On Worship That Makes Us Feel Lousy

Worship should be uplifting, right? It should make us feel great, right? Well...sort of. Worshipers and worship leaders need to take a good, hard look at the Scriptures and ask, "What is the Bible's vision of worship?" THAT starting point--not what worship we grew up with, not what worship gives us goose bumps, not even what our favorite worship leader or blogger tells us--is the only way to begin finding healthy, wholesome answers.

So, for example, we open up to the Psalms, God's only inspired grouping of top-150 worship songs. What do we see? What fills its contents? What language does it employ? What are its postures? What emotions spread across its spectrum? Well, among other things, there is a whole lot of not-so-pleasant feelings. Dark feelings. Honest feelings. Lousy feelings. And there's a reason for that. 

Over at the Worship Cohort, I spring off a wonderful quote by Matt Redman and explain why good worship should make us feel painfully scrutinized, uncomfortably exposed. In fact, if you've experienced a worship service where you haven't felt like a helpless mountaineer atop a cave-less mountain peak during a lightning storm, you haven't experienced worship's fullness.

In this post, I explore Isaiah's own journey into lousy-feeling worship, and I explain how the Biblical and Reformational dynamics of Law and Gospel are at play when we gather corporately as God's people. Here's a choice, quote, but please go read the post.

Do we worship leaders recognize that part of worship’s job is to make us feel uncomfortable for a time? Contained in a well-balanced, full-bodied worship service should be at least a moment where each and every one of us feels jerked to a halt under the white-hot scrutiny of God’s holy eye. The holiness of God should feel, among other things, like the unrelenting sun in a shade-less desert. You can’t run from its blistering rays.


If You Can Only Go to One Conference This Year...

We couldn't say it ten years ago, but nowadays, there are so many great conferences to choose from. God is raising up amazing conferences on church life, worship, spiritual formation, preaching, the Christian journey, mission, and on and on. But though I will attend and be a part of several conferences over the next twelve months, one, I believe, stands out. It stands out because I've witnessed what it does to people for several years now. I'm talking about the Liberate Conference.

What is it About?

The Liberate Conference is dedicated, each and every year, to championing how the message of the gospel impacts everything. Some conferences have general themes that often feel loosely tied together by common words and phrases. This conference is laser-beam-focused on how the good news for desperate sinners like you and me teases itself out in every arena of life. This is a conference for the burned out and tired. It's a conference for people whose life and ministry feels weighed and found wanting. It's one of the few (maybe only) conferences where you don't walk away feeling more burdened with all the things you need to do to right the ship, but rather resting and restored in the fact that Jesus already did it.

This year's theme is "It is Finished." All aspects of the conference are dedicated to exploring how Christ's finished work on our behalf sets us free from all kinds of tangible, enslaving burdens.

Who's Speaking?

Tullian Tchividjian
Steve Brown
Elyse Fitzpatrick
Eric Metaxas
Paul Tripp
Derwin Gray
Sally Lloyd-Jones
Scotty Smith
David Zahl
Justin Holcomb
Jessica Thompson 

...and more (including me) 

What Am I Doing There?

1. I'm leading music throughout the conference. It was the highlight of my year last February to lead singing for a packed house full of people desperately shouting their need for Jesus. Our musicians and I (including my partners in crime: Julie Anne Vargas, Chelsea Chen, Matt Calderin and Jeff Adkins) will pull out all the stops with our own unique pipe-rock sound. :)

2. I'm speaking on liberating worship. I will be leading an hour-long breakout at the pastors' pre-conference on Thursday (2/19), at 2pm. I will be sketching what I think are the most important aspects of worship as it relates to the gospel of the finished work of Jesus. I'll talk about everything from service-structure and song-selection to how we actually pastor people in the gospel through our planning and worship leadership.

