Sing. Play. Edify.

Why I’m Not a Worship Leader

Jan 6, 2018

I lead the music ministry at my church. My role as a musician has several facets. I plan—and arrange, if needed—the music we use. I lead weekly rehearsals for the singers and instrumentalists. Under the guidance of the elders, I set the ideological and philosophical direction of the music ministry as a whole and share that vision with everyone who serves with me. And on Sunday, our weekly preparation culminates in two morning services and one evening service. I lead the music itself, either from the piano or directing from the podium, usually with my voice, and (hopefully) always by modeling the visible exertion of hearty participation. And I lead the congregation through the flow of the planned musical elements, making brief comments or reading Scripture passages that build them up in their faith.

But I’m not a worship leader. Why? Because that’s the wrong title for my role, for two reasons.

1. Music and worship aren’t synonyms.

Worship is a misunderstood term in our contemporary context. At one level, a word means what the collective culture decides it will mean, and definitions can certainly change over time. But it’s a relatively recent trend to refer to music as “worship.” And though the new definition seems fairly universal at this point, its evolution has created a conflict with its previous meaning from Scripture.

What is worship? To answer merely with a simplistic definition such as “ascribing worth” would be an etymological cop-out. One might as well be asked to describe a rainbow in a single word. Here’s a brief distillation of several thoughts that, taken together, should provide enough clarity to address the original statement.

William Temple defines worship this way: “Worship is the submission of all of our nature to God. It is the quickening of the conscience by His holiness; the nourishment of mind with His truth; the purifying of imagination by His beauty; the opening of the heart to His love; the surrender of will to His purpose” (from Readings in St. John’s Gospel). This is poetic and certainly true, but David Petersen’s definition is even more expressly rooted in Scripture itself: “Worship of the living and true God is essentially an engagement with Him on the terms that He proposes and in the way that He alone makes possible” (from Engaging with God).

I particularly like Bob Kauflin’s thoughtful, Trinitarian definition: “Christian worship is the response of God’s redeemed people to His self-revelation that exalts God’s glory in Christ in our minds, affections, and wills, in the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Worship, then, is described as God revealing and man responding. The part about God’s revelation is fairly clear, but how are we to understand the nature of our response? In his excellent book on worship, Daniel Block writes that every description or facet of worship in the Scriptures falls into one of three categories:

  1. dispositional expressions (worship as attitude)
  2. physical expressions (worship as gesture)
  3. liturgical expressions (worship as ritual)

Rightly understood, worship is holistic: it encompasses every area of our life. “Whether you eat, or drink (mundane, daily tasks), or whatever you do,” Paul says, do everything as an expression of obedient worship to God (1 Cor. 10:31). Or similarly, “present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship” (Rom. 12:1). Simply put, there is never a time when we are not worshiping. The sobering question is whether, at any given moment, we are worshiping God or our own desires.

This Scriptural understanding of worship as constant and pervasive is precisely why such terminology should be guarded. Music is part of worship—a profound and powerful gift—but it is not worship in total, nor is it even the most significant part. We do not merely “worship” on Sunday morning; although we are worshiping corporately, our corporate worship (a more precise term) is really an overflow of how we have been worshiping God all our waking hours since we last gathered. The songs we sing as a church are not the “worship set.” When we box up worship and squeeze it into a brief meeting time on a Sunday, we deprive our congregation of the understanding that their worship continues long after the postlude has ended. And if we are teaching them faithfully about worship as the Scriptures define it but continuing to conflate music and worship, at best we’re sending mixed signals.

2. I can’t make worship happen.

The second point depends on the first. If worship is merely enthusiastic singing (or, more generally, a powerful emotional experience), then sure, I can lead worship. In fact, I’ll probably employ any number of technological and psychological ploys to make it bigger and better. If we measure the success of our corporate worship by the number of people present, the strength of the singing, or (worst of all) how happy we made people feel, it’s inevitable that we would fancy some measure of personal contribution to the process.

But I’m not the worship leader because I can’t make worship happen. At its essence, worship takes place in the heart as the believer submits himself to God in humble faith and entrusts all that he is to God’s sovereignty. Such a volitional act may result in outward expression, or it may not. If you lead music at your church, think back to last Sunday. As you led them in singing, were the people in your church worshiping? You may say they sang loudly, or they seemed engaged and attentive, or perhaps they expressed themselves through uplifted hands and closed eyes. And yet, if you’re honest, you don’t know. External manifestations are helpful, but not authoritative. “Man looks on the outside, but God sees the heart.”

So who makes worship happen? The Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:19), working through the Word (Col. 3:16). Matt Boswell writes, “The only element needed for congregational worship to occur is God’s Word laid open in the midst of His people.” I would add that the Word must be united to their hearts by faith through the working of the Spirit, or it will not profit them (Heb. 4:2). If we had to give the title of “worship leader” to a man, I suppose it would be the one who is preaching (and I grant that music leaders should both choose songs full of Scripture and saturate their filler comments with Scripture). But ultimately, it is the third Person of the Trinity who unites our hearts to fear His name (Psalm 86:11). Without Him, we can do nothing.

I know many godly men who use the term “worship leader,” and while they understand the distinction, they don’t feel the term is problematic. I grant the entire discussion is really of secondary importance as long as people are being properly instructed from God’s Word. Some things are worth fighting about, and this isn’t. But words do matter. I said earlier that we shape the meaning of words to suit us, but we may often forget that words are also shaping us.

To that end, I actually prefer the term “music minister.” I’m a servant (and a leader, which “minister” connotes), and my particular area of service is music. And what should be the posture of this music minister? Utter dependence, trembling, and profound thankfulness. A right definition of worship brings us low and causes us to pray: “Lord, if true, Christ-exalting worship is to happen in the hearts of these people today, it is You who must do it. We’ve practiced, prepared, and prayed; but we are merely the servants. You are the leader.”