The New Worship Leaders

The idea of today’s worship leader was born in the 1960s – and it has taken us over half a century to finally figure out what we really need, as the Church, going forward. While the following list is brief, it may form a basis for defining the characteristics of the new worship leaders the Church will need toward our worship life in the next century.

[Photo by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash]

The New Worship Leaders

These following ideas are drawn from hundreds of conversations with worship leaders, pastors, artists, and academics over the past 30 years, as well as from my own experience over those same decades.

They are in no particular order, but each represents a subset of other ideas, and a practical list of action steps not represented here.

My fellow worship leaders, it’s time to up our game and to rely on more than our chops, sensitivity, arranging skill, and skills to date  – for the sake of the Church and for the sake of the world.

  1. The New Worship Leader…is cultivating a sustainable faith for a lifetime.

The new worship leader is committed to considering and activating spiritual practices, drawn from diverse traditions and seasons of the Church historic, that will keep him/her spiritually self-sustaining (see notes on communal connection below), emotionally healthy, and intellectually broadening, over a lifetime.

This leader is continually forging and re-forging a personal way of life (called a rule of life in some traditions) where he/she has predetermined guiding values and life practices as one approaches each season of life and leadership.

These guiding values and life practices also provide the leader with marking buoys that help one navigate ever-moving cultural waters across a lifetime.

In addition to the self-renewal that occurs in the context of one’s local worship experience, the new worship leader uses tools like the daily examen, the daily office, daily Scripture reading, prayer, spiritual direction, mentor/coach relationships, and fellowship to keep oneself tethered to Christ in a spiritually-impulsive world – ensuring that moments of falling in or out of love with the Body of Christ will not shipwreck one’s faith.

  1. The New Worship Leader…is biblically fluent.

The new worship leader knows his/her Scriptures, and invests as much energy in studying the Bible as in leading songs about it, considering it in sermons, or listening to podcasts that may or may not reference it at all.

This leader reads and loves the Scriptures in an increasingly vibrant and personal way, building one’s life on the truths of the Old and New Testaments and drawing steadily on the strength of the Spirit moving through the Scriptures for daily encouragement and perspective.

This leader is interpreting the world through the lens of Christ as revealed in the Scriptures, and the life formation teachings of Jesus and of the broader Scriptures – words and ideas which then find their natural way into that leader’s songwriting, spontaneous songs or prayers, and teaching.

  1. The New Worship Leader…is musically and liturgically competent.

The new worship leader is continually honing her/his skills as a musician and a leader of musicians, and, at the same time (if it is a vocational invitation), as a writer of songs for one’s community. This leader is also aware that while music is a powerful liturgical tool, it is far from being the only (or even the most effective) tool for every worship occasion.

This leader is aware that one’s own musical competency cannot lead the way in true spiritual leadership – but rather is a vital and effective support as we do our part in discipling local church Christians toward Christ-likeness. This leader is also aware of her/his musical biases and personal style, and notes how this influences one’s congregation, and is open to exploring that style in discussion with other spiritual leaders in the community.

As some worship leaders are performing artists as well as leaders of gathered worship (they are not the same gifting, in my view, but can co-exist in the same person), this leader hones both sides of one’s leadership gifting while acknowledging the fundamental differences between the worship leadership stage and the performance stage.

This leader is aware of the vitality and power of the Eucharist (communion), the cycles of worship in the Church calendar, and the wide range of worship languages available to the worship leader – all absolutely vital for the spiritual formation of every Christian in our pastoral care.

  1. The New Worship Leader…is creatively awake.

The new worship leader recognizes that many forms of creative expression have formative and lasting value, and are not all measured in their value by their immediate practical usefulness or emotional impact in the gathered worship life of the community.

In other words, the new worship leader draws from many pools of creative, cultural expression for personal and life formation, still more pools for community connection and inspiration, and still more pools for leading the worship life of a community.

This leader draws from a broad and growing relationship to the arts to inform one’s more specific and directed task as a worship leader in a local community – bringing ingenuity, innovation, and insight to each corporate worship gathering.

  1. The New Worship Leader…is theologically conversant.

The new worship leader makes choices to read, listen, and be challenged by a range of theological writings that illuminate the task of the spiritual leader, the worship leader, and the life of the Christian moving through time.

While this leader may or may not be “bookish” in the conventional sense, he or she is committed to fostering a growing understanding of the theological forces that are shaping one’s own views and those of one’s faith community week in and week out – influences impacting Christians both within the walls of the church proper and beyond.

in other words, we are thinking about theology and spiritual formation in our congregation as it relates to the Netflix and Disney shows they are binging on each week, and the political environment in which they are forced to swim daily.

The new worship leader, receiving guidance from other spiritual leaders in one’s own stream and from others, is not offended when she/he reads something with which one disagrees, but rather is attentive to the growth of one’s own thinking and feeling on a wide range of theological topics. The new worship leader is open to the kind of growth that can only occur through conversation and interaction on challenging ideas.

