Dear Worship Pastor: It’s Not About You

Dear Worship Pastor,

I enjoy praise and worship.  I really do.  And I appreciate the enormous effort and the talent that goes into excellent worship leadership.  I hesitate to admit the following, because it seems like someone with a theology doctorate ought to be motivated by more cerebral concerns, but a significant (major but not main) part of why I made Perimeter Church my home church is because I enjoy it so much when Laura Story (whose “Blessings” won a Grammy this past year) leads worship there.  That woman has an anointing; that’s the only way I can explain it.  I am moved by her voice and her worship leadership.

So this is nothing against contemporary praise and worship music, which I genuinely like.  And it’s nothing against worship leaders, most of whom I also like.  And, by the way, please don’t bother trying to figure out whom this is aimed toward, because (a) you’re wrong and (b) it’s not aimed toward anyone in particular.

But it has happened so often over the years that I’ve seen worship leaders fail to lead.  And by fail to lead, I mean “They went where no one could follow.”  And, after all these years, I thought I’d say something.

Imagine the following scenario.  A church service begins, and the music breaks in.  The congregation warms up, and the music grows more intense.  Yes, we all know the progression by now — the video “Sunday’s Coming” was so funny because it was so true — and yet the progression is there for a reason.  It’s rooted in human nature.  You get our attention, hopefully with some praise music not entirely devoid of theological content, and then you gradually press us deeper into more profound surrender to the will of God.

–And then it happens.  The worship “leader” raises everything an octave, starts launching off into the musical stratosphere, and suddenly he’s the only one singing.  No one else can sing that high.  So everyone stands there watching.  They’re no longer participating in worship together; they’re observing a vocal performance.  And those who really want to sing are completely thrown off.

I know, I know.  I must be completely immature.  A wiser and more gracious Christian would surely find some way to continue in a worshipful manner, perhaps praying the words he cannot sing.  And a more musically gifted person might naturally slip down to a lower register that works.  But I find both of those things difficult.  So instead, I find myself stewing.  Doesn’t he see that 75 percent of the people in the church just stopped singing?  Doesn’t he see some people trying to follow him, hearing their voices crack, and then giving up?  Most of the men in particular just stand there feeling awkward until the pitch drops back down and they can join in again.

I want to tell the worship pastor, and so I’m telling you now: if no one’s following, you ain’t leading.

Of course, there are other ways of losing your followers.  Sometimes worship leaders seem to be having a profound personal worship experience, and completely forgetting that there are hundreds of other people in the room who don’t really want to repeat the chorus fifty times over, or who need to know the words before you sing them, or who don’t know what to do if no one on the worship team sings the melody.  When worship pastors do these things, they’re worshipping, but they’re not leading worship.

During my undergraduate years, there was a very gifted young man whose eyes literally rolled back in his head when he reached the high-point of the worship experience.  I was glad he was having such a good time, and I never said anything to him personally.  But it really looked freaky.  He kinda looked possessed.  I’m sure it scared off some new students, because it was enough to scare Freddy Krueger.  However, when he was informed that people were weirded out to see nothing but the whites of his fluttering eyes, to his great credit he recognized immediately that he was not leading well.  He gave up the “possessed” look because he realized it was shoving people out of the body of corporate worship.

So, yes, it’s impressive that you can sing that high.  It’s impressive that you can run that melisma all over God’s creation.  And it’s impressive that you can enter into some kind of ecstatic trance and repeat the words interminably or else make up new words on the spot.  But worship leadership is not about you.  And if I’m spending time being impressed with your transcendent musical talents, or else stewing that you seem more concerned to display those talents than properly to lead a congregation, then I’m not spending that time worshipping God.  And that, after all, is the point.  Not admiring you, but worshipping God.

You’re great.  You really are.  Your music is beautiful, you have a killer collection of designer t-shirts, and I’m sure you have a great personality.  And when you come down off that mountaintop and you’re full of radiant smiles, I’m genuinely happy for you.  But you should know that you left the rest of us stranded somewhere on the mountainside.

Or maybe it’s just me.  Anyway, thanks for listening.

