What is a Successful Worship Leader?

For many years, I have been on the editorial board of Worship Leader magazine. I also write regular column for the magazine entitled Lyrical Poetry. In this column, I take one jewel from the treasure chest of the Psalms and consider its relevance for worship and worship leaders. (By “worship leader,” I am thinking about anyone who helps in leading corporate worship, including: choir directors, band leaders, organists, guitar players, preachers, lay liturgists, etc.)

In an upcoming issue of Worship Leader, my Lyrical Poetry column is entitled: “Should Worship Artists Seek Success?” My text is Psalm 118:25: “O LORD, save us; O LORD, grant us success.” I conclude that seeking success in some form is commended in Scripture. But our success depends, not on ourselves, our skills, our cleverness, our planning, and so forth, but on God.

In my column, I did not have the space to talk about what constitutes success for a worship leader. So I thought I would blog about this a bit, since the topic is relevant to more than just official worship leaders. Our understanding of success for a worship leader has everything to do with our understanding of what worship truly is. We might say that worship leaders are successful when those whom they lead worship successfully. But what would this mean?

What is “Successful” Worship?

At the risk of oversimplifying things, let me say that worship is offering to God all that God is due. For us individually, this means offering our whole selves to God. The Old Testament vocabulary for worship includes words that reflect the submission of a subject before a king and the service offered by a servant to a master. At the core, worship is giving to God his due as King of kings and Lord of lords, not to mention our gracious Savior. This includes praise, thanks, love, confession, attention, honor, obedience, and service. In corporate worship, we emphasize offerings of words, songs, and actions, which enable us to praise, thank, love, and honor God together. Such corporate worship leads to a life of worship, in which we serve God, not just in the corporate gatherings (the worship services), but also in every part of life (the service of daily life). We worship God by presenting our bodies as living sacrifices to God, thus glorifying him every waking minute of our existence.

I’m not saying that we actually do worship God in this way. No human being, except for Jesus, has been able to worship God consistently and whole-heartedly. Yet this should be our intention.

So, successful worship for an individual is when I truly and fully offer myself to God, not just my praise and thanks, but all of me. Notice that this is not primarily about feeling anything. Worship is not an emotional state, though it usually involves emotions. It is, rather, an act of the whole person, an act of will, an act of giving ourselves freely and fully to God.

From a biblical perspective, genuine worship can happen when I am alone. But worship is not something offered only or even mainly by individuals. Rather, it is an action of God’s people. When we come together, we worship together by offering our songs, prayers, and gifts to God. When we move out into the world, we worship God as a community by living consciously as God’s people, serving him through serving others.

Genuine worship, according to Jesus, is worship in Spirit and truth (John 4:23-24). This means that you and I cannot worship fully without the help of the Holy Spirit. It also means that our worship must be permeated with and shaped by the truth of God. Only when our worship is truly spiritual and biblical will it be authentic, or, if you will, successful.

What is Successful Worship Leadership?

Successful worship leadership facilitates successful worship. If you are a worship leader, you have led well if those who have followed your leadership have offered themselves to God genuinely.

The sanctuary of Irvine Presbyterian Church, where I helped to lead worship for sixteen years.

Notice what successful worship leadership is not? It’s not creating an experience. It’s not getting people excited. It’s not helping people to feel God’s presence. It’s not leading a moving performance by the band or choir. It’s not preaching a fine sermon. It’s not getting people to like you. It’s not being popular. It’s not growing your church. It’s not musical perfection. It’s not doing great art. It’s not a chance for you to express your creativity or individuality. Of course all of these things might be connected with successful worship leadership. But they are not the point. The point is leading people to offer to God his due, which ultimately includes all that they are.

You have been successful as a worship leader if, in any given gathering, those you have led have genuinely given themselves to God. This means that they come away from the service, not impressed by you, but by God. If on their way home they’re talking about how great the music was or how great the sermon was, you have not been successful. If they’re talking about how great God is and how they’re going to live in response to God’s greatness, then . . . bingo!

Successful worship leadership cannot really be measured in the moment, however. You can only truly know your success as a worship leader in the long run. If the people you lead in worship learn to offer themselves to God in every facet of life, if they live out the truth of God in the world, if they see their daily life as worship, if they serve God at school and in the office, if they seek to honor God by living lives of justice and righteousness, then you have been a successful worship leader.

“But,” you may be thinking, “that’s a whole lot harder than getting people excited or helping them to feel inspired in the worship service.” Indeed. It’s much, much harder. You might also be thinking, “But, wait, what you’ve described isn’t something I can pull off on my own. I can’t ensure that people will actually worship authentically.” That’s true. I believe that the success of a worship leader (or pastor, or mission trip leader, or . . .) does in fact depend on the response of those being led.

This means you cannot produce your own success. Not only do you depend on those whom you lead, but also and mainly upon God. You will never succeed as a worship leader apart from the help of God’s Spirit. Thus, we who lead worship join the Psalmist in praying: “O LORD, save us; O LORD, grant us success” (Psalm 118:25).