5 Ways We Fail Our Worship Leaders

We need to recruit, coach, and utilize “prophets who also play” vs. “performers who can pray.”

I had no business leading worship in college. I did, however, have a Jasmine Takamine guitar, a Dean Markley acoustic guitar pickup, and access to a stage on Sunday mornings. So I did. I lacked the musical and theological chops to take people on a worship journey.

Just four years earlier, I wrote a gut-wrenching breakup ballad comparing my suffering to Christ’s Passion. Here’s the exact quote from the bridge: “Jesus, my sweet Jesus . . . You were also betrayed by a kiss one night.” But worship through song was where my friends and I deeply connected with God. It was a critical component of our collective spiritual formation.

I’ve learned from a mosaic of worship leaders over the years, all with different styles, approaches, and personalities. What makes worship leaders great and what causes challenges for others? I wonder if the leaders in the pulpit and people in the pews make worship leaders’ lives harder than they need to be.

This one’s for all you brave proclaimers, sweating over your guitars and keyboards, charts and set lists: five ways we’re failing our worship leaders:

1. We separate worship from the Word.

Often the people charged with “ministry of music” and those responsible for the “ministry of the Word” drift toward their respective silos. At it’s most dysfunctional, there’s a visceral disdain between the two camps. Rather than collaborating on a common mission, the preacher and worship leader compete for attention, loyalty, or time. When pastors and worship leaders don’t work together to shape the identity and vision of the congregation, everybody loses.

There’s an oft-overlooked passage in the Bible on the dynamic between worship and community leaders — 1 Chronicles 25:1-2, which reads, “David, together with the commanders of the army, set apart some of the sons of Asaph, Heman and Jeduthun for the ministry of prophesying, accompanied by harps, lyres and cymbals . . . The sons of Asaph were under the supervision of Asaph, who prophesied under the king’s supervision.”

David, together with his leadership, handpicked the national worship team. But the writer says their ministry isn’t music — it’s prophesying accompanied by guitars, drums, piano, etc. In this biblical example of worship, musical ability was secondary to one’s capacity to speak prophetically. Worship leaders are valuable contributors to the biblical teaching in any church. These musicians and the preachers are charged with discerning God’s call for their respective people.

2. We thrust young musicians into leadership roles without coaching.

Heman and Jeduthun weren’t tapped to lead worship because of their charisma. They honed their craft over the years, under the supervision of Asaph, who mentored them in every nuance of the role. In some circles, worship leaders are chosen and celebrated based on their youth or their look. No disrespect at all. I serve under an absurdly gracious leader who put me on the “big stage” as a speaker at the ripe age of 20.

However, if I’m reading this correctly, Heman and Jeduthun spent their entire formative years watching their father lead. And Asaph, too, learned of prophesying musically from King David himself.

Those who most successfully lead worship responses have a prophetic leaning — they have one ear tuned to heaven and the other tuned to the room. They trust and represent both the Lord and the king (whichever group oversees the church). They aren’t simply cranking through set lists, leading bands, or slotting artistic elements. We don’t hire artists or worship leaders — we should recruit, coach, and utilize “prophets who also play” vs. “performers who can pray.”

But this demands time and effort. It means walking with young men and women whose wisdom lags behind their passion. Want to honor the emerging worship leaders in your midst? Don’t let their public gifting outpace their private character development. Talk about cultivating a rich inner life, understanding your unique context and what worship looks like backstage, offstage and center stage. If you can’t be a David or an Asaph, find them one.

3. We overlook the prophetic role of worship.

For the first few decades of my faith journey, I thought the worship experience was only vertical — me and Jesus. But historic biblical worship comes with an x-axis. It calls the people of God to the work of God in the mess of a beautiful, cracked Creation.

Prophetic worship has weight and guts and yearning. It pushes us to the edges of culture and class. Listen afresh to the songs of Miriam, Deborah, and, yes, Mary. If Mary were alive today, who would be on her playlists? Springsteen? The Clash? Rage Against the Machine? When you listen to her Magnificat you hear her heartbeat for the Mighty One and the marginalized. Take a look at her words in Luke 1:

My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant . . . He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.