About Timothy Dalrymple

Timothy Dalrymple was raised in non-denominational evangelical congregations in California. The son and grandson of ministers, as a young boy he spent far too many hours each night staring at the ceiling and pondering the afterlife.
 
In all his work he seeks a better understanding of why people do, and do not, come to faith, and researches and teaches in religion and science, faith and reason, theology and philosophy, the origins of atheism, Christology, and the religious transformations of suffering

  • http://inchristus.wordpress.com Paul D. Adams

    Spot on, Timothy! Appreciate the sentiment here and the passion for rightly focusing our worship. I, too, had similar unfortunate experiences during a wave of visiting other churches. After composing my Open Letter to Pastors and their Churches, I received some scathing emails, which saddened me even further and ironically substantiated my concerns.

  • http://stowellbrown.blogspot.com/ Flyaway

    Sending this to my cousin. He was on the worship team at his church but left the church because of faulty leadership.

  • E Turner

    Lets just give the Lord a praise offering…, Lord, I really want to just thank you that you have given me the ability to lead worship, because Lord, I really just know that this is not about me, its about you and how I praise you…Amen?

    • http://worshiprehab.com Cliff

      Mmmmmm…..Is it really about HOW YOU praise God? Maybe you’re referring to the humble position of your heart when you come before God’s throne. If so, I agree. However, I think some worship leaders could misunderstand your statement. To reinforce Timothy’s point, I think worship leaders sometimes forget that they are LEADING. I’m a worship leader, and while I can do all the vocal acrobatics, I choose not to because I don’t want people to be drawn to my vocal ability. Too many worship leaders use the excuse, “Well that’s just how I worship” or “It’s just the Holy Spirit taking control that causes me to sing that way”. I’m not saying to quench the Spirit, but because our primary role is to lead, our responsibility to do that needs to take precedence over the “way” we worship.

  • http://www.simplyshalom.com Naomi

    Ha. Yup. Thank you.

  • http://www.daybreaksdevotions.wordpress.com Galen

    I was just thinking about this today! You must have read my mind…

  • Joe Canner

    Don’t worry, Tim, you’re not the only one. In addition to the issues you mentioned, there are a lot of Christian songs out there that are great to listen to or great for personal worship but terrible for corporate worship or which have good choruses but difficult verses. Although it is getting better, it still seems like there is a dearth of music that is both theologically sound/deep AND singable.

    • http://byzantium.wordpress.com Kullervo

      Although it is getting better, it still seems like there is a dearth of music that is both theologically sound/deep AND singable.

      No, there is plenty. They’re called “hymns,” and they used to be all the rage.

      • G. Cobb

        Have you seen the high notes in some of the traditional hymn arrangements? I LOVE hymns, but some of them are impossible for someone who struggles to hit notes higher than a D.

        • Timothy Dalrymple

          True. I love some of the hymns, but many of them are not particularly good, in my opinion. I’m one of those who genuinely enjoys contemporary worship music, and I very much love ten or twelve hymns, but a lot of the hymns I think were left behind for a reason. Bringing the theological depth in the lyrics into compelling styles of music that move people today is, I think, a worthy goal.

    • Conservadiva

      Sovereign Grace Ministries has sought to bring the theological to the contemporary expression of music. I agree most assuredly, not all songs were meant for corporate worship singing, some are intended to be solos only. Check out Sovereign Grace’s collection of CDs, music composed for their church worship services. http://sovereigngracemusic.org/Songs > This is their song data base for worship leaders.

  • Chris Jones

    Now for “Dear *insert any other pastoral position*: It’s Not About You”

  • Randy

    Thanks, Tim, for the reminder. I’m a worship pastor, and I can’t hear this enough. She wouldn’t know me from Adam, but I met Laura at the National Worship Leader Conference in 2007, and was immediately impressed with her spirit and attitude. Of course, she’s beautiful and unspeakably talented, but that’s not what captured my attention. There is no doubt in my mind that the pain she has experienced has deepened and molded her into the godly woman she is, and Blessings is an outflow of that. My situation is altogether different, inasmuch as I am not a trained musician and can really only sing and lead. We are at the mercy of songwriters and music companies to provide music that is accessible both to our team and to the congregation. Pray for these people! Most small- to mid-size churches would be stuck in the hymnal without them. We will never abandon the hymns – I believe the heritage and connection with past generations of believers is essential to the church – but we love newer music that can help our people worship. It’s not about a “Christian Top 40″…it’s about the Glory of God. Again, thanks for the reminder. God bless.

