The Post-Christian Worship Leader
There is a vast amount of conferences, books, blogs, tweets - you name it - that have taken on the challenge of making worship leaders more effective in their leadership by engaging the culture and society around us. Over the last 20 years, worship has grown and morphed outside of the boundaries of just “church music” and has challenged worship leaders and musicians to be artists, to create, to write, and to represent God in His diversity, creativity and excellence. I’m for all of this. All of this growth is a good thing, and has lead to some great fruit and asked great questions of what it means to lead worship and how to engage an ever changing culture. It’s challenged worship leaders musically and artistically, and it has opened the door for us to better engage our culture through worship and better represent Christ through it. It has brought a lot of growth, but I wonder if it has perhaps opened the door for misdirection as well.
20 years ago, we didn’t have worship leaders as we think of them today. 20 years from now, whose to say we’ll have the same definition and need of that role as we do today? Our society and culture is continuing to change, and I wonder how this will affect worship as it continues to grow and attempts to engage this culture. The values of the 1950 ‘s American Christian-based society are quickly being challenged and lost, and we find ourselves in a post-Christian culture, as it’s been called. The general public has in a large part moved past Christianity, along with it’s values. In the eyes of the world around us, to some extent Christianity has become a fad. It’s become unauthentic and unimportant. Society has become “smarter” than religion. Self reliant. Selfish. Hedonistic. Relative. If you want to get married to someone, get married to them. Marriage means whatever you want it to mean. If you want to continue to enjoy sex but not the results, a life not yet lived is a small price to pay to keep living yours. Those are just a couple of tangible examples of the long and growing list of how society’s values are turning directly against the values of the Bible. Even the definition of a Christian has been distorted into someone who goes to church, or simply just calls themselves a Christian, and “Christians” themselves are being deceived into believing that in light of scripture, some of these values are justified. And how can we expect anything different if Christians go to church, but never engage people outside of the church and put to practice the teachings of the one they follow?
All of this makes me wonder if we’re headed in the right direction, if we’re training our worship leaders the right way. Will they continue be successful leaders in a declination of Christian culture and values? Are we preparing them to lead congregations to Jesus in truth, to be invested in discipleship, to suffer for and proclaim the gospel, to love the broken, to go out and lead the way in engaging the culture around us with a life that looks like Jesus, or are we preparing them to be “successful” in this so called industry of worship music? Ultimately, what does it really mean for a worship leader to lead in a post-Christian culture?
Much can be said on what a worship leader needs to do in light of a changing world, but I think the overarching theme would be a call back to the basics of what we’re called to as followers of Christ first and foremost. You can’t be an authentic, Christ-exalting worship leader, or even a leader in the Church, without being a Christ follower first, a disciple of Jesus. Sometimes we need to put down the books on how to write better music, what things should be said in-between songs, how to build a good set list, what new songs you should be doing to “keep up,” how to have the right transitions and how to sing better, and lead worship by showing that Jesus is worthy, real, and priceless by the way we live our lives and encouraging and teaching others to do the same. We need to be living products of grace, justice, and redemption, not simply singers of them.
Here are some initial thoughts off the top of my head when thinking about this, so this certainly isn’t exhaustive. Some may seem simplistic, and they are, but often times that’s exactly what we lose focus on when trying to pursue being a worship leader over a Christ follower.
Be A Theologian
I’ve written and talked about the importance of this so much, because it is so important! Everything else in this post has the potential to be misunderstood without a foundation of sound theology. Theology determines every aspect of our lives. How we think, how we make decisions, and ultimately how we live our lives. It’s impossible to lead someone to something, or to teach someone about something without having an understanding of it ourselves. That’s exactly what worship leaders do. We lead and point people to who Jesus is and what He has done. We teach them truth through song. If our theology is off, then our congregation’s theology is off, and worship songs are the easiest and sneakiest way for false theology to enter into the church. We are told to love God with our heart, soul, and mind (Matt. 22:37). We must be lovers and students of the Word. Without this, we will be easily shaken and prone to give into the pull of being a culturally relevant worship leader, rather than a Christ-centered one. And in a post-Christian culture where our values are constantly challenged and changing, we need leaders who’s values are rooted deep in truth.