3. We'll be releasing our third EP, "Come and Make Us Free," with Coral Ridge Music. Every conference attendee gets a FREE ALBUM in their conference pack. It will include six tracks of gospel-soaked originals, including our confession song, "Come and Make Us Free," and our reworked versions of a few hymns. (If you're only noticing that we have one EP so far, that's because we're releasing another one in November.)

The Deets

Feb 19-22, 2015
Ft. Lauderdale, FL (Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church)
It's $80 for a single ticket and $65 for a group of 5+, if you register before 9/30. 
(From there, the prices go up!) 



What if Volume in Worship Became Less About Preference and More About Discipleship?

Refreshing Old Dialogues

I'm always grateful for articles, thoughts, posts, and insights that reopen dialogues that feel simultaneously over-worn and under-productive. The volume-level-in-worship dialogue feels like one of those to me. It all too often gets downgraded into an issue of pure preference, sounding like this:

The old people can't stand how loud it is and just want it turned down.
The young people can't stand how soft it is and just want it turned up.

I have also heard the ecclesiastically-oriented axiom, "If people can't hear themselves sing, it's too loud." People who say this (and I'm one of them) prize the reality that congregational worship is congregational and that worship music is not a performance of a select few but a corporate act. In other words, ecclesiology and doxology (one's theology of the church and worship) drive the volume question. And they should. 

But I think that Dan Wilt's helpful post, "Is it Too Loud? Worship Accompaniment vs. Worship Immersion Culture," exposes that the issue of volume level is more complex than our axiomatic answers sometimes allow. I've had countless conversations over the years with (young and old) brothers and sisters who have hinted at the dynamics that Dan is bringing to our attention.

Worship Accompaniment vs. Worship Immersion

Wilt talks about two different views on how worship music functions to facilitate the singing of God's people. The first is "Worship Accompaniment"--congregants are looking to be supported and accompanied by the musicians. This is where many thoughtful worship leaders I know land, and I'd generally say that this is my perspective on the function of music for the people of God in corporate singing. The second view is "Worship Immersion"--congregants are looking to be surrounded and enveloped by the music. Wilt's description of "worship immersion" is interesting, hitting at an aspect of the theology of worship that is often lost on us or the people: 

Worship Immersion Culture is not primarily drawn to sing about God, nor even do they always feel a need to sing to God. Rather, they are a generation that wants to sing with God. They want to participate in God’s life.

This idea of participating in God's singing is an important one--that in our singing, we are enveloped into Christ's own song (Heb 2:12) and experiencing at least part of what it means to be "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Pet 1:4), caught up in the rapture of the Trinity's own enjoyment of Their glory.

All Accompaniment / Might There Be Room for Both?

I have some open-ended thoughts about all of this. First, though Wilt is putting his finger on something untouched (or less-touched), perhaps his titles are confusing. The way I perceive it, his constructions of "Worship Accompaniment" and "Worship Immersion" are actually two different philosophies of accompaniment. And those philosophies do have a lot to do with the function of volume (and mix, as well). The question is, Should our accompaniment support singing by providing a foundation underneath it or by creating an environment around it?  

Second, I have been in many worship services where one or the other philosophy is employed, and, frankly, when they've been done well I've seen the impact and merits of both. They both provide a formative experience in the act of congregational singing. "Worship Accompaniment" does shape the people of God to view their experience as corporate and communal rather than singular and individualistic. It helps people understand and feel that they are part of the body of Christ and that worship is joining in the singing of the "communion of saints." I often find, though, that in pure "accompaniment" worship cultures it tends to be the case (I know there are lots of counterexamples) that people have an under-developed sense of God's real and special presence among them as they worship. Worship in these environments has felt more like a wonderful, communal experience about God, rather than an immersive experience in God.* 

Conversely, "immersion" experiences, at their best, do give worshipers a sense of being enveloped in the Trinity's own eternal, ongoing delight, and they do provide contexts for us to understand what God's overwhelming, surrounding presence might feel like (because the music mirrors that reality and engages our senses in that way). But, we can see how in these environments there can be a slippery slope, devolving toward an everyone-having-their-own-private-devotional-experience-with-God-in-one-room kind of vibe. 