  • http://www.brevityandclarity.wordpress.com Tyler

    Tim, I wonder if some of the problem goes back to our theology of worship and musical aspects thereof. I know I have had several good conversations with people about the need for participation, giving praise to God, and, in doing so, receiving grace from Him. I’d appreciate hearing your thoughts on this as well. Thanks for the post.

  • http://theroadlestravels@gmail.com Les Brown

    I think you make some great observations here. Having led worship in the past I can say that it can be an extremely difficult thing to do: ply the music well, lead the band well, stay connected to what the spirit is doing in your heart, what’s happening to the audience? Are they participating? How can I lead them better? Here’s that tricky bridge part. I hope the drummer nails it. He did! Oh where’s my heart?

    There’s a lot going on. And it’s not as easy as the really skilled and gifted ones make it look.

    And it’s not always the worship leader who is making the calls on these things either. In many cases other people in leadership are asking the leader to go those places that others can’t.

    So, I would say that the best thing you can do is what someone did for the college group worship leader you mentioned. Go and tell them. The bible is very clear that if we have an issue with a brother that we should go and talk to him directly. If you know a worship leader, or any church leader who is failing in his leadership, God has made it clear that he wants you to address it with him.

  • http://theroadlestravels.com Les Brown

    “I want to tell the worship pastor, and so I’m telling you now: if no one’s following, you ain’t leading.”

    If you want to tell the worship leader you should just tell him.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Isn’t that what I’m doing? There’s no single pastor in mind here. I’m speaking to a trend.

      • Mark Loeffler

        It may be a trend, however I believe this method of identifying the problem will be as effective as when a pastor gives a sermon. Most will forget what he said by lunchtime. Much harder to forget when someone approaches me (someone I know cares for me) and points out an issue they have with me.

    • carl peterson

      The whole if no one is following you you ain’t leading sounds good but I do not know if it holds water. Or if it does make sense if leading should be the goal of ministers. I see biblical examples of men who the supposed “Children of God” did not follow, care about, and actually persecuted but were doing God’s will.

      I can understand that a minister should not use the excuse that they are supposedly doing god’s will and thus it does not matter if anyone is following them because most of the time that is just an excuse. However I just do not see how one has to have people following him or her to be a leader.

      • Timothy Dalrymple

        I wouldn’t make the “if no one’s following, you ain’t leading” principle generalizable to all circumstances. But when the purpose is corporate worship, I do think it applies.

  • formerworshipteamperson

    I could NOT AGREE MORE about the keys and range that male tenor worship leaders choose. I look around the congregation and most people in my church are not singing. I know why. I’m a musician, female, I sing for a living. But my range as a woman is not as high as their’s! Even I give up, or try to find a harmony line to yet another earnest song I’m being introduced to. Most of the audience is sitting and watching the worship team do their thing. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen our entire congregation lift their voices heartily and actually sing along, not stumble along. Regarding the endless repetition? Amen. Why is it 40 minutes into the service before the pastor gets up to speak and then has to rush through his sermon? Because many worship leaders don’t seem to have a good sense of how much time they’ve used up.
    I love music. I love worship. I know worship leaders work hard to bring the worship experience week after week. Now that I’ve read this blog, I also love that no one on stage at my church rolls their eyes in the back of their head!

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      The eye-roller was (and is) a great, great guy. Amazing heart. But it didn’t help that he rather looked like John the Baptist to start with!

      • formerworshipteamperson

        I don’t doubt that. Most worship leaders do have amazing hearts. That part just made me laugh, so I was trying to lighten up my comments!!

