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 – Understanding The Basics of Worship

We must take all that we have learned about worship: the attitudes of the heart, the relationship we have with God, the concepts of the priority of worship, the principles and directives, and the confidence in our anointing to worship and apply these things to the actual planning and execution of the worship service.

will look at worship leading with two lenses: a wide view that looks at the whole service from beginning to end and a narrow view that looks at the congregational praise and worship time.


It is essential that the worship planner keep the whole service in mind. If one is a musician he will naturally focus his attention on the music segment of the service. If one is a pastor his primary concern will probably be the sermon time. Both the chief musician and the pastor are worship leaders. Each must follow the other’s leadership: the pastor worshiping God with all his might and the musician intently following every word the pastor speaks. In this way both deflect attention away from themselves back to the leader in the pulpit whether he is leading in praise and worship music or preaching the Word.

When a chief musician first learns about the destinations of worship services (the Throne Room, The Holy of Holies, and the Lord’s Office-Place) it is natural for him to want to take the people all the way into those places while the praise and worship music is being offered to the Lord. This is not necessary. We need to pass through the veil at some point during the service, but not always during the praise and worship music. Again, I am indebted to my friend Larry Hartley for an illustration from his ministry. His worship leading was doing well. The people were following him and in every service they were moving through the outer courts and having powerful times in the Holy of Holies. Larry’s pastor began to withdraw from his normally unrestrained worship. After a few weeks, Larry was greatly concerned. (A good chief musician wants to please God and his pastor!)

As men of God and pastoral team members must do, they talked it out. Larry’s pastor’s wisdom does much to ease any strain between the forces of “spirit” and the forces of “truth.”

“Why do you have to take them all the way into the Holy of Holies every time you lead worship? Why can’t we stop for a while in the Holy Place? That is a good place to be, the place of prayer and the Word in the light of the Holy Spirit.” Larry told me this and then went further with the truth.

“It’s OK, Steve, to stop in the Holy Place for a while. The veil is torn. We can see the ark from there! All is well in the Holy Place!” I too, had been struggling with the strain of feeling that I was supposed to bring the congregation all the way to the goal in praise and worship time. I can remember how this revelation relaxed that drive in me. God is interested in the whole service not just the music time or the preaching time. With all that we have learned we can now chart the worship service from beginning to end.

We will look at only the spirit and truth elements in a service 90 minutes in length. Of course the amazing thing about a worship service is that it is essentially a spiritual event and can never be nailed down as neatly as this chart. This chart only serves to illustrate the flow from praise to worship, from spirit activity to truth activity. Different biblical models are charted by this illustration.

– 45 minutes –

-45 minutes-

God’s Holy Spirit can do thousands of different things all at once in the same room.
One worshiper may have a Throne Room visit beholding God’s majesty and submitting to His sovereignty while the next person may be exchanging his weakness for the Lord’s strength in the Holy of Holies and another may be visiting the Lord’s Office-Place just to be held for a while in the arms of the Lord.
It may be that the Holy Spirit desires to take the whole congregation into one of these manifestations of the Lord’s presence all at once during the music time. It would be wonderful for an entire sermon to be a visit to the Holy of Holies. Remember these models are merely illustrations. They are clay in the hands of the Holy Spirit to be molded by Him to reveal Jesus to us. Our role as worship leaders is to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s wishes when we plan and execute the service.


Terminology is important. Will we have a “song service” or a “praise and worship” time? Will the leader be a “song leader” or a “worship leader?” What is the difference?
A song leader leading a song service is this:
A person leading other people singing songs and instrumentalists accompanying them.
A worship leader leading a praise and worship time is so much more:
People praising and worshiping God with and without songs; instrumentalists praising and worshiping God with the sounds of music; people praising and worshiping from their hearts while the instrumentalists play (which may be what “selah” meant); gifts of the Spirit in scriptural operation; “Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” flowing; the Lord indwelling the praise of His people and finding our praise worthy to be His Throne; the Lord using our worship as His Office -place; the River of Life flowing from His Throne to our restoration and the healing of the nations; Heaven and earth coming together at Mt. Zion in the unity of praise and worship to the Lamb on the Throne; the call of God going forth to those He has anointed to specific areas of service; the church moving forward in unison in the will of God; the testimony of the church that Jesus is alive validated by the manifestation of His presence; and unbelievers falling down and worshiping God with us, saying that God is in us “of a truth.”
Given a choice of these two things, a song service or a praise and worship time, we would certainly desire the latter.
This is exactly the choice we have. It takes leadership to transform a song service into a worship service. God is always the same. God is not on a circuit whereby He only visits us once in a while. He wants to tabernacle with us every time we gather to worship! The River of Life is always flowing from His Throne. If there are inconsistencies they must be ours, inconsistencies in the way we lead worship. We need to closely examine the leadership of the praise and worship time within the service.