Maybe it is that, for the thoughtful, intentional worship leader, there's room for both. Maybe it is that volume can over time become less of a polarizing, preferential issue and more of an opportunity to shape in people's minds and hearts a full-orbed vision of what worship is and does. What if volume could be part of our artist's toolbox or color palette to help form senses and sensibilities in worship?

If we start asking these kinds of questions, all of a sudden our musicians and our sound crew move from being specialists to ministers. They become agents in the disciple-making process. Maybe, then, we should worry less about finding some one-size-fits-all volume level and instead think about how volume (within a single service or over a series of weeks) serves the narrative of the gospel.

Volume in the Gospel Narrative

Let me give just one closing example to flesh out what I mean. Perhaps it is at the beginning of a service where you want the people of God to "get" that we are entering into an already moving stream of praise happening in the heavenlies. So, while the music may be energetic, there's headroom for congregational voices so that everyone is subconsciously tuned in to the communal nature of worship. But, perhaps later, you may be singing of the gospel and God's great love for us...and you really hope that it hits home, not only to everyone coprorately but to each individually. So you crank up the volume and intensity as you sing of God's love, creating an environment where the people of God feel like they're receiving a big, sonic hug, which says, "O love that will not let me go!" The highs begin to shimmer, the mids blossom, and the lows deepen, moving the accompaniment from something heard to somethign felt, from something "out there" to something "underneath me, all around me." In that moment, it's probably less important that people hear each other and more important that they know, "God loves you...yes, even YOU!"  Music, art, volume...they can all help facilitate those moments in ways that are well-rounded and fully human, engaging our whole selves. (By the way, this doesn't have to just be a "modern worship" consideration. I've known great organists who intuitively get this reality in traditional contexts. They know when to, quite literally, pull out all of the stops and overwhelm a congregation with a wall of sound, and when to be minimalistic under the congregational voice.)

Volume concerns then get moved into the realm of the pastoral rather than the purely preferential, and the conversation gets elevated. Thank you, Dan Wilt, for elevating that conversation. 

*I'll briefly mention here that I'm aware of the sacramental nature of the language I am employing with "real presence." I'm also aware that many sacramentally-minded churches tend to fall in the accompaniment category (though this tide is turning), and they would be more uncomfortable with the sacramental overtones of my language blurring into the singing portion of the service. I'm of the persuasion that while the sacraments are indeed special and even climatic parts of the worship service where God choses to offer a unique presence to His people, He still is present in our singing as well. 

Are Churches Trending Back Toward One Worship Style?

Rainer's 6 Reasons

I hope Thom Rainer's post travels. He offers six reasons why some churches are moving back to one worship style, not willing to call it a full-blown trend or prophesy that the tides are turning...but one can hope. Here are his reasons:

1. Multiple worship styles created an "us vs. them" mentality.
2. The church did not have the resources to do multiple styles with quality.
3. The church moved from multiple services to one service.
4. The Millennial generation has influenced many churches.
5. Worship wars are waning.
6. Multiple generations are becoming accustomed to different types of church music and worship style.

I have observed the same things, perhaps more anecdotally than systematically, but I agree with the assessment. With regards to #5 and #6, I agree that while skirmishes are still happening (and aren't to be minimized because of the painful, mission-killing division they cause in the local church), the war is over. As some have said, for better or worse contemporary/modern worship has won the day in the bulk of evangelicalism, and that reality contributes to why #5 and #6 are accurate descriptions. Perhaps musical traditionalists (who, may we be reminded, aren't all "old people") have actually changed their opinion or convictions, but I've seen far more simply choose to lay down their swords and resign themselves to what they perceive as inevitable. 