  • carl peterson

    I think the article hit some very good points. I am not a big fan of “Praise music” although I love Christian singer and songwriters such as Rich Mullins, Andrew Peterson, and John Michael Talbot. I can praise God while listening to their music. Most praise music I find musically and lyrically boring. It is not that I just cannot praise God listening to the current trendy praise music but I tend to not like it very much. I really have a distaste with the show in many churches. I went into one church and I think I saw Billy Joel leading worship. Big band singing pop tunes and the congregation as an audience. This type of thing also occurs with certain head pastors or super pastors out there. I like Keller, Carson, Piper, etc. but I have friends who elevate these pastors into a position that I think is close to idolatry. I know of some who won’t go to a local church but will listen to MP3s from the Gospel Coalition team. I know this is not what Piper, Keller, Carson, etc. teach or want people to do but it seems to happen. Anyways I enjoyed this article.

  • Josh

    I agree with what you’re saying 100% (and I’m a full-time worship leader.) However, the sarcasm in this article really turned me off to what you were saying…and it didn’t at all apply to me. I don’t own designer t-shirts. I don’t have cool hair. And I don’t “launch off into the musical stratosphere” on Sunday mornings. However, I know those guys/girls you’re talking about. And you know what…they’re sinners just like you and me. And they need people in their lives to help them grow.

    I know there are plenty of people out there (worship leaders included) who think very highly of themselves. Don’t we all struggle with pride, and wanting to be in the spotlight. I know I do. And yes, it annoys me too to see those worship leaders with the “cool hair” and “designer t-shirts.” It seems like they’re screaming…look at me, aren’t I cool. But does that really call for a sarcastic response? Is putting them down the best way to “help” worship leaders become better leaders of worship? I would argue that it doesn’t.

    The next time you want to write an article about leading worship you should call up Laura Story or Aaron Shust (or someone you think’s doing a good job of leading God’s people in worship), and you should ask them how they prepare. You should ask them for some insights. And then you should write an article with some actual helpful suggestions. Otherwise, it’s not really helpful at all.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I thought I expressed a good deal of respect for worship leaders and the great effort they put into what they do. The designer t-shirts comment was meant in a much lighter-hearted manner than you read it.

      • Conservadiva

        You did show respect. The problem that Tim Dalrymple is tactfully bringing up is real. As someone who has led worship, my advice to leaders is to keep your eyes and ears open. Its just that simple, take notice of the congregation, you are in this together. And its not as hard as another poster enumerated, if you have a music degree. But as a visitor in other churches, I can tell you that the “worship band” which is so much touted for “church growth” is a huge liability as well. It would most certainly be the 2nd ingredient as to why I would choose or not choose to attend a church. It has a huge impact on a person’s ability to worship and feel connected. If it fails, people either never come back, or they stay in quiet desperation and misery. As a visitor who has endured worse case scenarios where I counted the seconds until I could leave the building, and as a worshiper who has experienced sublime musicians where the moments just flew by and I did not want to leave, let me assure you there is a difference. It does not take a Laura Story to bring this together. It takes humility, an unassuming spirit, check your ego at the door, be prepared and well rehearsed. A music degree will not hurt in 99% of cases. Our pastors go to seminary to obtain degrees, and we hope they are also humble and watch their egos. Its really not that different.

    • Debbie Andrick

      Ummm, I don’t think she was talking to YOU specifically so no need to fuss. Her point is well made and applies to all of us across the board: It’s not about US. It’s about – HIM.

  • TR

    Tim, what do you think about the worship pastor rapping during the worship service? Worship service is going, then the worship pastor performs a rap song in the middle which of course no one can follow along with, and everyone just stops and watches. What is your opinion on that?

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Honestly, I think there is a place for performance in the midst of a worship service. My complaint here was more about those moments when the entire congregation is supposed to be worshiping together — and then, when the energy of the worship reaches its peak, the great majority of the congregation is suddenly thrown off by raising the pitch beyond the range of ordinary mortals.

      Rap isn’t my style, but there is a proper place for performance, and the enjoyment of beauty/truth, in services. Some churches really focus on reaching the unchurched, and they deliberately offer more performance so that people feel who were not raised singing corporately will feel more comfortable. Andy Stanley’s church is arguably this way. And I see a point to it.

  • Joe W.

