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Leading the Liturgy

The role and function of a worship leader should not be underestimated. The level of engagement for worshipers in a worship service often is influenced directly by the way in which a worship leader functions. The quality of the sermon, the significance of the music and the content of the liturgy needs to be matched by the engaging manner in which the worship leader serves.

The role and function of a worship leader should not be underestimated.  The level of engagement for worshipers in a worship service often is influenced directly by the way in which a worship leader functions. The quality of the sermon, the significance of the music and the content of the liturgy needs to be matched by the engaging manner in which the worship leader serves.

In all things a worship leader should aim to function as a prompter for the dialog with God and attract little attention to self. Attention is to be focused on the action of worship, not on the person who is leading. A worship leader should not consider his/her role as that of a master of ceremonies.

These suggestions and guidelines are aimed to place the focus on how to provide liturgical leadership that will maximize the full participation of all worshipers in a meaningful way.

General Leadership Principles

Standing before a worshiping congregation to lead them is a profound privilege, packed with significance. One should never take this lightly. Careful preparation is a gift to God and to the worshiping congregation.

Communication with the congregation occurs not only through the words we speak, but also in how we speak them, our facial expressions, the ways in which we use our voices, the position of our bodies, the visuals of the setting in which worship occurs and our own personal appearance, including the attire we wear.

It is important to understand that meaningful gestures will greatly enhance communication. An absence of gestures, or gestures that are restrained and limited, fail to give the support that verbal communication needs.

Often the first few minutes of a worship service are the most strategic. During that time, worshipers will draw a (usually subconscious) conclusion about whether something healthy and helpful will happen here (and they become engaged in it) or nothing interesting will happen here (and they tune out.)

Remember that voice communication is shaped by at least three major factors:

  • Clarity – Are syllables and words clear and understandable; are consonants as distinct as vowels?
  • Projection – Can your voice be heard clearly by those who are more than five or six rows back; can you project your voice without it sounding distorted? Be aware that the type of microphone you are using will influence this.
  • Expression – Do you vary your pitch and tone, and your pace of speaking? Does your voice portray emphasis and excitement, surprise and concern? Do you use pauses for effect? It’s good to practice aloud ahead of time, and watch videos or listen to audio recording so you can critique how well you are doing vocally and visually.

Transitions in the Liturgy

Some congregations assume that the entire service will proceed unannounced and no verbal transitions are required. In such cases, they depend on the printed order and/or the musicians to provide whatever transitions are needed. In most churches, however, the flow of the worship service depends on meaningful verbal transitions which thoughtfully provide linkage between the previous acts and the coming ones.

A well-planned worship liturgy designed around a theme includes worship elements which build on each other, and worshipers will do best when they sense such linkage. At the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship we refer to these as “in-between words.” In your transitions, consider these thoughts:

  • Teach, but not too much. Transitions can be an excellent time to briefly explain the reason for a given action of worship, yet no one should be led to feel as though the service is a classroom. And don’t be overly chatty, explaining the obvious.
  • Vary your tone and rhythm. Some actions in worship are presented with excitement and vigor, some with quiet calmness.
  • Be pastorally sensitive. Not everyone present is healthy, happy and whole. Give worshipers the freedom to have hurts, needs and pain which need to be expressed.
  • Prioritize hospitality. Worshipers must be welcomed, and at key actions in the service, such as confession and prayers, they must sense that welcome.
  • Include references to oft-time forgotten groups of worshipers. Children, for instance, can easily become overlooked worshipers, but so can singles, senior citizens, students, etc.
  • Keep your theology of worship in mind. This is a dialog and encounter between God and God’s people, so each action should find its place in this conversation.
  • Aim for brevity. It’s easy to talk too much, but usually key phrases, intentionally chosen, are sufficient.
  • Prepare your words thoughtfully. Be intentional, either writing them out ahead of time, or at least forming key words and ideas that are needed.

The Reading of Scripture

Reading scripture during a worship service is a task with much more significance than reading a speech, a poem, or a proclamation. Since the Scriptures are the Word of God, and worship is a dialog between God and his people, reading the Scriptures in worship is an act of worship in which the voice of God is heard. Our conscious goal should be that of directing the attention of all onto the passage being read and not on the reader.