How Shifts in Contemporary Worship Have Given Rise to #2

#2 is interesting, because it wouldn't have been true in the first decade or so of contemporary worship's rise. In that era, the contemporary worship aesthetic was far more folk-oriented than rock-driven (remember that one of the primary streams feeding into contemporary worship was the Jesus Movement). Folk, in many ways, is easier to pull off in a way that honors and befits the demands of the genre. A few guitars plus some percussion, and you generally have the requirements met. But as contemporary worship progressed toward more concertized rock, it became harder to pull off without certain qualitative bars being reached. I think this has become more stark since the late 90s and early 2000s with the dawn of the modern-worship, conference-borne, arena-size era where production levels of the rising "worship music industry" notched up significantly. Churches teetering on the two-style precipice often found that they didn't have the musical and/or technological bandwidth to engage good traditional worship and good contemporary worship (I know those phrases need definitions and qualifiers, but I'm refraining for now). I experienced this in my own ministry and alongside other church leaders who would tell me of lop-sided budgets in two-style churches, obviously betraying which style the church was pouring their heart into. Years back, I remember fighting hard to bring this issue to the table at one local church...that if we really wanted to do both well, we needed the budget and staffing to reflect this (obviously an issue for bigger churches). And over the course of a few years I tried to "balance" that budget so that our values in the ledgers reflected our values on paper. That was only part of the battle, though. It's one thing to balance a budget. It's another thing to shift weights within the hearts and minds of people. I say all this just to point out how multiple service styles can so complicate things and make leadership dynamics incredibly complex for the worship pastors and leaders who are in charge. My personal experience tells me that quality in a multiple-style format is incredibly elusive apart from a lot of resources and a lot of dedicated individuals. We all can facepalm a little bit thinking about churches (that we ourselves may have been involved in) who never could quite do it well...awkward, awkward, awkward.  

(I half wonder if the pettiness and tangential nature of worship wars didn't inadvertently stoke the flames of the church planting resurgence. Starting fresh and majoring on the majors can be a very appealing vision if you're a young firebrand trapped in an established church riddled with infighting. It wouldn't be the first time that God providentially made lemonade.)

God is Funny

As you can see, though I've written in the past on how to encourage a church to be unified around multiple worship styles/services, I'm a big fan of unified worship and bringing everyone together. Interestingly, several years back I wrote a post applauding a prominent church who had just completed a church-merge that jammed together two very different traditional and contemporary approaches. They took a stand around the flag of the gospel, believing in its power to unite even the most unlikely bed-fellows. It was a bold move, given that the church had a long, prominent history of national influence in church music. That church was Coral Ridge, where I (in another twist of laughable providence) now serve.

Adding a #7: Churches That Increasingly Embrace Gospel-Centrality

This all leads me to add a #7 to Rainer's helpful list. I DO think that, at least for some churches, the impulse toward unifying worship has come out of deeper reflections on the nature of the gospel. When churches begin to engage in gospel-centered philosophy and practice, the good news has a way of organically creating a culture of unity and a deferential spirit. People stop being so easily offended while simultaneously becoming much more easily blessed.  They bear one another's burdens; they increasingly forget about themselves and what they need.

As we all grow in understanding that everything we really need we already possess in Christ, we are slowly weaned off the addictive tendency to feverishly extract those things from others. When it comes to worship style, we don't need our way. We just need Jesus. And because we already have Him, we no longer need a certain worship style to fill that hole. We're free. 


How Worship Leaders Cultivate "Porous Community"

Having recently been in the studio in preparation for new albums this Fall and Winter, I was reminded again of how relationships deepen both spiritual connection and the music-making process. Musicologists have noted for decades that better music is made by an ensemble (their rhythm is tighter, their phrasing is more unified, etc.) when the players are friends. The professional musicians I have worked with over the years have said the same thing—there’s a difference between virtuosic “parallel play” and true, organic ensemble. And the dynamics are in large part due to the type of community the players share.

For worship leaders seeking to be pastoral in their approach to their vocation, community-cultivating is not only important for great music-making but for preserving an ongoing vitality in ministry. And there’s a particular model for how this looks that I think works best in most contexts. I’ve heard some call it “porous community.”

