How to Avoid Worship Taboos

Helping people focus on God is the whole point, isn’t it?

Leading worship is hard. Sometimes, no matter what you do, people stand before you like church-a-fied zombies from a 1950s horror flick. Just as bad is the awkwardly over-exuberant congregant who induces a migraine faster than you can say “free-form tambourine solo.”

When I ran into these sorts of problems as a new worship leader, I would often panic and make things even worse. I realized, after a few years, that most worship leaders did the same. In fact, there seemed to be a predictable list of mistakes that I saw over and over. I call these the “Top 10 Worship Taboos.” See if you can find something familiar in this list:

1. The Deadpan or the “Help, I have stress-induced botox-if-ication” leader.

Ever see a worship team singing about the joy of the Lord while their faces look like hunks of igneous rock? Leading is not just playing music. It is engaging a group of people to focus on God. Our body language, and especially our facial expressions, can invite people into this experience or, often in subtle ways, exclude them. When I was too concerned about the music, elements of the service or other stresses, my face would literally contradict the words I was singing. What is your face saying when you’re leading?

2. The Night Club Singer or the “I am the next American Idol” leader.

The opposite of the deadpan leader is the person who uses the worship service to do an Elvis impersonation. Demonstrating your moves, hitting that octave above everyone else, showing off your arpeggio dexterity or doing that jazzy echo rarely helps people focus on Jesus. If God has given you some talent, great! But remember that your talent can be a tool to point to God or to yourself. Most people (American Idol wannabes excluded) tend to be insecure about their musical ability. When we go all Whitney Houston on them it dampens their participation and comes off as showy. Ask yourself, am I leading or performing?

3. The Amateur Night Guy or the “I just picked up the guitar this week” leader.

If we leave all the worship leading only to the super talented, we will encourage a celebrity model of ministry that is not healthy. However, it is never a good idea to ask someone to lead before they’re ready or if they don’t have the gifting for the job. I have been in far too many services where someone felt that putting on a Garth Brooks headset was the only requirement for the job. No one wants to watch someone struggle. These leaders, who often do OK in practice, can have complete meltdowns when confronted with a problem in the service. When we put people in that position, it is unfair to them and stresses the crud out of everyone else. For this reason I am a big fan of giving people lots of opportunities to play in small groups and as backups in the band before putting them in the role of primary worship leaders.

4. The Speed Demon or the “Let’s make our hands bleed for Jesus” leader.

What do you do when the service starts to lag? One thing you should never do is simply speed up the songs—fast does not equal liveliness. I have been in more than one service where my hands became swollen from the nuclear level of leader-induced clapping. Good worship leaders can tell the difference between organic enthusiasm from the Holy Spirit and artificially induced mania. If the service is lagging, pause; discern why. Are people tired? Perhaps they need a quick biblical exhortation to remind them what they have to celebrate.

5. The Beat the Dead Horse Mode or the “Reruns are fun” leader.

We’re all busy. When we neglect the process of planning and praying, our liturgies become tired clichés instead of living expressions of praise. And don’t tell me your group has no liturgy. Whether you are a Latin-loving Catholic or old-school Pentecostal, every group has a template it uses to conduct worship. The question is not whether you have a liturgy but whether or not your liturgy is life-bringing. Ask yourself, is your worship too dependent on the same old music? Order? Elements? How can you make it fresh, creative and participatory without being too trendy? When confronted with a problem, worship leaders often go to their well of familiar songs instead of working to solve the problem.

6. The Tune-Up Troubles Troop or the “Let’s make a painful noise unto the Lord” leader.

Simply put, playing out of tune is a huge distraction. This is usually a sign that the team was in a rush before the service or that they are not really listening to each other during practice. If you find that you are playing with an out-of-tune crew, stop, be honest and take a moment to tune up. By the way, the more instruments you have, the closer attention you need to pay to tuning (not to mention arrangements, rhythm, etc.).

7. The Perfectionist or the “I can’t work under these conditions” leader.

Sure, not being tuned up is bad, but being a prima donna about the music is far worse. Ever hear a worship leader complain about the soundman in the middle of service? I have. I agree that we have to work to be excellent, but when we take this principle too far, we get sinful ego-driven leadership. I have seen leaders grunt and complain and huff and puff just because a monitor was not to their liking or the mic stand refused to submit to their lordship. It is too easy to get sucked into the world of performance while forgetting that worship is always a matter of the heart and not the ear. Keep in mind that truly excellent worship has been around far longer than sound systems or even electricity for that matter.

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8. The Sergeant Slave Driver or the “Get your hands up and worship Him, you scum” leader.

This whip-cracking taboo is the one I see the most. We don’t know that we sound mean, but in the heat of the battle, if people are not responding, we can be very tempted to over-exhort. I have seen leaders who were literally on the verge of popping a blood vessel. To avoid this taboo, take a breath and change your focus from them to your own heart. Far more effective than dramatic exhortations is modeling. If I concentrate on getting myself to truly worship, I find eventually others begin to enter in as well.

9. The Huge Vibrato or the “I wanna see my name in lights” leader.

A lot of worship leaders seem to have watched too many Broadway musicals. The result is a vibrato so large that the space shuttle could fly through it. Vibratos, while sounding great on some soloists, do not blend well with other voices. Our goal should always be to lead without standing out dramatically. Not only does the vibrato refuse to blend, sometimes it manifests because we are unsure about how to sing the music. We modulate back and forth, hoping we can find the notes. The net result is that we sound more like a warbler than a leader. In my experience, the more nervous the leader is, the greater the warble. Honestly listen to yourself. If you have a noticeable vibrato, learn to use it sparingly.

10. The Talker or the “Let me just stop things here and preach to you” leader.

While a short, well-placed exhortation from the worship leader can be powerful (see “The Speed Demon”), I have found that this tool can also be like Frodo’s ring. If you put it on too much, it turns you into something evil. Nothing deflates a worship service like a worship leader who continually interrupts God so he can exegete Habakkuk for everyone. By and large leaving the speaking to the teacher and the worship leading to the worship leader is the best way to keep the focus on God.

The one thing all 10 taboos have in common is that every one of them ultimately becomes a distraction that competes with God. Helping people focus on God is the whole point, isn’t it? Yes, leading can be challenging, but when we are confronted with a problem, if we don’t panic and find a way to put the attention back on God, most of the problems will end up taking care of themselves.

Curt Harlow lives in Sacramento, Calif., and works with Chi Alpha Campus Missions planting new ministries at colleges and universities all over the West Coast. Want to see the video clip that goes with this article? Go to
www.curtharlow.com/media.htm to see “Top Ten Worship Taboos” and other funny clips.

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