Worship Leadership Series (part four): 5 Criteria for Choosing a Worship Leader

When I was in college, I can’t count the number of worship leading gigs I was asked to do. There were at lguitar_hero_package.jpgeast 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?

  1. I personally take issue with some of the comments that you have made. Saying that a 20 year old guitar player is incapable of understanding or studying theology is a rather unfair blanket statement. Maybe when you were that age you did not study scripture, but that is not to say that others do not. I also feel that songs such as above all, while focusing somewhat on the individual are scripturally viable. What is wrong with someone aknowledging that God is above all things, and that Christ died thinking of us as individuals? It is the basis to our faith to accept the grace that Jesus gave when he died on the cross while thinking of us as individuals.

    “Do not let anyone look down on you because you are young, but be an example for other believers in your speech, behavior, love, faithfulness, and purity.” (1 Timothy 4:12).

  2. Jon

    Did you actually read the post? I did not say that a 20 year old is “incapable of understanding or studying theology.”

    Additionally, to say that Jesus took the fall and thought of me “above all” is doctrinally troubling. Don’t you think so? Do you think it is correct to say that Jesus was thinking of me or you Above All other concerns while hanging on the cross? This takes the work of the cross and makes it purely about individuals.

  3. Thank you for laying this out. There are way too many people being called worship leaders who have no clue theological or doctrinal standard for what passes as a true worship song.

    I also couldn’t agree more with your take on “Above All”. I took this song out of our church’s rotation when I first came on staff as the worship director. Worship is corporate and while it is ok at times to sing songs that invoke devotion with a personal pronoun, worship is still of a corporate nature and not the individual. Songs like above all, as suttle as it may be, actually put the emphasis on the individual and not Christ.

    I would also remind Jon that the Levites were not allowed to be worship leaders until they 30 years old, and Jesus did not start his own ministry until He was 30, there was a reason for this, it wasn’t just by chance.

    Also, concerning the Scripture Jon quoted, scholars say that Timothy was probably around 40 years old when Paul was writing this letter to him, not 19 or 20.

  4. The present status of Church today is if you can play three chords with your guitar, you are anointed as musician and Worship Leader. Nobody, including the Pastor is concern about thelogy when it comes to Worship. All they want is to “rock” the Church with satanic music.

  5. Please help with the following question: i can’t seem to find anyone with an answer. Should a worship leader be playing at church on sundays and at a bar on other days? HELP!

    1. Aby

      This is a judgment call based on your context and your church. Do you believe that it is sinful to be in a bar? Or to play music in a bar? My answer is this: there is nothing inherently sinful about playing music in a bar, but it does give rise to questions about the leaders credibility in some contexts.

      This worship leader may have many legitimate reasons for doing this and you can’t say he’s wrong for doing so. Its a gray area and you can’t disqualify him on these grounds. That said, he should also be wise in the way others perceive him, and this does create problems.

  6. aino,

    If it “rocks”, it’s automatically “satanic”? Is the tri-tone interval REALLY from the devil himself? Does the sound of electric guitars somehow give the evil one control over us? This sounds like the same argument I’ve had with my own father for 40 years (who now watches me “rock” the church with contemporary worship every Sunday). Show me even ONE scriptural reference that supports that argument, and I’ll be happy to consider it.

    Traditional worship music is just that — “traditional”, i.e., customary for a period of time and/or culture. It’s completely a man-made standard — not a commandment from God.

  7. All in all, a rather disappointing post. Perhaps I am old-fashioned (or, as this reply may show, at once both too conservative and liberal for the intended audience of such a post).

    1 – The concept of the entire post is fascinating. Seriously. This should be debated – and in such an age where anti-intellectualism and amateur-as-art is celebrated a worthy topic. So, all the comments are intended as constructive criticism. Intended that way at least…

    2 – Before I reply to the meat of the actual post, the replies have been rather scary. Yes, it is true that an individual will refine their understanding of the scriptures as they age, is that truly something we are willing to cut people away from a chance to share their gifts? Yes, worship leading is (titularly even) a leadership role, but are we truly willing to cut people off? Seeing as life expectancy in those days was not really much higher than 40 or 50 (as a generous measure!) how many people were left looking down on poor, poor Timothy if he was that age? What about Samuel? What about a condition where there is need for a leader, but none of the age that people here have deemed worthy? Must someone master the bible to master leading worship? I don’t have the answers, and would be highly skeptical if anyone here did. Although it may not be the best choice to have a younger individual leading, God hasn’t been known for choosing the best. He chooses who he wants. The rules are there to help, not hinder… Jesus often exemplified that in the Gospels.