Two Errors in Community Cultivation

I’ve seen two kinds of errors in leadership with worship leaders overseeing their teams of staff and/or volunteers. I’ve seen these errors take place in big churches and small churches. The first kind of error is the leader who cultivates no community at all. In this scenario, worship leaders view their job purely in a functional, up-front capacity. Their job is to “get the service done.” Their volunteers aren’t guided to be people-centered but task-centered. Their teams are more or less “event staff.” Therefore, it’s unimportant to the leader to cultivate relationships and foster community. The leader leads purely from platform. In this very task-oriented approach, misunderstanding and mistrust can find many cracks to leak into. Over time, the “winter seasons” of ministry can cause those cracks to expand and contract, eventually leading to an irreparable fracture and a crumbling ministry. This is often the context where “moral failures” of many kinds find fertile soil to grow. 

The second kind of error is the leader who cultivates tight, bounded community. This type of leader likes his or her group of friends, and once they’re set, they’re an impenetrable clique. Along with the people on the inside, this leader can have a false sense of the depth and richness of the community. “Us four and no more” feels great…for the four. They have their weekly hang-outs and eventually develop insider language and humor that becomes obvious to the rest around them when they’re in the “big community” settings like worship practice or even the Sunday morning prep and services. To those on the inside, the worship leader could truly be a pastor to them—loving them, caring for them. But rarely do folks on the outside of this bounded-set community feel that shepherding and oversight.

A Model for Porous Community

When Jesus gathered people to Himself, He cultivated a community that certainly had discernible boundaries but was incredibly porous. He allowed for two-way traffic and seemed to be perpetually disrupting the status quo when the community was either too undefined (think of his boundary-marking with his interactions with the Pharisees) or too cliquish (think of his welcoming of prostitutes and children when “the community” was trying to push them out). Similarly, when Christ is our center and when the gospel’s aroma of grace is wafting around, we worship leaders will notice a similar dynamic at play, which we happily encourage. A porous-community worship leader encourages and fosters relationships both inside and outside “official” times and places, and they constantly have their eye out to introduce new people into the “system,” disrupting its tendency toward ingrown-ness.

What Community-Cultivating Looks Like

In official times and spaces (rehearsals, meetings, pre-service gatherings, etc.), a community-cultivator seeks to winsomely introduce informality, honesty, and down-to-earth-ness.  I find, for me, that I just naturally want to inject humor into my rehearsals, with a little joking and teasing here or there. Or I’ll take time before a meeting starts just to be around to chit-chat with the early birds. A community-cultivator also seeks to create and foster unofficial times and spaces where the same people interact. I often try to pull a few people and run out for coffee or take a group to lunch. I’ll try to have small groups of folks over to my place. And, to be honest, because I’m more task-oriented by nature, I find that the only way I’ll ever faithfully do this stuff is to schedule it. If you have a team of co-leaders you work with, I think it’s also important to encourage these values in their lives as well. One-on-one connections with people can happen but are best only with people of the same gender, so I often encourage some of my female co-leaders to take out and connect with other ladies in our ministry spheres.

When you make community-building your ethos, another thing begins to happen. You develop a kind of sixth sense for when the community is becoming ingrown and cliquish. If there’s a pocket of folks that is beginning to look like it might be cutting itself off, I try to grab a few of the folks from the clique and connect them with other people at a third-space hangout.

What If I’m Not Wired That Way?

I think we need to be honest that some people just don’t feel wired to be community-builders. Though I ultimately believe that we’re all called to stretch ourselves and grow in these areas, the reality is that some of us won’t be the fire-starter for this kind of ignition. In such cases (and I think this is wise advice even for the folks who feel locked and loaded to cultivate community), I’d encourage you to pray for and seek out people who can be those catalysts on your team. Some people are just born relational networkers. Others are hospitable, both in their spirit and in their home. These people need to be encouraged that they have something indispensible to give to the church and to its ministry of worship.

