Should worship leaders sing parts that aren’t the written words and melody?
That’s a good question. I remember when I was very critical of worship leaders who sang words, phrases and melodies that weren’t part of the written melody. Or, they sang their own artistic version of the written words and melody. It distracted me from worshiping. It seemed like the worship leader was “showing off.” I thought the leader’s job was to make worship easier, not harder. So, is there a place for extemporaneous singing?
Ed Stetzer, in his letter to his worship leader, requests that the melody of the song always be prominent to make it easy for the people to follow. He makes very good points in his article. Importantly, Stetzer is careful to state that the guidelines he is suggesting are for their specific local church. That’s a crucial distinction because every church has their own specific “worship culture.”
On one hand, many churches always stick to the melody, and have been “trained” through years of practice to follow only the melody. Most people in these churches would have a reaction similar to my early response to ad lib singing—“what’s that guy doing?”
Many other churches have a very different “normal” in worship singing. Through years of practice, the worship leaders, back up singers and congregation have all learned to sing melody, harmonies, and words that aren’t on the lyric screen. For them, the definition of freedom in worship is, “sing whatever you want.”
So, context is everything. I visit all kinds of different churches in my worship leading travels. Part of my job is to figure out, “what is the musical culture of this church?” before I lead. My job is to facilitate worship, so I don’t want to stretch people farther than they can go with new expressions of worship, or bore them with an overly pedestrian approach. The worldwide church is a big, beautiful, many-splendored thing. I try respect all parts of Jesus’ bride.