Today I’m thinking back on when I first started leading music for a youth ministry. I was a high school student learning the guitar and how to sing and play at the same time. I’ll be honest with you: it was rough. For the better part of 2 years I was struggling to hit the chords just right, let alone sing and play at the same time. It took a ton of patience and kindness from my youth minister and my peers to give me time and space to develop as a musician. Also, I spent a lot of time trying to get people to form a praise band. I looked for people to fill the designated roles of “lead guitarist,” “female singers,” “keyboard player,” “bass player,” and the always hard to find “drummer.”
My driving motivation when I first started a youth praise band was to be just like the praise bands I saw at summer camp, retreats, and the big mega church down the street. I wanted to sound exactly like the Chris Tomlin and David Crowder CD’s that I bought (remember buying CD’s????). I thought that if I couldn’t play these songs note for note then I wasn’t doing my very best as a music leader. So I spent a lot of time practicing and planning for how to start a praise band for the youth group and get better as a player. Looking back, I think the goal of improving as a musician was definitely worth pursuing, but my notion that I had to replicate the artists I admired note-for-note has changed.
It was actually a youth-led workshop on “how to start a praise band” when I was about 16 that started to change my perspective. I heard from an older student that their youth group had given up on trying to learn every single arrangement of every single song to sound just like the original artist. This group realized that their singers and musicians were not professionals like the ones on the CD. They also realized that they had some musicians that were really good, and that they could take the original recordings of their favorite worship songs and put their own mark on those songs for their community.
They decided not to force their group to fit into someone else’s mold. Maybe they didn’t have an awesome bass player, or an epic lead guitarist. Maybe they had a couple of good and reliable singers with some passion, or a piano or guitar player who wanted to give their time and energy to lead music for the group. This group was aware of their strengths and limitations, so they picked songs they knew they could play well and that their community could sing along with, too. They spent time practicing to constantly improve as musicians and playing as a better unit. They decided that it was more important for their youth ministry to have music that sounds good as a group, and for everyone to use their own gifts as best as possible.
This new idea has taken time to really sink in, but over time it has really changed how I approach leading a praise band or worship team. Now instead of trying to fill the ideal praise band roster I try to ask if anyone is interested in helping lead music, and what musical talents they bring to the table. I’ve found myself in worship teams that had a guitar, cello, piano, and some singers; while others I’ve lead had a more traditional setup of a couple of guitars, drums, bass, keyboard, and singers; and even more that had just a guitar and some voices. No matter what instruments were involved these groups worked together to maximize everyone’s strengths to make the best music we could make.
It takes patience to let a group gel. And it sometimes takes creativity to decide what in the original material is worth keeping, and what you can make your own, but it’s worth it when you have a music team that reflects the gifts of your community. I believe that the community will respond to such a genuine offering from the worship leading group.
Bonus Video: MarkO Youth Ministry Calling test
Have you tried starting a music team or praise team for your youth ministry?
What has worked for you?
Marcus Womack is a youth ministry intern and worship leader at West End United Methodist Church in Nashville, TN. He is currently pursuing his Master of Divinity degree at Vanderbilt Divinity School. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Alyssa, and dog Maximus. Follow him on twitter @MarcusGWomack