    2 – Several comments here cause me pause.

    “most worship leaders earn their mettle from Green Day, John Mayer, Nickelback, or worse yet, Audio Adrenaline and DC Talk.”

    “Significantly, he was skilled at taking his beliefs and setting them to music so that people could remember his propositions.”

    “A good worship leader needs to train himself to spot this.”

    “It is irresponsible to talk an old blue-haired congregation and force-feed them David Crowder music. ”

    Though seemingly unrelated, I fear that these statements demonstrate a scary trend amongst those who are worship leaders in contemporary services. They demonstrate a lack of depth. I think this post calls for depth – and quite fairly also. All four of these demonstrate the need for educated leaders. But I’m confused on the education proposed by this post. I don’t think we really need to have a defined system. Obviously, these struck a chord with me and I pulled them for that reason.

    Firstly, the comment that someone would learn music by ear being a bad thing – on any level! – is a tad absurd. Is the expectation that from the first moment of musical thought that an individual will exhibit impeccable and refined tastes? Do we expect a prodigious skill only? It strikes me that cutting one’s teeth learning music by playing music is a good thing. So, they don’t have the same taste as you. So their taste sucks perhaps. So? They’re beginners. A baby’s first steps suck. In fact, the fail at making first steps all the time. Seriously. Big deal that they learned to play from that. You don’t propose a system to change that – and can’t. You can, however, propose a system that will aid them in developing as musicians – and worship leaders. (I hesitate greatly to have the need to call a worship leader a theologian. We live in a modern society, names are very specific. It strikes me that a worship leader should be interested in theological matters, but is not a theologian save the amateur definition.) It strikes me as the desire of that statement is to exclude all who do not meet your definition of “good worship music.” More on that later. I desire to stay an non-tangential as possible.

    This is a bit trite, but I feel it is worthy: Luther anyone? By using the Arian heresy, you’re undercutting your own point. That music can be used to brainwash? That music can be used to sow discord among the church. Yes, Luther isn’t the biggest name in church unity, but his music was intended for that purpose.

    The third bullet follows from my first comments. I agree. A good worship leader should be trained to spot this. But “this” is a bit vague. (Yes, I realize that this is “man-centered” worship songs, but run with me for just a bit here.) How is worship not “Man-centered”? Riddle me this Batman – if God created man, God instructs Man to worship, and God doesn’t NEED our worship, then what is worship. It’s logic (something sorely missing in the church today) that leads us to the purpose of worship. God gains nothing by our worship, but what do we gain? Second, we call God a “personal savior” but then say we need to transcend our human desire to please God when we worship? This is a dangerous path. If we so de-humanize worship to the point where worship isn’t about us, we’ve missed the point. We don’t need to commercialize worship, but we’ve got to remember that worship is a human act. Is it theologically that wrong to say that God thought of us during the act of atonement (or substitution, or whatever you believe) when he is a personal savior? I’m not defending the song – I don’t like it frankly, it’s too cheesy – but we’ve got to remember that worship is an act of faith, not of theology. By desiring to make God more personal, do we rob any theology? I don’t believe Jesus was that selfish – you’re forgetting Love. God’s glory is Love – not theological correctness, not polity, not seminaries, not social progress, not conservatism, not higher or lower criticism, not proselytizing – and act of unselfish love. If he wasn’t thinking about me, I’d frankly be surprised. He was thinking about the sinners next to him. He was thinking about the punishment God would have poured out on those he was acting to save. To me, it’s more doctrinally scary to have him just thinking about himself and his glory up there – because, scripturally, he wasn’t. And if not, what was God’s glory? He doesn’t need us. It seems you’re a touch too theological here – religion is faith-based and personal. You seem to want to remove any of the human parts of worship to make it a sterile theological exercise – or it is a simple way to force your point upon others who disagree.

