When I was a good little Southern Baptist kid, which was not that long ago, we had “Ministers of Music” and “Music Directors.” At some point between then and now, the contemporary worship movement ushered in nearly universal use of a new title: “Worship Leader.”
Recently, I’ve noticed the title being called into question, which I think is a very good thing. Most of the criticism can be boiled down to one foundational problem, and it has to do with our understanding of the function of the worship service itself.
Specifically, I think the widespread use of the term “worship leader” in reference to a lead singer reflects the pervasive conflation of music and worship, as well as a misunderstanding of the purpose of corporate worship in the church.
Let’s be honest. If we consider that all the things we do in a worship service are to be acts of worship, it’s a little ridiculous to give the soloist the title of “worship leader.” After all, praying is an act of worship. Actively listening to proclamation through sermon is an act of worship. Reading Holy Scripture is an act of worship. Passing the peace is an act of worship. Giving our offerings is an act of worship. The Sacraments are acts of worship. Though singing our faith adds a beautiful dimension to a worship service, it’s no more an act of worship than any of these other things.
And if you look around at what happens in most churches, we don’t seem to understand the point of gathered worship. It’s as if we think it’s a show churches put on every week that allows us to get lost in good feelings about God through music of our liking. If this were so, the worship leader position would make sense.
But corporate worship isn’t about laying down some comfortable cushioning as we cuddle with our Creator. It’s not about us being comfortable at all.
It’s about participation. It’s about being together. It’s about doing God’s story.
Historically in Christian liturgy, God’s people gather, proclaim together the good news of the Christian story, give thanks over Christ’s Supper, and are sent back out into world renewed and remade afresh by Word and Sacrament, so that we can sanely and assuredly do Christ’s work in the world.
When we worship this way, anyone leading out in any part is, at least in a way, a worship leader.
Oh, and through these acts of worship, we may learn to more clearly recognize our living Head, the central figure in the beautiful Christian drama.
Jesus is the real worship leader.
So why is the music person – you know, the one with the microphone – the only person we call a “worship leader?” Why do we use the term at all?
Well, maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe we should come up with something different. Depending on theology, structure, and job description, it could be any number of things. Music Pastor, Minister of Music, Director of Corporate Worship, Cantor, Organist/Choirmaster.
Maybe, just “soloist,” in the vein of preacher or lay reader or liturgist.
Or, maybe it’s past time to reevaluate the position itself, not just the title. I think the position itself, be it called worship leader, band leader, soloist, lead singer, or anything else, doesn’t fit into the corporate worship context. Here are a couple of reasons.
It leads people toward consumption rather than participation. A solo leader singing into a microphone sends a message to the congregation that its role is similar to that of an audience at a rock concert: “Sing along if you like, but it doesn’t really matter.” As a result, the corporate nature of gathered worship is deemphasized, and the congregation becomes entirely dispensable. Though some may be singing, even loudly at times, the congregation’s function is more passive than active.
It’s a golden opportunity for off-the-cuff theologizing. The worst theology happens in worship when we go off script, and coupled with the fact most (but certainly not all) so-called “worship leaders” are not well-trained theologically, even planned statements tend to fall short of good theology or meaningful connection to the liturgy.
It easily becomes a showcase for ego and personality. We are living in the days of the celebrity Christian. As I’ve said before, we have witnessed the advent of the “worship superstar,” especially over the last decade. Granting a microphone to a musician is offering them a whole lot of power and prestige. Some turn corporate worship into stand up comedy routine with their wit and charisma. Some take the opportunity to showcase their own affected pop stylings and build their celebrity in the mold of so many others. Just look at the record sales for the so-called “worship industry.” Even those who would shy away from the title of “superstar,” well, can they really deny that’s what they are?
If it’s impossible for your congregation to eliminate the soloist, here are a few things that can help empower the people to sing out successfully.
Don’t ad lib. Your job is to give the congregation the musical information they need to follow. Riffing, improvising, and embellishing add no substance to the task at hand; but they do make it nearly impossible for a congregation to follow along.
Keep amplification to a minimum. Amplification can be a huge barrier to good congregational singing. It’s much easier to join in with unamplifed singing than to try and find your place in a wall of sound blaring at you from all sides. If possible, eliminate the amplification, or at least have them step back from the microphone after bringing the congregation in, so that the congregation learns to take initiative and not simply defer to an overpowering soloist.
When possible, shut up. Don’t talk unless giving necessary verbal instructions. You’re not the host. You’re not the cheerleader. You’re not supposed to be the center of attention. You don’t usher the people into God’s presence. You’re not the tour guide, leading the way to the Holy of Holies. Your role is to model with your vocal presence. All the words you need have already written. Allow the congregation to follow your musical example without your personality getting in the way. And again, when you feel like the congregation has caught on, allow yourself to step away from the mic, and join in with the primary voice.