Whatever Happened to Singing in Church? Part 4: Leadership Factors
This is the fourth post in a 5-part series examining the important but rarely-discussed question of why people don’t sing as much in church anymore. You can check out the previous posts below.
In the first three posts, I shared reasons why singing is an important part of our faith, as well as several cultural and environmental factors that have impacted singing.
In this post, we’ll look at factors in worship leadership that can work against participation and engagement. I’ll also share my thoughts on how to address these factors.
1. The role of the worship leader has changed.
Some people will perceive what I’m about to say as critical or negative, and that is absolutely not my intent. I’m simply telling you what I have seen and observed, with the intention of helping others understand why many people don’t sing in church.
Over the last 10-15 years, I have seen a subtle yet profound shift in the role of the worship leader in many growing churches. It has gradually shifted from facilitating and leading congregational singing to performing and producing a worship experience. This is an important distinction.
As I understand it, the main purpose of the worship leader is to help the congregation sing. You can produce a great event, organize media, and perform well, but if all those things aren’t done in service to the #1 goal of helping the church sing, then something has been lost.
An Ancient Struggle
Today, the function of worship leading has shifted toward production and performance. This isn’t because pastors and worship leaders suddenly decided to focus on performance and “put on a show.” First of all, I don’t think anyone sets out with the intention of “putting on a show.” Moreover, this has been a gradual shift over the last 10-15 years as megachurches have drastically increased their production values and incorporated much more technology and media in services.
Keep in mind that this discussion about entertainment and spectacle in worship has been going on a very long time. We are not the first generation to grapple with these issues. It’s been going on in one form or another since Constantine’s conversation in the fourth century. Christianity became legal and the church began to transition from an intimate community to more of a theater where people watched rather than engaged.
We continue to wrestle with this today. In our modern context, you can’t really help but focus on production because of the complexity of worship services. It takes a small army of people on stage and behind the scenes to bring a modern worship service to life.
Many larger churches have begun to see the wisdom of having more than one staff member in the area of worship. My church has done this for years, and I applaud them for having the wisdom and vision to hire enough people so the worship leader can truly focus on facilitating worship.
The Tension of Worship Leading
I love worship leaders and artists in the church. I truly do. And I empathize with them because they are pulled in a million different directions. Some of them are working with senior pastors and church boards who are putting unrealistic expectations on them to produce a service that rivals the one at the church down the street.
Many worship leaders are also struggling with burnout, depression, and feeling like a hamster caught on a wheel that never stops. Church ministry—especially for worship leaders—can be a grind that keeps moving week after week. You would be hard-pressed to find a worship leader who has never struggled with these feelings.
Most worship leaders didn’t get involved in ministry in order to be an event manager or media producer. They became a worship leader because they loved helping people worship.
So what am I saying? Am I implying that all the media, production, and “other stuff” that happens in a modern worship service is bad? No, not at all. We are using the tools at our disposal today. I’m just observing that many worship leaders feel a tension between their deep desire to help people engage in worship, and the real-world demands of juggling all the complex elements of a worship service.
What you can do about it:
Worship leaders, remember that your main role is to help people engage and participate in worship. I don’t think this requires any sort of radical shift to what you’re already doing. But young leaders, especially, need to be assertive and continually remind people that God loves their worship. People will follow a leader who loves them and is there to serve and help them.
I would also encourage you to do two others things. First, delegate the elements of your job that you don’t enjoy. For instance, if you’re not the best administrator, find someone in the congregation who can help, or ask the church to hire someone to help. That will free you up to focus on what you do best.
Second, be honest with your leadership about any unrealistic demands you might feel. Don’t suffer in silence and continue operating in areas where you aren’t passionate or gifted for long periods of time. That is a surefire to burn yourself out.
I mentioned earlier that some churches hire multiple staff so the worship leader can focus on what they do best. But what if you’re part of a small church? There are always ways to get help, even if it’s from volunteers.
A few years after I started in worship ministry, I realized that I was doing too much on Sunday mornings. I was trying to lead worship and also manage the service. I wisely recruited two ladies to act as “producers” who ran the service. It was a great move. They had an opportunity to use their administrative gifts, and it freed me up to focus on leading worship.