    Wow. You made some great points. I’m on my church’s worship team and I could relate and/or appreciate what you were saying. Then I got to the last paragraph which dripped with so much sarcasm that it redirected focus away from your message to the messenger. Kind of ironic, actually. The comment about the designer t-shirts clearly indicated you had SOMEBODY in mind. Good stuff overall. You might have edited out the sarcasm if you really were trying to be constructive.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Apparently the designer t-shirts comment was ill-advised. It was meant to be light-hearted.

      • Timothy Dalrymple

        And it’s fair to say that there are certain people I have in mind. It tends to be male tenors. But I genuinely don’t have any one person in mind. I’ve seen it off and on over the years, and always wanted to write something about it.

      • formerworshipteamperson

        I think if we can’t handle a comment about designer t-shirts, meant without malice, we might be taking ourselves a bit too seriously. Your article was great. Christians should be allowed a sense of humor! What, to one person, seemed like fairly gentle witty comments are to another “dripping with sarcasm”. Alas, the Pandora’s Box we open when daring to discuss worship!

      • John Haas

        There’s such a thing as “designer” t-shirts?

        Man, I’m getting old . . .

  • JohnM

    Why do we have the idea that worship is so about music that the music leader is THE worship leader anyway?

  • Ken Isakson

    I was a music leader. I reserve the title of worship leader or pastor for the Pastor. He is the one who really leads worship, or is supposed to. Anyway, I have seen some profoundly bad music leaders all the way up to best of the best. But, here are a few observations. A ministry is ministry not self-aggrandizement. I have witnessed leaders who sung so high only the neighbor’s dog could hear it. These leaders can be and are wonderful musicians but it is clear that it self oriented. Also, I’ve known of leaders who got the job because no one else would take it. They could sing but that was about it. They were giving it the ol’ college try and were going down in flames. Worship means engaging your mind and emotions having them centered on the only one worthy of praise. The last, and to me the most important, do we pray for the person leading? I don’t mean praying that God would find the leader another ministry, but rather, earnestly lifting the music leader up to God. I’ve watched and felt the sharp tongue of criticism, knowing that I was being graded on a scale where there was no curve. Bathing the worship team/leader in prayer would do wonders for the leader and those who want to worship.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I really appreciate the prayer question. Great point.

  • http://waysweworship@wordpress.com Jo A

    As someone who struggles to sing I agree that worship needs to be sensitive to the differing abilities in the congregation.

  • http://scarletyarn.com Shawn Woo

    Thank you for the thoughtful piece! I largely agree with what you have said and have made note of it as a worship leader. From a worship leader’s perspective, when worship leaders soar into the “musical stratosphere” IS precisely when they are least aware of how much of the congregation is singing (because it tends to be at climactic moments when they’re loudest). Also, have you considered different musical genres like the gospel? Gospel-style worship usually includes frequent forays into the “musical stratosphere” and often repeats the refrain many, many times. However, I think that the gospel-style can lead many into a great corporate worship experience (when contextualized for the appropriate audience). With that said, do you think your objection is primarily stylistic or theological?

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I think the general point is to ask whether the congregation is following and being blessed, and able to praise God together. I’ve seen settings, such as black church settings, where people are accustomed to a particular way of belting it out, and they’re all able to join in. And there’s certainly something to be said for repetition, done right. In those cases where the worship leader is losing the congregation, however, or leaving them behind, or failing even to notice, then I think some gentle encouragement is warranted to remember not to leave the congregation behind.

  • Chad

    Timothy:

    Two questions.

    1. Are you a professional musician? This isn’t meant as a critical question, I’m just wondering your background in being able to properly evaluate how good (or bad) the quality of what you hear on a Sunday morning is.

    2. Is it more troubling that Sunday morning worship leading leans toward what you are describing, or is your article describing a leadership issue from someone above your worship leader example? Put another way, are churches hiring (or enabling/allowing) worship leaders when those in higher leadership (upper management) believe they are experts in choosing, in their small, non-informed, musically illiterate opinions, “great” musicians to lead an entire congregation in worship? Is it possible that the problem is not bad worship leaders but inept, ignorant hiring practices?

