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Worship Leading Made Simple

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Yes, you read the title correctly! As complex and massive in nature as our God is, to think we could boil the leading of worship down to a simple methodology sounds ludicrous. But I honestly believe we make it much more difficult than it is – and usually the problems come when we confuse leading worship with being something akin to a performance. My theory is this: as a worship leader, my job is simply to remind people that ‘God is here…so deal with it’!

Of course, there is so much more to it than that…but doesn’t that make so much more sense than all the rigmarole we go through sometimes to lead people in worship? I also believe that if we can lead people to freedom they will worship. So the question then becomes ‘how do I lead people to freedom in just 15 or 20 minute’s time?’ Easy, peasy!

I have two very simple questions I ask of the Lord whenever I am preparing to lead any group in worship…and I’ll get to those two very liberating questions in a few moments…but first, I need to tell you how I even became a worship leader in the first place.

After the Lord set me free way back in 1981, two friends and I began having worship times in another friend’s garage. A few times we worshipped as we watched the sun go down and were still worshipping when the sun came up. We were all so desperate for a deeper more intimate relationship with the Lord and worship seemed the logical avenue to attain that intimacy…or at least one of the key avenues! After 2 years of these ‘campfire meetings’ as we called them, I married my wife and I taught school for three years. By the end of my third year of teaching I had had enough – so I quit my job and went to work at various odd jobs to support my growing little family.

During this period, a local pastor came by to visit. What got him in the door of my house and heart was when he mentioned his love for 2nd Chapter of Acts and Keith Green. He invited us to his church telling us of his desire to lead people into deeper realms of worship. I also began attending the Friday morning hour of prayer with him that met from 6:00 to 7:00 a.m. After a few weeks, the pastor told me they had a part time janitorial position available. So I became the church janitor for three hours each day. After a few more weeks he told me they needed a church secretary…so I was secretary for three hours each morning and janitor for three hours each afternoon. I was involved with the praise team but did not even sing. I simply played my violin (which a friend had given me for my birthday) by ear for the worship times. I was content because the Lord was teaching me so much about my true identity in Christ. To be performing in front of people would have felt too much like my old life. For a year that’s all I did. Answer the phone. Sweep the floors. Play the violin.

One Sunday morning in 1986 the entire praise team and pastor had gathered to pray before the service as was customary. As we began, the worship pastor who had been there for 15 years at that time, asked to share his heart. He began with these words. “The Lord has shown me that I am not to be the worship pastor here anymore. He has shown me that I am standing in someone else’s place…and that someone is Dennis Jernigan.”

We were all stunned! I think I was the most stunned! The pastor then chimes in, “The Lord spoke the same thing to me 6 months ago and told me to wait until he revealed it to the worship pastor. I confirm that this is what the Lord is saying.”

Assuming that I would have time to think about it, imagine my panic when the worship pastor continued with, “And I am to step down today. Dennis, you are to lead from this point on.” I had never really led worship publicly before. That day, I stood before the congregation and stiffly conducted the worship…but feeling none of the freedom I used to feel in those garage ‘campfire meetings’. The next Sunday I asked if I could lead from the piano…and I did not get up for the next 8 years!

My job description became this: Dennis, you are to sit before the Lord during the week and seek His heart for new music that will help usher the people into greater levels of freedom and worship. It was during this time that I learned to be a song receiver…and it was during this time that I developed a simple way to know the direction I should lead my flock. During this time we also expanded the Friday morning prayer gathering to Monday through Friday from 6 to 7 AM. I simply led the people who gathered (often over 100 people) through the Lord’s Prayer. We would begin with worship then pray through a section then worship through to the next session until we ended with worship. An hour was never enough! Incidentally, it was during this early morning prayer time that many of my songs were born…You Are My All in All being the most recognizable example. God was using many things to get me to the point of boiling my preparations to lead worship down to 2 very simple yet key questions.

I had also come from a tradition (and have known several leaders who felt this way) that said ‘never let ‘em see you sweat.’ The only problem I had with that is the funny little Scriptural concept found in John 8:32 – you know…you will know the truth and the truth will set you free. It was through my honesty that I found my freedom to choose Christ and the freedom to discover my new identity. Why would I ever lead from any other foundation? As a shepherd, my job was to lead the sheep to the very best God had to offer – whether that took us through the valley of death or to the high places of joy. I quickly discovered that it was better to lead the sheep than to beat them into submission! I began to lead by example, sharing honestly what I was going through, not for the sake of their pitying me, but in order for them to see that with confession/honesty comes freedom…and when people experience freedom they will worship.

