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. 

Worship Leader: Ready or Not, You're a Pastor

Dear Worship Leader,

You have an extradordinary job with high stakes and grand opportunities. You aren't just a song leader. You aren't just a lead musician. Your setlists aren't just an inspiring medley of well-glued songs. You aren't merely on a stage, and those people out there aren't merely the audience. They are Christ's Bride, God's Beloved, gathered in from the four corners of the world that they might be reclaimed, re-aimed by and toward the Author and Perfector of their faith. They are disciples, followers. What you do and how you lead have a direct and formative impact on the faith-journey of the people of God. In short, whether you know it or not, you are pastoring them.

Each and every week, you are helping people answer the question, "How do I approach God?" You may not realize this, but every worship service, every song set, subconsciously but faithfully trains people on how human beings connect with God. How do we access God? How do we enter into His presence? How do we approach Him? Do we approach Him with joy? Do we approach Him with reverence and awe? Do we approach Him on our merit or Christ's? Whether consciously or unconsciously, you are answering this line of questioning for the people of God every week, and in doing so, you are informing and shaping the very core of their faith by answering the question of how their relationship with God is forged and maintained. And faith-shaping is pastoral work. Ready or not, you're a pastor.

Each and every week, you put words into people's mouths which become the language they will use to relate to God the other six days of the week. People should be reading their Bibles regularly. People should be in ongoing, formative relationships with other Christians. And these things inform and shape the way they talk to God, relate to God. These things fill up their "spiritual glossary" of words, phrases, and ideas...all of which become the language of their faith. But, the reality is some, if not many, Christians aren't availing themselves of these blessings. The reality is the words of the songs you chose function as the people of God's primary dictionary-builder. What are those words? Are they deep enough, broad enough? Do they give sufficient language to withstand the broad spectrum of life-experiences--joy, blessing, trust, suffering, discord, doubt? The worship songs, being the corporate prayers of the Church that week, teach the people how to express their private prayers. Prayer-shaping is pastoral work. Ready or not, you're a pastor.

Each and every week, you shape the theology of the people who gather. Your songs don't just inspire; they teach. They help people answer fundamental faith-questions like: Who is God? What is He like? Who am I? How do I look at this world? What is God's agenda for the world...for me? In short, your songs shape people's theology. If all the Church had were the worship songs you led (which isn't far from reality), what would they know about God? Would they know He is Triune? Would they know He is sovereign? Would they know He is holy, all-powerful, all-knowing? Would they know His name is Love? And if all the Church had were the worship songs you led, what would they know about themselves? Would they know that they are made in God's image? Would they know that they are sinners, fallen from grace? Would they know that they are dearly bought, highly esteemed because of the merits of Another? Would they know that they are called to be a people on mission? Or is their understanding of God and themselves bland, generic, and nebulous? Teaching theology is pastoral work. Ready or not, you're a pastor.

Each and every week, you are informing people's knowledge of what mediation between God and humanity looks like. Weekly, you are answering for God's people a fundamental human question: How am I ushered into God's presence rightly? Your actions and leadership (not merely your songs) answer this. Do you believe that you usher people into God's presence? Do you believe that it's your job to, as some say, "lead people to the throne room?" If so, you have bought into the lie that you mediate God's presence. And your actions will begin to show it. You will feel the burden of trying to get people "there." You will feel pressure to create "that moment" when the veil is torn and the heavens come down. And when you stand there, center-stage, and the people are looking to you for that assistance, you are teaching them that you are the mediator between God and humanity. Yikes. But we know that our job isn't to broker the deal between God and His people. That's Jesus' job. So our job description changes, then. We don't usher people into God's presence, but we stubbornly, insistantly point to the One who does. Worship leader, do your leadership, countenance, prayers, and song-selection point people to the one Mediator between God and humanity? Or do you say, "Look at me; I'll lead you there!" You see, a pastor's principle job is to point people to Jesus. Ready or not, you're a pastor.

