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How to plan and lead worship

I have provided below the set of practical guidelines for worship that we operated under at Granville Chapel during my time as an Associate Pastor there from 1999-2005. Chapel943

The guidelines address questions such as:

  • How do we help musicians and sound techs get along? 
  • What should be the criteria for a worship leader? 
  • Why do we do pulpit announcements?

If you are a pastor and can't understand your artistic worship leader, this may provide some common ground for discussion.  If you are putting together guidelines with your worship planning team, this may give you some good ideas. I think you will be struck by the value we placed on communication, collaboration, seeing-the-big-picture, sensitivity, participation, organization, thoughtfulness, creativity, and empowerment.

I must add however that good policy is no substitute for good people.  "First, get the right people on the bus," as Jim Collins says in Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't.  If you have the right people, good policy is probably not that big of a deal.  If you have the wrong people involved, no amount of good policy can keep them in check.  So use this document as a catalyst for conversation, not a law to be imposed.   

A final guideline: No discussing policy unless you are eating lunch or drinking lattes.  Policy should only be discussed in such settings.  The letter kills and we need all the help we can get. 

Background: Granville Chapel is a 450-attendance, non-denominational evangelical church with Plymouth Brethren roots in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.  I wrote this document in September 2004 after four years overseeing worship planning at the church and after meeting individually with each musician who was involved in worship.  I have recently unearthed this document for discussion with church leaders at Upland Community Church where I attend.  (I am currently a professor of Christian ministry at Taylor University).  The people at UCC have commented on its helpfulness to them and so I thought I would post it and see if it helps anyone else.  Here you can download the three-page Microsoft Word version.   

Working Document of Guidelines for Leading Worship


The reason we put this document together is so that we can better discuss worship issues.  “I think we should change #19,” etc.  These are not intended to be hard and fast rules.  This document is open to negotiation.  We want to encourage a liberating worship environment, not a straitjacket.  Many of the guidelines are common sense and are what we have been doing for years but we just want to articulate them so we are all on the same page. 

Andy Rowell, Associate Pastor, Granville Chapel, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, September 2004. 

Section 1: Expectations for Worship Ensemble Members

1.    Resolving conflict: If an existing team member (someone who has been on a team for awhile) is not fitting in because of character, personality, or musical reason, the ensemble leader will meet privately with the team member to try to resolve the issues.  Sometimes it is also helpful to have one other person involved as a supportive presence in the room.  Before an ensemble leader asks the person to step down from a team, a meeting with the Associate Pastor and those involved, must take place. 

2.    Relations with Sound Techs: Sound techs deserve respect and calm, considerate words because of the stress of the work, their hard work, servanthood, and special talents.  Ensemble musicians can help the sound techs by assisting with setup and takedown of equipment. 

3.    Sound Issues: Concerns about sound or sound equipment should be directed to the individual sound tech or to the sound tech ministry leader.  Additional concerns should be made known to the Associate Pastor. 

4.    Sound Equipment:  Ensemble members should only use the sound board in accordance with their ability.  It is a very expensive board and we need to be careful with it.  If you do know what you are doing and there is a need for you to be using the sound board, by all means, do what you need to do. 

5.    Ensemble Members relating to Leaders: Ensemble musicians are to respect and listen to their leaders.  For the purpose of variety and quality of music, not everyone needs to play their instrument all the time.  The leader has final authority about the arrangements and song selection.  Concerns with the decisions of the ensemble leader are to be made known in private.  If there is a further problem with an ensemble leader, the Associate Pastor is to be consulted. 

6.    Rehearsal and Promptness: Ensemble musicians are expected to attend rehearsals and be on time in order to play on Sunday mornings.  The ensemble leaders have the authority to decide how strictly they want to enforce this expectation. 

7.    Minimizing Distractions: Because we desire to lead the congregation to worship God, we will be careful not to be distracting.  This is an inherently subjective matter.  But long musical interludes, one’s dress, long pauses between songs, and other stage issues are to be considered carefully.  We want to facilitate the participation of the congregation and they may not be participating if they are distracted. 

