I was excited, as an ambitious college student, to be sitting across the cafeteria table from an influential speaker in modern worship leadership. I wanted to pick his brain, and I was talking all about my plans to go to seminary, let deep theology inform my creativity, and my hopes to produce powerful services and programs.
“How’s your musical performance ability?” he curiously asked.
Suddenly, I wasn’t as verbose.
“Some people are looking for the next Chris Tomlin,” he continued. “You might want to keep practicing.”
I was a bit worried. I don’t play guitar, and I don’t have near the vocal range of Chris Tomlin. I lead from the piano, and I was entering the ringer with production/ideation as my strength, and musical/performance as my weakness. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all about musical excellence . . . but I’m not necessarily a stage presence kind of guy and I lead from a stationary instrument.
A lot has changed for me since that dinner, but my friend is absolutely right.
When classical music was (and still is, for some) the basis for a church service’s music, the pastoral aspects of that of a Music Minister or Music Director were rarely mentioned or noticed. The musical resume, however, got plenty of notice. Such churches were (and are) proud of their music guru’s status as composer-in-residence, conductor of a local orchestra, etc. This notion has carried through the addition of contemporary worship services, as they (a minority, in my experience) like to post about a worship leader’s experience in a traveling band, ownership of a recording studio, etc. In both cases, very little (if anything) is mentioned about said leader’s passion and intentions for their role and service to the church.
In some cases, a church’s musical excellence, in my opinion, is overstated (perhaps a better word is “advertised”?). Sometimes the reason that their pastor-like qualifications aren’t mentioned is because they have none. I’ve served under the leadership of worship directors with whom I’ve never even shaken hands. They run rehearsals without a smile, lead the congregation, ironically, in “community worship,” and then leave to get back to their choir, opera or band tour. But the music was more than excellent.
Is worship leadership simply just a change in venue? Is it simply musical accompaniment that used and interpreted differently by a certain crowd such as a church’s congregation? There’s so many churches that have simply hired musicians (professional singers, conductors or rockstars) to bring musical prestige next to the pulpit . . . because that’s sadly what some congregants only care about.
Yet have the proverbial winds changed? Some churches have seemingly heard the curious and cynic’s call away from facade and business-like ministry and to community and sincerity. There are more worship leaders who oversee more than musical logistics. These are more the type of worship leaders I meet at conferences. They preach, they reach out to their volunteers, they give to the congregants, they involve themselves and they see “service production” as a pastoral process. They have sacrificed musical dreams and even some of their musical reputation on the altar because they believe, first and foremost, in the mission of the Church.
Some aspiring worship leaders have asked me how to qualify themselves. I tell them that worship staffs at churches don’t need more theologians or rockstars. They need more shepherds. And not just in the church staff, but in every worshipper’s heart.
I once had an internship during college in worship leadership. The worship pastor (my mentor) had a strong electrical engineering background, you know, the type of person a right-brainer like me is supposed to hate. He wasn’t a strongly creative person or great guitarist, and he sometimes sang off-key. But, oh, did he efficiently and lovingly oversee and run an excellent, creative and culture-impacting department. His mentorship taught me a lot more than other internships I’ve had with much more musical mentors.
Why? Because he is a shepherd. And I hope to be one, too.