5 Ways to Still Lead a Worship Service WITHOUT Musicians

Last week I opened up this blog to YOUR QUESTIONS.   I asked you to leave comments with your questions and you all jumped right on it!

I’ve been involved in worship leadership in the local church for 25+ years and it is my hope that maybe I can share some of this experience by helping with your questions.

The following question immediately resonated with me because I’ve found myself in this place a few times. This question is from “Peg”:

How do you plan music for a service when the musicians are all on vacation, and the only ones left to lead are vocalists?

Screen Shot 2012-08-07 at 5.37.49 AMLuckily, I’m a musician myself so I’m never totally without any musical help but I can certainly relate to struggling to get a band together.  It seems to especially be more difficult in the summer months.  I’ve personally felt that gripping fear and frustration that comes when I see nothing but red “decline” signs all the way down my roster in PlanningCenterOnline.

The first thing to do is take a step back, take a deep breath, and relax.  As predictable as this may sound, God is still in control.

We can worship Him without music.
Even if no musicians are available, we can still gather corporately and celebrate His kingdom.

Nevertheless, there are some things one can do to prepare for these Sundays.  It’s not an exhaustive list but should get you started with some ideas.

#1:  Turn on the 911-Emergency Beacon

In Gotham when things got ugly they’d turn on the bat light.  In church world we need to find a way to turn on our 911-Emergency beacon.  What does this mean exactly?  This could be a great recruitment time.  If you have enough time to prepare you can make a brief announcement in your church or send out an e-blast.  Try posting on FaceBook.  Keep it simple.

You can try something like this:  “We are in need of a few extra musicians to serve as backups.  If you’d like to dust off your guitar or keyboard, get in touch with me ASAP”.  You never know who may respond.  I can almost guarantee that there are musicians in your congregation who perhaps don’t want the full commitment but would step in to help on a temporary basis.

#2:  Look Down

Look down, age-wise.  That’s right – to your youth.  Most likely there are a few teenagers in your congregation who have secretly learned to play guitar or piano.  This could be a fantastic opportunity for them to be used in your church service.  Be willing to stretch and do something easier, or (gasp) something newer or edgier.  Let them bring their expression to your team.  Talk to your youth pastor or ask some parents who are in the “know”.

#3:  Reach Out to Others

The other churches in our town shouldn’t be a source of competition.  They should be a source of companionship and mutual support.  We’re all on the same team.  Perhaps there is another church in your town who has someone that could help for that one Sunday.   Typically in a church like ours, we have several musicians for each part and they’d love to go help one Sunday.

Before recruiting a musician from another church I’d recommend following my personal code of conduct in this area which involves talking to the Music Minister and making sure you aren’t putting them in a bind by doing so.

This brings me to a point that I hope to discuss in a future blog article.  Community.  Most of us have little or no community with the other musicians and leaders in our community.

#4:  Reach Out to the Artistic/Music Community

There are probably other musicians in your town.  Guess what?  They may not attend church.  Now each church has their own philosophy about having non-Christians playing music in church.  Some of us take that even further — non-members, etc.  It really depends on how you are viewing the musician.  Are they in spiritual leadership or are they just helping you musically?

How about that guitar player who you have heard at the local coffee shop or restaurant.  How would they respond if you reached out and told them that you’d really love to have them help you with a few songs one Sunday morning.   Buy them a really nice breakfast and don’t try to get them saved before they play.

We have an amazing bass player on our team who started this way.  One day, while playing as a session bassist for our worship team the lyrics of the songs pierced his heart and he was gloriously saved.  He is still in love with Jesus today.

#5:  Forget about the Instruments

That’s right.  Forget about musical instruments for a Sunday.  Radically revise the way you do worship.  Make it something special.  Do a few songs acapella.  Insert a spoken word segment, such as a creative monologue.  Craft spoken prayers.  Write a few simple, repeatable melodies to some of your favorite Scriptures or prayers and teach them to your congregation to sing them.

Really – you will be amazed at how beautiful this can be.  Take a simple, 3-4 note melody repeating 2-3 meaningful verses from the Psalms.  Teach your congregation the melody.  Begin to sing it and encourage them to close their eyes and begin to sing harmonies if they hear them.  It could be one of the most inspiring worship experiences you’ve ever had.

I can’t help but think of the story behind Matt Redman’s song, Heart of Worship.

when the music fades, and all is stripped away, and I simply come
longing just to bring something that’s of worth that will bless your heart

As intimidating as it may be, this could be a profound blessing in the life of  your church worship.  Embrace it.  Prepare them for it the week before.  Tell them it’s going to be special and they don’t want to miss it.  If you don’t have that much time, greet them Sunday morning with an explanation and vision, not an apology.  And prepare for what could be a powerful time.

I’m sure many of you have some great ideas.  Share them below.  Have you experienced Sundays like this?  What did you do?
Comment below and let’s discuss.

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Fred McKinnon is a Pianist/Composer from St. Simons Island, GA. Checkout the full BIO for more information and a complete bio. Worship Interludes Podcast - This podcast features instrumentals for prayer, meditation, soaking worship, relaxation, study music, and rest. Visit the Podcast page to listen or subscribe. Follow on Social MediaFacebookYouTubeInstagramTwitter

21 comments on “5 Ways to Still Lead a Worship Service WITHOUT Musicians

  1. Two other thoughts:
    1. Using loops/tracks: there is definitely an art to this and a time and place for it. It is a fine line between backing tracks and karaoke. You have to decide what is right for your situation and what instruments you can use live (if any).