So much more could be said about all this, but hopefully this post has provided a few hooks on which to hang some of your leadership ideas. 


Worship Leader "Oversouling"

An article over at the Huffington Post (John Eskow, "Christina Aguilera and the Hideous Cult of Oversouling") strongly criticized Aguilera's performance of the national anthem at an event not long ago. The article did some nice parsing work about musical style, virtuosity, and when and where to balance the two. There's something in there for the perceptive worship leader.

Eskow references a term coined by Jerry Wexler, who produced Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, among other artists. It's called "Oversouling": "'the gratuitous and confected melisma' that hollows out a song and drains it of meaning.'" The discussion here is more about authenticity, stylistic appropriateness, and artistry as virtuosity rightly contained and unleashed. But there are some overlaps here worth hearing when it comes to the worship leader as the song-leader and melody-keeper of the congregation. It all comes down to asking, "What is my job when the people are singing?" Tow the line! Encourage them! Help them to sing more "lustily" (in the words of John Wesley)! Sometimes, depending on the context, I do think that means throwing out some bells and whistles beyond the melody (see my previous post about how we need to have flexible leadership styles depending on our context), but be careful of "oversouling." Just as it "drains meaning" from songs, it can drain the voice out of your congregation. Here are some choice quotes from the article that have some crossover power for us, but go read the whole thing:

"mangling of the tune itself..."

"turning each song into an Olympic sport as they drain it of its implicit soul, as if running through the entire scale on every single word was somehow a token of sincerity..."

"Time and again I have found that flagrantly artificial attempts at melisma are either a substitute for real fire and passion or a cover-up for not knowing the melody..."


Album Roundup - The First Half of 2014

Because I've waited so long, the list is pretty long. A whole slew of great albums have hit the scene since early 2014, and I'd like to bring your attention to the ones that are pretty special! In no particular order...

Zach Sprowls, Everlasting Arms, May 2014

A peppy twist on "O for a Thousand Tongues" and a meaningful retune of "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" make this a wonderful hymn collection, plus some original material. Zach is a thoughtful, intentional worship leader whom I respect, and this album is a means for him to raise money to support the adoption process. So buy ten albums for $100 each, would you?


Wen Reagan, Love & Lightning, Winter & Warm, May 2014

This is Wen's several-year labor of love. A nice anthology of PROFOUND new hymns and beautiful retuned old ones, with some killer, surprising musical settings--grungy, bluesy, folky. Check out all 16 tracks, every one of which is worth the price of admission.


Elevation Worship, Only King Forever, January 2014

I am not exaggerating when I say that I think this is the best mainstream worship album so far this year...beating out Passion, Hillsong, and the other usual suspects. It is musically moving, and it has some amazing, accessible lyric-writing (one great zinger: "as law gave way to liberty / and freedom for humanity / in a grace so glorious"). I'm blown away by the gospel centrality of the record. Coral Ridge regularly sings "Grace So Glorious," "Last Word," and their tweak of "Blessed Assurance." "Only King Forever" is a wonderful opening / call to worship song as well. Great album, top to bottom. 


Jeremy Casella, Death in Reverse, May 2014

This album is deep and artistic; it is not for the faint of heart. Jeremy shows his commitment to the high craft of songwriting, taking his cues from many of the greats. To point out one song in particular would feel like doing a disservice to the entire record. You can tell that Casella has been drinking from the wells of hymnody for many years, because his songs are stacked on layers and sub-layers of linguistic and conceptual allusion. Amazing. 


Matthew Smith, Hiding Place, March 2014

Indelible Grace front man continues to faithfully mine old hymns, emerging from the deeps to surface with yet more gems that we didn't know existed. The track, "Hiding Place," is one of those gems. It wrecks me every time I hear it. Follow the song, and check out how its musical progression tracks with the text. Marvelous. I love the simplicity of the album's selections, too...a lot of focus on the simple, beautiful love of God.


