Leaah Duff is a singer, songwriter, and worship leader. Recently, Leeah talked to Worship Links about the future of church worship, an old school worship mix, and blanking on your own lyrics.
Thanks so much for taking the time to answer some questions for us. It’s truly appreciated! The first question is an easy one. Tell us a little bit about yourself in five sentences.
I am a Christian singer/songwriter from the central KY area. I serve as the volunteer youth worship leader at Buck Run Baptist Church. I also teach voice and piano lessons to students in the community. I’ve been married five years to my husband Garrett and we are expecting our first child in October. I’m extremely right-brained and enjoy all things creative like painting, sketching, and graphic design.
How did you get started in worship ministry?
I’ve been a singer my whole life and I had several teachers and music ministers encourage me to pursue music when I was younger. I wrote my first song when I was in fifth grade and found that I could express myself better through music than through any other means of communication. I’ve always been a quiet, introverted person so it was a way for me to vent. When I was in middle school, I attended a Christian summer camp called Centrifuge with my youth group and that was my first experience with a contemporary worship service. It was there that I surrendered to the call of music ministry. I didn’t know what that would look like but I simply had the desire to glorify the Lord through music. That has morphed into many different musical roles inside and outside the church over the years and I seek to continue to be faithful where the Lord leads.
What’s your basic process for planning a service or worship set?
The first thing I look at when planning a set list is the type of event I will be attending. I try to be sensitive to the theme of the service or event because I always want the songs to be complimentary to the message. I also take into account whether it is a concert or congregational worship. During a concert, I don’t have to worry about the song being “singable” by a congregation but during worship I have to be aware that others are going to be joining with me. The most important thing is that the songs point to Christ. There are a lot of catchy songs out there with weak theological lyrics. I always make sure the lyrics are in line with scripture, whether it’s a song I’ve written or one I am choosing to cover.
Desert Island Worship Mix: You’re trapped on a desert island, and for reasons too ridiculous to explain, you can only have one CD with five worship songs on it. What are they?
I have to go old school on this one: Awesome God, My Deliverer, Hold Me Jesus by Rich Mullins, Show Me Your Glory by Third Day, and God is God by Steven Curtis Chapman.
What have you found are some of your greatest challenges in managing a worship team? How do you handle the balance between being a musician and being a manager?
My worship team mostly consists of high school students. High schoolers are busy these days with sports and all sorts of extracurriculars so it can be challenging to find an agreeable practice time. I also am very picky with who I allow to be on stage. Students have to sign a commitment form before being chosen to be a part of the youth worship team. The major requirement to being a part of the team is that the student not only professes Christ as their Savior but that they are living a Christian lifestyle inside and outside the church. Sometimes this means telling a very talented musician “no” which is hard at times but in the long run is the better choice. Students who are on stage are representatives of Christ and if they are leading a life contrary to what the bible teaches, it is not only a distraction to students within the youth group but it can also cause unity issues within the band.
Who are your biggest songwriting influences?
I have several Christian songwriters that influenced me at a young age. I’m sure from my desert island mix you have drawn the conclusion that artists like Rich Mullins, Third Day, Carman and Steven Curtis Chapman definitely played a role in influencing my music. Right now, I am listening to All Sons and Daughters, Rend Collective, and John Mark McMillan. I also draw from non-Christian music like legends James Taylor, Jim Croce, and Billy Joel. Modern day influences would be artists like Sara Bareilles for her well-crafted lyrics and piano driven sound. I am pretty eclectic when it comes to the type of music I listen to. I listen to everything from bluegrass to classic rock. I was classically trained in college which sometimes comes through on the type of musical progressions I use in my compositions.
If you could give one piece of advice to up and coming worship leaders, what would it be? Conversely, what’s some advice you wish you’d received earlier on?
Be Humble. Early in my ministry I was very focused on what I felt was God’s calling on my life. Sometimes we become so focused with this “calling” that we start to pursue this “calling” rather than pursuing Christ first. I was consumed with “doing” and felt like I somehow needed to prove my worth to God. That’s a dangerous path to go down because anytime we start to focus on works rather than grace, we are essentially trying to add to what Christ has already accomplished. God doesn’t need my works, but he does desire a heart that walks in humility before him. When our hearts are in the right place, works will follow. Being humble before God means knowing that all my works are like filthy rags before a perfect and holy God. I’m reminded of what King David said in Psalm 51:16-17, “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, you, God, will not despise”.
What do you think worship in the church will look like in ten years?
Some people may not like this answer but here it goes… In ten years, I see persecution driving believers back to the heart of worship. These days, churches seem more concerned with entertainment for the believers than a service that is gospel focused. This is not true in every church but our culture has become so “me” focused that this has corroded our worship services. All the money we spend on lights and stages and presentation is all done to draw people in and catch their attention. It’s like we want people to be dazzled by the performance to keep them coming back every Sunday. We will see that whenever attending church becomes the unpopular choice in America, the true believers will be left in our congregation. All that said, I don’t think that having a nice stage or good sound equipment is bad but we have to be extremely careful of our intentions. Music shouldn’t be a distraction so I strongly believe in preparation and utilizing the tools you have available. I always try to ask myself a few questions when I am planning a service, “Is this service going to bring Christ glory, or glory to myself?” “Did I choose this song because it is entertaining and catchy, or because there is a gospel driven message present in the lyrics?”
Any new worship artists on your radar at the moment?
Newer artists and groups I have enjoyed listening to recently are Bethel Music and Lauren Daigle. There is a good balance of musicality and Christ-centered lyrics. I have used a few songs from Bethel Music in our youth service and the students seem to connect with the lyrics.
What’s the most embarrassing thing you’ve ever done while leading worship (that you’re willing to share)?
When I was in college, the Christian band I was a part of at the time had the opportunity to play at a local concert series in the park. We were about halfway through our set list and the next song was one that I wrote. There’s nothing more embarrassing than forgetting the words to your own song but this situation was worse. The band started the song and I completely went blank. I couldn’t even remember the melody or how the song went. I haven’t performed that song since that experience…
Thanks again for answering our questions. If people want to find you online, what’s the best way?
I currently have a CD of four songs that I wrote that is available on iTunes and most major streaming services. I’m on Facebook and Twitter. I’m also in the process of raising money for a full album through GoFundMe. I love connecting with other worship artists so feel free to reach out!