    2. Don’t do live music: have instrumental music playback and do prayer. Add an element that you wouldn’t normally use/have time for. Heck, end the service early. I believe that responding to God through musical worship is good and right but if you had a reason and explanation for not doing it one week, it could work.

    1. Agree about the fine line between backing tracks and karaoke.

  2. We are a very small church plant that has been going for almost two years now. There are no musicians in our congregation yet and we use ordinary CD’s for worship. We also do Encounter services which include some of the elements that you speak of in point 5.
    Just a comment: one of the most frustrating things is wanting to use wonderful songs from Matt Redman and Chris Tomlin (just as examples) but finding that the key that they sing with on the CD’s is hopeless for congregational singing.

    1. fmckinnon says:


      Yep, that’s really bad if you’re trying to sing and can only go on some of those CDs, because they are keyed extremely high. As a matter of fact, it’s well known that most of those artists actually do the songs in a lower key when they perform.
      If you’ve got access to a laptop and ableton software, you could checkout something like InteractiveWorshipLive.Com because you can choose several keys of those songs. Fred McKinnon
      email: fred@fredmckinnon.com
      twitter: @fmckinnon
      facebook: http://www.facebook.com/fredmckinnon

      1. Thanks, Fred. Appreciate the feedback. It’s been two years now and I feel like chucking the CD player in the nearby sea! 😀

  3. Peg says:

    Thank you so much for all of your suggestions. I am deep into planning for this service, and have already put a few of your suggestions into action. Blessings.

    1. fmckinnon says:

      That’s awesome – that’s what this community is all about!

      I’d also encourage you, if you haven’t already, to signup for the forums at: http://www.theworshipcommunity.com/forums/


  4. Glenn says:

    By incorporating different instrumentations strategically, those kind of Sundays are not as big a deal. We usually have 2-5 vox and a rhythm section every week, and add brass & WW’s 2x/month; several times a year we pair it down to piano or piano & perc. out of personnel necessity or to give the musicians a break.

    This past Sunday most of our vocal team are females….who went to Indy for a Women of Faith Conf. We were also missing our guitarist for a 2nd week. Last week he wasn’t missed as much because of having brass & WW’s but this week he would be, so I decided to go simple…percussion, BG and myself leading from the piano. We took our electronic kick from our Roland set and our percussionist used that with the rest of our “toys”. 😉
    It was amazing..simple, yet powerful. I made my style a little more Bruce Hornsby”ish”.

    Holy, Holy, Holy (hymn)
    Holy is the Lord
    How Great is Our God

    Want to try an interesting idea like Fred mentioned? Check the vimeo link out below. Revolution Church did a message called SHHHH (using signboards, live typing & prepared graphics, & “worship”, be sure and watch around 14:30). That can give you some ideas about doing a silent worship experience.


  5. Bill says:

    I understand the intentions of your article, but challenge your choice of words. A vocalist is a musician. Their instrument of choice is their voice. The title of the article should be “How to lead worship without instrumentalists”. By the way, I sing and play multiple instruments.

    1. Ron says:

      Actually, a vocalist isn’t a muscian. Likewise, musicians aren’t vocalists.
      A vocalist is just that, a vocalist.

  6. Ron says:

    Hi Fred, at the top of this page, under the heading “FredMckinnon.com”, your biography should be in this order: Christian, Husband, Dad, Leader, Musician, Entrepreneur.

    1. fmckinnon says:

      Ron –
      Explain ….
      Fred McKinnon
      email: fred@fredmckinnon.com
      twitter: @fmckinnon
      facebook: http://www.facebook.com/fredmckinnon

    2. Ron says:

      What I mean Fred is in order of importance, being a committed christian leads to being a good husband, dad, and then everything else. That’s why I mentioned at the top of this page you should have listed first that you’re a christian, then husband, and then dad, then the other three topics(leader, musician, and entrepreneur).

      1. fmckinnon says:

        I gotcha. They aren’t meant to be displayed in order of priority by any means.
        Sent from my iPad

  7. Angela says:

    Great suggestions! Experienced that with Labor Day weekend.

    We had a great guitarist join our congregation at the beginning of the year, but our other seasoned players left. So I have quite a few less experienced & learning players. We started a guitar class that’s bringing people from ages 9 – 65. I’m hoping to gradually insert them in the next couple of months.

    Working with youth has been great. We have quite a few youth players, and a couple that are developing really well. Just have to be flexible to work around their schedule, and know that it’s just not going to go the way you plan it. … Like it ever does!

    1. fmckinnon says:

      Teaching the class is an awesome idea!

      Sent from my iPad

  8. Laura says:

    These are good suggestions, but I think the title of the blog entry is misleading. It would be more accurate to say, “4 ways to recruit more musicians and 1 way to lead worship without instruments.”
    I was looking for ways to do music-less worship, and this is obviously not what I’m looking for! 😉
    Be blessed!

    1. fmckinnon says:

      Good point … wasn’t intentional!

  9. simeon Lussa says:

    Thank you brother!
    As a worship leader when other members are off, first of all I use to make a list of songs which are more easy for the congregation in order to make them sing with us,and then go to POINT 2 for support. It positively works.

  10. Paula says:

    thank you so much! I am the worship leader/coordinator at a campus ministry and as schedules arent always the same, I think I have had maybe one or two Sunday’s where the Pastor considered it to be a full band. I do not play an instrument so I am always relying that any of the few musicians in the congregation are available. I am very new to this and it has definitely caused a lot of stress and tearful planing sessions throughout the week! I honestly love the thought of completely A-Capella! One of my favorite sounds is the sound of a group worshiping our amazing God! All this to say, Thanks!

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