After my first few weeks of leading worship, the music began to flow. I was receiving new songs daily that were born directly out of the lives and relationships of those in our church. In 1988 I decided to share publicly how the Lord had delivered me from same-sex attraction…and the people began to beat down my door for help. It was out of my honesty that others suddenly felt free to be honest because their fear or being rejected had suddenly been exposed as one more lie of the enemy! As more and more people began to come to our times of worship I developed a monthly gathering in Oklahoma City we called the Night of Praise. For 15 years this ministry saw literally thousands and thousands set free…and due to my weekly duties as worship leader at my own church as well as the monthly duties at the Night of Praise, I soon realized that I could either perform my way through my duties and burn out or I could seek God relationally for each group of people I was to lead and minister to.

As a result, I developed two simple questions that became my pre-ministry mantra, as they are to this day. The first question I ask before I lead any group of people whether for one or two songs or one or two hours is “Lord, would you give me a sense of what the needs of this group are? What are their needs?” As a shepherd of any group I lead I must know the needs of that flock if I am to be the best steward of God’s sheep. Because I am in front of hundreds of new and different sheep each week my only way of being relational with them is through the leadership of the Holy Spirit as I ask that question. But you know what? As I lead them and minister to their needs openly and honestly, God is faithful week in and week out to quickly develop a bond between me and those I lead.

The second question is actually my favorite one and seems to quickly get me to the place of laying ‘me’ and my agenda aside for that of the Lord’s. “Father, what do you feel towards these people right now?” Why do I ask that question? If I can tap into God’s heart in relation to His feelings toward those I am about to lead and minister to (feel what He feels!) then I can cut away all the excess that doesn’t belong in that particular moment of worship. His heart? That none would perish. His heart? Patience toward even the most hardened heart. His heart? To set the captive free. His heart? To bind up the wounds and broken hearts of the sheep. His heart? That his children would meet Him in a moment of relational worship through gratitude and intimacy. If I can tap into God’s heart then I don’t have to worry about whether I am leading with the most popular song or in the most current method. Those things are secondary to the needs of people and to the heart of God. Jesus came to meet people’s needs. So must I as a worship leader and song receiver.

I have had several memorable moments as a result of asking these 2 questions. During one Night of Praise I asked for all of those who were considering taking their lives if they did not hear from God that night to stand…and we had 50+ people stand! But I was prepared because I had asked the right questions. I already had a song of ministry from Father’s heart to sing over those who stood. As people surrounded them, the needs of people’s hearts were being met and tears of brokenness began to fall.

On many other occasions I have asked for those who had been victimized or abused to stand…on many occasions I have asked for those with hidden sin to stand…on other occasions I have asked for those who are grieving to stand…on other occasions I have asked for those who battled fear of rejection to stand…and because I have led out in my own honesty concerning all God has done for me, people feel free to take the first step that truth (that sets us free) requires – honesty. And through the years I have been privileged to see thousands and thousands stand for ministry and walk away free…and worshipping God! All because I asked 2 simple questions.

“Lord, what are the needs right now of this particular group I am about to lead?”

Use songs that minister to that need.

“Lord, what do You feel towards this group of people right now?”

Lead people from His heart and watch worship and freedom and joy erupt without much input from you!

These two questions can be asked whether you lead 10 people or 10,000. They can be asked days in advance or minutes in advance – or even in the moment for those impromptu moments when we are asked to lead spontaneously in our own living rooms. They can be incorporated into the smallest of church settings or into the largest of mega churches. These simple questions help us take our eyes off of ourselves and to focus them where they belong – on the Lord and upon the needs of those around us. The bottom line really is this: Seek Jesus and not a ministry…and watch ministry flow out of the abundance of that relationship.

I know. I know. There is so much more to worship than this little article entails…but you must admit it reduces things to their lowest common denominators – God and others. Of course I also realize that God is worthy of my praise regardless of what my needs are and regardless of what I feel in any given situation…but reality is that I was sent here to do the work of ministry by lifting up the name of Jesus – and these simple questions get me to that place ‘where the rubber meets the road’ in ministry. Leading worship is easy when we remember that it is all about relationship and reminding people that ‘God is here so deal with it’. Worship is all about leading people to freedom…because when people are set free they will worship. This is a natural response of a grateful heart. So get ready to ask those questions and then listen for His response…then simply lead out of the answers you receive. You’ll be surprised at how much pressure is taken from your own soul as a leader the more you learn to rely on Him and His leadership as you lead others.