The faces would change, and (let’s be honest) the quality might vary from one place to the next, but it all felt familiar. The songs, the sounds, the energy, the flow (or sometimes lack thereof)—it was all very “Nazarene.”
Worship has changed considerably during my lifetime. I remember when we started using overhead projectors and transparencies for our song lyrics (those of you born after 1985 may have no idea what I’m talking about). Then, as we could afford them, digital projectors went in, around the same time that drums and guitars first appeared on church platforms. Our sound systems, which had been designed for the spoken word, struggled to keep up, so we upgraded them to accommodate extra praise team singers and a worship sound that was shifting from being vocal-driven to band-driven. Some choirs, sadly, hung up their robes for good in the midst of these shifts because it’s hard to sing louder than a rock band.
Meanwhile, songs like “Lord, I Lift Your Name On High” and “Shout to the Lord” swept the globe, and we scrambled to find sheet music, or some kid in the teen group, who could sketch out a chord chart (I was that kid) so we could sing these new praise songs in church. In many places, our hymnals collected dust as we began typing out our song lyrics in PowerPoint and projecting them on the wall. Christian Copyright Licensing International, or CCLI, was formed in the late 1980s to provide the necessary licensing for churches to use songs that were not published in hymnals and to ensure that songwriters were properly compensated. This required us to periodically report our usage . . . the worst part of a worship pastor’s job, by the way.
ALL THE WHILE, THE JOB OF THE WORSHIP LEADER GREW . . . AND GREW . . . AND GREW.
Whatever name we give to the role—song leader, minister of music, worship pastor, creative arts pastor, program director, curator of worship environments— these days, the person who holds the “worship” position on a church staff is expected to wear any number of hats: service planner, accompanist, pastor, choir director, band leader, technical director, producer, recruiter, trainer: in sum, a pastor who is also the resident expert on anything to do with the arts or technology. As the job has changed, the qualifications of a worship leader have changed as well. What follows is one worship pastor’s (completely biased) summary of the qualifications necessary for such a ministry in the life of the church:
1. MUSICAL PROFICIENCY –
Can you lead a congregation in worship while accompanying yourself on either guitar or piano? Maybe your church has a faithful pianist or organist who is available any time there’s a funeral at 11:00 a.m. on a Tuesday. But maybe not. And just because you have one today does not mean you will have one tomorrow. You do not have to be a virtuoso, but you should at least be able to lead worship “solo,” conduct effective rehearsals, and either plunk out or sing melodies and harmony parts. As worship becomes more guitar-driven, “proficiency” can be achieved more easily than ever before. A handful of chords and knowledge of how to use a capo will cover a fairly large repertoire.
2. TECHNICAL COMPETENCY –
In most cases, the worship leader will work closely with those who operate the church’s sound, projection, lighting and/or video systems. I am blessed with a wonderful tech team of about a dozen of the best volunteers on the planet. But none are paid, and most have full-time jobs during the week. It is essential that I am able to operate the church’s equipment and understand the basic “flow” of our technical systems so I can troubleshoot the problems that invariably arise. Remember, more technology equals more problems (it is hard to beat the simplicity of the hymnal for reliability). A worship leader need not be the most skilled or knowledgeable technician in the church, but he or she must understand the essentials or be willing to learn (quickly) and make provision for training new volunteers.
3. COMMUNICATIVE CONFIDENCE –
A worship leader’s stage presence and ability to communicate with a congregation between songs is as important as the ability to play and sing the right notes. Furthermore, the vast majority of the job of a worship leader involves communicating with the pastor, other staff, volunteers, and members of the congregation. There are schedules to make, services to plan, songs to teach, rehearsals to conduct, lyric slides to design, emails to send, staff dynamics to attend to—all of which require someone who is a gifted communicator. And communication is a two-way street. Listening is just as important as talking. Leadership is all about relationships, and relationships are founded on good communication.
4. SPIRITUAL SENSITIVITY –
A solid understanding of the Bible, theology, and church history is extremely beneficial to a worship leader, but such knowledge can also be acquired “on the job.” A senior pastor should mentor any staff member lacking a foundation in these disciplines and encourage lifelong learning. What cannot be taught is sensitivity to the gentle guidance of the Holy Spirit, not only during a worship service, but in all the moments in between as we pray, think, collaborate, plan, and prepare for the worship gathering. Additionally, as the worship leader is increasingly regarded as a pastor, sensitivity to the Spirit is essential as we are called upon to counsel, teach, and preach, and guide spiritual formation.
I realize that pastors are often de facto worship planners and leaders, and that many churches rely on faithful volunteers with little or no formal training. But these four broad categories are relevant to most congregations, regardless of size or worship style. I do not wish to set the bar so high that only an elite few qualify; rather, I encourage all pastors to guide their worship leaders, whatever their level of skill and experience, toward these areas of competency. Anyone entrusted with the awesome responsibility of leading God’s people in worship should aspire to meet these qualifications.
BRANNON HANCOCK is worship pastor at Xenia (OH) Church of the Nazarene.