Principles of Worship Leading – Let The River Flow!

In this series, Dr. Steve Phifer takes what we have learned about worship and details how to apply these factors to the planning and execution of actual worship service.

Principles of Worship Leading – Master The Transition and Flow

Rule Number Three:

Let the worship flow (the music, the message, the mood). Master the transition.


Worship leading is not making something happen, that would be more like cheer-leading. It is letting something happen, in your own heart first and in the service next. It is not a musical tour de force. However, it is a musical offering selected from our repertoire of the church to be the Living Sacrifice of Praise of the Holy-Royal Priesthood as the ancient Hebrew worshiper would select a spotless lamb from his flock.

The Three Rules of Worship Leading:

  1. Worship God
  2. Be prepared and be flexible.
  3. Let the worship flow.

Worship leading comes from the overflow of the worship leader’s life. A passage from Isaiah contains a wonderful promise to the worship leader.

Therefore the Lord, the Lord of hosts, will send leanness among his fat ones; and under his glory He will kindle a burning like a burning of a fire. So the light of Israel will be for a fire, and His Holy One for a flame. It will burn and devour his thorns and his briars in one day. (Isaiah 10:16,17)

The context of these verses is the wasting of Israel to prepare for the restoration of Israel. The nation had to go through the purging of fire to be at a place where God’s glory could shine. So it is with the worship leader. He or she must pay the price in the secret place if God’s presence will be visited upon him or her in the public place. Under a “canopy of His glory” (NIV) God will burn away that which does not please Him in our lives. We must not take the covering of His glory (His blessing upon our worship leading) to mean He is finished with us. It does mean that while He is using and blessing us, He is still at work under that canopy of glory, making us more like Him.

The worship leader must “tremble”(Isaiah 66:2) at the Word of God. Song leaders can immerse themselves in music only but a worship leader must also immerse himself in the Word of God. As we, under a canopy of His glory, seek to build up our personal valleys, bring down our individual mountains, straighten out our well-worn crooked places, and smooth out our rough, careless ways, He is revealed in all His glory as we lead the people of God in ministry to the Lord. And remember, “All flesh will see it together”! The revelation of His glory will bring the righteousness, peace and joy of His reign.

Worship Leading is not making something happen.
It is letting something happen, in your heart
first and then in the service.

Ten Tips for Worship Leaders:

Advice gleaned from more than 20 years of worship leading.

1. Make your own worship songbook. Some people use computers, some notebooks, but an effective worship leader keeps a copy of at least the titles and keys of the songs the church has used in worship. This is an invaluable tool. It should be organized by keys, function, subject, etc. and it should be easy to update. Source books and page numbers should be noted so that music can be quickly found.

2. Devise your own technique for teaching new songs to the church. Here is mine:

  • First Step: Teach the singers and players first. (Sight-reading is not a pleasant experience in front of the whole church.)
  • Second Step: Sandwich the song between two familiar songs.(Be sure to provide words for congregation.)
  • Third Step: Use the song again soon. (Learning must be re-enforced) Other new song introduction techniques include using a new song to open the service or letting the singers do it first as a special. Don’t try to teach too many songs in one service.

3. Use lead sheets. Provide the lead sheets to all improvising musicians and to all singers. It is essential that everybody sings and plays the same version of the songs the worship leader has selected. I consider the published version of the song to be the definitive version. Local “improvements” on the harmony or melody should rarely be used. Respect the songwriters. There has to be a standard, some way to settle on how a song should be played. I strongly suggest using the published version. This is objective and does not favor any local personality. If orchestra is being used, the rhythm chart becomes definitive. You should not expect to change orchestrations to match the chords that local keyboardists want to play. When orchestrations are being played, everyone is in subjection to the score.

4. Use the songs in their published keys. Lead sheets are the life line of a worship ministry but asking musicians to transpose is not generally well received. Songs should be pitched for the congregation, not for the comfort of the worship leader or musicians. Publishers usually place the song in an average range, not too high and not too low. If you place a song too far away from its published key you will make the congregation uncomfortable. That is never helpful when you want them to sing.

There are altos and basses who lead worship. Songs are usually published for the 2nd tenor/2nd soprano range. This means that these worship leaders must lower some songs slightly in order to sing them. To do that without losing the congregation, lower the song 1 half-step or at most 1 whole step. Transpositions down a minor 3rd will take many songs out of the average voice range. If half-step-down modulations get into difficult keys, (C down to B, F to E, etc.) a whole step must be used. Congregations can handle things down a little, but not more than a 3rd. If the song is still too high for the worship leader he or she must learn to depend on the higher voices in the worship team for a phrase or two. It is much better for the worship leader to be uncomfortable for a few notes than to place the song out of reach of the people he or she is trying to lead in worship.