A worship leader is a man or woman who is called of God to lead in worship. If we want the power of God to flow in our worship, the leader must be a person GOD has selected. The anointing is as essential to this ministry as it is to any other ministry. Those whom God calls, He enables. Without this enablement the worship time will be mired in imitation and fleshly effort. Many congregations are waiting, week after week, for song leaders to become worship leaders or yield the position to a worship leader. Anyone who is so prideful of the “song leader” position that he will not share leadership with other anointed leaders is probably not called of God. Leaders who are anointed of the Lord hold their positions among men with a light grip. They have no trouble making way for others who are anointed. However, those who have been placed in a leadership position by the hand of man must hold tightly to it with their own strength.

Musical skill and understanding are essential. Music must be handled properly or it will inhibit the flow of God’s Spirit. A skillful musical mind can release the powers of music to support the expression of God’s people. On the other hand, unskillful handling of music can spoil the sacrifice of praise of the whole church, the Holy-Royal Priesthood.

The worship leader must be broken before the Lord and remain broken. Through Isaiah, the Lord makes it clear that He visits His presence upon those who are humble before Him.

For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones. (Isaiah 57:15 KJV)Thus saith the Lord, the heaven is my throne, and the earth my footstool: where is the house that ye build unto me? and where is the place of my rest? For all these things hath mine hand made, all those things have been, saith the Lord: but to this man will I look,(“This one will I esteem”, NIV) even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word. (Isaiah 66:12 KJV)

Music and music ministry can be done in a prideful manner, lifting the musician up with pride in performance and position. Worship leading is the exact opposite. Pride is incompatible with God’s presence. When the performance musician succeeds, all eyes are on him and the applause of men floods his heart. When the worship musician or worship leader succeeds, he disappears for all eyes are on Jesus and all applause goes to the Lord. Because they are soulish and physical in their origin, music, thanksgiving, and even praise can be humanly generated. But the manifest presence of the Lord is a heavenly visitation given to those who have a poor and contrite spirit and who tremble at the Word of the Lord. It cannot be generated by man; it is a gift of God. Of all musicians, the worship musician must be humble. The difference between church musicians who are performance-oriented and those who are worship-oriented is obvious. Performers are proud and worshipers are humble.

Human nature teems with pride for everyone, musicians included. In your experience, if humble church musicians have been few in number, call to mind the action of culture and personal preference we discussed in chapter one. Pride is a cornerstone of the music education system that trains most musicians. But when a musician decides to minister to the Lord, when he desires for God’s presence to be visited upon his music, he finds he must repent of pride and forsake it. God simply will not be enthroned upon prideful music. In the same way, a worship leader must be humble to lead a congregation before the Throne of God. He cannot take people someplace he has not been. He and his music must take the background and allow the Holy Spirit’s work to take the foreground. Most musicians dislike performing background music. We want to be listened to when we make music. But worship music (while it is certainly not “elevator music”) must be music in submission to God, deflecting the attention back to Him. The humility this requires from musicians is always a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. A worship leader performs his or her ministry together with the congregation, the pastor, the choir, the orchestra, and the worship singers in humility and obedience. Worship leading is in every way a service to the congregation and not something of leadership over the church. God may call anyone who is qualified to serve in this way.

A Worship Leader is someone who is…

-called of God to lead in worship,

-musically skillful and/or understanding,

-Spiritually broken before the Lord.


The relationship between praise and worship has to be held clearly in the mind of the one who plans and leads a worship time. Praise (thanksgiving and exaltation) should precede worship (adoration and communion). This praise-worship sequence is the reasonable order of worship referred to in Romans 12:1. This is not to say that a sovereign God cannot short-circuit this order and visit us with His manifest presence in times when we have not praised Him. We all may have experienced such astounding times of visitation. But, the goal of the worship leader is not the occasional sovereign move of God, but the pattern God’s Spirit has given us in Scripture. God has also sovereignty chosen to move in the logical, praise-worship sequence. If we are to lead worship, we must understand and submit to this.

