I think leaders for music worship have two roles that can often be in tension with one another. I’m calling the roles “worship leader” and “lead worshiper”, and I’ve written down some half-baked ideas about them. I’m sure others have already thought this through with much more wisdom and clarity.
My pastor Dick Kaufmann was the first person I heard use the term “lead worshiper”. I like the concept. The “lead worshiper” leads by example, showing people what worship looks like by actually worshiping. It brings to mind images of David going all Soul Train in his loin cloth before the Lord and not giving a rip about what anyone thought—his personal commitment to worshiping God an implicit invitation for others to join in. David was a great example of a lead worshiper in other ways, too—from ecstatic freak-outs, to forthright confession and repentance, to bold and reasoned proclamations of faith, to quavering pleas to a seemingly distant God. David led worship from honest personal experience, and I think we should too.
As a lead worshiper, David’s personal experience with God led him to create new expressions of worship. His Psalm 40 testimony that the Lord “put a new song in my mouth” suggests that God’s continuing work in our lives calls for our continuing response. We don’t thank a kind person once-and-for-all; we continue to thank him each time we receive his kindness. David was captivated by God and created dozens of original works of song and poetry in His honor. God’s new goodnesses engender new creative overflows in us. Since God’s mercies are inexhaustible, our source material for new expressions of worship is equally inexhaustible.
In this sense, new is good. Familiarity can breed contempt. Or at least when something becomes rote and expected it fails to captivate our hearts in the way it did when it was new. A true statement becomes cliché through repetition, and the truth gets obscured by the cliché. To me, this is reason enough to be cliché-o-clast, a cliché smasher. As worshipers, we should be on the lookout for the ways familiarity has dulled us to the incisive truths of the gospel. Where we discover dullness, we should set about finding fresh ways to rediscover the truth and craft new heartfelt responses to it. New songs should be written (or learned). New forms explored. Old songs should be reworked so their wonders shine bright again. I am not at all saying that old things should be done away with, but that the canon of God’s praise should be forever expanding. Not just on a cosmic level but on a local level, too. The congregation should be challenged to learn new songs, different songs. A lead worshiper leads by continually proclaiming God’s glory in new ways because he/she is continually experiencing God’s goodness in new ways. One of the awesomenesses of Pentecost was that God reversed the curse of Babel not by reinstating a single language, but by redeeming the variety. We have a God who pushes out into the frontiers. A lead worshiper gets to be part of that Pentecostal un-Babeling, leading the congregation to proclaim the gospel in new tongues. Because of this, I think a lead worshiper is right to lead in ways that are new, exploratory and challenging to the prevailing culture.
On the other hand, a worship leader (not a lead worshiper) has the responsibility to lead people in ways they can follow, in ways that enable them to participate. In this sense, the old—the familiar, the known—is good. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit moved the disciples to speak not in incomprehensible syllables, but in the languages intimately familiar to the people present. In the Psalms, Israel’s hymnbook, we find evidence that corporate worship should be orderly and the participants should know their parts. In contrast, if each week the worship leader strips to his underwear to sweatily dance unto the Lord, leaving me baffled and uncomfortable in the pew, I won’t attend that church for very long. No matter how earnest the leader, I need to be led somewhere I can follow.
This makes me think that old worn paths are sometimes the best. They are the way of measured, practiced, expected steps which if earnestly followed will lead us into a dance of worship. In a dance we learn the steps in order to forget them. Once familiar, the steps free us to dance as David danced—sweeping us up into all the variety of his earnest worship. Order, liturgy, and familiarity are means of grace, used by a wonderfully kind God who is willing to gently woo a bunch of shy wallflowers. He incorporates our hesitating need for familiar steps into His unexpected and graceful movements.
I strongly suspect my work as a worship leader is nothing mystical. I’m just a musician providing melody and tempo so the real work of worship can be conducted by the Dance Master. I see evidence of it every week. At any given moment during Sunday’s worship music there is a very good chance that I am not the “lead worshiper” in the room. I am likely to be totally distracted by a cataract of unworshippy thoughts—”Am I going to hit this next chord?” “I’m irritated that half the band was late today” “Should we get an EQ and compressor for the monitors?” Or even, “Gosh my voice sounds great today!” Or, “Cool! I wrote this song and now everyone is singing it!” Ugh. In those moments I am a terrible lead worshiper. But here’s the thing. In those moments I look out at the congregation and see people worshiping. In spite of me, they have met God and He has swept them up into His dance. This constantly blows my mind, how God takes my moldy loaf and rotten little fish and turns them into a banquet.
God works in spite of me. From this I can glean two things. First, although it is very possible (and lamentable) that I am a poor lead worshiper, by the grace of God I’m doing okay as a worship leader. Simply by providing quality music for the dance that is going on, I am helping God’s people participate in worship. Praise God for that. Second, if the main point is to help the congregation dance, it’s okay to play the music that the congregation dances to best. A worship leader does everyone a disservice (including God) if in his eagerness to smash clichés he has no awareness of what will actually help the congregation worship. All evils of “church consumerism” aside, a worshiper’s expectations, her culture, even her preference for certain songs and instrumentation, are the dance steps with which she responds to God’s call to worship. A worship leader should respect that.
So where does this leave me? I feel like I’m triangulating between two stars. As a leader in worship music, I think I should be continually creative, challenging myself and others to craft, seek out and embrace new ways to reflect and respond to God’s goodness. This is scary. I am also persuaded that I should be content to play the same old song for the millionth time if it helps one clumsy soul (maybe my own) get on the dance floor. In its own way this is also scary. Knowing how much to do one and how much to do the other is difficult. I need wisdom and discernment to be both a lead worshiper and a worship leader.