8.    Stretching our Understanding of Worship: In order to encourage freshness in worship, we will invite outside musicians to come and teach us about worship at least once a year.  We also encourage and facilitate musicians attending outside worship conferences.

Section 2: Expectations for Worship Ensemble Leaders

9.    Qualifications for Ensemble Leaders: Because being an ensemble leader is an important leadership position within the community, we are looking for ensemble leaders who have (1) spiritual maturity, (2) leadership skills, (3) experience at our church and (4) strong musical ability.  These can be defined more specifically.  Spiritual maturity includes honesty, integrity, demonstration of the fruits of the Spirit and the practice of spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Bible reading, involvement in a small group, and church attendance.  Leadership skills can be demonstrated in other areas of a person’s life or can be attested to by other ensemble members.  Experience at our church almost always includes playing as an ensemble member on a team before being a leader.  It might also include leading worship at other church events besides Sunday mornings. 

10.    Encouraging Potential Leaders: Our desire is to see potential ensemble leaders trained up.  Therefore occasional and gradual sharing of leadership responsibilities with potential leaders is encouraged.  We also desire to make available less pressure opportunities outside of Sunday morning available to growing leaders.  We typically have three complete teams who rotate leading on Sunday morning.  In this way, people do not get burned out and we continually give experience to three drummers, bassists, etc. so that we are close to being "three-deep" at each position.  We are very much in favor of giving teens experience as ensemble musicians and as opposed to limiting them to the youth group worship band.

11.    Ensemble Leaders Succession: Ensemble leaders are chosen by the Associate Pastor in informal consultation with ensemble members and leaders. 

12.    Inclusiveness: We would like to incorporate as many gifted musicians in the church as possible.  Our desire is to try to find a place for each person to fit if they have the ability and spiritual character required. 

13.    New musicians: Willing musicians who have shown commitment to the church may audition with an ensemble leader or leaders.  Ensemble leaders have the authority to discern whether a person is a good fit.  If a person is interested in being part of a team, he or she should be in touch with one of the ensemble leaders.

14.    Outside Musicians: We encourage our ensemble leaders to utilize musicians from our church.  In-house musicians know the people of our church and therefore can encourage, love and challenge the congregation.  In turn, our congregation knows those musicians as people and can therefore encourage and correct them.  Because of the wealth of musicians that we have at the church, we see very little reason why outside musicians might be needed to fill gaps.  Even if an ensemble leader is stuck on Saturday evening, he or she is encouraged to first call in-house musicians to fill in.  We keep an updated roster of musicians with email addresses and phone numbers.

15.    Who is the congregation supposed to be following? Though we do not want to be pretentious or a “rock star”, it is good for the congregation to know who is leading each song so that they know who to look at.  This person should be singing the melody because worship choruses are sometimes difficult to sing and no sheet music is typically available. 

16.    Scheduling Rehearsals: Ensemble leaders are responsible to book their rehearsals through the church office.  They will get a key and security code ahead of time if necessary.  If their rehearsals are regular, they will be given a permanent key and code but this should only be used for the scheduled rehearsals. 

17.    Arriving on Sunday mornings: Ensemble leaders must arrange with their sound tech and the church office about what time they would like to arrive on Sunday morning in order for the building to be open.  If this is a regular problem, ensemble leaders may be given a key and code for this purpose.   

Section 3: Worship Planning (for Ensemble Leaders)

18.    Worship Oversight: The Worship Planning Committee intends to do these two things: (1) Debrief past services with input from fellow ensemble leaders, congregation members and pastors.  (2) Plan for upcoming services with this same group.  The way that this is done and how often this group meets has evolved over the years.  Whatever consensus the pastors and ensemble leaders agree upon will be the preferred practice.  These meetings and this group is the appropriate place for ensemble leaders to express their concerns about worship at the church and to voice leadership concerns.  These meetings will not encourage micromanagement or the stifling of creativity.  Rather we want to be spiritually attuned to what God is doing and give one another constructive feedback.