Each and every week, you are looked up to as an example and leader. You have a sphere of immediate influence. In a small church, it is probably the whole church. In a medium or large church, it is probably the circles of other leaders and members you work with. By virtue of the fact that you stand in front of people and lead them in God's holy worship, there is conferred on you, whether you like it or not, a status of leader. People watch your life. People look at how you conduct yourself. They see how you live when you succeed. And they see where you go when you fail. They look to you for answers when they're hurting. In short, they confer on you certain pastoral traits--mentor, guide, leader. Do you undersand this? When you exit that stage, do you view the Church more as your fans or Christ's disciples? All disciples of Christ look to mentors and leaders ahead of them to lead them, pastor them, and help them grow. Because you regularly stand in front of people, you are one of those people. Ready or not, you're a pastor.

You see, as you sit each week and plan your selections, transitions, prayers, and setlists, you are engaging in pastoral work, whether you like it or not. You can't get away with thinking too simply or too lowly about your call of duty. It's a high one. So take a deep breath, then take some inventory. Ask important questions of why you're in the role you're in and how you've been led there. If this post is an awakening, consider it a grand moment of choice. Are you called to this? If you feel ill-equipped and unqualified, don't take that as a sign you're not called. God is in the business of pouring Himself out through weak vessels. Partner with your lead pastor or other worship pastors in the area, and begin the journey anew! God will give grace for the journey and He's certainly capable of covering up your deficiencies. But please don't waffle any longer in the self-deception that the pastoral work is all being done by the actual folks with "pastor" in their title. You may not have that heading on your business card, and you may not want it, but that doesn't change the fact that your work is inherently pastoral. And the people of God need you to understand that. 


13 Differences Between a Lead Musician and a Worship Pastor (Repost)

Five years ago around this time, this blog started with the goal of encouraging theological reflection, biblical depth, historical engagement, and cultural relevance in worship and worship leading. It has gained a steady readership, especially in the last two years, and I want to re-introduce new readers to important old content that has the ability to get lost unless you happen upon it via Google or search posts by topic. Throughout this year, I will offer reposts of what I believe are the more significant articles written in the last five years.

This post struck an immediate chord with its readers and traveled farther than most. I have conversation after conversation with the young, aspiring worship leader who wants something more than rock stardom out of their job. They want to engage their role pastorally. This is a 10,000 foot view of that reality.


A sister church of ours recently gave me the privilege of coming out and speaking to their Wednesday night group about the differences between a "lead musician" and a "worship pastor."  They are looking to formulate a job description and begin searching for a new person for this position, and they are wanting to shift models from the former to the latter.  Of course, I fleshed out the notes below in great detail with a lot of explanation and first-hand stories, but I still think the bullet-points are valuable, even if they are not quite complete.

Many churches have lead musicians.  They know how to rehearse a band or choir.  They know how to draw up music in Finale and Sibelius.  They know "music-speak."  They can confidently stand in front of people with a commanding presence, either with their voice or with an instrument.  He or she is a good musician and a coordinator of musicians.  He or she also usually believes in and loves Jesus.  In short, their assumption (which may be validated by their job description) is that they get paid to make sure things are artistically and musically satisfactory on Sundays and at other important events. 

A Worship Pastor should be all of the above and much, much more.  A Worship Pastor...

1) Is equipped in and engages in aspects of classical pastoral duties, either formally or informally—visitation, preaching/teaching, catechizing.

2) Views the worship service—music, preaching, prayer, sacraments, etc.—as an integral whole, and he or she therefore works with others in leading and facilitating all those elements.

3) Strikes a balance between comforting (a pastoral role) and challenging toward growth (a prophetic role).

4) Views their musicians as a form of a small group, and sees the musician-base as a potential mission field.

5) Is deeply committed to the church and its purity and peace.

6) Plans worship services like a "spiritual dietician."

7) Engages conflict pastorally (rather than in a defensive, reactionary manner).

8) Is sensitive to those who feel disenfranchised and alienated in worship.

9) Is strong enough in the Gospel to receive criticism and engage in honest, constructive dialogue.

10) Is open when it comes to authority and decision-making.  He or she is a team-player, is willing to submit himself or herself to their (sometimes fellow) pastors, elders, bishops, etc., and believes in the wisdom of the plurality.

11) Is not only a musician, but a theologian and a student of the Bible.

12) Thinks about how worship shapes people into the image and likeness of Christ.

13) Thinks theologically about worship, from song-selection to worship’s purpose(s).