Songs like these haven’t entirely gone away. Consider the abolitionist and poet Julia Ward Howe, who penned these words in 1862: “In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea. With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me. As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free, While God is marching on.”

Many deemed the song too radical. But Julia’s faith compelled her to do more than sing about slavery — her words inspired others to connect belief in Christ to care for the oppressed. What would the world hear if our worship leaders called us to echo the pulse of Mary and capture the essence of Julia?

4. We affirm feel-good individualism.

How many times have we heard this one? “I didn’t connect with that.” Or “I just can’t get into it when ________ leads/sings/preaches.” If we missed a transcendent encounter with Almighty God because we choked on personalities, guitar mixes, or song selection, we lost the aim of worship. Worship must elevate beyond an exercise in church consumerism. If our worship is conditioned by who is singing and how, we’ve settled for something shallow and sad.

Mark Labberton says,Public and private worship involves exercising our voice — about ourselves, about God, about our neighbor. Worship is work. Liturgy means the ‘work of the people,’ and one way of defining worship is doing the work of letting our lives come to full voice; all of who we are before all of who God is before all of who surround us.”

Corporate worship, then, creates a space for the church to develop a common voice. It’s not a forum for some voices to sing, others to withhold, and still others to critique. We fail our leaders when we create and cater to a worship culture of rampant individualism.

In his book The Dangerous Act of Worship, Labberton writes,For all of our passion about God, in the end much of our worship seems to be mostly about us . . . What is ironic and especially pertinent is that many debates about worship are just indirect ways of talking about ourselves, not God.” Maybe it’s time we clarify the object of our worship. Is it us? Or God?

5. We act like God isn’t coming.

Have you ever been caught punching the worship card? If your church has any predictability in liturgy or worship forms, you might know exactly what’s coming. Scripture, however, has a myriad of descriptions of encounters with God that stretch our comprehension.

The cloud accompanying God’s presence was so thick in the dedication of Solomon’s temple, they had to stop the service. A similar event is captured in Revelation. Isaiah comes face to face with seraphim, Ezekiel sees a wheel, Abraham sees a burning pot, and the early church had tongues of fire. Most of us don’t arrive for worship expecting anything unusual. If we’re not careful, we’ll settle for worship without surprise.

Labberton writes, “Most Sundays we do know what happened because it is only what we expected. We planned it that way. We participated in it, knowing how it would all turn out.”

Maybe Annie Dillard was right in saying, “It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. ”

Could it be that God desires to stretch, shock, and change the church every time it gathers? That God’s desire is to be known in a way that is both tangible and undeniable? Paul thinks so. He challenges the gathering in Corinth to function in such a way that newcomers are stunned at the immediacy of Christ’s presence:

But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!”

What would happen if we encouraged our worship leaders to anticipate the move of God in a way that we couldn’t easily predict or control? I’m not even sure how to go about that, but I’m eager to try.

To those worship leaders we’ve overlooked, railroaded, twisted into our own image, or used for our personal well-being, we’re sorry. We can do better.

The opinions expressed in this piece belong to the author.
Image courtesy of Ani’s Photography.

Steve Norman
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  • bakabomb

    As a keyboardist involved in music ministry since 1966 — as a pipe organist as well as a participant in praise bands — I really enjoyed this article. There’s a need for technical proficiency, sure, but we must always subordinate our individual gifts to the needs of the specific worship experience — and Norman shows he understands the balance. Worship at its most meaningful is a shared experience, and that implies working together as a team (worship leaders, musicians, and worshipers).

    Our regional governing body took a crucial vote just a few days ago (approval of same-gender marriages) that had the potential for creating much ongoing divisiveness. The discussion and vote were surrounded — “bookended” — by worship and music, culminating in a celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The praise band had church elders (defined as “even older than me”!) standing up, clapping and dancing in place. Its leader was in his 20s, its lead guitarist in his 60s. Traditional church music isn’t just for the stodgy, nor are rock anthems just for the young — and music has great power to both bring us together and lift us up, as it did in this instance.