The most important conversation about music in your church may not be about the congregational experience. It may not be about fancy lighting, drum shields, or the spiritual acceptability of the electric guitar. It may not even be about the theological implications (or lack thereof) of the latest single to grace the Christian top 40. At the core of what happens musically at your church is a team of volunteers—and while they may serve your church in a very public way, they also represent one of your greatest opportunities to personally reach the people God has given you.
Beyond just having a functional purpose at a weekend service, your worship team represents a responsibility—a responsibility to grow, train, and lead disciples. That’s probably not news to you, but it can be easy for those volunteers to get lost in the weeds of week-in, week-out serving. In my experience, the health of a worship team usually comes down leadership. It can be the difference between operating a burn-out factory or managing a thriving, self-sustaining stream of new and experienced volunteers. So how do you structure your teams for success?
The Road So Far
Most church worship teams start out structuring their music teams as a “volunteer team”—and with good reason. It’s the most effective way to get started and plug musicians into serving early. Typically, it looks like a worship pastor and whoever is available on a Sunday-by-Sunday basis—maybe another vocalist at first and eventually growing to a full band with whoever is available that week. As the pool of volunteers grows, you start working off of more consistent schedules. Drummer A might play twice a month, while drummer B takes the other two weeks of the month (and drummer C—well, he needs to practice).
But as your church (and volunteer team) grows, the worship team model starts to falter. While you can keep finding new guitar players (no seriously, there’s like, a million of them), the worship team model hinges on one person.
That means that as the sole leader, you’re responsible for all the decision making—from set list to instrument mix. It means you have to lead every rehearsal, play every weekend, and invest yourself into (potentially) four different teams of musicians. More pragmatically, you’re going to be responsible to lead every weekend, to make sure everyone knows every part—all the normal parts of running a weekend service but compounded by the number of teams.
You have to structure your teams in such a way that they’ll be sustainable as your church (and volunteer base) grows.
A Better Way
While every church context is different, here are four questions to consider when you think about how to structure your volunteer teams for worship:
1. Are You Cultivating More Leaders?
There’s an old saying: “The best time to plant a tree was ten years ago; the second best time is today.” Cultivating leaders in your church is the same. More leaders means less strain on your team—plus the ability to further your reach and what you do. Cultivating more leaders is also a way of recognizing that you are not the end-all-be-all of your church; plus, cultivating leaders is one of the central elements of making disciples.
Practically, this looks like giving new worship leaders opportunities early. While finding and developing volunteer worship leaders is a topic in and of itself, it’s eventually going to come down to making opportunities for less experienced leaders to cut their teeth. Leading just one song on a Sunday (where you lead the rest) and leading worship at your youth group are two easy ways to get people started.
2. Can You Sustain Multiple Individual Teams?
As your volunteer base grows, you’re going to find yourself with enough people to form two (or more) separate worship teams. The central advantage is that the people serving on those teams become a community—they’ll rehearse together, eat together, lead together, etc. Plus, if you utilize the same people every week, you won’t cultivate more volunteers and more leaders, and you’ll have trouble giving everyone the opportunity to be involved.
3. Are You Giving Your Volunteers the Breaks They Need?
In Economics 101, you were taught the basic economic problem is that people have more wants than they have actual means to fulfill those wants, so they have to pick and choose which to fill. The same type of inequality can exist in your church—there’s more ministry to do then there are people to do it.
But if you don’t give your volunteers the rest that they need, they’ll burn out. Too often, churches will finally get together the ideal worship team, only to have members start leaving because they play too often. It becomes a vicious cycle of overworking volunteers because other volunteers left, which in turn causes volunteers to leave. By contrast, structuring your musical teams into cohorts/bands that rotate gives a natural rhythm to service and sabbath.
4. Are you wasting everyone’s time in rehearsal?
We’ve all been there—the angst-filled Thursday night rehearsal where your vocalist wants to run the last song again and your drummer wanted to be home 15 minutes ago. The reality of playing music, like many things in life, is that it takes practice. And if you’re constantly changing who you’re playing with, not only will you not get better sonically, but you’ll have to keep putting in a ton of work in rehearsal to get there. By contrast, the more a group of people plays with a coherent, consistent group, rehearsal will not only get easier, but the team will start sounding better. That’s not rocket science; it’s basic science.
There’s no magic bullet when it comes to developing volunteers. But by leveraging the right leadership principles (and a little common sense), you can create worship teams that are healthier, more sustainable, and frankly, more fun to be a part of. And that doesn’t just mean “better music” in a rote sense of the phrase; it means stickier communities and better discipleship.
How to Build a Sustainable Volunteer Worship Team