You will find helpful guidance in So You’ve Been Asked to….Read Scripture, written by Harvey A. Smit (Faith Alive Christian Resources). He reminds us of considerations such as these:

  • Our reading is vocal interpretation of scripture. While we read in public, our own personal understanding of and emotional reactions to what we read comes out in our manner of reading. So be sure that you grasp both the truth and the impact of what you are reading.
  • Understand the type of passage this is. What type of biblical literature is it? How does it fit into the context? What are the main ideas of the passage? What spirit or emotion is involved in the passage?
  • Prepare by reading a passage multiple times, perhaps to yourself silently, but preferably aloud to someone else who will be able to advise you. Do this multiple times to increase your comfort with the passage.
  • Pay attention to pronunciation. Be sure to check out any words that you aren’t sure of.
  • Determine your phrasing of the passage. Study the punctuation, for it will advise you on how the words are grouped together. Read smoothly, with flow that reflects the intent of each verse.
  • Use emphasis to indicate how a word or phrase is to be received. There are several ways to create emphasis – by raising your voice, by lengthening the word, or by pausing.  Perhaps you will want to mark your text to indicate how you will read for emphasis.
  • Add color to your reading. Think about the feelings, convictions, and life situations of the persons you are reading about, and aim to convey that in your reading.
  • Be conscious of your facial expressions for they are a tool of communication too. A frown or delight or smile or sad face will either enhance or contradict the meaning of the words.
  • When you stand to read be sure that you are physically prepared; stand erect, and relax your muscles ahead of time so they do not adversely affect your voice.
  • Speak from the diaphragm, not the throat. Good breathing is the key to all public speaking including reading. Look at the people, not over their heads, and avoid being buried in the page.
  • Be sure to compensate for a lectern or stand that is too low. It is better to lift your page and read out than to get hunched over and read down.
  • Introduce and conclude your reading with words that will point to their significance. Your reading may be introduced with “A reading from the book of….” A common formula for the conclusion of the reading is the statement and response: The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God!

Remember that you are reading the voice of God for the edification, encouragement, and instruction of his people. Therefore aim to glorify God, who speaks in these words which you are reading.

Administering the Sacraments

One of the most beautiful privileges a pastor has is to represent our Triune God at the Baptism Font or the Baptistry and the Lord’s Table.. It’s a wonderful priestly role and should be entered into with a sense of awe, reverence, and joy.

Remember that both sacraments are “signs” and, as such, should be visible to worshipers. Involving senses is, therefore, a good thing to be encouraged.

These general guidelines will enhance your sacramental leadership.

  • Worship services should be planned in such a way that the sacraments are integrated well into the flow of the full worship service. They must not feel “tacked on”. What is before and what follows should be consistent with the message of the sacrament. Wise also is the worship leader who finds other places in the worship service to make reference to the sacraments.
  • In both sacraments, your leadership should aim to communicate warmth, hospitality, and a spirit of richness.
  • Both sacraments are generally of two parts. The teaching material sets forth the institution, promises, and instruction in the meaning of the sacrament. It is entirely appropriate that this material is read from a book or script. The directly relational portions will include the actions of preparation, distribution and communion in the Lord’s Supper, and the questions/vows, baptism, and blessing of the Baptism service. This material should be committed to memory so that it can be presented while retaining eye contact with those who are listening. Remember that you are relating to people, not only providing a ritual. Gestures are helpful to enhance these relational actions.
  • When material is to be read, lift it so that you can read “out” to the worshipers. Letting it lie on the Table, for instance, will require that you read “down,” lose eye contact, and limit the projection of your voice.
  • When written material is needed by the worship leader, it is helpful to format the material so that it can become a half-sheet fold-over. In this form it can be slipped into a hymnal or Bible, and can be held for reading without distraction.

The Sacrament of Baptism

The focus of a baptismal service is always on the faithfulness of God’s covenant love. A vertical direction for the actions of worship is primary, i.e. between God and his people more than horizontal actions between people.


