The Next Worship Leaders
At the age of 10, I had the privilege of serving as an acolyte in my family’s small United Methodist Church. The acolyte is the cherubic little boy or girl that lights the candles on the altar with a long, arched, golden pole, symbolically declaring at the appointed time that “Gathered worship has now begun.”
The Vocation Of Worship Leadership
As a worship leader of over 20 years, that sense of vocation has never left me. People gather in homes, churches and pubs saying “Where, when can I go and meet with God?” The “worship leader” of every age says “What about here, what about now?” and lights the candles of music, visual art, design, architecture, sacramental actions and other languages of worship for the gathered community of faith.
Through these acts of worship leadership in local faith groups, a number of vital, formational dynamics can occur in the Christian’s life:
- the biblical story is remembered and reclaimed,
- personal and corporate devotion are renewed,
- relational accountabilities are established,
- shared resources are gathered,
- fresh visions of faith are taught,
- missional communities are galvanized in worldview and action, and
- transcendant encounters with God are given a weekly arena in which to occur.
I have had a unique and diverse vantage point on the worship trajectories of the past 20 years. I have been involved as a pastor and worship leader (the local church), worked creating training resources for various record labels (the worship industry), taught in a Christian college (the faith-based university world), spoken about worship on radio (the Christian radio industry), written songs and made CDs (as a worship artist), and engaged in gathered worship experiences in many denominations (as a worshiper). As far as contemporary worship expressions go, you might say I’ve “seen it all,” at least to some degree.
From these vantage points, I’ve watched the gifts and fads of gathered worship come and go, and worship leaders bob up and down on the waves of a fickle consumer market. My years of work in all of the above roles has exposed me to both the glory and gory stories of the Christian worship subculture over the past decades. Through it all, I am more committed than ever to celebrating, and reinforcing, the vocation of the worship leader in the ever-emerging world.
Worship Leaders Are Being Compelled To Grow
I see, like many, that a page is now turning, and the gifts given to the 20th century church, particularly in music and the gathered worship experience, are compelling us to mature with them like teenagers bumbling into young adulthood. The worship leader of yesterday could get away with some “fast and loose” approaches to theological and missional thinking. The worship leader of today simply must think through, and live out, their views on worship in a way that is under more scrutiny (a good word, in this case). The expectations for passionate leadership, creative innovation, theological reflection and missional engagement are simply much higher today than they were even ten years ago.
The worship leader of today is being shaped by God to be part artist, part pastor, part theologian, part cultural visionary, part historian, part storyteller and part technical wizard.
It is clear that a new kind of worship leader must rise to the challenge of navigating the gathered worship needs of the 21st century worshiper – and the 21st century human being. In fact, it is clear to me that a new kind of worship leader is already showing up across the world, prepared by God to be present to this multi-faceted call. I call this next worship leader a “worship artisan” – but that is for another article.
Ten Defining Marks Of The Next Worship Leaders
The following is a list of ten ways the next worship leaders will be set apart from those of the last 50 years.
The next worship leaders will:
1. Artfully Narrate Human Origins
Through the media of music, visual art, literature, movement and oratory the next worship leaders will understand that human beings have greatness in them, and that greatness has a part to play in healing and beautifying the world. They will enlist the energies of artful storytelling to help those gathered to worship understand the human’s role in the cosmic narrative of restoration.
2. Create Spaces For Transcendent Encounters
The most effective worship leaders understand that a song is a place to which we go; it is a transcendent space in which a living encounter can occur. Popular worship music will continue to have it’s place as the shapes of church worship shift, but it will now run alongside of instrumental music, liturgies ancient and fresh, highly artistic music with more nuanced lyrics and many other (even esoteric) creative ways for a soul-in-process to engage with God.
3. Reinforce Biblical Worldview
To be truly human, the whole counsel of the scriptures lays out a worldview in which the Personality standing at the center of the cosmos interacts with the people created in His image. In response, these people are being transformed by the Spirit’s art of personal healing (a theme we have majored on in corporate worship), and yet are also reflecting the revitalizing themes of justice, the hope of new life, and the inexhaustible resources of the New Creation into today’s world. It is worship as we know it, but now using its whole brain.
4. Welcome The Holy Spirit As God
The next worship leaders understand that neither dry orthodoxy nor rampant emotionalism serve a well-thinking, spiritually formed, missional body of committed followers of Jesus Christ. They understand that without an ongoing encounter with the Person of the Holy Spirit (who is God, and not a force or plasma as some are wont to describe Him) the Church will not be empowered to bring cultural restoration in a lasting way. They know that both a strong pneumatology and a fully functional vision of the Trinity, are essentials ingredients in a church built for speed.
