it is not casual, and our leading should be neither. It requires all of us, and nothing less. No, we’re not all bubbly extroverts…and enthusiastic, spontaneous communication does not come easily to everyone. But we do all, at some level, possess that raw desire for God, and chances are, it’s that raw desire that has motivated us, on some level, to become worship leaders to begin with. If you have lost your spiritual energy as a worship leader…if you have lost touch with this raw desire because you are too tired, or too busy, or too disillusioned…it may be time to take a rest from leading for a little while, letting the Spirit refresh, nourish, and re-ignite your desire.


Chances are, the scene at First Mennonite on Sunday mornings will never (at least not in the near future) lead observers into accusations of drunkenness! But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be seeking to slowly detach ourselves from some of the Robert’s Rules remnants in our worship, for the sake of attempting to lead people deeper into abundant life in Jesus Christ.

Additional suggestions are welcome below!






When I first was welcomed into the Mennonite church in my early twenties, I was, for the first time in my life, introduced to the role of the song leader. In my quasi-Roman-Catholic-but-mostly-secular upbringing, my relatively rare experiences with church were song leader-less. The numbers of the hymns were posted on the wall. When it was time to sing, the piano or organ began. The congregation grasped at the song book (there was only one). When it was time to stop, the piano or organ stopped. Books went back into the back-of-the-pew holders, and that was that.

I had had plenty of experiences singing in choirs, though, and to me, the Mennonite church’s song leaders seemed to act more like conductors. This was a bit of an odd and confusing dynamic for me. I had always associated choral conducting with performance. In a performance, there is an audience expecting excellence, and you need a leader to corral, coordinate and contain the masses, fine-tune every artistic detail, communicate the intended meaning and emotion with facial expressions and body language. But worship, however I might have defined it at the time, was definitely not performance, and while God certainly expects excellence in attitude (a.k.a. a pure heart), I was quite skeptical about whether or not God cares about dynamics or tempo. So what was the role of these quasi-conductors in the experience of worship?

I confess that when I first tried out song leading, I felt a bit silly waving my arm around in front of a group of people, and especially redundant when I was working with a gifted pianist who could easily carry the tune at full-tilt. It seems this song leading thing made a whole lot more sense when Mennonites were still singing exclusively a capella, and in the absence of any instruments to keep time, relied on the song leader to cue the congregation, and keep a hymn from gradually and painfully grinding to a halt (or, on the other hand, accelerating into chaotic abandon). Nonetheless, many contemporary Mennonite churches today still use song leaders, despite the fact that, in many contexts, the percentage of singing done a capella has significantly lessened. We are singing more rhythm-based global and contemporary music, that relies on drums and rhythm instruments, not leaders, to keep time. Much of the newer worship music features beautiful piano and instrumental accompaniments. What is the role of the song leader in the congregation with a mixed and diverse musical repertoire?

I think the days of song leading exclusively by “choir conducting” the congregation may be ending. New and diverse ways of leading are needed for new and diverse styles of music. This is not news for many people, who have already been experimenting with other ways of leading for quite a while, and quite effectively. Still, there are others of us (myself included) who find ourselves stuck in not knowing how else to lead. Below, I am offering a few suggestions, based on some things I’ve seen, and heard, and thought about. This is not an exhaustive list, but a conversation starter, and I invite further conversation in the “Comments” section below.

1. Try NOT leading. If there is a song that the congregation knows well, and you have a strong pianist/worship team who can carry the congregation, sit one out, and lead with your voice from within the congregation. Use your judgment, but resist the urge to “set the congregation up” for this. It’s often a profound experience to have singing begin out of nowhere (particularly during times of prayer, or in situations where even the most discrete words of introduction can be distracting, for example, when you’re singing a song of response after a moving sermon). Chances are, they’ve got a bulletin, and they know what song is coming up. Why not just move into these times of singing without feeling like we need to Emcee the whole worship experience?