    It’s time the church examines whether they want true professionals at all leadership positions, and whether the “everyone is an expert” thinking that accompanies church music, by everyone from the senior pastor to the average church attendee, is the way to go.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      No, I’m not a professional musician. And I’m really not commenting on the quality of their musicianship. There’s a difference between being a great musician and being a great worship leader. The focus is entirely different. So I’m speaking here of people who — whether they’re great musicians or not — have a tendency to lapse into performing rather than leading.

      This is VERY common, by the way, amongst preachers. I’ve known many preachers who preferred language that was impressive to language that was effective. We all have this tendency, of course.

      It’s a good question about hiring practices. I wouldn’t say that any of the folks I’m imagining right now were bad hires. Most of the time, I think they’re fine worship leaders. It’s just pointing toward a tendency at the height of the praise to enter a region where the rest of the congregation just can’t follow.

      Hope that helps.

      • Chad

        Timothy:

        Thanks for the response. I agree with your comment that there is a difference between being a great musician and a great worship leader. However, I believe you can be a great musician without being a good worship leader, but in my opinion, you can’t be a great worship leader without being a great or at least a “good” musician. Much like, with your example, you can be a great public speaker without being a great pastor, but you probably can’t be a great pastor without being a great public speaker. There are exceptions, of course, but I think most great pastors are great speakers.

        I get what your point is, in that some worship leaders get into performance mode and cease to worship lead. However, whether we call it a performance or not, a good worship leader is performing to a certain extent, just like a pastor, when preaching a sermon, is being listened to and judged not just by the content but probably by the delivery as well. If a good worship leader is not performing at their peak (whether it be singing, playing, or whatever), their worship leading can turn into a distraction. This goes to my point that a person has to have the skills of being a good musician before they can be a good worship leader. Face it, if a singer can not sing in tune, or forgets the words to a song, or a guitar or piano player has no grasp of their instrument, there’s little to no chance they can effectively lead an entire congregation in worship, and my point is that too often this is the case. I’m not saying God can’t use anybody, I’m just saying that the problems that exist are much bigger than performing rather than leading. You’re right, this is a problem, and I’ve been in many services where I unfortunately just stand and listen rather than be a participant in worship because of what’s going on on stage. But someone put that worship leader in that position. Churches spend months if not years vetting pastoral candidates. Shouldn’t we have the same process for other, important leadership positions?

        • Timothy Dalrymple

          I don’t really see anything I disagree with in your comments here, Chad. Thanks for sharing your insights.

  • JohnM

    I believe you can be a worship leader without being a musician at all. I suppose you can’t be a very good music leader without having some musical talent, but you can lead worship without it. Obviously I don’t hold to a particular understanding of worship that many Christians have come to take for granted :)

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I’m trying to avoid getting into those broader (and endless) conversations…and I’m just using a generic everyday-use definition of worship leader here.

      • JohnM

        Ah, but Timothy, that’s the problem. It has become an everyday-use definition of worship leader…and worship. That said, I do understand, the conversation you intended has parameters, so I’ll let it alone – for now. :)

        • Timothy Dalrymple

          That’s right. Thanks!

  • Elizabeth

    Great article. I agree with what you have said. A worship leader, with the best of intentions can inadvertently make the worship about himself, when he should step aside and let people focus on God.

  • http://jasonsoroski.com jason

    I agree. However….the problem is that church leadership, in the endless quest to be hip and create a Xerox of Chris Tomlin, have created this monster. As a worship leader, I am saddened by it.

  • Darrell

    I have to admit that the term “worship leader” has caused me concern for quite some time. Worship is far more than music; that’s even pointed out during a worship service. Giving is part of worship. Praying, reading the Word, spending time with fellow believers, listening to the Word being preached, it’s ALL “worship.” So why do we designate a “worship leader” when their only involvement is the music portion of the service? I am suppose to be a worshipper at all times, even when no one is around for me to follow. I hope my comments don’t cause any ill feelings. My only concern is that we’re exalting a person’s status to mean more than what it should.

  • Robert Ivey

    Thanks for saying in a very tactful way what so many have been thinking. I serve with a Baptist Association and in many different churches, styles, settings you name it, and I see many of these issues in a lot of churches. I especially notice this during the invitation time, too often what is suppose to be the time when we are most focused on Jesus Christ it becomes a performance.

