Only You: Going It Alone as a Worship Leader by Ron App, M.Div.
Lately so much attention seems to focus on large churches. Those with congregations numbering in several hundreds or thousands have big buildings, large sanctuaries, huge parking lots, and seven-figure budgets. They get noticed. But what about the small church? In fact, the vast majority of churches in the United States have fewer than a hundred members. That probably means there may not be a great deal of talent to draw upon. It means you may be the only one leading the music. As Bill Gaither has said, "Sometimes you just have to start a fire with the wood you have."
I found myself in such a position a few years ago. I was a pastor of a small country church of about sixty to ninety people on a Sunday morning. We had a piano player and an organist. That was our music program. I wanted to add some new elements to our worship. One Sunday morning I brought my guitar, along with a few lead sheets of contemporary songs and choruses I'd collected over the course of prior years. The church had no major sound system - just a pulpit with a speaker's microphone. I simply stood behind the pulpit and led the songs from there. It may not have been a great presentation, but that was all I had to work with. I played songs like, "His Banner Over Me Is Love", "There's a River of Life", "Father I Adore You", "Our God Reigns", "They'll Know We are Christians", and a number of others. Some of the congregation already knew the songs, while others had never heard them before. But before long, everyone loved that part of the worship service the most. People became enthusiastic and the church grew somewhat, although because of the location its growth potential was limited. But it added an important atmosphere of doing something new and modern. When I left that church after four years as pastor, one of the first things people said was "who is going to lead the choruses?" I relate this story to illustrate that even in a small church with limited resources, contemporary music can still enhance a worship service. As I look back, there were many things that we could have done to improve the worship experience. I've learned a few things since then.
The first thing to do is assess your resources. How many good singers do you have in the congregation? How many play instruments like guitar or drums or synthesizer? Usually there are other gifts around so you don't have to be entirely by yourself. They can be either adults or youth. The youth can be a tremendous musical asset to the worship service. Keep in mind, though, that talent is important. You are looking for the people who can enhance the music - not detract from it. Unfortunately spirit alone is not enough when it comes to music - including music in worship. After you've exhausted all options and have come up empty-handed, you may find that you do have to do it by yourself. That doesn't have to be as scary as it sounds. If you don't play guitar or piano there are some very good pre-recorded contemporary praise songs and choruses available today. Check out your local Christian book store to see what is available. The world of MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) and CD technology has made remarkable new options possible for "no hands" accompaniment.
The Sound System
The sound reinforcement function tends to be neglected in small churches. This is largely because the sanctuary is small enough that a person can be heard without a microphone and amplifier. I found however, that even though our sanctuary was small, it would have been much more beneficial to have had my guitar and voice enhanced by a small PA system and a pair of speakers on stands. It would have been easier to lead the congregational singing, and my voice would not have felt as much strain. Pastors - especially those who sing as well as preach - need to steward their voices. If you find yourself in a similar situation you may wish to consider reinforcing the sound of your instrument and vocals according to the acoustic characteristics of the sanctuary.
The Instruments and Music
The instruments and players you have will largely determine what kind of music you can attempt. A guitar is very versatile. A piano is also a versatile instrument. But especially useful are today's synthesizer / keyboards. Their diversity of high-quality digitally-sampled sounds is truly amazing. More instruments, of course, enables more versatility in the songs and styles you can play. I was just one person with a guitar, and that was adequate for our situation at that time. It would have been nice to also have had drums, piano, synthesizer and bass but we did not have that luxury. Yet the church still appreciated the music. Today, several years later, however, most congregations' expectations will be higher.
Another option, as mentioned previously, is the use of pre-recorded instrumentation accompaniment. This involves added expense for a CD and tape player and pre-recorded music but it need not be terribly expensive. Pre-recorded music has both advantages and disadvantages. It sounds well-played, the musicians don't have to practice, no one is out of tune or makes a mistake, and it's efficient. But live music is more spontaneous, and far more interesting if the players are decent. It also gives more people opportunity to participate in worship. Plus, if people are really getting into the spirit of worship, you can adapt "on the fly" and extend the song's moment as the Spirit moves the congregation.
No matter what music you are singing, you will always encounter the need to get the words in front of people so they can sing. Overhead projectors - even the school 3M type - can effectively project the words onto a big screen, or the sanctuary wall. Another option is to print song lyric sheets. This is like having a hymnal. The overhead tends to be more desirable than song sheets. It leaves the hands free to worship as one wishes; it doesn't get torn up or lost, and worshipers' eyes are looking up instead of down. Plus nobody has to fumble around trying to get on the same page. Many churches today are implementing projector technology so that the words can be changed more smoothly. The movement to multi-media couples a computer, VHS recorder, and projector - supporting video clip projection as well as song lyrics. This technology may currently exceed budgets of small churches.
If you pastor a small church, odds are good that you may have go it alone - at least for a while. But take heart - no matter what your resources, the small church can have enhanced musical worship whether from a praise team, or just led by you. Use your imagination, and let the Spirit lead. You will surely accomplish more than you thought you might.