Many years ago, I was chatting with a locally well-known pastor. We had met that afternoon and he graciously offered to take me out to lunch. Just as we were settling in with our menus, he asked me about my role at the local church I was serving in at the time. “I’m the worship leader there,” I replied. The corners of his mouth turned down.
“A worship leader, huh?” he asked sourly. “Those guys are a waste of space. I hope you’re planning on moving into real ministry.” And for the rest of our conversation, my new friend peppered our discussion of ministry with jabs about “those worship leader-types – no offense.”
While that is only an anecdote, it reflects a certain body of thought about the so-called ‘worship leader’ in the Western church. Over the years, I’ve seen worship leaders take a lot of heat, often from others in ministry: they’re narcissists, they think they’re rock stars, their clothing choices call their masculinity into question (that one’s my personal favorite!), they’re a bunch of artsy hippies, they’re too gosh-darn trendy. They need to just play the songs, shut up, and get out of the way.
And if there is a certain crowd of folks who are all too ready to tear down the worship leader, there are just as many (probably more!) who overinflate the worship leader into something he ought not be. Worship leaders are very often pressured to imitate the latest musical style, use the newest CCM songs in worship, or just generally produce (what a loathsome word!) an attractive group-participation concert experience in order to draw people into the church. They’re asked to be trained showmen whose next performance review lives or dies on how many hands they can get in the air at once.
As a result, men who feel called into the pastoral ministry of worship leadership are caught between two fires: one church culture that wants them to be a crowd-pleasing juke box and another that wants to denigrate the pastoral nature of their calling and strip them of everything that makes them useful to the worship of the church – that is, their artistic bent, their sensitive minds, and their emotional intelligence. The problem, however, is the same: a failure to take the task of leading worship seriously. And as a result, too many men go into the pastoral task of worship leadership with either no sense of its spiritual significance, or no sense of their own ability to discharge its spiritual significance.
The truth is, most worship leaders I've known genuinely want to see the church grow in godliness. It's just that no one ever told them that they might be able to do something about that. Believing the lie that their job in the church is to finagle some kind of emotional response during the musical portion of service, they have no awareness of the fact that the task they’ve undertaken is of a pastoral nature. Or, believing that they have no claim to spiritual authority, they take no pastoral responsibility for the flock under their care!
So, untrained and un-discipled, they labor at all kinds of man-made schemes to try to make worship ‘better,’ not realizing that only the Holy Spirit accomplishes that. Or they make no attempt to actually shepherd, failing to act in obedience to the call to ministry.
What do we do about this? How can we change this state of affairs?
It’s simple: disciple a worship leader.
That doesn’t mean you should hammer all the emotion and ‘artsy-ness’ out of him; God made him that way, and he will need those gifts in his calling. Instead, teach him to utilize those gifts – and they are gifts! – in ways that serve the church and not himself, or a movement, or you, for that matter. Encourage him to master them as mighty tools in service of the great God who fashioned them.
To do this, you don’t need to be a musician yourself, or even know the difference between a cello and a castanet, though an awareness of that fact is crucial. Don’t try to tell him how to play his instrument, tell him why it’s important that he plays. You simply need to have a developed understanding of biblical worship and biblical worshippers – the kind that Jesus tells us His Father searches for: worshippers in spirit and in truth.
In light of that, teach him that leading worship is a pastoral task; encourage him to look at corporate worship as his time to discharge his pastoral responsibility by express tender, shepherd-ly care for the people to whom he’s assigned. Show him that the songs, scripture readings, and litanies that he prepares ought to constitute a Gospel re-telling every Sunday. Further, even that corporate worship should constitute such a retelling. Help him to remember that while technical excellence can be a great thing for which to strive, it is a terrible master that will enslave him if he forgets that it is not the paramount thing. After all, a heart of true service and worship can cover over a multitude of musical and logistical sins.
Do you want to go really deep? Help him learn how to set appropriate internal boundaries with you and with his congregation, so that his performance week-to-week does not make or break his self worth. Teach him how to respond to constructive criticism by modeling that behavior for him. At the same time, don’t exasperate him with vague requests or critiques – “Can you sing with more… I don’t know… passion?” or “I’ve been getting complaints that our music is too noisy.” Instead, help him to drive stakes deep in the granite of the Gospel. Teach him to forge unbreakable chains of personal devotion, prayer, and community to keep him tethered there.
And most of all, be the kind of believer whose only hope in life and death is Jesus Christ. Live as if the Gospel is the absolute burning of your heart. If he is wise, he will imitate you.