2. Instead of your arms, lead with your eyes. Eyes and facial expressions are immensely powerful leading tools. What you give, as a leader, is often mirrored back to you. Eyes that are buried in the music, flitting back and forth from congregation to piano, nervous, or uncertain, do not assist in drawing people into the presence of God. Eyes that are joyful, re-assuring, and welcoming, invite people to relax and simply join in with the worship experience. I once witnessed a song leader lead an entire service without raising an arm, just beautifully. Her voice, her face, her eyes, her body language, gave the congregation the needed cues and confidence to enter into singing. And, as a person who has been led many times in congregational singing, by many so-serious-looking song leaders, I also have a special, personal request here. Please, smile at me when you’re leading me. If you’re obviously experiencing some level of joy or profundity in your worshipping, I’m going to want to follow you and experience that, too.

3. Lead with your voice. If you feel confident that your voice is strong enough, put your arms down and just sing, either from the front of the congregation, or from within it.

4. Look up. Encourage them to look up. Create an environment where we can see one another worship. For me, the most profound worship experiences as a song leader, have been while leading the congregation in super-simple songs that are well-known, and do not require note-reading or book-juggling. Usually these are songs framed as prayers. Hands-free and face-up, I get to observe people in the congregation fully abandon themselves into the meaning of the sung prayer. Bodies can be freer to engage when the brain isn’t preoccupied with sight-reading an unfamiliar Alto line. Eyes close, hands go up, bodies sway gently, and there is nothing inhibiting full, heartfelt singing. As song leaders, our task is not only to create and plan for such moments, but to notice when the Spirit may be leading us into such a moment spontaneously, and then to simply not get in the way with too many cerebral instructions. If your sanctuary has a screen, put words up (especially for the benefit of newcomers), so that books don’t need to be juggled, and gazes are drawn upwards. Memorize the song, and put your own book down. Simply sing to God together.

5. Remember the profound influence you have on the worship experience. I’ve heard a number of song leaders downplay their role in the worship service. Song leaders are not puppets, simply waving their arms around at the group, so that they can sing songs that the song leader may not have even had any say in choosing. The facial expression and body language of a song leader can speak just as powerfully as the worship leader’s prayer of confession, or just as discouragingly as a poorly-prepared sermon. In a church tradition that so strongly values its music as one of the most powerful ways of entering into worship, the song leader is invitation-to-worship-incarnate. You have the power to encourage the flow of worship, and you have the power to discourage it. Know the power. Use it wisely.

Does the choir-conducting song leading method have any place anymore? Of course it does. During times of a capella singing, especially, there is need for some unifying force to keep the masses corralled, and certainly there are other times, too, at which this method makes the most sense. I am simply encouraging us to move away from assuming this method to be the only way, or the “default” way, to lead the congregation in song. If you’re feeling confident and adventurous, you could use all of the above ideas in a single service (remembering, of course, to go gently, as some of these methods might be “learning curves” for the congregation). If other ideas are new to you, simply choose one of the above ideas, and begin to work it into your approach.

Lead away, dear and fearless song leaders!




As a Worship Pastor in a non-liturgical church tradition, at times of burnout or planner’s block, I sometimes find myself wistfully yearning for a more predictable liturgy to ground my planning. Oh, wouldn’t it be nice if the Scriptures, prayers, and even songs were pre-chosen for me? As much as I’m a junkie for creative wiggle room in worship, I sometimes find the seemingly endless array of choices exhausting, as I am more of a “big picture” person, and not usually prone to worry or nitpick over details. And yet, the decisions about the details must be made!

But most of the time, I celebrate gratefully that we, in the Mennonite church, have freedom and resources to diversify our worship, incorporating heart-languages as mixed and as diverse as the people we now find in our pews. For me, this opportunity for creativity is one of the great joys of the worship planner, and many of the worship planners I’ve spoken with share a similar joy. However, with so much “blank slate” available on Sunday mornings, it has become easy for us planners to become preoccupied with what the finished canvas will look like, and forget the immense potential embedded in the planning process itself: opportunities for spiritual growth, for community building, and for releasing gifts, all things that, when worked on, have a lasting impact on a congregation’s growth and maturity (dare I say, an even more lasting impact than any one worship service?)

