When I was in college, I can’t count the number of worship leading gigs I was asked to do. There were at least several dozen different opportunities to lead worship in different venues from churches to college ministries to youth camps to bar mitzvahs. I did it all.
But I wasn’t qualified for much other than to play Guitar Hero.
No one asked me about my character or theology (except for Campus Crusade, for whom I am deeply grateful). Before Passion came around, the only contemporary songs to choose from were the I-love-Jesus-like-I-love-my-girlfriend variety. I didn’t care what the song said, as long as it had a cool sound and interesting melody. I should have been fired.
Most churches just want a guitar guy, not a worship leader, because that’s what the polls and magazines tell them they have to have to survive as a church these days. The problem is, most guitar guys people know are college kids with little interest in theology, just music. But as I argued previously here and here, worship is another tool God uses for the instruction of his people. Worship music is sung theology; it is theology felt. Music is memorable, repetitive, participatory, portable, and reductionistic. It takes complex themes and distills them to their pithy essence for effective internalization.
Why would any church that is serious about instructing its congregation outsource this sober task to a 20-year old guitar guy without any theological training (like I was)?
My point: the worship leader is the chief of musical theology. He should be held accountable for the content of the songs no less than the pastor should be held accountable for the content of his sermons. He is a musical preacher. And his content is more memorable than the preacher’s, usually. While the pastor spends years in seminary to learn to handle languages, church history, biblical and systematic theology, ecclesiology, homiletics (and on and on), most worship leaders earn their mettle from Green Day, John Mayer, Nickelback, or worse yet, Audio Adrenaline and DC Talk.
Yet both are given enormous opportunity to influence God’s people.
So then, the question: What qualifies a person to be a worship leader? There are 5 things a responsible church should consider when choosing their worship leader:
1. He should be a committed student of scripture. This is a lifelong commitment, but should be a commitment nonetheless. He should care more about meaning than music. He should focus more on content than chords. The biblical basis for each song should be unquestionably clear.
2. He should be a committed student of theology. Most people can read and understand their Bibles, but the inherent theology that arises from study of the scriptures can vary greatly. The great Arian heresy of the early church originated from Arius, who claimed that he was merely taking the bible at face value. Significantly, he was skilled at taking his beliefs and setting them to music so that people could remember his propositions. Worship leaders should have a keen eye for what the theology is that is being promoted in every song.
The song Above All, for example, gets its title from the basic proposition that Jesus “took the fall and thought of me, above all.” It sounds pretty and it is sure to get the hands flying. But it is also man-centered and robs God of his ultimate purpose in redemption, his own glory. God highest end in going to the cross was not for me, but for his own glory. A good worship leader needs to train himself to spot this.
3. He needs to have a flexible style suitable to the congregation. This means that he is more concerned about what will best instruct the church rather than his own musical proclivities. It is irresponsible to talk an old blue-haired congregation and force-feed them David Crowder music. It will not edify or instruct them, leaving the worship leader frustrated with the fact that “they just don’t get it.” He needs to consider his congregation’s needs above his own and what will best instruct them. If Fanny Crosby hymns get the job done, then he should gladly comply.
4. He needs to be accountable to the church’s leadership. Many pastors feel like they’re all thumbs when it comes to music and therefore don’t know how to hold their worship leaders accountable. Since they don’t know music, the worship leader is given free reign to do as he pleases apart from the accountability of the church. This is not helpful. He should be held accountable just like any other arena of instruction, from the pulpit to Christian education and on down. The worship leader is not a rogue state.
5. He should be good at music. I place this last because it is least. Bezalel and Oholiab were skilled craftsmen in Israel and were employed because of their skillfulness. The worship leader should be able to play his instrument with skill and excellence and sing with confidence and clarity. A church would be better off singing familiar hymns with no accompaniment than propping up some guitar guy with little skill and expect the congregation to be led in worship. How many times have you felt sorry for the worship leader because he is struggling? This certainly does not lend itself to good worship.
Do you have any priorities or criteria to add to my list?