My path to becoming a worship leader was unique…sort of. I grew up in small churches where my parents served as pastors. We were a musical family, and for the most part, I was asked to do music in some way or another since I was barely able to do more than stand. I remember singing with my brothers when I was just four. This was far from leading worship however, as it was more of a series of often embarrassing performances that, at their best were cute, and at their worst were mortifying.
I remember once when I was 12 years old singing Michael W. Smith’s ‘Friends’ at a nursing home to a performance cassette tape. I have nothing against the song or anything, but I sang it in the high-prepubescent voice of a young man who had not (ehem) matured. To bring home the embarrassment of the whole ordeal, right in the middle of the song a very cute similarly aged girl came walking into the room. In my embarrassment and desperate need to impress, I attempted to switch to “man range” and I quickly made an even bigger fool of myself as there was no way I was able to sing that low. I think I ended up in some sort of limbo between awkward harmonies and an unrecognizable and never-to-be-repeated melody. Embarrassing stories aside, I was in front of people more often than many kids, and this was often in the church where my parents were serving.
When I was 15 or so I decided I was going to learn to play guitar. I was going to be a rock-star extraordinaire (or to be more specific, an acoustic guitar toting folk-rocker extraordinaire). So one summer, at camp, I picked up a guitar and slowly learned the holy trifecta of G-C-D. Coming home that fall from my summer working at camp, I was ready to become a worship leader. Why wouldn’t I? I knew three whole chords after all! And then there was the worship song.
If you were around any church that did modern music in the 90s especially early on, you know the song. “Lord I Lift Your Name on High” was the type of song that was catchy, quick, and was comprised of a chord structure that was as simple as one can get, 1-4-5-4 and repeat ad nauseum. What was even more spectacular for the very uninitiated, was that it was standard to sing the song in G. So the chord structure was G-C-D-C. I could handle it, and it became the song that was sung every Sunday. Over the years I grew to despise the song due to this repetition, but in those first few years of worship experimentation, it was the go-to, simple song that was always in my back pocket. But I am getting ahead of myself. This is, after all, about my first time leading worship…or perhaps at this point it is about my first times leading worship.
Armed with the easiest of chords, and with not a hint of a strumming pattern, I began to lead worship. It was, not good. My heart was not in the right place to start with. While I certainly had a desire to lead people in worship, part of me just wanted to play and sing in front of people. Second, I had zero skill in terms of engaging people to sing. Third, although I could sing, I could not sing and play the guitar well at the same time. Fourth, my guitar playing was sad enough to be embarrassing. In short, I was woefully under-prepared.
Going back to my parents small churches I was the only one willing to push into the modern music which we used to call “Praise and Worship.” So I continued to lead, and as these things go, I got better. But my learning on the job approach caused me, and others, a lot of grief. My inexperience as a leader certainly did not help people engage in worship, it did not help advance the traditionalists into the 21st century, and in many cases, led to bad renditions of songs that sometimes had to be stopped altogether for failure. But, like I said, I eventually got better, learned from my successes and failures, and now believe I am leading people into worship, not out of it.
I tell my brief and abridged story not to dissuade anyone, but to suggest a few things I have learned and continue to. The number one lesson I have learned is to be prepared. Nothing causes more mistakes, even among the initiated, than a lack of preparation. I was under-prepared on the guitar and as a leader, and often times in knowledge of the songs I was supposed to be singing! Second, before presuming to be ready to lead, find a safe place to be incubated. For some of us this happens in youth groups and college campuses. Whatever your ability level, the stage is a different animal than your living room. The same is true with the weight of responsibility. As worship leaders we are tasked with leading people in a spiritual exercise of worship and communion with God. Huge stuff here. Third, make sure your heart is in the right place. While being on stage in front of people can serve as a catalyst for deciding to become a worship leader, if it does not shift to a genuine and desperate desire for people to worship, then the effectiveness of the worship leader will be exponentially diminished. Lastly, keep working at it. Push yourself in every direction and in every aspect of leading worship. Be a better leader, engage more, learn music well, develop relationships etc.etc.