Worship planning is primarily a spiritual process. We have tended to approach planning as administration: the pulling together of people and resources, the designating of personnel, the coordinating of themes and words and music. Part of this is due to the program-oriented approach to ministry that many congregations have embraced, but that many congregations are now moving away from in post-Christendom. A worship service is not a program. It is an opportunity to invite people into the presence of God, and offer all they have and are in praise and confession, so that they may be drawn closer into the Presence and experience God’s strengthening love every day they live. If those leading worship (including the planners, whose hearts are written all over the worship experience) are not worshipping themselves as they serve, worship may seem to lack authenticity.

Every time you plan, is an opportunity to pick up the Bible, read and pray over the words, probe deeply into what that word is saying to us, individually, and to our congregation, and then let our experience of God and our hearts inform the planning process. Maybe, in practice, what you actually do as a planner engaged in the spiritual process does not change much, but the disposition with which you do it may change. We simply cannot lead people in a spiritual process, if we aren’t also engaged in one.

But it’s important to note that this spiritual process of worship planning does not belong only to the planner. The planner is the leader of a small team including the worship leader, song leader and musicians, preacher, congregational pray-er, and any others who may be planning to share their gifts in worship that Sunday. It is the planner’s responsibility, not only to get people organized, but to invite others into the spiritual process that is worship planning. It is the planner’s job (and joy!) to pray for other members of the team. It is the planner’s job (and joy!) to remind other leaders, every week, of what we are trying to lead the congregation into, and to invite people to read, pray, plan and prepare with this in mind. Sometimes, this is as easy as including a note or two of reminder and encouragement in an e-mail to the team. Sure, we’ed like to think that the point of worship is something easily remembered, but the truth is, we’re so wired for the administrative and programmatic approach to worship, that it is easy to forget we are engaged in something deeply spiritual.

And there may be no better way to encourage others to engage in the spiritual process, than to collaborate with the intent to release each team member’s God-given gifts. It is nigh impossible to participate fully in (or to feel too excited about) the spiritual process of planning, if, as a worship or song leader, you are not free to contribute the fruits of your listening to the Spirit to the planning process.

Now, let me be clear what collaboration does not mean. It does not mean engaging 22 people in a conversation about the post-sermon hymn of response, resulting in a lengthy and frustrating chain of e-mails. Not everyone needs to have their fingers in every pot, but rest assured, that if you ask for such widespead input, you will likely get it. (And sometimes, even if you don’t ask for it, you may get it!)

But good collaboration does require planners to know the strengths and gifts of each person (or to inquire, if we don’t know), and then to wisely and selectively seek one another’s counsel. Collaboration requires humility: the acknowledgement that I, by myself, don’t have everything it takes to invite this congregation into an experience of the Holy, and that the worship experience will be enriched when I yield some of my decision-making power, and make space for peoples’ gifts to be brought together in ways I would not have necessarily chosen. Collaboration requires trust: trust that the Spirit is working in my team-mates, as well as in me, and that therefore, I can comfortably yield to a choice that would not have been my first. In the process, we identify gifts, we build one another up, we strengthen our fellowship and solidarity as leaders aiming for a common goal, and the congregation and Kingdom are strengthened.

So, how would I sum this all up? Worship planning that unfolds as a collaborative spiritual process is relationship-oriented (more than results-driven) and grounded in prayer and openness to the Spirit (more than preoccupied with the administrative process). It is planning that keeps the big picture in mind. That does not mean that we don’t plan the small stuff, but it does mean that we’re less prone to sweat it, because we trust the Spirit’s presence with us, and know that God can work even when our well-planned details aren’t executed perfectly. Praise God for this grace!