(I have strong opinions on how one can and should remain tethered to Christ as we dive into the plethora of theological perspectives floating around in the ether today; but I’ll address that in another blog post to come.)

  1. The New Worship Leader…is pastorally skilled and motivated.

The new worship leader is careful to recognize that seeing people become like Christ transcends, in eternal import, the experience of having others affirm us as we express our gifts on a stage.

Pastoral care is a motivating force in the life and leadership of the new worship leader, as we tend to holy, relational, and compassionate details in the way we interact with our spouse and children, as well as in the way we encourage others to pursue a life of discipleship to Jesus.

This leader is not motivated by the applause of the crowd or the affirmations that come from kind friends on social media.

This leader is motivated by seeing Christ formed in people as they walk with Jesus and their community through challenges with money, relationships, employment, parenting, aging, addictions, and more.

The new worship leader is not content with making great music or leading a great worship service; the new worship leader resists the draw of popular opinion to make sure men, women, and children are becoming self-feeding disciples who are emotionally healthy, spiritually resilient, and fiercely committed to Jesus.

  1. The New Worship Leader…is communally connected.

The new worship leader sees relational connection with a local faith community as a necessary and vital part of one’s own spiritual health, however that connection is determined according to life situation, life stage, and fellowship needs.

This leader chooses to embrace an imperfect local expression of the Church as a significant aspect of one’s own spiritual life, while at the same time cultivating spiritual friendship with others (sometime trans-local friendships) God has provided for the building of Christ-centered faith.

The new worship leader does not resist accountability to spiritually healthy leaders and guides within that broader community, receiving and pursuing regular input on one’s personal life, leadership patterns, and, if applicable, songwriting and creative work for the Body of Christ.

Accountability, within a stream or local leadership body, is not a negative term to these leaders; they welcome moving forward in tandem with a broader community of believers with whom he/she does the details of life.

  1. The New Worship Leader…is culturally circumspect.

The new worship leader is indifferent (by the Ignatian definition) to anything other than personal faithfulness and obedience to Christ as he or she faces the cultural tides rising and falling all around us.

This leader is deeply aware of the currents that are moving one’s own congregation, and the society around them, toward various points of view, life choices, and ways of being in society.

At the same time this leader is circumspect and in conversation with other spiritual leaders as she/he chooses a path with Christ through cultural traffic jams.

The new worship leader distinguishes between what must be said, what can be said, and what should or should not be said as a local church spiritual leader – whether it be on social media, in public environments, or on other platforms.

The new worship leader is settled in a commitment to Christ as the central guiding light of self-leadership, and the nurturing of cultural wisdom in that part of the Body of Christ one is called to support in discipleship.

  1. The New Worship Leader…is committed to a Christ-centered spirituality being formed in the Body of Christ for generations to come, both locally and trans-locally.

A benign and encouraging theism, or, at best, a softened Christocentrism, continues to reshape Christianity as we know it in our time.

The new worship leader is committed to revealing Jesus as the Head of His Church through one’s leadership, language, and spiritual posture as the generations progress through seasons of change.

This leader is committed, along with other spiritual leaders in a local community, to making sure that a vital, Christ-centered discipleship path, complete with spiritual habits and practices that touch the home and daily life of every Christian and family, is being made accessible for children, pre-teens, teens, young adults, adults in mid-life, and older adults.

The new worship leader sees himself or herself as a part of the discipling work-force of the Church, as well as of the missional work-force of the Church.

This leader is defined by a commitment to worship expressed in the home as much as to worship expressed on a stage, and is willing to offer one’s small gifts to see the larger fires of faith stoked in a generation.

Aiming Higher, Deeper, And Longer

Again, while this list is not comprehensive and holds much repetition, it could take us definitively beyond some of the weaker criteria we have previously considered as acceptable for ourselves as worship leaders, and as the Body of Christ for our worship leaders.

Aiming higher, deeper, and longer, please join me in praying that our worship leaders (and churches) would see their role with greater respect – and worth the investment of time, energy, and resources it takes for these leaders to be developed for the sake of the Church and the world Jesus loves.

It’s time to invest in ourselves, and in our worship leaders (if we are those who oversee and allocate resources in a local church community), with a view to entering the infinite game Christ is in – drawing all women, men, and children to His beating heart.




Sheltering Mercy: Prayers Inspired by the Psalms

Sheltering Mercy, along with its companion volume, Endless Grace, helps us rediscover the rich treasures of the Psalms—through free-verse prayer renderings of their poems and hymns—as a guide to personal devotion and meditation.

The church has always used the Psalms as part of its prayer life, and they have inspired countless other prayers. This book contains 75 prayers drawn from Psalms 1-75, providing lyrical sketches of what authors Ryan Smith and Dan Wilt have seen, heard, and felt while sojourning in the Psalms. Each prayer is a response to the Psalms written in harmony with Scripture. These prayers help us quiet our hearts before God and welcome us into a safe place amid the storms of life.

This artful, poetic, and classic devotional book features compelling custom illustrations and foil-stamped hardcover binding, offering a fresh way to reflect on and pray the Psalms.