  • Renee Teate

    This is not true of only “contemporary” worship pastors.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Absolutely.

  • Greg

    It literally took me quite awhile to even understand what you were meaning … so by “worship” you mean “congregational singing”, and by “worship leader”, you mean, I think, “person leading the congregation in singing”? (Looking at your responses to JohnM, I feel I must stress that I honestly didn’t know what you meant, until it became clear from the context. This is not a rhetorical device on my part.)

    OK, now that I get the jargon, I see what your point is … but it seems like your complaints *are* actually directly related to the possible category errors that result in the jargon. So talking about the jargon *is* relevant.

    Back in ye olden days, the “worship leader” – a lay leader or pastor – would “lead” congregational singing by saying something like “let’s turn to hymn 352, those who are able please stand.” Hymn 352 was a song who’s theology had presumably met the church’s theological standards over time, and which had (probably) been deliberately composed to be fitted well for congregational singing. While we didn’t sing it every week, by any means, we sang it often enough that it was at least possible that a fair number in the congregation would actually know how to sing it.

    Sometimes, a group of people (all dressed the same, standing close together as a group, off to the side) who at least liked to sing, would help us all to stay more or less in tune, and allow those of us just learning the song to drop in and out as need be and to hear what it was supposed to sound like.

    The singing was only one part of corporate worship. It did not go on for 40 minutes straight, but was interspersed with scripture reading, corporate prayer, congregational reciting of creeds and doxology.

    Yes, as with anything, these older forms could become rote or be abused … but it was harder, and not really intrinsic to them. Replacing the elite, separate, performance-oriented institution of the choir with *a rock band*, for example, was not exactly a move *towards* easier humility,was it?

    It just seems like a shame to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and then afterward wonder why it’s so dry and baby-less around here :(

    I wonder if contemporary music could be integrated *without* the whole “worship leader” model?

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      In the evangelical churches I’ve attended that used contemporary praise music (many have more traditional services and then more “contemporary” services), the singing is likewise interspersed with scripture reading, corporate prayer and liturgy. There is also sometimes a choir — and if there is not a choir there are at least several people with microphones to help us stay in tune. There’s also concern to make certain that the songs are theologically orthodox, and at least sometimes theologically rich. And yes, the “worship leader” in this case too is a lay leader or pastor, or sometimes a music minister, and it’s well understood that the singing is only a part of the worship service.

      I’m not really inclined to pine for the olden days. I do think the baby remains, by and large. And the paeans to hymns are overdone. Some of the hymns are fantastic. The vast majority are dull, musically incoherent and theologically insipid. The *great* hymns should be celebrated and preserved for new generations. But a lot of the hymns really failed to connect with people.

      I don’t think the weakness I reference here — a tendency to veer toward performance instead of leadership — is particular to the worship leader model. Even monks who have chanted the same psalms for decades have to remind themselves sometimes not to attract attention to themselves through their singing. So I really don’t want to turn this into another round in the traditional vs. contemporary war.

      • N.K.Dover

        I agree..and more. Another point that I would like more worship leaders to hear, is…well…I’m old. My knees hurt. My feet hurt. I love to sing and I obediently stand when the worship leader asks us to stand. However, I cannot figure out why we must stand for 5 songs, the prayer, the greeting–and then sit down. After a couple of songs….I am thinking about the fact that my feet hurt. Or my knees hurt. I realize that I could simply sit down–but it appears that I am trying to “make a statement” or be defiant or some such nonsense. Do worship leaders truly believe that we are somehow closer to God if we are miserable? Or if we are standing up? Come on folks….its ok to sing sitting down sometimes.

  • Ian Bullis

    Interesting Article.

    I agree with the Title 100%

    The points made, can arguably make SOME “common sense”.

    However, it seems to me if the following things are in order, none of that other stuff really matters:

    1. The Worship Leader is Truly Called, Gifted and Anointed by God for the Office of Worship Leading

    2. The ENTIRE Worship Team is made up people who are Truly Called, Gifted and Anointed by God to be serving on the worship team.

