Leading Worship From an Instrument


by Darcy L. Watkins

Introduction

Almost all of us are familiar with worship leaders who stand up, grab a microphone and lead worship vocally.  We sometimes notice gestures of communications and we take for granted that they can come down and pray with people or walk off to touch bases with the pastor. What about leading worship from an instrument? This has for many years been the minority situation (except in very small venues), yet current worship trends have resulted in many more worship leaders leading from behind an instrument. So what are the issues, the pros and the cons? What must we look out for when leading worship from an instrument?

Most Common Scenarios

  • Acoustic Guitar
  • Keyboard
  • Piano
  • Electric Guitar

Less Common Scenarios

  • Bass
  • Drums

Challenges That You Face

  • It is not enough to focus on the instrument. You must focus on the people. You may even have to simplify your playing technique so that you can pay more attention to what is going on.
  • You must focus on the spiritual experience and not just the musical experience.
  • It can be difficult for you to step away from the music to engage the people, (especially when you are solo).
  • Hand signals to other musicians usually don’t work so you have to devise other means of communications.
  • Even though you may be a great musician, you also have to be proficient at vocals and microphone technique.
  • If you have other musicians, you have to be in the same league as them or better. For example, don’t jump into a band and lead from a guitar when you only know three chords and one strum pattern. I often hear stories about newly hired pastors doing this and obliterating their worship ministry, and in some cases even their church.

Advantages You Have

  • Great for smaller teams and solo arrangements. Especially good for home group meetings.
  • You can have tighter control over the music and in effect be able to turn on a dime (at least musically).
  • If you get a spontaneous song, or spontaneously introduce a new song to fit circumstances, you don’t have to worry about whether the musicians will get the chords right.
  • Sometimes there can be a greater sense of security.  You can sort of hide behind the instrument.
  • When playing an instrument, you worry less about what to do with your hands and other matters of posture.
  • You will likely have better control of rehearsals (though this is not guaranteed, especially if you are weak vocally).

Some Additional Comments

  • A worship leader who just sings, can be a musician or a non-musician, so long as they are proficient at vocal technique.
  • Just because a worship leader is a vocalist doesn’t mean they are immune to above challenges. A really good vocalist could just as easily get hung up in vocalising as a form of musicianship and miss out on the worship leading and spiritual part. Anyone can fall into the performance trap.
  • Vocal only worship leaders will depend on a musician partner in ministry to work with the band (or just require higher calibre musicians) since such leaders would tend to work more with the singers.
  • Musician worship leaders have to avoid the tendency to focus on music during rehearsals and make a point of working closely with the singers to work out their parts.
  • All other things being equal, a good vocalist / poor musician has a better chance of succeeding as a worship leader (and/or a worship ministry leader) than a good musician / poor vocalist.

Other Things to Consider While Leading Worship From
an Instrument

  • If you have a good band, you could lead some portions while playing and others while not playing. You could even play different instruments, (e.g. guitar and keyboards, or different types of guitars).
  • You could come down off the stage to the front of the floor, grab a guitar, sit on a stool and do a few songs gently and soft, sort of like the “unplugged” feel. Or you could do a song specially for the children.

Author’s Personal Experience

  • Most of my worship leading has been from behind an instrument, though I’d like more opportunities to be able to “come out and play” in a different way.
  • For many years, I overlooked the vocalists and just left them to their own devices.
  • Though I have always been able to sing and carry a tune, it is only recently that I began taking vocals really seriously and hired a vocal coach to give me lessons.
  • I have done a lot of solo worship leading from behind an instrument, and with small teams (e.g. with a guitar and/or bass and drums).
  • I relied on others to help develop vocals and direct choirs. In some cases, I had someone come in and give us all lessons.

Conclusion

Leading worship from an instrument is a great way to go. There isn’t really a sense as to whether it is better or worse than leading worship as a singer. It is important, regardless of your approach, that you be able to sing proficiently and that you be able to work with the other vocalists on your team. Obviously, the more you can do, lead and mentor people with, the better. But regardless of all this, the worship leader is doing more than just directing a musical experience. The worship leader facilitates bringing people into the presence of God. Ironically, that is more important to understand than even being able to sing.