    Lastly (in regard to the pulled comments), your fourth point hits the nail (well, of part of it) on the head – and might just make the point I make in the previous section for me! Knowing the audience is critical. The audience… The audience… why does this seem irrelevant? Because worship is an act of humans connecting with God. A sterile theological approach might be a way of talking about worship, but misses the act of worship. If theology was the answer to finding the perfect worship song, then the musical style would be irrelevant! People should connect because of the perfect theology, shouldn’t they? Or are they unworthy if they don’t? Yikes! That’s a scary can of worms. You’re welcome to reply to that – but I probably won’t read it. It’s, frankly, too scary for me to go down that path.

    But, we’ve finally gotten to the real meat of where I’m going with all this. The musical side of things. And, education.

    300 years ago, church musicians were raised in the church as musicians. There were boy’s choirs, theory classes, an apprenticeships. True story. Look it up. Then again, education was the church’s responsibility and wasn’t offered to all… but we’re not debating the concept of religious education vs. secular education. So, church musicians (similar to many other occupations at the time) were often apprenticed (sometimes they got to operate the giant bellows that the organs used!) and had been educated in writing music and performing music – as well as theology. This hasn’t lasted (for better or worse, I’m not the judge.) and we have to operate in the way the world works. Seminaries used to have wonderful degrees in church music – people learned music theory, pedagogy, performance, theology, and the like. (Yes, many of them learn “languages, church history, biblical and systematic theology, ecclesiology, homiletics (and on and on)” even if it is nearly useless for them on a daily basis.) But, those programs are dying. What is taking their place is, quite literally, the guitar hero version of a church music degree. Look some of them up. They’re quite the joke – and I don’t mean that as an insult. I have friends who have the former degrees and are amazing church musicians. They plan the hymns very carefully, lead choirs (or, in some cases, contemporary services), teach children, and perform music that usually is for the glory of God. The individuals I know with the latter of the degrees often print out a bunch of chord sheets and struggle learning a new song with the members of the band without a recording. You don’t see that among people with the classical (I mean that non-stylistically here) education. Why? Well, I think I’ve answered it.

    You don’t propose solutions to the problems. I’d be interested in that. I’d be interested in the ideas to help those 20-somethings that you’ve cast away as not “theological” or “doctrinal.” You make it sound like one can do things in such a perfect way so that they’re the ideal leader for worship. That may be true. But that doesn’t mean they’ll be a good fit. Where are social skills here? He must get along with the other members of the church. A good worship leader must have good rehearsal skills also – which are another thing that is perfected with time. What about individual practice? Or the ability for solo performances? I know those are theologically tricky these days, but I think C.S. Lewis’ perspectives on music in worship are quite fantastic – and you should look them up if you don’t. What about being able to produce a variety of musical styles? You seem to think this is important (“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.”) but don’t offer up the critical point that he needs to either be able to perform those Fanny Crosby songs or find someone (even if they’re a 20-something) to help him do that. Also in that vein, where is the line drawn between what is right and what is good? One could defend those 7-11 praise and worship songs (seven words repeated eleven times) by saying they’re a desire of musical and theological minimalism. You seem to defend a sort of that in this post (and others!) but draw the line when you disagree with it. It strikes me as dangerous. Worship connects us to God. If we use a song that doesn’t agree with your theology, does that ruin the worship? Does that make it invalid? Because you don’t see the truth in it? If a song sings about free will and you’re a Calvinist, does that invalidate the worship?

    I’m no worship leader. I’m not a theologian. I’m not a preacher. I am not a church musician. But, this list is – from a practical, theological, and musical view – in need of deep restructuring. The priorities aren’t varied. It lacks any perception of what skilled musicians must do. It lacks the balance between theology and musicianship that I’ve seen every skilled church worship leader deal with. It lacks the ability to allow worship to breathe and be a natural event that we humans attempt to make easier and more helpful for each other – so that corporate worship is a meaningful event that binds us as christians together. It lacks a thorough understanding of basic musical elements and their purposes. It puts the church musician in the ivory tower away from the people he needs to connect with. To play and perform with – for God’s glory.

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