    3. The Worship Leader has spent considerable time in prayer, seeking God as they put together the set.

    4. That person further spends the entirety of the week in fervent prayer for the congregation and the service to come, asking God for His Anointing and for His presence to be more tangible than ever before.

    Because if the above, proper preparation is carried out, and The Holy Spirit TRULY Falls on that place, the following things will happen:

    1. If the Leader “takes it up an octave” it will be Holy-Spirit-Lead

    2. If the Leader “hangs” on a Chorus or Particular part of a song, it will be Holy-Spirit- Lead and God will be Speaking through that particular “phrase”.

    In either case, if the Holy Spirit is NOT TRULY present in the service, no amount of singing in “comfortable registers” or “sticking to how the song goes without repeating Choruses endlessly” will change the fact that God’s Presence will not likely be felt by anyone.

    On a more practical note; I don’t buy the whole concept of “singing in too high of a key to follow” because if we’re all going to be honest, we’ve ALL (at one point or another) been sitting in our car alone screaming at the top of our lungs (cracking voice and all) with Journey, Bon Jovi or Steven Tyler to our favorite Power-Ballad without regard to the fact that the song well beyond our range lol

    Why can’t we sing to God with the same enthusiasm?

    ;)

  • Shawn

    This Worship Leader letter is the second one I’ve seen this year being passed around the internet. The other one was by James Smith. This one bothers me because it is accusing and sarcastic, as others have noticed. The other one bothered me because Dr. Smith turned off comments (due to his lack of time to properly respond).

    Why are the songs so high?
    Because the original versions are high. The most prolific song writer is Chris Tomlin, and he’s a tenor. Even when I lower his songs a third (about four piano keys), they can be pretty high. But this is not a new thing altogether. There are songs in the hymnal that go just as high. They don’t get lowered because the musicians are reading them in the key they’re written in. The Contemporary songs stay high often because they are learned by rote from the original recording. Often, the original recording is even higher than the artists themselves play them live. What is needed to correct this problem, beyond recognizing the problem as these gentlemen do, is the musical ability to transpose the key. This is often lacking. We lower all of Tomlin’s songs. But some bands are only capable of trying to match the original. Sidebar – watching the live feed of Passion last week, thousands of students seemed pretty happy with the worship. I’m sure someone was “stewing,” but they sure didn’t make it on camera.

    As to freestyling in the stratosphere, I can understand that much of that is over the top. At the same time, where it is done well, it seems the worshippers can sense that it’s transitioned into a proclamation type of singing rather than something participatory i.e. a solo. Charles Billingsley is very good at this. In more charismatic traditions, you see the people make up their own melodies, or simply pray.

    The bottom line – this article (letter) while certainly true, is not helpful due to the tone. These open letters feel like the anonymous complaints worship leaders get in the offering plates. And, for better or worse, they probably end up the same place.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I’m really surprised by how some are reading the tone, since it really wasn’t written with a sarcastic or biting attitude. I’m sure I could have been more gracious, but I also think people are projecting some of the anger of the worship wars onto this post, and I really don’t bear any of that.

      I’m not talking about songs where the notes are high. I’m talking about worship pastors who ratchet it up into a higher key when the song does not require it.

  • Donna

    Sometimes I have thought the issue is kind of a worship CD versus live worship thing. For a worship CD, I think it can be great when a worship leader does things vocally to elevate the excitement in a song, or to give it another layer of depth. When I listen to that CD, I know exactly when the leader is going to go off the melody and do his own thing and I can follow along perfectly, because (obviously) it is exactly the same every time I play it and I don’t need that leader to do anything to help me follow. In live worship, it is a very different thing, but leaders sometimes act the same as on a CD and do stuff that might sound great on a CD but is hard to follow along. Now in a live setting, rather than adding to the worship, the extra stuff he is doing becomes distracting to my goal of worshiping my God as I try to sing the songs.

    By these comments I’m not trying to shove all this into a box and say that I think certain things are always wrong live, but I just think maybe part of the problem is leaders having an expectation that their live worship needs to sound like so many of these CD’s. It is just a thought though – maybe that isn’t the issue at all.

  • Eric

    Someone’s bitter.


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