As the Service of Baptism is planned, pastor and worship planners will find helpful material in the liturgical forms of the denomination. It will certainly be helpful to begin with the Model Liturgy found in The Worship Sourcebook (first edition, pages 252-253) so that all of the proper elements are included, such as:

  • God’s Invitation and Promises
  • The Response of Faith
  • The Prayer of Thanksgiving
  • Baptism
  • Welcome

Suggestions such as these will enhance your leadership actions:

  • It is important to walk through the plans for the baptism service with the candidates for baptism or the parents presenting their infant. This will reduce their anxiety and enable them to be comfortable during the rite. It will also be pastorally courteous to mention to the parents that if their child is fussy or cries during the baptism, it should not be considered a “bother” to anyone. However, after the baptism the parents should feel free to take a fussy baby out to the nursery.
  • At the beginning of a baptism service, it is meaningful to pour water into the basin and to use this action of pouring as an opportunity to speak of the meaning of water in baptism, and to remind all worshipers of their own baptism. It is wise, therefore, to use larger rather than smaller fonts to accommodate larger amounts of water.
  • When addressing questions to the candidate for adult baptism or the parents of a child presented for infant baptism, it is important that the pastor be physically close to them (within 6-8 feet) so that this is a warm and personal event.
  • Those coming for baptism should be asked to rise before the congregation as the questions for vows are addressed to them.
  • If there are other children in the family when an infant is presented for baptism, those other children should be included in the family circle around the font. Pastoral words should be addressed to them to remind them of their own baptism.
  • Care should be taken regarding where the family stands so that the view of the actual baptism is obstructed for neither the other children in the family nor the congregation. And the wise pastor will take care to know the names of all the children in the family. If you are uncertain of your memory, jot them down!
  • Do not hesitate to use water generously in the baptism. It is a symbol that speaks and should be visible and audible. Many pastors and families find that making the sign of the cross on the forehead of the one receiving baptism is very meaningful.
  • It is appropriate and meaningful to present the baptized one to the congregation when asking for their prayers, love and support. In the case of an infant, either a parent or the pastor (with the parent’s permission) may present the child to the congregation.
  • When a blessing is pronounced on the baptized one, it is appropriate for the pastor to lay hands on him/her while speaking the blessing.
  • The children of a congregation will be served well when they are invited to come forward to witness the baptism of another child. It also provides an excellent teaching moment in which to remind them of their baptism

The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper

As the Service of the Lord’s Supper is planned, it is helpful for a congregation to experience variety and freshness, shaped by the time in the Christian Year in which it is located. Begin with the liturgical forms of your denomination and the Model Liturgy found in The Worship Sourcebook (first edition, pages 308-309) so that all of the proper elements are included, such as:

  • Declaration of God’s Invitation and Promises
  • The Great Prayer of Thanksgiving
  • Preparing the Bread and Cup
  • Communion
  • Response of Praise and Prayer

The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is appropriate in all seasons of the Christian Year. The spirit in which the sacrament is observed will be shaped by the season in which it is located. For example, Advent will likely need a spirit of longing; Lent will involve penitence and reflection; Holy Week will include deep devotion; Easter and Pentecost will more often have a stronger spirit of celebration.

As you prepare to lead a service of the Lord’s Supper, plan carefully and rehearse it well so that you will feel very confident in the flow of liturgical action. Worshipers will then feel the same confidence and security.

The officiating pastor will move to the Table before the sacrament begins. Some pastors will lead the early parts of the service from the Table; some will move to the Table during the conclusion of the sermon as a transition; others prefer that a song forms the transition and time for movement to the table and its preparation.

Gestures by the officiating pastor will be very influential at the Lord’s Table. Gestures of welcome (arms outspread to draw all in), breaking the bread, pouring the cup (all done with lifted hands and arms to be visible), and the invitation (arms moving for them to come) will carry as much meaning as the words spoken. All gestures need to be large and lifted.

While officiating at the Table, lift and hold the material you are reading. Do not read it while it is on the Table. Your head will tilt down and you will be reading to the Table.

The distribution and partaking of the elements can be done according to three different methods:

  • Distribution by the elders to worshipers in the pew, after which all partake at the same time at the instruction of the pastor.
  • Inviting all communicants to come forward to receive the bread and juice. Some will follow this with intinction (dipping the bread into the cup and partaking); others will receive the bread and cup and partake immediately; still others prefer to receive the bread and cup and partake only after returning to their seats so all can partake at the same time. It is wise to be aware that some persons will have concerns of hygiene when they are asked to pull a piece from a loaf.
  • Inviting communicants to come forward in groups, forming a circle in the front. The bread and juice is passed from one person to another with words of invitation, such as “The body/blood of Christ for you.

Worship planners should plan carefully for the activity during the time of distribution and partaking. Some prefer music to provide time for meditation. Others prefer to sing their faith during that time with multiple songs. Still others prefer that the reading of appropriate scripture texts, often blended with related hymns, is provided.