You might be thinking, “of course!”, but sometimes there is an overemphasis on being a worship leader and an underemphasis on following Jesus. Meaning, we neglect the basic commandments of making disciples, sharing the gospel, loving the poor and broken, and spending time in His Word while we’re distracted with trying to be a better worship leader or caught up in the day-to-day tasks we call ministry. In the end, we find our identity in leading worship rather than in Christ. It’s sneaky and subtle, because we feel like we’re pouring ourselves into ministry and becoming better leaders, when that’s the very thing the enemy uses to distract us from being a disciple of Christ, of abiding in His Word (John 8:31), and carrying out the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20). It’s easy to deceive the people we are leading, as well as ourselves, into thinking we are great leaders because we’re on a platform, we’re told we’re doing a great job, and/or we’re in a position of leadership. I confess, I can’t tell you how many camps or events I’ve “led” where everything has the appearance of success, and I have the appearance and platform of a spiritual leader, but I’ve neglected my personal spiritual walk that whole week. We can get people to sing about justice and love and grace like they believe it, but we often fail to lead in the same things when we’re not on a stage and don’t have a guitar in our hands, hence failing to lead people to worship anywhere outside of a church setting or outside of a song, when that’s the essence of worship in the first place (Romans 12:1). Truth is, we can’t lead without first following. In a post-Christian culture, our leadership will be more and more defined by how we live our lives off a stage. People will want authenticity, truth, investment, and a leader who lives out what he believes without hiding behind a guitar, leading them to lead lives of worship against popular culture and values because Jesus is real and better than this world, and so worth wasting our lives on.
Reflect The Gospel
When even the definition of a Christian is being defined as simply someone who calls themselves one, or someone who goes to church on Easter, there must be a distinction between what our society deems a Christian and what Jesus calls us to be. When we follow Jesus, our lives will be centered around the gospel. That’s the distinction. That’s the unwavering truth of who Jesus is and what He has done. Everything we do should be centered on it: the songs we lead, the things we do and say, the very way we live our lives. We must be products of the gospel, actively mirroring the love, grace and redemption to this world through the way we live and the way we love. Through the gospel, Jesus redeems, so we should be agents of redemption. Through the gospel, Jesus justifies, so we should be agents of justice. Through the gospel, Jesus loves, so we should be agents of love. Through the gospel, Jesus has pursued us, so we should be in pursuit of the people around us. The gospel changes everything, so we should be agents of that change. When we see the injustice of murdered babies, those trapped in the sex trade, our only hope is the gospel, and we are the messengers and activists of it. Not for the sake of social justice, but for the sake of the gospel to bring hope to the broken, poor and oppressed (Amos 5:21-24; Matt. 11:28-30). If we believe God’s heart for justice rather than songs or feasts as implied in Amos 5, when we lead worship we will lead with the gospel, both in song and with our lives. If the church has any hope in a post-Christian culture, the gospel, the story of God’s grace and love towards a fallen world, must be our message. It must be in our pulpits, and in our worship, and we must take it beyond there to our neighbors and people around us. Relevance, entertainment, excellence, or anything else we lead with will never replace the truth of the gospel, no matter what culture we find ourselves leading in. Amidst the tension of changing cultural values, the gospel must remain at the center of the church and of her leadership, and that heavily includes the leadership of our worship.
Put Down Your Guitar
People need authentic leaders willing to lead the battle down the hill, not a leader who commands people to go to battle from the hilltop. If worship is more than a song, we need worship leaders who do more than sing. A leader who will lead people in worship while not on a stage with a guitar, but in the trenches of ministry, proving that what is sung on stage is true, valued, and worth living for.
Our world is bold. The challenges facing Christians are bold. Jesus also was bold, and leaders facing the darts of the enemy and the world need to be bold. I often notice worship leaders shy away from truth for the sake of getting their foot into a certain door, or to please people, or perhaps simply out of ignorance. When we face bold challenges, we need to be even more bold in the way we counter them, not wavering from the truth of the gospel and who Jesus is. Our best defense is a bold offense not ashamed of the gospel.
All in all, worship leaders must remain faithful to Jesus and faithful to truth in their leadership. These are the things that will have an influence that will transcend time, culture, and ourselves.