Praise is an action of soul and body, a time of thanking the Lord for what He has done and exalting His name, His character, and His deeds. Here are the gates to His presence and the outer courts of His dwelling place. This is wading ankle deep and knee deep into the River of Life. It is ascending the hill of the Lord where the Tabernacle of David is found. This is the presentation of our bodies to Him. By these things we establish His throne as we minister to the Lord with our Living Sacrifice of Praise. Through praise we prepare ourselves for the revelation of His glory.

Worship is a response of the spirit, a time of expressing our adoration and devotion to God, giving Him an exclusive place in our hearts. Communion is abandoning ourselves to His presence, contemplating His glory, dwelling inside the veil, and drinking in His righteousness. It is the solemn sovereignty of His Throne Room, the holiness of the Holy of Holies, the deep waters of the River of life, the tenderness of His Office-Place, the renewing of the mind, and the glory revealed. True worship transports the worshiper out of time and into eternity. There is a timeless quality to these spiritual destinations.

The worship leader must be careful not to stop with praise. Our goal is to enter His presence with praise so that we may respond to Him in worship. Of course it is always proper to thank and praise the Lord. We begin these expressions in the outer court and bring them with us into the inner court. These differences can be seen in the music itself. The music of thanksgiving and exaltation can be either upward in direction, thanking and praising God, or it can be outward in direction, speaking to others about God, encouraging them to praise. The music of worship is almost exclusively upward in direction, speaking directly to God. The pronouns in the text signal the direction of the song. A song of mine illustrates.

From Psalm 29:12 comes a song of praise:

Give unto the Lord, O ye mighty.
Give unto the Lord, glory and strength.
Give unto the Lord the glory due His name;
Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.

From the Revelation comes a second part, still in praise:

Give Him blessing; Give Him honor;
Give Him glory; Give Him power!
Give unto the Lord the Glory due His name;
Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.

To use this song in a worship time, after we have praised the Lord, I would adapt the lyric:

We give You blessing; We give You honor;
We give You glory; We give You power!
We give unto You, Lord, the glory due Your name:
We worship You, Lord, in the beauty of holiness. “Give Unto the Lord”

©Copyright 1986 by Gospel Publishing House

By adjusting the pronouns we personalize our expression, sending it upward to the Lord.

The worship leader must be sensitive to the direction of the songs. I keep this in mind by imagining the heads of the people turning upward when we sing to God and from side to side as we sing to one another. If I look at a series of songs I have planned and see the people getting sore necks from all the direction changes, I have to re-think that sequence. When we see an entire congregation actually looking upward for substantial periods of time as the music carries their individual sacrifices up to the Lord, do we really want to give them a song that brings their attention back to earth to sing to one another about God? How much better it is to sing to Him! God knows the end from the beginning and so must the worship leader–praise leads to worship! It is the revealed pathway to the presence of God.

There is also a manifestation of “spirit and truth” in the character of praise and worship music. Paul told the Corinthians that he was determined to sing “with the spirit and…with the understanding also.” (I Corinthians 14:15b) Some praise and worship songs are very much “truth” exercises having many verses and developing complex messages of theology or exhortation. These are songs we sing with understanding. Other songs have only a word or a phrase repeated again and again as in “Hallelujah,” “We exalt Thee,” “Worthy is the Lamb,” and “I Love You, Lord.” Some musicians and theologians have decried the lack of content in such songs. But as we sing these vital words again and again our spirits soar. We are singing “with the spirit.” Of course, we have all heard worthless little songs that say nothing and give no important expressions of praise and worship. These have nothing to recommend them. Paul’s testimony gives us biblical permission to enjoy songs of spirit and truth, those presenting great truths as well as those whose simplicity lets our spirits minister to the Lord.

Understanding Praise and Worship

Praise is an action of soul and body, a time of thanking the Lord for what He has done and exalting His name, His character, and His deeds. Worship is a response of the spirit, a time of expressing our adoration and devotion to God, giving Him an exclusive place in our hearts.


The first rule of worship leading is this: a worship leader must himself worship God without reservation. He must give himself to praise and worship, hungering above all things for the manifestation of the presence of the Lord. There have been times I thought my heart would pound its way out of my chest as the awe of His majesty broke upon me. With rule number one in mind, this is the step-by-step procedure I recommend. The worship leader must do these things: Prepare his heart to approach the Lord with the people of God. Prepare the leadership for positive change. Prepare the people for a systematic way of approaching God. Prepare a sequence of songs that will take us on that journey and communicate the plan to all the singers, instrumentalists, and technicians who must know where we are going and the musical route chosen. Execute the plan as he is led of the Spirit and as he praises and worships God with all his might, whether the people follow him or not.


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

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