Pianist or organist? Leading worship in a traditional setting

What’s our goal? [Part 1 of 3]

I’m Sacha. Let me introduce myself and share my reason for writing about this topic.

I have had a heart for worship for a while and I’ve led in a variety of different styles of church. I’ve been a modern worship leader for only three years, whereas I’ve been a traditional church organist and pianist for over 25 years. But during the time I’ve been doing the two styles side by side, I have learned a lot. Each setting has given me better insight into how to meet the other setting’s needs.

I’ll be honest. Once my eyes and heart were opened to modern worship music, I didn’t want to go back to the traditional setting I had grown up with.

I loved the kind, friendly congregation and ministry team, but, when singing in the pews with my nose in a hymnbook, I missed the simplicity and expressiveness of the contemporary music that helped me to let God into my heart.

God had other ideas, though, and He sent me back to that traditional church.

Indeed, a lot of what I write here I learned the hard way, with a little friction and a lot of patience on both sides. It was this learning experience that really opened my eyes to how easily we can get it wrong, and how much of a difference it can make to get it right.

I still get it wrong all the time, by the way. But significantly less wrong than I used to. Because I focused on one main aim. Which is where we get to the nitty gritty.

What should be the goal of an effective worship leader?

In modern worship, this is my personal aim:

Enabling the congregation to be present with God

Do you agree? It may well be a given for you, but I only came to realise this through my own experience, as my relationship with God grew and blossomed.

When this became my priority, it made a huge difference to how I planned the Sundays I was leading. I started to read the response of the congregation…and boy, did they respond.

OK. Then should we have the same main goal when leading worship in a traditional setting?

Good question. In 25+ years and several traditional Church of England churches, not one vicar has ever told me what they would like from my music. The most input I have ever received is the hymns to play, and whether there is a sung mass to play too.

Perhaps you have had a different experience? Either way, this was my reality, and when I started playing for services, knowing no better, that is literally all I did. Play.

So, we have a challenge. If we are to do more than just play the music, we must work it out for ourselves.

Let’s try applying my modern worship aim to this setting. We need to bear in mind two things if we are to understand our congregation properly.

1.      Safe zone

You may have noticed that every congregation, charismatic or traditional, has a safe zone. They generally know what they like, and they like to stay there because it’s familiar and comfortable. They can’t always identify it, but change, such as a new organist or pianist, is a big disruption to this. This means that, coming into this setting, we are already challenged.

Does it detract from our main aim? Not necessarily. But we do have to be extremely careful if we are going to tamper with the bubble of familiarity this congregation will have become used to. And that means being as aware as we can be of what that safe zone is, so that we can tread very, very carefully.

This seems like a good time to mention again how many times I have got this wrong!

Also, even more important than point one…

2.      How we perceive and experience God’s presence


For the most part, a traditional congregation tends not to have the same experience of the presence of God. They will not relate to how we understand the Holy Spirit in a modern setting.

Yet if we and the leader/preacher have successfully enabled God’s presence, they will have experienced the Holy Spirit, but they will have perceived the following:

  • Feeling uplifted at the end of the service
  • Having a sense of joy, especially when singing
  • Relating to the meaning of a hymn or of the sermon, or of a prayer or piece of liturgy, and taking it to heart
  • Feeling at peace

We also happily take all these away from a modern setting, of course. It’s just that we tend to recognise it more readily as the Holy Spirit. The perception is different, and the experience may not be as intense, but God is still there, and everyone this congregations is just as precious to Him.

So – can we have the same aim regardless of the setting?

I believe so. We just have a more challenging framework in which to achieve it.

What do you think?

In my next post, I’ll be looking at exactly how we enable our congregation to encounter God in contemporary worship, and whether it’s practical to use these methods in a more traditional setting. Eventually I’ll also post a third part, which will look at how we negotiate the liturgy.

More help on worship leading

The Musicademy Practical Worship Leading Skills course is a comprehensive guide to every aspect of worship leading. You can download or stream the whole course. Watch the info video about it here.

See also our in-depth article on practical ideas for helping a church move from traditional to contemporary worship styles.

Pianist or keys player?

Musicademy-Worship-Keyboard-CoursesIf you are making the move from more traditional piano playing where you rely on sheet music and play “all the notes” including the melody then you might be interested in working through our Intermediate Worship Keyboard Course. This is designed to move classical piano players to a more contemporary chords-based method of playing where all you need is the chord chart rather than the sheet music.

All our keys courses are described here and you can buy on DVD, download or stream the courses.


By day, Sacha Tomkins works as an administrator in a High Wycombe grammar school in the UK. That’s the easy bit. The rest of the time, she’s either being a mum to Peter, Clare and Alice, a wife to Chris, a professional musician (singer, choral conductor, pianist, organist), a youth worker at St Margaret’s, Tyler’s Green, or of course a worship leader. Unless she’s comatose in bed from doing too much, or glued to her phone avoiding doing the chores. Oh, and you may just spot that she has rainbow hair. www.facebook.com/sachatomkinsmusician