19.    New Songs are Encouraged: We want to add freshness and vitality to worship services.  Therefore we encourage the incorporation of new songs.  We also value the writing of new songs by our congregation. 

20.    Limited Number of New Songs: The issue we are trying to address is “how many new songs can the congregation realistically learn?”  We would like the congregation to be able to lift up their voices to the Lord and worship Him.  We value participation.  Therefore, we would like for there to be only 1 new song per Sunday (defined as not having been sung in the last 4 years or so.  We keep a Songs in Use document that lists the continually growing number of songs that are part of our church repertoire).  Ideally, ensemble leaders would consult with one another on which new songs they would like to introduce and to institute a plan for teaching the song over a number of weeks. 

21.    Criteria for New Songs: Songs should be evaluated on the value of their music and lyrics.  Lyrics must be biblically accurate.  Ideally, they would be theologically strong and their message would be clear.  We should also ask the truth question: Does this song communicate what we want to teach people about God or something that is not quite true?  New songs must be vetted by the Associate Pastor. 

22.    Song Explanation: A song with unclear lyrics may need the appropriate Scripture passage read in conjunction with the song to explain it.  The use of Scripture can help the congregation appreciate and understand a song which may otherwise be repetitive or informal.  A song that is primarily a youth or camp song should be explained as such.  “This song has been very popular at camp and so we wanted to teach it to you.”  This can help explain its informal tone.   

23.    Lyrical flow: Because we would like to prepare the congregation to hear the sermon, we would like for there to be some lyrical flow.  Sometimes this has been called a “worship theme.”  There should be some common thread lyrically through the songs – ideally connected to the Scripture text which the sermon will be based upon. 

24.    Musical Progression: Some believe that there should be progression in terms of tempo from fast to slow.  Some believe this can help bring people from “the outer courts” into the “holy of holies.”  This is the responsibility of the ensemble leader to do what seems best to them artistically.  It need not follow any set pattern.  See “#37 Crafting and Evaluating the Song Set” below.   

25.    Hymns: One or two hymns are required each Sunday because we want the whole congregation to worship and some worship best through hymns.  We value participation.  Furthermore, hymns provide some appropriate stable, theological and historical balance to “praise choruses.”  In other words, even if we were doing a service for just young people, probably a hymn or two would be included in order to enrich our worship experience.  Like fresh fruit, choruses tend to have quite a short shelf-life.  Hymns are defined as being in our church’s hymnal.  Hymns should be practiced.  It should also be considered how they might be best led.  For example, an ensemble leader should consider doing things such as 4-part harmony with 4 microphones, play the hymn by the ensemble, include the organ for a fuller sound, include another instrument, acappella, etc. 

26.    Gathering Songs: The first one or two songs are meant to be “gathering songs” as people are still arriving and others are entering into a spirit of worship.  We start on time.   

27.    Songs Deadline: The songs should be turned in the Thursday before (1 ½ weeks) the service.  The reason for this is so that the PowerPoint can be made, words can be double-checked by email, and changes can be made if necessary without unnecessary stress.   Words, audio samples and lead sheets are available for virtually any song through our SongSelect Advanced subscription through

28.    Ending on time: We desire to end the service at 1 hr. 15-20 minutes.  We do this because of children’s ministry and the nursery.  Ensemble leaders and the Associate Pastor need to work carefully at planning the time in order for this goal to be accomplished.                

29.    Repeats: Words in songs are often repeated in order to (1) teach people the words, (2) help people to meditate on the words, to “feel the words.”  Contemporary worship choruses are written to be repeated.  Ensemble leaders will decide how many times songs are repeated.  How many times a song should be repeated is a notoriously subjective matter. 

30.    Spontaneity:  A very well-known worship song or chorus may be sung without the words on PowerPoint may be sung spontaneously by the worship team.  Probably a maximum of one per week is a good rule of thumb. 