Robbie Seay, Psalms, vol. 2, May 2014

Robbie has come down with the old case of psalmophilia. It's a beautiful disease that infects worship leaders and songwriters who awaken to the reality that many of the great worship-revivals in the church centered around recovery of the biblical Psalms. This EP is filled with some of the more accessible psalm-settings I've encountered. Singable psalms! You can't go wrong.


Andrew Ehrenzeller, Children of Promise, April 2014

Andrew is an artist affiliated with Jesus Culture and a local worship leader down here in Ft. Lauderdale. I love this album. Its infectious, Peter Gabriel-esque vibe alongside its insistant, earnest lyric writing leaves me quenched! "Meet You There," for some reason, keeps standing out. It won't be the album's most popular song, but it is for me. I am gripped by the Father-Son-church movement of the chorus.


Chad Robison, Death Shall Not Destroy My Comfort, July 2014

Chad is one of my go-to subs when I am not at Coral Ridge on a Sunday. I trust him because he knows Coral Ridge and leads worship with a very similar set of instincts. It's no surprise, then, that I'm thrilled with his hymn-laced album. Everyone should check out what he's done with Marva Dawn's hymn, "Come Away From Rush and Hurry," and then steal it for your church. It's a God-ward, musical record!


Soma Music, Turn Your Eyes, July 2014

A playful, raw, indie rock hymns record. It's rough around the edges, but I think that's part of its charms. It's fresh to hear old hymns accompanied by unusual (for hymns) arrangements and instrumentation. I love the fuzz-sliding on "The Love of God." 



The Fuzzy Middle Between Leading and Attention-Seeking for Worship Leaders

I was having lunch with a young local worship leader yesterday, and we were jamming on what it means to lead well and yet not seek the spotlight. Matt Redman nicely summarizes what the sweet spot looks like:

I often define good worship leaders as those who lead strongly enough so that people follow but not so strongly that they themselves become the focus.*

That's it, right there. It's the perfect summary.  But at least for me, I've sometimes found the line between those two poles desperately hard to find. Now having served extensively in several different church contexts in four widely different cities/regions (Honolulu, Los Angeles, Denver, and South Florida), I have come to the conclusion that there is a measure of relativity with the line between leading well and attention-seeking, and this all depends on at least four factors.

1) Your City-Regional Culture

A lot of people talk about "Western" and "American" sensibilities, and we need to. Identifying our cultural idols and unspoken societal values at that level is important. But many commentators have noted the distinct personality traits of cities and regions. For instance, the line between what is perceived as leading well and attention-seeking would be very different in the urban northeast and the rural midwest. I felt a similar difference between the overall cultural climate of Denver and Ft. Lauderdale. South Florida is a much more glitzy culture, which prizes high-energy, pristine entertainment that is immediately gratifying. Denver is much more cerebral and sophisticatedly nuanced. Consequently, my "up front" presence on Sunday mornings in Denver was much more understated, both in physical positioning and in overall demeanor and expression. I think if I had taken my Ft. Lauderdale leadership style back to Denver, it would have appeared distracting and showboaty. On the flip side, upon transitioning to Ft. Lauderdale, I've received more than my fair share of well-meaning feedback that people want me to "really lead" them, and not "hide." More flash, in this context, actually helps people engage in worship. 

2) Your Ethnic Culture

If you're in a metropolitan or multicultural context, you run into the reality that leadership is perceived differently depending on one's ethnic background. For instance, in south Florida where I serve, I've talked to a few African-Americans, Hatians, and Latinos in our congregation who (though they put it more graciously) find my leadership underwhelming and weak. They would feel better led if I were more "out front," as it were. I can immediately then turn to some older Anglo folks in my congregation and get nearly the opposite feedback: "Zac, it would be great if you could make worship less about you and more about the Lord." So sometimes, the disparity between how people perceive your leadership has to do with sensibilities shaped by one's racial and ethnic background.

