The Sacred Teaching Task of the Christian Worship Leader

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The satirical Babylon Bee could and does write handfuls of articles about worship leaders. Apparently there’s a lot of material to work with. They’re mocked for their skinny jeans, their black-frame glasses, their chronological snobbery, their hipster tendencies. Or they’re knocked for their old-guard mentality, their antiquated ways, their refusal to get with the times whether instrumentally or stylistically or hymnically or aesthetically. Or they’re hammered, on both sides, for the “worship wars” that generate everything from eye rolls to church splits.

Worship leaders often get it on the chin . . . and sometimes rightly so.

And the banter goes goth ways. You’ve heard the one about the pastor and the worship leader, right? The pastor tells the worship leader after a particularly long exhortation between songs, “You don’t need to be preaching.” The worship pastor responds, “I won’t preach if you won’t sing.”

But these sometimes-satirical and sometimes-serious anecdotes can mask a substantial issue underlying the task of the Christian worship leader.

It’s been said, “Let me write the songs of a nation and I care not who writes its laws.” Leading worship is not an atheological or abiblical exercise. It’s not less important or less influential than other public ministries just because it’s musical. In fact, the soul-stirring and soul-imprinting nature of music makes the task of leading worship meaningful, theological, and at every turn, dangerous.

It is, whether properly or improperly done, comprehensively theological.

Every lyric shapes our conception of our Trinitarian God, our self-perceived identity, our estimation of the nature and value of our redemption, our ideas about truth, our view of the past, present, and future, our sense of others and their relationships with us, and our interpretations of the circumstances that swirl amidst our lives even as we sing. Every liturgy takes us down a prearranged path that shapes our souls through its arranged order and its chosen symbols that represent certain truths. Every note, every instrument, and every orchestral arrangement that seeks to harness and harmonize the beauty of music while synthesizing that beauty with the truth-claims expressed lyrically — every one of these permanentizes our views over time, concretizing what might otherwise remain more fluid.

Thus every man who stands before God’s people, implicitly claiming to orient their minds and hearts to the eternal God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ, is a teacher. What kind of teacher is a different matter. But he is never less than a teacher.

And any teacher who stands before God’s people must know and explain, even in the short strategic bursts in which a worship leader best speaks, the character and work of this God as revealed in Christian Scripture. The primary public method used by the worship leader is the music itself and the order in which the service is arranged. But he must also, on regular occasion, teach.

We cannot assume that people know what they’re saying — its depth, its texture, its nuance, its reality, its relevance, its applicability — even its basic meaning. So we must tell them. We must tell our people what Hallelujah meant on the lips of the ancient Israelites and the suffering psalmists. We must tell them about Samuel’s Ebenezer. We must unpack penal substitutionary atonement and its rightful effects on guilt and shame and self-righteousness. And we must tell them not just about the truths of Scripture but the sinful and suffering saints whose lives gave rise to their songs. We must tell them that Fanny Crosby was blind, that John Newton was a slave-trader, and that it was well with Horatio Spafford’s soul even when he had lost most of his family in a Job-like devastation.

My colleague Scott Connell leads the Worship & Music Studies and Worship & Pastoral Studies programs at Boyce College. I was talking with one of his students at a soccer game the other day, and we started talking about something Dr. Connell masterfully mentors into his young apprentices. He teaches them to be like a sage, a proverb-writer, a skilled communicator who can pack profound truths into a transitional statement between songs or make a meaningful exhortation with only a few words following a Scripture reading — someone who can say in a few sentences what the pastor will say in a full sermon.

And I’ve watched this particular student learn to do exactly that as he leads worship across our campus. He encourages, exhorts, instructs, and inspires with fewer but more well-chosen words each year. His job is not, on the one hand, to deliver treatises on systematic theology between songs, or, on the other hand, to manipulate God’s children into a mystical concoction of unrational emotions through poetic or musical ruminations unshaped by the clear truths of Scripture.

His job is to bring God’s people face to face with their God, to stand as a liturgical mediator re-introducing them to the one true Mediator, Jesus Christ, and through Christ, renewing their vision of their Creator and Redeemer.

If he is to do this, and do it well, he must teach. He must teach through example and through song, through lyric and through liturgy, through Scripture and through prayer, through careful selection and wise order and Spirit-led spontaneity. But he must always remember that while he is more than a teacher, he is never less. He is, at all times, teaching the people of God. To this he has been called, and for this he will give an account. This is the sacred task of the Christian worship leader.


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