Meet Tom. Tom has been leading worship at his home church for several years now.
Tom doesn’t always have a ton of time to dedicate to what some higher-ups would call “professional development,” but Tom does his best to read articles, listen to podcasts, keep up with new music, and stay informed on new ideas as much as he can. He really takes his job as worship leader serious.
If you were to follow Tom around for a couple of weeks you would usually find him on Wednesday or Thursday night scouring and hunting the internet, blogs, Spotify, and whatever else he can get his hands. He tries hard to find resources to help him plan ahead. Like I said, Tom takes his job as worship leader serious. Tom has even read some of the how-to books about worship leadership and is currently working his way through one of those big, tough-to-read theology books because he knows stuff like that will just help him serve his church better.
Tom probably wouldn’t be able to explain this fully, but he does all of this because he wants his church to know the truth about who God is and how they should respond to Him. Tom totally realizes that his church doesn’t primarily need him to be a pro on the new lighting system that looks more confusing than rocket science, but rather that his church needs him to understand the Bible.
I’m sure you, like Tom, search, hunt, and do your best to be the worship leader your church needs. You care about what your people say, what they sing, and what they learn about God. Tom is a pretty good example. I mean, he wouldn’t claim to have it all figured out, but really, who does.
Have you ever thought about how a worship leader in the Old Testament would have led? What about a worship leader in Jesus’ day? What about the ones who led worship at the apostles’ churches? Have you ever thought about what the corporate worship service would have looked like for all of human history before, I don’t know, 200 AD?
It must have been hard to lead in those times. Think about it, how in the world did they even know what songs to pick before the internet!? And since the times were so different, can we even assume Tom’s job is the same job those guys had forever ago?
I think so. There is a whole group of people talked about in the Old Testament called the psalmists who wrote songs and poems and led the people of God in worship. The modern worship leader’s job is the same as the psalmists’ job— that is to form the people of God around the story of God’s creation and redemption. The psalmists have been leading the people of God to respond to God in service, artful expression, and obedience in a corporate setting since the beginning of the Torah. So, back to the question, how did these Old Testament worship leaders lead and what can we learn from them?
Well, lucky for us, we have a curated, collected record of what Hebrew worship looked like right in the middle of the Old Testament. In fact, that record shows what it looked like AND some of the actual words, stories, prayers, and poems they used! You probably know where I’m going, but God has preserved for us a record of Hebrew worship that I think should be pulled back out and used by Tom, and every other modern worship leader—the book of Psalms.
As God showed himself to the Hebrews, they responded in the prayers, poems, and songs found in the Psalms. Even the structure of the book is in such a way that teaches the worshiper more about who God is, who we are, and how we relate to God and each other.
These are just two ways that the modern worship leader can use the Book of Psalms.
1. Use the Psalms as your guide for what you teach your church about who God is and how we respond to him. Really take a look at what the Psalms say and the story they tell. See if the words you put in the mouths of your people lines up with what the Psalms say.
See what the Hebrews were learning about God through the Psalms and compare that with what your church is learning about God through your songs and prayers. No, this is not easy. Yes, this will take some real work and require you to try and understand the structure and message of the Psalms. But folks, this is what God Himself gave us to lead with!
2. Use the Psalms as your tools to structure your corporate worship service. There are so many ways to do this, but at its most fundamental level it would look like your church saying, singing, praying, etc. exactly what a specific psalm or group of psalms would be saying.
The psalmist is telling the people of God to rejoice because of God’s steadfast love in Psalm 117? Tell your people to rejoice because of God’s steadfast love. Is the psalmist telling the people of God to put away foreign idols and serve God only or else destruction will come in Psalm 99? Use Psalm 99 to encourage your people to have no idols in their own lives and to serve God alone.
Using the Psalms in your corporate worship will shape your church’s thinking about God, man, the world, and how we respond to it all. It really is kind of simple when you think about it.
So, like Tom, keep working, keep searching for the best resources, and keep taking your job serious. And on a foundational level, see your job as similar to the psalmists. Use your influence to form the people of God around the story of God by using the Psalms.
Now Tom can go out there and know he is jumping in on a multi-millennia task of leading the people of God in worship. Tom and the psalmists are partners now—co-workers if you will. Tom is teaching his generation what the psalmists taught their generations about who God is and how we respond to him. Tom is not alone—and you are not alone. Let’s join together and worship with the Psalms.
Keith Willis serves as the research assistant at the Institute for Biblical Worship. He and his wife Amanda currently serve at Sojourn Community Church while he pursues his Master of Divinity at Southern Seminary.