31.    Optional Creativity: There are many things that we have done in the past during worship services.  Here is a long list: special music, responsive readings, facilitated confession, testimonies, open sharing, recitation of a creed, parallel Scripture readings, dramatic reading, skit, story, video clip, poem, symbol, banner, visuals, body movement, sit when we sing, and communion received at stations.  Our services are jam packed without these things.  However, if they fit, they can be very meaningful.  We should also take note that these creative endeavors take extra energy.  A person is needed who will be responsible to carry through the idea, and lead the activity meaningfully and appropriately.  These creative endeavors need to be worked out in advance in consultation with the Associate Pastor. 

Section 4: Worship at our Church: Why We Do the Things We Do.

32.    Hosts, Pray-ers, Readers, and Communion Pray-ers:  Because we believe worship is the congregation participating in worship together, we include “regular members” of the congregation each week in various aspects of the service.  They are given some freedom within parameters to uniquely craft that aspect of the service.  We do not want to imply that only professionals can lead worship, rather the idea is that “everyone pitches in” and uses their gifts.   

33.    Announcements: Announcements are made in the worship service because Christianity is more than just Sunday worship and we want to invite people to realize that and consider further involvement.  The church staff prioritizes one or two major events to highlight each week that affect all or most the church.  These announcements should be crafted to achieve the right tone and emphasis in the least amount of time – almost always under 1 minute with a story, object, video clip or PowerPoint slide.  All announcements are to be made as briefly as possible and information should be in the bulletin so that details from the pulpit need not be given.  Most events should only receive one announcement from the pulpit and perhaps 5 second “reminder announcements” in the following weeks.  People should be encouraged to read their bulletin and the bulletin should be done attractively and accurately.  When someone besides the regular host gives an announcement, they should be coached to immediately begin their announcement rather than greet people, joke, clear their throat, test the mic, etc.  Pastoral care emergency announcements will usually be made before the prayer. 

34.    Announcements Placement: It is possible to have the announcements put either after the gathering songs near the beginning of the service or at the end of the service.  We should not have the announcements at the end of the service when we intend to have people respond to the sermon by coming forward for prayer. 

35.    Children in Service: Kids are included in the service for the first fifteen minutes in order to: help them get a sense of the wider church family, learn the worship songs, and for people in the congregation to get to know them.  Parents also appreciate having a few songs without their kids around them (distracting them) so this is why we do not have the kids in during all the singing.  It is important for the children’s ministry teachers to have the kids arrive upstairs about 15 minutes into the service because this the time period they plan for.  We like to allow kids to see baptisms.      

36.    Long Sets: Music is a great vehicle for worship.  Therefore, we value long sets of music in order to allow people to engage, connect and focus on God.  It may be more difficult for people to focus, if it is just two songs. 

37.    Crafting and Evaluating the Song Set:  The final song set selected should include a balance of:

a.    God’s initiative & human response
b.    A sense of awe at God’s transcendence & a sense of intimacy with God
c.    Corporate (“we”) & Individual (“I”)
d.    Hymns & Praise Choruses
e.    Well known songs & 1-2 newer songs. 
f.    Fast & slow songs
g.    Joy & grappling with the pain of this world

38.    Communion: Communion songs should be done in a spirit of reverence and reflection.  Communion songs should  usually focus on the work of Jesus at the cross.  A period of instrumental music or silence may be appropriate during this time.  People should not be asked to stand until everyone has been served.

Additional resources:

At the following links, you can also download the following Microsoft Word documents which formed some of the infrastructure for our worship planning at Granville Chapel. 

  1. a sample order of service we used
  2. our instructions to those who would serve as hosts, pastoral pray-ers, Scripture readers, and communion pray-ers
  3. our stage manager instructions
  4. and our PowerPoint operator instructions.

Thanks to the leadership and people of Granville Chapel, who I deeply loved serving with and still love.  In particular, a few people played a huge role in shaping these guidelines and more importantly the ethos that they represent.  They include the devoted Lynda Kennedy, the tactful Tim MacIntosh, the compassionate David Sayson, the curious Jennifer Legare, the detail-crunching Joan Messer, the gracious Andy Reid and the visionary Ken Smith.   

Thanks to my friend Jim Garringer for his permission to post here this behind-the-scenes photo of Taylor University Chapel from May 2006.