There rages a controversy across the world of worship leaders and singers. It can be summed up like this: we are here to lead worship, not to perform! This is taken as an immutable and reverential truth. Of course, it is just plain wrong! Before I dig down into what I think is a healthy and a right way to perform as a worship leader, let me first give you some background colour.
Step back to the era around the time of the reformation. Church was a pretty divided community. You had the priests along with the choir who would perform the services, and who would do so behind a highly decorated, tall wooden screen, by the high altar. The music was fabulously complex, often taking a couple of pages just to convey the first syllable of the word Hallelujah! Songs were sung over a congregation, not by a congregation. On the other side of the screen were the gentry, the peasants and all other communicants. Cathedral worship was a spectacle and in a world prior to TV, often the only visual entertainment to be had freely. Cathedrals themselves were remarkable spaces, filled with great creativity both in architecture and in art. Stained glass windows wrought ever changing beauty throughout the days and seasons both inside and outside.
Into this world strode the great reformers. Their understanding of scripture, freshly translated into vernacular European languages from long hidden Greek texts, brought new insight across the world of theology and its practise. One of the five principles they championed was The Priesthood of All Believers. For them there was no division between congregation and priesthood. We are all one in Christ – a Royal Priesthood, a Holy Nation. Another hugely important principle was the pre-eminence of the word of God. Gone were the books of traditions from previous teaching. The scriptures were no longer the preserve of the educated Latin trained priests – no, they were available in the common spoken language of the people. And gone were the elaborate songs. Instead, hymns of praise were raised using the language and music of the folk who attended. Martin Luther famously put fabulous lyrics to German beer drinking songs, the familiar tunes aiding the spread of this new Lutheran, reformed theology.
As this new theology settled across Europe and the New World, it resulted in some interesting ecclesiological developments. In reformed churches there were no screens – no division. Buildings were simpler and deliberately not ornate or embellished. In order to show the pre-eminence of the word, pulpits were often tall, but designed so the preacher was not viewed easily. It was after all about the words spoken, not the speaker. Music was congregational and theologically rich. In essence it leaned far more heavily on the ancient synagogue model of worship than that which it replaced.
The flaw (you can see it can’t you!) is that the church God designed is for people and people have personalities and faces. Indeed, recent studies have shown that human communication is 7 percent verbal, 38 percent vocal and 55 percent visual. If you only listen to a voice without seeing a person, you dip out on over half of what is being communicated. Over half! Remember these statistics because they will be important in a moment.
So, we exist today in this dichotomy of reformed theological thought: we need to see someone in order to understand the totality of what they are saying or doing, but we don’t want to see them in case we are distracted or misled by them in some way. We are thus left in this awkward spot of thinking that performance is a bit of a dirty word when it comes to leading and being led in sung worship.
A worship leader’s role is to select songs, and in conjunction with the Holy Spirit’s leading take a group of people on a musical journey into an encounter with the heart of God. In doing that they are operating in a manner not so far removed from an ancient OT priest. Why do they get that role when we are all priests – surely, they can’t claim that role? Yet in church as we know it, they get to do what they do usually because they are musically and/or vocally gifted. They are on the worship team because they have demonstrated character over and above plain gifting. So if you are more musically gifted and can demonstrate character in spades, get on the worship team and serve in whatever way you can; musically, vocally, words, tech, lighting, set design, costumes…. I run ahead of myself here!
That worship leader’s job is only so much about music, only so much about the spiritual aspect too. It has a lot to do with leadership skills and communication. It is a part of their role to be a significant part of the welcome someone gets. They draw people into community through shared songs and experiences. They also draw them along on a journey, a story arc of song, striving to avoid musical manipulation and working hard to keep their intention pure. In order to do that most easily they take their place on a platform designed for visibility so that through their leadership, the congregation they are serving can follow them along sacred paths of anointed music. If their direction is unclear, there will be those who falter. If their example is impure then there are those who will be distracted.
The question then has to be posed – how does a worship leader lead?
They do it skilfully, prayerfully and they do it through their performance. When they sing, their voice lives every word of the song. If their voice does, their face should also. Their body language needs to match the song meaning, conveying the nuances of a deep personal life of worship and devotion put into practice. Put baldly, if it’s an exciting song – they dance. If it’s an intimate song they kneel. If it causes their spirit to rise, then they raise their hands. These are very simplistic examples. But recall our earlier statistics – body language conveys a huge amount of information to those who are looking on. The message the leader demonstrates will help the congregation on their journey of worship. To list all the options is probably not helpful here but I say to worship leaders that their leadership needs to be visible. They need to be the living embodiment of every song they are singing. (It’s worth mentioning that this goes for the whole worship team as well)
As I watch worship leaders and teams do their thing, I realise that it is this visibility which is so often an issue. To take an incredibly intimate part of you and put it into the public domain brings a level of vulnerability and exposure that many find uncomfortable. So, the ‘rabbit in the headlight’ stare is common, as is the ‘eyes closed- all the time’ security blanket! Could it be that a part of the root cause is that these worship leaders are having an internal monologue as to whether they should even be there? They know that they are stood in front of people and that means they are performers but, that deeply rooted Reformed theology suggests they should not even be seen – they are thus in conflict. I think it is time that we recognise that leading worship successfully is often down to performing well, an area that is often ignored when training is given. That means the worship leader is attentive to musical issues, lyrical issues, communication issues, spiritual issues, service connectivity issues, relational issues and so on for the team and for the congregation, in fact everything connected with a good performance. If I am training people to lead worship, then that must be a core part of their understanding – they are performers communicating with and leading a congregation.
Training to lead worship must then surely look similar to training as a performer. A musical performer, perhaps a singer/songwriter writes a song about some major emotional turmoil they have gone through. It then costs them to sing it because every time they do, they will be re-living an aspect of that emotion. But they do it because they realise that there will likely be someone else in the crowd who will have felt something similar. If they do not sing that song authentically then the song falls flat, and people don’t connect. For that performer it will likely mean a loss of sales. So they put their emotions on the line and sing – be it happy or sad. Their chief aim is to communicate, to resonate with their audience.
So it is with worship leaders (and worship teams). They will have had some intense moments, caught up in the presence of the most high God. Out of those experiences perhaps songs or groups of songs have tumbled. For them to sing those songs is to explore those spaces where their lives have been (and are) laid open before God. And sing they must – with all the emotional possibilities that might ensue. There is an open possibility that the designated worship leader could be too overcome with God’s presence to even stand up. As they perform a song with all that it entails, the leader puts themselves into a position of openness before everyone else. Maybe rehearsal will have prepared them for the possibilities but often these moments meet us in surprise.
I trust this has drawn for you a form of parallel so that you can understand some of what is going on in a worship leader’s heart and mind. They stand in the role of communicator, connector, far more than just a singer or musician. In order to do that best, they must perform with all the skill that they have learned – and yes, performance is a learned skill – an art form in itself. Worship leaders – accept this truth – you are performing, and you stand before the King and before his people to perform – so do your very best. It may appear that a worship leader uses similar tools to a secular performer – but the secular artiste’s goal is to get everyone’s eyes fixed on them. Our tool kit might be the same, but our objectives are wildly different. The worship leader’s role is to use whatever means they have at their disposal to point people to Jesus. He’s the famous one and the absolute focal point, let nothing and no-one get in the way of His glory.