Church leaders and pastors, please make sure your worship leaders and worship staff have the rest and resources they need to do a good job. Most worship leaders need more breaks than they are getting. Pay for them to attend a conference. Give them a sabbatical or an extra week of vacation. Get them some administrative help.
Worship leading has become a lot more complicated and demanding than when I started out in ministry over twenty years ago. I hope that every church leader reading this will take the time to ask their worship leaders and production staff if they truly have the resources and breaks they need to do ministry for the long haul.
2. The worship leader might not take a pastoral approach to their ministry.
The first issue I mentioned above is more of a generalization of how worship ministry has changed over the last decade or two, and how it has impacted people’s participation.
However, the issue I want to highlight now is more acute and specific, and I honestly don’t think it happens very often. But it’s worth mentioning because it does happen from time to time.
I have known a lot of worship leaders over the years, and the vast majority of them have been generous, gifted, humble, and committed to serving God’s people in ministry. But just as it happens in any field, there are people who sometimes do it for the wrong reasons.
A friend of mine, who is a pastor, once told me about a part-time worship leader he hired at his church. The guy was musically gifted, and the church needed someone in this role. The worship leader had his own band, and after a while, it became apparent to my friend that he was only interested in using his new role to showcase for his music skills.
This is what I mean by someone not taking a pastoral approach to their ministry. In a worship leading context, it means using music and the arts to make disciples and further the mission of the local church. A pastoral worship leader cares as much about the people as they do about the production.
How would this affect singing and participation? People can tell if a pastor truly loves them and is there to serve and lead them. It may not be apparent immediately. Over time the congregation will see the leader’s true colors. And if those colors are pride, arrogance, or showmanship, the people will not want to follow them.
A Square Peg in a Round Hole
Sometimes a worship leader will lack a pastoral perspective because they are a musician who has been placed in the wrong role. It is tempting for churches to hire a worship leader with a heavy performance background and assume this person will be a great worship leader. That is not always the case.
There is a huge difference between being a great performer and being an effective worship leader. Both involve musical skills, and to be sure, there is an element of performance involved in leading worship. But here’s the difference: a performer draws attention to himself, but a worship leader draws attention to God.
You wouldn’t take a professional speaker and have them start preaching every week at your church just because they know how to deliver a talk. But churches will sometimes take a good musician and have them lead worship just because they know how to sing and play.
When we take that approach, we shouldn’t be surprised that the person leading worship doesn’t approach it pastorally. They haven’t been equipped to approach it in the right way, and we have put them in an unfair position where they can’t possibly meet people’s expectations.
As I said, the vast majority of the time, I don’t think engagement issues are due to character or attitude issues within the worship leader. But it does happen sometimes. And truthfully, we are all prone to attitude and character issues if we don’t keep a close watch over our lives.
What you can do about it:
Worship leaders, we have to guard our hearts closely. In the realm of music and the arts, pride can easily take root and wrap its tentacles around our soul. You need to be part of some type of accountability arrangement or small group that will hold your feet to the fire and keep you grounded.
It’s also important for you to submit to regular evaluations from your leadership. One easy test of your character is how quickly you will submit to correction and evaluation. Developing your skills is important, but developing your character is even more important.
Talent vs. Heart
Church leaders and pastors, I know you are sometimes put in a difficult spot. You have Worship Leader A, who has a great heart and attitude, but only moderate skills. Then you have Worship Leader B, who is a gifted musician with great stage presence, but doesn’t have a pastoral mindset.
There’s no simple answer for this dilemma because every situation is unique. Just remember that you can teach someone musical and technical skills if they have a certain capacity and willingness to change. However, it’s much harder to teach someone to have the right attitude, or to develop a pastoral approach, if they’re not leaning that direction to begin with.
I know this has been a long post, and if you’ve made it this far, you deserve a medal. Or at least a trip through the Krispy Kreme drive-through. 🙂
In the next post, we’ll look at several musical factors that can impact singing and participation in worship. These are a few very simple fixes you can make that will have a big impact on your worship engagement.
Let me hear from you. Do you think the role of the worship leader has changed over the last decade or two?