The Role of the Worship Leader in a Global Pandemic – Conference Presentation Preview

The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdown measures included the closure of churches, chapels, synagogues, and mosques around the world. While Christianity is very diverse in nature, church attendance is foundational to many Christians’ spiritual lives as it includes elements of worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry, and mission, among others. As a result of the pandemic, however, many congregations around the world were forced to partake in worship in their homes through virtual church services. Church leaders were tasked with recording or livestreaming services while determining how they might encourage congregational participation throughout this unprecedented time.

In my upcoming presentation at the Music, Spirituality, and Wellbeing conference, I will present data findings from three evangelical churches in Ontario, Canada. Each of these churches use Contemporary Worship Music (CWM) during their worship services, led by a worship team in variety of forms throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The churches stem from different Christian Protestant denominations, therefore resulting in a range of approaches to church music and worship overall.

The worship leader, typically the lead vocalist or instrumentalist in evangelical Christian church settings, plays a particular role in the selection and facilitation of musical repertoire. Worship leaders’ decisions and actions can have a direct influence on musicians’ overall worship and music-making experiences. Using case study data stemming from questionnaires, observations, and one-on-one interviews, I examine how a worship leader’s pedagogical practices may both invite or discourage musicians’ sense of inclusion, participation, and overall engagement in relational music-making. I therefore propose that worship musicians are able to enter into a space of relational music-making– as well as a spiritual state of worship – through the intentional, inclusive, and participatory practices of the worship leader.

Music-making practices can implicitly encourage inclusivity and accessibility through repertoire, modes of performance, or through participative choices and decisions. Worship leaders’ approaches to music-making will, in turn, also influence the congregants’ sense of participation in an online, potentially accessible space during the COVID-19 pandemic. I consider how worship music leaders may aid musicians and congregants in their ability to use music as a form of worship to God online, while also addressing how worship musical genres and musical preferences may impact this process.

My presentation invites music educators, church musicians, and all those participating in facilitating community music-making environments to consider how their practices may influence musicians and others’ engagement in relational music-making. An awareness of one’s practices as a facilitator and/or pedagogue creates greater opportunities for sensitivity, inclusivity, and participation for many in music-making spaces.

Laura Benjamins

Ph.D. candidate in music education at Western University, London, Canada