These points aren't exhaustive, but they cover a lot.  I am convinced that the church needs more Worship Pastors.  It's not that there is no place for a lead musician to have a primary role in the musical leadership of the church, but I wonder whether there are too many lead musicians out there with little pastoral oversight and vision.  Do Worship Pastors need formal theological training?  Not necessarily.  But they need the heart of a pastor and a willingness to think and study up along the same lines as someone who is formally trained.

What else would you add to this list and discussion? 


What I Learned from Bill & Gloria Gaither

Two weeks ago, at the National Worship Leader Conference in Kansas City, I had the opportunity to interview music legends, Bill and Gloria Gaither, in front of a large group of worship leaders and songwriters. Among the Gaithers' many accolades, they've been named the ASCAP Songwriters of the Century (yes, the century), which is not insignificant. Besides their songwriting, they've been faithful "platformers" over the years, responsible for the birth of music careers of not a small amount of artists.

If you're like me, you're tempted to write off the names of folks like Bill and Gloria Gaither. They may have been influential at one time (and may still be now), but their music and ethos feel to us like fourth cousins twelve times removed, we think. Modern worship leaders may have faint recollections of who they are or what they've done, but they don't have any bearing on or connection to what we do now, we believe. How we feel might be exemplified in the typical comment I received on Facebook after posting some pictures of my interview: "Wow, my grandpa LOVES them!" The Gaithers are for our grannies and pappies. 

Cycles of Sameness

The author of Ecclesiastes is instructive here: there is nothing new under the sun (Ecc 1:9). What I quickly realized as I prepared for and interviewed Bill & Gloria was that the same issues in every generation of worship leading end up recycling themselves, and it is only we who are young and rather arrogantly naive who think that we've stumbled upon THE answer in response to the previous generation's worship errors. The Gaithers have been able to witness several cycles of reaction and counter-reaction, and they were, for me, a treasure trove of wisdom and insight. 

One of the first questions I asked them was, "When you began your songwriting, what were YOU reacting against?" They said they were responding to a de-personalized faith. They wanted the church to be able to sing songs that hit them on the ground, where they were, in their experience. They were aiming at a more concerted authenticity (sound familiar?). And then the Jesus Movement came around, reacted to Gaither-ized worship, looking for something, well, authentic...something that matched their experience. Then the Jesus Movement music transformed (and, in the words of Worship Leader founder, Chuck Fromm, became "routinized") into an industry just in time for another generation to rise up and respond with cries for more authenticity. Enter "modern worship." And we're seeing the tide turn again, and more reactions occur. This historical observation, perhaps best articulated by folks like the Gaithers who have lived through these cycles, is important for us to ponder.

A Few Surprising Insights

One of the songwriting nuggets from Gloria came in the context of her admonishment of some of the anemic songwriting that inevitably accompanies every generation. She encouraged songwriters to, among other things, study mythology. She spoke of how mythology has a way of opening the mind and imagination to think in layers of meaning and communication, expanding what our songs can do. Mythology encourages thinking in pictures, symbols, and metaphors, and it is in the realm of such word-imagery where great lyrics (for worship songs or any song) are born. This rang true with my own experience, recalling that after reading Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I found words flowing from my mind and hand that were workable, imaginative, poetic, and profound. Reading mythology can be like weightlifting for songwriters.

Gloria also challenged our individuals and institutions to value songwriting as an art and craft worth studying, honing, and shaping. Songwriters should be masters of their language, and more Christian colleges should have songwriting degree programs, she said. This sentiment flies in the face of at least one popular philosophy of songwriting that basically says, "Jesus gave me this song; it's from my heart; therefore, it's good." Hmm...

The Sum

All this (not to mention the entire conference) was a good reminder to me of how we need to hear each other out across traditions, generations, and persuasions. There's a temptation, in the midst of our tribalism (and I'm one who believes that lines and distinctions have their place), to believe that our tribes are all that there really are, or all that God really cares about. What can result is a kind of blind patriotism to our tribe that fails to see and savor the rich ways the Spirit is moving and shaking beyond us. Events like the National Worship Leader Conference always cause me to lift my head from micro-inspecting the tree that I'm in to see the forest that's all around me. And this year, the Gaithers were a big part of that. Thank you, Bill & Gloria!