5. Affirm Both Creational And Redemptive Stories
This next idea will take more time to express, but for the next worship leaders, it is pivotal in shaping the way they think about the meaning of worship in today’s church.
There are two stories at work in the world today, and they come together as one in Jesus’ re-telling of the world. The creational story is a story shared by many human beings (both Christians and others) – love should win, we should not rape the planet, creativity is a beautiful gift flowing uniquely from every person, the vulnerable should be protected, wholeness is possible, relationships are precious, peace is closer to the way it “ought” to be than war, people have intrinsic dignity and the sex slave trade is horribly, horribly wrong.
Many Christians, taking a fresh hold of this creational story and seeing it as biblical, have realized just how similar a Christian is to other valiant human beings embracing these same ideals. However, some have assumed the creational story is the same as the redemptive story.
Creational themes are a vital part of the Christian story, but lack context or direction without the redemptive story of our faith. Without a compelling rendering of the redemptive story that is the good news, often articulated by worship, liturgy and more, Christian faith becomes simply another way to be humane and socially conscious. We lift our glass with everyone doing good, and think we’re close to finishing our work.
However, our redemptive story gives a “Why” to the human, creational story – God created all things, we lost relationship by our will, Jesus incarnated God’s outreach to us, taught us the ways of the Father, died a reconciling death on a cross, physically rose alive from the tomb of death, and empowers His church to incarnate his teaching as active narrators of the age to come in word and action.
While the creational story is being recovered in our fresh embrace of justice, social renewal and call to create beauty, there is also a current backlash to the relatively weak ways the redemptive story has been told by Christians to society in the 20th century.
Christians must never confuse doing good with God’s redemptive story that is bringing all things to a specific conclusion. Redemptive stories (Jesus came to us as the Son of God) give meaning to the creational ones (we must get children out of the sex trade). We have the world’s most compelling redemptive story to tell that gives meaning to every human story. Gathered worship, at its best, narrates this full creational, and redemptive, story. Two stories become one in Christ. We sing and re-enact truths from both sides of God’s story in gathered worship.
6. Educate In Eschatology And The New Creation
Music, especially music with lyrics, educates. Like a stained glass window served the illiterate worshipper of another age, a learning averse populace (unless you put it in a movie) needs music once again to open us to the basic theological concepts of a New Creation eschatology (last things). A song can educate about the Trinity, and about God’s plans to right the world with us at His side.
The next worship leaders understand that we have a creative part to play in this (often times remedial) education about “last things.”
7. Reclaim Mission And The Force Of Resurrection
I was asked once by a twenty-something friend why we were not out in the streets doing the more important work of caring for the poor instead of standing together in a room for an hour, breaking the bread of eucharist and reading the scriptures aloud in worship. It was an honest question from a zealous, generous heart.
My answer was immediate. “Our co-mission with Christ must be remembered, reclaimed and renewed in our hearts and minds – with regularity and consistency. We forget who God is and who we are yearly, monthly, even weekly, daily and moment by moment. Over generations, our calling to care for the poor and bring wholeness to people in co-mission with Christ can be forgotten, or gradually degraded in our minds.
Gathered worship assures that will not happen. We may care for the poor today, but if we want to have a reason to do it when we are 70, or we want our great-grandchildren to understand why they should care for the poor, then we had better embrace what happens when we gather to worship. To worship is to remember, and to be empowered for mission in the process.”
The people moved by the force of the resurrection life in us have a singular hope – that life everlasting will manifest in the present as we serve, and will culminate in the future restoration of all things. Worship reminds us of our hope, and gives us a reason to get out of bed on Monday morning and “live it” again.
8. Emphasize Christological Themes
Father Raneiro Cantalamessa, the personal teacher of Pope John Paul II, walked into the small chapel where I and a few dozen other Christian leaders sat. He explained to us that in his inter-faith gatherings with Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and others, all was well as long as the conversations were phrased in the generic language of “God.”
But, he said, mention Jesus and you get the entire room buzzing. “The battle,” he said, “is around the King.” In my estimation, “Christology-light” and a generic Theism have been slowly creeping into the church as we recover our connection with other human beings. This reconnection has been so necessary, and has broken down walls of elitism separating some vocal Christians from the “lesser lights” of their human family. But there is an inherent danger to that “loving feeling” – we can quickly lose a distinctive that, from a biblical perspective, is essential.