5. Learn how to warm-up your worship team. It is so important to help your leaders focus on the business at hand. Adequate pre-service time should be allotted to learn or touch up any new music, and to teach any transitions, introductions, endings, etc. After all that is done, find a private place and pray together. Review the goals of the service, and the music you have planned. Help them settle in mentally and spiritually so they can help you execute the plan God has given you. The last few minutes before the service should not be spend in a frantic search for lead sheets or transparencies, or in last minute rehearsal. These moments should be reserved for spiritual preparation.

6. Stay within your time allotment. You have met with the pastor so you know what his goals are. You have prepared your music to fill the time allotted. Be sensitive to the Holy Spirit. If He leads past the time given to worship no one should question it. But if the worship leader artificially carries on beyond the time given, most people will know that, too. The worship leader has broken a trust. Those who know how to use wisely the time given them, will be asked to lead again. Those who abuse their time will most likely not be asked again.

7. Lead worship, not just songs. When a congregation becomes dependent on songs, the people cannot give thanks, proclaim praise, express worship, or even pray unless they are singing. Many times the worship leader has done much to create this situation. If he or she hurries from song to song, showing more concern for each transition than for the worship that is taking place, then he or she is leading songs not worship. We must be careful to let people do express themselves and we must never hurry them. There is an element of waiting on God in worship leading. This is why transitions that involve the spoken praise, worship, and prayers of the congregation are effective. These transitions, allow praise and worship to happen between the songs.

Take special note of songs that give commands–“Praise the Lord”, “Exalt the Lord our God,” “Give Him glory”, etc. Many times these songs will be followed by a time when the order of worship is to obey the command of the song. The Worship Leader must allow time for this. I learned this when a friend was leading worship. He lead in a great song that invited me to spend time loving the Lord. I was ready to do this when suddenly we were starting another song. I couldn’t fulfill the command of the last song. It frustrated me. I cried in my spirit, “Let me worship my God!” I have never forgotten that moment. It has changed my worship leading. There is much more waiting now, more sensitivity to the moment. Really, the next moment is more important than the next song.

8. Listen to the people. The pastor and the congregation have entrusted us with planning and leading their sacrifices of praise. They should have a say in the matter. Not everyone who has a complaint is a critical spirit or a tradition bound saint. God will use people to instruct you as a worship leader. He will even use those with critical spirits and those who are tradition-bound because they are sometimes right. I wish it were not so, but it is. The fact is we need people who are watching because we can’t see ourselves lead worship. We are so focused in on what we are doing that we are blind to things that others see. God will help us sort out the truth from the negativism and learn from it.

9. Do not polarize the people. The role of the worship leader is to unite the people. But sometimes worship leaders unconsciously polarize the people they are trying to unify. They do this by constantly referring to the songs: old, new, high church, low church, Pentecostal, charismatic, Baptist, black gospel, southern gospel, hymns, choruses, scripture songs, traditional, contemporary. Really, these worship leaders are emphasizing the differences between the people who like or dislike those songs. They are building the walls between those people higher and stronger. They are causing the worship to be all about the songs. On the other hand, if we insist that the songs be all about the worship (thanksgiving, praise, humility, adoration, worship, prayer, testimony) then we can tear down the walls and unify the people.

10. Don’t talk too much. There really isn’t much to say to the people, if what we want to do is lead them in worship. Let’s get to the business at hand—worshiping God! Sometimes things need to be said. How can we judge what is proper and what isn’t?

Here are some good questions:

  • Is what I have to say about me or about God?
  • Does what I have to say bring attention to me or to the Lord?
  • Am I tempted to complain about how the people are or are not worshiping?
  • Am I seeking to vent frustration or anger?
  • Am I treading water, trying to figure out what to do next?
  • Do I have a word of exhortation or encouragement?
  • Am I emphasizing the songs or the truths of worship? (“Let’s all sing that great old song, How Great Thou Art”, my mother used to sing this to me…” or, “God is great and powerful. He is worthy of our praise today…”)

If you have planned well, your songs do most of the talking. All the worship leader needs to do is encourage the worshipers by keeping the focus of the proceedings on God Himself.


  1. Make your own worship song book.
  2. Devise your own technique for teaching new songs to the church.
  3. Use lead sheets.
  4. Use the songs in their published keys.
  5. Learn how to warm-up your worship team.
  6. Stay within your time allotment.
  7. Lead worship, not just songs.
  8. Listen to the people.
  9. Do not polarize the people.
  10. Don’t talk too much.


Dr. Steve Phifer received a Doctorate in Worship Studies from the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies. He has taught at Valley Forge University and Southeastern Assemblies of God University. For many years he was the Worship Pastor at Word of Life Church in Alexandria, VA.

More of Dr. Phifer’s materials can be found at