Worship Leading, Ageism, and the Fear of Getting Old (Repost)

Five years ago around this time, this blog started with the goal of encouraging theological reflection, biblical depth, historical engagement, and cultural relevance in worship and worship leading. It has gained a steady readership, especially in the last two years, and I want to re-introduce new readers to important old content that has the ability to get lost unless you happen upon it via Google or search posts by topic. Throughout this year, I will offer reposts of what I believe are the more significant articles written in the last five years.

This article was one of the first to grow some legs and elicit important responses and comments. It touched a nerve that a lot of worship leaders feel but few talk about.


Talk show host Dennis Prager is well-known for saying that his generation—the boomer generation—is the stupidest generation in American history. This comment, perhaps extreme, summarizes the multitudinous errors of that generation of young people that grew up and ushered in the large cultural changes in the United States in the 1960s.  One of those errors is the worship of youth.  The phrase “youth culture” would have been unintelligible prior to the 60s, but now it is common speak.  The glamorization of youthfulness affects everything from marketing and entertainment to presidential elections and local church ministry.  And obsession with youth culture has affected the ministry of worship, as well.

I had a recent phone conversation with a worship leader friend of mine who leads music on the other side of the country.  In a candid moment, we were both expressing concerns about the longevity of our jobs as local church music leaders.  We wondered whether, in ten to fifteen years, we would be viewed as out-of-date, irrelevant, washed up, and cheesy—one of those old guys trying to look and act young.  Ultimately, we questioned whether we would be as effective in doing our task once we started “looking old.”

No worship leader really voices it.  No congregation overtly acknowledges it.  But many of us think there is something lacking in a worship leader who has gray hair or smile lines.  He or she must not be truly “with it” and up on trends (another value exposed which needs to be challenged).  He or she wouldn’t be capable of authentically crafting and leading a musical style that is current and fresh.  They might be just fine in a traditional or blended worship environment, but if we want to “reach young people,” a forty-something at the helm is no good.

This is lamentable.  And (to make up a word) repentable.  That we were even having such a discussion tells us that culture’s obsession with youth has invaded the heart of the church.  What does the Bible have to say about being old?

Is not wisdom found among the aged? Does not long life bring understanding? (Job 12:12)

I thought, “Age should speak; advanced years should teach wisdom.” (Job 32:7)

At the window of my house I looked down through the lattice. I saw among the simple, I noticed among the young men, a youth who had no sense. He was going down the street near her corner, walking along in the direction of her house. (Proverbs 7:6-8)

The glory of young men is their strength, gray hair the splendor of the old. (Proverbs 20:29)

Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father.  Treat…older women as mothers. (1 Timothy 5:1, 2)

Prior to the 60s, the elderly were much more celebrated in culture.  Most native cultures—from Native Americans to native Hawaiians to native Africans—favor the aged as the source of knowledge and wisdom.  Such cultures actually look to the elderly for guidance for the future (imagine that!).  Nowadays in the West, the elderly are irrelevant cultural cast-offs.  They are the Dalit caste of modern America.  We quarantine them in homes.  In church meetings, we roll our eyes when old Mr. Jones stands up and wags his finger in the air.  And we worship leaders brush off their comments like dust on our feet.  And we move “forward.”

Though I’ve never heard it from a single one of them, I’d bet that every twenty-something who’s been a worship leader for more than a year has had the thought, “What happens when I get older?”  (Implication: I have to do something different, because this can’t work.)  I know a few forty- and fifty-something worship leaders who are currently looking for positions in churches, and I know that the market is tougher for them. 

This ageism is more than just bias and prejudice.  It’s sinful idolatry.  And I’m guilty myself of playing into the hands of these gods every time I entertain a fear of getting older or judge an “older” worship leader as irrelevant or out of touch.

The truth is: the more I’ve gotten to know the generations of worship leaders above me, the more I realize that the Bible is true.  With age comes wisdom.  Churches should desire older worship leaders.  Though youth should not be despised (1 Timothy 4:12), biblical wisdom reminds us that being young carries liabilities against which we need to be on guard.  I long for my generation of worship leaders to have open and honest conversation about this evil bubbling under the surface.  I long for us to confess it, to repent of it, and to seek its change.

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