In 2008, I suggested in Worship Matters that the title of “worship leader” needed to be defined to be helpful. So I defined it this way:
“A faithful worship leader magnifies the greatness of God in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit by skillfully combining God’s Word with music, thereby motivating the gathered church to proclaim the gospel, to cherish God’s presence, and to live for God’s glory.”
I still like that definition, but I’m less sure the term “worship leader” is serving us. It’s taken on a life of its own and continues to be associated with stardom, predominance, the spotlight, good looks, hipster-ness, and in some cases, the ability to mediate God’s presence. It can refer to someone who leads full time, part time, or on a volunteer basis.
Most people I talk to fall into the last category. They faithfully serve their church week after week for free or for a small stipend, and are being used by God to lift up the name and glory of Jesus in song. If you’re among that group, I thank God for you.
But an increasing number of musicians have full time worship ministry in their sights. They hope that one day they’ll be able to make a living playing their instrument, leading people in songs of praise. That’s a great goal. But I’m not sure it’s the best one.
If you believe God’s called and gifted you to serve the church with your music vocationally, I want to suggest that you consider whether God’s calling you to be a pastor as well. A musically gifted pastor. Of course, not every musician who leads congregational singing should or will be a pastor. But if you hope to join a church staff some day, I want to suggest six reasons why preparing to be a pastor who’s also a musician is better than simply aiming to be a worship leader.
1. Your job description is actually in the Bible.
A worship leader might describe someone who plays a guitar on Sundays, a musician with a traveling concert ministry, the person on stage with the loudest voice, anyone in the band, the senior pastor, or someone who sings Christian songs. In contrast, God tells us what a pastor is supposed to do. He’s responsible to shepherd God’s people, lead them, teach them, protect them, equip them, and be an example to them (1 Pet. 5:1-3; 2 Tim. 4:2-3; Eph. 4:11-12; Acts 20:28). That’s why when I’m asked what a worship leader should study beyond music, one area I suggest is biblical counseling. Leading worship in song is an opportunity to care for people’s souls, to teach them how the gospel addresses their sin, to protect them from the deceptions of the world, and to display the heart-transforming glory of Jesus Christ. In other words, to do the work of a pastor. While singing is an emotionally expressive activity, leading congregational singing is a pastoral function before it’s a musical one.
2. Your character requirements are clear.
We tend to attribute deficiencies in worship leaders to the fact that they’re musicians. They’re supposed to be self-centered, disorganized, and easily offended. That’s why standards for worship leaders can vary widely. Some churches opt for anyone who seems to be a Christian and can play a guitar. But Scripture’s qualifications for a pastor are clear. A pastor is to be “above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.” He must manage his household well, not be a recent convert, and be well thought of by outsiders (1 Tim. 3:2-7). It’s easier to fudge on character standards when we aren’t specific about them.
3. You’ll know your Bible better than your instrument.
Being an emotional bunch, musicians can tend to live in the world of fleeting impressions, deep feelings, and theological vagueness (I should know). But Jesus said the truth will set us free, not music. So rather than seeking to move people’s hearts with creative arrangements, impressive solos, or cool reharmonizations, pastors who are trained as musicians understand the power of the gospel and want it to dwell in people richly (Col. 3:16). They know truth transcends tunes when it comes to corporate worship, so they give themselves to consistent and thoughtful study and application of God’s Word.
4. You won’t have to compete with the preacher.
If I view myself as a worship leader (however I might define it), I can be tempted to resent it when other aspects of the Sunday meeting infringe on my time slot. A musically gifted pastor knows that every part of the gathering has the same goal: to magnify God’s glory in Christ in people’s minds, hearts, and wills. God hasn’t anointed music in a special way for that task. Music is meant to complement, support, and amplify God’s Word. So if I have to shorten or give up a song to allow more time for the sermon, I won’t be disappointed.
5. You’ll find it easier to support a family.
I regularly get emails from churches looking for musicians who possess pastoral gifts, a love for the gospel, and a theological mindset. They don’t want a worship leader. They want a pastor who’s also a musician. Most churches have to hire multi-taskers. Only a small percentage can support a full time musician. When I helped plant a church in 1991, I led congregational worship but also ended up being involved in youth ministry, singles, counseling, leading a small group, evangelism, and doing graphics (badly). If the only skills you can offer your church are musical, you limit your options.
6. You, your family, and your church will all benefit.
Even if you don’t end up being a pastor, you’ll never regret getting to know God better through studying the Bible, learning how to live in the good of the gospel, working through theology books, and caring for others. You won’t lead your family to become part of a questionable church that you attend only because you couldn’t find another church to hire you. Your church will have someone who’s better equipped to serve in a variety of contexts.
Can someone lead music in the church and not be a pastor? Sure. I’ll share some thoughts on that in another post. But pastors will always be responsible to choose and lead what the church sings. It’s pastors, not worship leaders, that God will ultimately hold accountable for those they shepherd (Heb. 13:17). Which means it’s possible that if you want to be a pastor or already are, any musical training you get is only going to serve you and your church. And if you’re looking for a college/seminary that gets what it means to be a musician and a pastor, I can’t recommend Boyce College and Southern Seminary highly enough.
So what might happen if more churches were led in song by musicians who were pastors, or pastors who were musicians?
I’m not exactly sure, but I’m confident our hearts, our songs, and our churches would all be the better for it.
by Bob Kauflin