Principles and Practicals: Cue cards for a crash course in leading worship

4/10 Working Group

After another dreadfully distracting prayer at chapel today (of the earnestly meandering sort), we talked about how wonderful it would be if everyone who leads worship on campus—in whatever capacity—could receive some rudimentary worship training. Not a seminar, not even a workshop—just some basics about speaking and singing, and a basic theology of worship too.

Of course, we don’t do this. It’s just worship, after all. Really not all that important. I remember how some seminary pals said their internships felt like they’d been tossed into the water and told to figure out how to swim, and then do some life- saving besides. The operating assumption being that ministry isn’t that difficult, and hey, “How much damage can they do?”

It’s hard not to get defensive. I’ve got my hands full with my own team at the LOFT. Cindy does too, for planning chapels. It’s completely impractical to imagine that everyone who prays in chapel, everyone who picks up a guitar, everyone who runs the overhead—every single one—gets some appropriate variety of “here’s why we read Scripture, and here’s how to do it a little better.”

6/22 Planning for LOFT Retreat

At the LOFT retreat (and perhaps at the chapel committee retreat?) could we do a worship-training exercise? Divide worship leadership into families of tasks (speaking, prayer, music, technology, and so on) and have the teams themselves come up with insights and tips they think are most important? They’d have blind spots, but they’ll see stuff I won’t, and the pedagogical effect will probably be better than me coming down from on high with ten commandments for worship leadership.

9/13 Post-Retreat Rumination

Could we edit the worship-training lists assembled at the retreats into something manageable? Something that could be handed out to anyone tapped for worship leadership on Sunday or during the week for chapel?

To do: Try to edit worship-training lists.

2/20 LOFT Planning

Last fall (yikes!) we got these ragged lists of worship-training tips together. Cindy helped assemble them into rough form, but we didn’t do any follow-up. Boy, we missed ’em today. As we analyzed—OK, completely tore apart—the last few weeks of worship, it was plain that everyone had lots of good, practical advice for doing things better. We talked about this prayer and that Scripture reading, we talked about sound and lights, and of course music. We handed each other suggestions like we were swapping recipes: here’s how to read and speak and pray and play better. Often the team’s suggestions were great—a tribute to good instincts. But it’s plain that too many folks on the team don’t know their way around the kitchen. They need reminders of the basic principles of why we worship the way we do. It’s not enough just to give practical tips. That’s like saying, “Don’t put your hand there,” without explaining why (’cause that’s fire, and it’ll burn you). We need both—the practical tips and the principles behind them.

4/25 Working Group

We’ve begun assembling a list of our primary theological emphases, the principles/working assumptions that guide our work—planning and leading worship. From what I can see on the first go-round, this thing may provide the strong spine to some fleshed-out “worship training” cards we’ve been talking about. Maybe we can actually make that project happen!

To do: Try to edit worship training lists—again!


Got the worship training cards back from the printer today. They’re not perfect: not as comprehensive as I’d like, but how could they be? Still, I suspect they’ll be really helpful to me and to Cindy. Basic worship principles on one side, specific principles and nitty-gritty practical tips on the other. Different colors for different types of worship leadership tasks. Easy to hand out to folks who want to be part of the team, but “couldn’t make the meeting.”


We Pray . . .

  • As a community: using “we” instead of “I.”
  • For a variety of reasons: to adore God, to confess sin, to give thanks, to ask God for something.
  • At a thoughtful pace (more slowly than we normally speak), and with space for attentive, reverent silence.
  • Without using verbal filler (“just,” “um”).
  • To God, who is Three-in-One. Though we sometimes address the Spirit or the Son directly, we pray most often to God the Father, by the power of the Holy Spirit, in the name of Jesus the Son.


When We Work with Technology in Worship . . .

We strive to be unnoticed, sacrificing a small bit of our full participation so that others may worship fully.

  • Make sure the projected light fits properly on the screen.
  • Make sure all the words that are being sung are visible.
  • Anticipate the next line or verse, moving the transparency with enough time for people to see ahead.
  • Move the transparency as few times as possible.
  • Move the transparency smoothly and discreetly.

  • Anticipate the speaker and have the microphone turned on; turn speakers’ mikes off during singing.
  • Keep listening and adjusting the sound levels as needed.
  • Set lights appropriate to the mood of the service.

When We Sing or Play Music . . .

Our primary work is to support the congregation.

  • use a consistent tempo, a clear bass line, and room to breathe.
  • give obvious cues for when God’s people are to begin singing.
  • make the melody stand out, especially when introducing new songs.
  • allow the text of the song to guide the accompaniment.
  • drop out occasionally so that the people can sing unaccompanied.

  • sing with expression of face and voice.
  • be aware of body language; make eye contact.
  • avoid idiosyncratic embellishment that a congregation can’t sing.

When We Speak in Worship . . .

We don’t instruct people what to do next, we invite them to participate in the act of worship. We

  • give a foretaste of the next text, or refer to the one preceding, when introducing a song or a reading.
  • let people know how each act fits into the dialogue of worship and the theme of the service.
  • attend to the emotional contours of the service—what’s happening in our heart and in the congregation’s hearts.

We read Scripture with intelligence, passion, and hospitality, keeping the following principles in mind:

  • Prepare: practice the reading ahead of time.
  • Pace: read slowly, but use some variety.
  • Space: allow time for the text to be heard and absorbed.
  • Grace: read with expression that makes Scripture come alive, yet not with so much drama that it calls more attention to the reader than the message.
  • Embrace: whenever possible include both genders when referring to people (the NRSV translation does this automatically).

Worship Is . . .

  • Covenantal—our services are a conversation between God and us in which God renews with us the covenant of grace.
  • Participative—worship leaders are not performers, but enablers, encouraging the full, conscious, active participation of the congregation (not “audience”).
  • Holistic—we bring all of ourselves to worship: faculty, staff and students, body and soul, brain and heart, doubt and belief, lament and joy.
  • Expansive—we make creative use of words, music—and more!—from many times, places, peoples, and cultures to enlarge our vision of God’s kingdom and situate ourselves properly within it.
  • Reverent—even when playful, our worship acknowledges that it is God with whom we deal when we gather together.
  • Spirit-directed—we are led by the Holy Spirit in form and in freedom, both in prayer-filled planning and in the surprising moments of worship.
  • Expectant—the Spirit blows where it will, so we worship with our sails raised, expecting great things of God and enjoying, rather than engineering, a contagious spiritual energy.

Rev. Dr. Ron Rienstra has been a regular contributor to Reformed Worship over the years. He is the director of worship life and professor of preaching and worship arts at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. He is an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America , author of Church at Church, and coauthor with his wife, Debra, of Worship Words: Discipling Language for Faithful Ministry. Together they have three grown children, a multiplicity of living-room instruments, and a tame backyard they are slowly rewilding.

Reformed Worship 63 © March 2002, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.