3) Your Tradition's Culture

I've observed that, in varying Christian traditions, how people perceive whether you're attention-seeking or leading well is largely related to the ethos of worship leadership in the perceiver's tradition. For instance, I've found that many worshipers from Pentecostal and charismatic traditions are used to highly interactive, strongly emotive, visually demonstrative worship leadership. At the same time, if one of their worship leaders were to step into a role in your average Episcopal, Lutheran, or Presbyterian context, the perception of that leader would be that he or she is showboating or trying to make it all about himself or herself. The culture of these latter traditions would perceive such leadership as distracting. Within these more apparent extremes are a host of subtleties that aren't as quickly or as easily discernible, but any perceptive worship leader in any worship context should know what I'm talking about. In their church, there will be certain (largely unspoken) conventions, mores, and guard-rails of propriety of how a worship leader behaves in order to adequately lead but not press beyond into something that appears to be attention-seeking. Processing the dynamic of varying Christian traditions and backgrounds is one of the most helpful eye-openers to understanding the apparent relativity of the line between good leadership and self-aggrandizement.

4) Your Church Culture

Individual churches, too, have specific cultures of propriety when it comes to worship leadership. Sometimes they are in line with their own tradition, and sometimes they defy their tradition's sensibility. So, a good worship leader who seeks to lead well without being perceived as seeking vain glory will have their antennae up for the "leadership vibe" of their own church. Sometimes the sensibilities of their church are a mishmash of city-regional, ethnic, and tradition issues. Usually, medium to large churches have enough people that the backgrounds will be diverse to the point that the worship leader can expect some tension (like I experience here in south Florida). But it is this particular culture which I believe the worship leader has the most opportunity to actually shape, because it is in this sphere where life-on-life ministry actually takes place. In my opinion, intentional worship leaders who are faithfully shaping the worship leadership ethos of their local church are actually doing the diagnosis of what's needed with the above three things in mind. If they're entering a new church, they add a fourth dimension of determining how their predecessor(s) led so as to factor in what people are most immediately used to. I might just also briefly add that worship leaders should additionally pay attention to how their church's architecture shapes the worship leadership ethos of the local assembly. A cathedral "speaks" about a different kind of leadership propriety than a theater. (Ironically, for me, Coral Ridge was designed to be a majestic modern cathedral that functioned as a performance arts center and broadcast venue. It's one of the most unique and confusing architectural contexts I've ever served in.)

5) Your Temperament, Heart, & Calling

Ultimately, though, I contend that how people perceive your leadership can often boil down to your heart. I've been in extremely "performancy" contexts where I could sense that the worship leader's heart was to serve and empower the people of God to corporately join in the praises of the Lord. Likewise, I've been in very subdued contexts with a very "hidden" leader, but everything about how they led (perhaps even without being seen) screamed, "Look at me!" Most people have a sixth sense about this kind of thing. They can sniff out a leader's motives and intentions. Therefore, I ask every worship leader to take inventory of their heart and calling. If your heart is to be a performance artist, ask yourself if you understand the difference between "gigging" on Monday through Saturday and leading worship on Sunday. If you don't perceive a difference, please, for the sake of the church and for your own sake, step aside and let someone else lead, no matter how much it might hurt the bottom line of your bank ledger. The people of God don't need you on display, but Jesus on display. 

In short, I don't think there is a cookie cutter, one-size-fits-all answer to what it looks like to lead without fame-mongering. Notice, too, that I haven't spoken about musical style. Often rock-worship critics will highlight the inherently performance-laden nature of the genre, but I've seen too many self-impressed choir directors and organists to believe that it's an issue of genre alone. Therefore, as with nearly everything, we must begin with the heart and work our way out.  In the end, it's not so much that issues of leadership are relative as much as they are highly contextual...and the contexts are multi-faceted. These are complex issues, and I invite worship leaders to open up dialogues with their fellow church leaders and members to discern what kind of leadership style they might be called to. 

*Matt Redman, The Unquenchable Worshipper: Coming Back to the Heart of Worship (Ventura: Regal, 2001), 48. 

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