In other words, yes, we must redefine the “us-them’s” so characteristic of Christian speech. The only us-them in the scripture is a covenant us-them; defining who has responded to God’s covenant love and who has not. There is no discussion on a human level – we are all family.
However, recovering our human connection, and then at the same time welcoming a softened vision of the particularity of Christ (Christology) in our faith, does violence to the full Christian story. There is no secular world, yes. But that does not mean that everything we believe is the same as everyone else. The redemptive story still stands apart from the stories most of culture is telling right now.
The next worship leaders have something to say about Jesus as Savior, Lord, Master and God. Either Jesus is more than us, or he’s not. The next worship leaders will reinforce a loving and gracious Christology in the church, and affirm the way of Jesus being the only pathway by which we can ultimately become fully human. They are saying this graciously, in a way that is enigmatic and at the same time, true.
9. Clarify Language Related To Heaven, Hell And The Afterlife
In keeping with the idea that worship leaders are narrators of the Jesus story in art and music, the next worship leaders will see it as important to emphasize where human beings are going after they die. They will wrestle, with honesty and discernment, with divergent ideas about heaven, hell and the afterlife. They will seek to pastor their people in a way that shows them how to live in the present in light of the afterlife to come.
Current “hot” discussions will be necessary to them, and seen as important dialogues not to be avoided. The next worship leaders will move as confident models of the Christian’s ability to affirm belief, without dogmatically criminalizing that of others. They will believe passionately, communicate hopefully, and yet welcome diversity to the degree that it does not impede the formation of a recognizable, viable Christian faith in a worshipper.
They will lead worship in the midst of this tension, and find the grace to create anchor points and mystery points in songs and expressions of worship.
10. Affront Cultural Chaos With Stunning Creativity
For the ancient Jews, the “waters” of the irrepressible sea represented chaos, disorder and impeding doom. In the beginning, the scripture tells us, God speaks his creative word to the “waters” of chaos, and order comes into the creation as the parted waters find their place.
The next worship leaders understand that while there is much beauty in the world, it remains a broken, chaotic and confusing place for the soul. With artisanal wisdom, they will draw on many traditions of historic worship leadership, mingle them with the intimate and energized encounter marking our current worship experience, and part the chaotic waters of culture with creativity. These worship arts and crafts will clarify, set at ease, and bring much needed perspective to the world they touch.
They will open the gates on their creativity, while remaining personally pure, relationally accountable and spiritually valiant. At the same time, they will recognize that many of the restraints placed on Christian artists (and leaders) are shadows lingering from weak theological and moralistic visions of the Christian life. They will reclaim creative worship leadership, both serving the church’s need for accessible worship environments and operating out of a vision of creativity that is wild, adventurous and courageous by any standard.
The Next Worship Leaders: Acolytes and Artisans
The next worship leaders are ready to act, taking their creative calling seriously and understanding the vital role worship leaders play in the holistic spiritual formation of the next Christians. They will dip into the past for artisanal wisdom as they create spaces for encounter with God, and the reclaiming of Hope. They will press through their own mental and traditional barriers to unleash their creativity in the service of God’s expansive story.
The next worship leaders are ready to play their part in calling the church to living worship, and in calling humanity to its original design. They are ready to be the Acolytes who say “Let’s worship here; let’s worship now” to every human being who will listen. They will be equally comfortable stepping on to cultural stages as they are stepping on to church stages – and they will create spaces for transcendent encounters in every forum given to them. dlw
Dan Wilt, M.Min. has been working with worship leaders in local communities for over 20 years. His innovations in online, live and university-level training models have been nominated for awards and proven effective in the lives of thousands of creative leaders globally. He is currently a freelance writer, artist and conference speaker, as well as the founder of www.WorshipTraining.com – an online worship learning resource serving worship leaders worldwide.
Dan edits Inside Worship Magazine, and has written for industry voices such as Worship Leader Magazine, Vertical Music and Vineyard Music. His radio moments of “spiritual storytelling” are heard by over half a million listeners on Keep The Faith Radio. Dan’s instrumental collaborative (keyboards, electronics and hammered dulcimer), Dunn & Wilt, creates liturgical worship spaces and musical environments for healing. He keeps a blog at www.DanWilt.com, lives with his beautiful wife and three children in Franklin, TN USA.
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