Anyone (if there is anyone) who has read most of my blog posts, or taken a look around the rest of this site, may have noticed a conspicuous absence for the general area I’m putting myself in. It’s the phrase ‘worship leader’, and it’s absent for the good reason that I don’t like it in general and particularly as potentially applied to me. Why not?
Well, it’s largely to do with the definition of ‘worship’. Now, I’m willing to accept the use of the word to indicate in general what a lot of Christians spend an hour or two doing in a church on Sundays. It’s not a very accurate description – because actually any well-constructed church service includes adoration, praise, the reading of Scripture, teaching, confession and intercession as well, and a large number include Communion as well. But it’s well established, and I can perhaps see that from the New Testament on, it has been used as a catch-all term because it’s arguably the most important element. But if that’s the definition of ‘worship’ you’re going to have, then musicians aren’t generally worship leaders aren’t they? That title would belong in general to the ordained ministers, the preachers, the pastors – whoever actually leads the whole event, not just the bits of it that consist in (largely congregationally sung) music.
The problem is the relatively recent and minority use of the word ‘worship’ to mean precisely that congregationally sung music element. ‘The worship team’ is used in some churches to mean ‘the band’, perhaps a word that couldn’t apply to any secular item seems more comfortable to a mentality of not just being not of the world but also not being in it more than you can help. People will talk about ‘a time of worship’ to mean basically some songs back-to-back, perhaps with little instrumental segments or the lead singer praying on a mike in between. So why am I so evidently riled by this? Well, I think as a term it’s both too large and too small. Too large because of the implication that no worship takes place in the rest of what we do in (or perhaps even out of?) of church, which is a terrifying concept – that we might become incapable of that emotional and conscious attitude to God without the prompting of a particular kind of music. Too small because I think church music should be capable of engaging in all the elements of devotion listed above. If we call our music ‘worship’, what odds are there that we will actually write, or choose to sing with our congregations, songs of sorrow, pleading, confession … ? But we should, so let’s not have a name that puts us off. In Stuart Townend‘s oft-repeated turn of phrase, we have too many songs about our experience of God and not enough about God Himself. Let’s not adopt terminology that reinforces that lamentable trend.
The other reason I suppose I don’t like the term is because it seems to puff up those of us who may be, at least part of the time, up the front of a church with a guitar and the vocs mike that’s turned up the loudest. I’ve already said that in my eyes the term belongs more validly to those who actually lead entire acts of worship, and that’s certainly a good reason for not seeking to promote ourselves to that status. But also, it adds a considerable sheen of grandeur to what I see as basically making music and hoping to help others worship God through that. It implies a placing of the person in question in a metaphorical spotlight if not a literal one, and I don’t like that. Church musicians lead congregations not perform to audiences, remember, and the role of singers in congregational singing is to provide a lead for the congregation to follow, not a performance for them to listen to. I have wide enough experience to be used to singing in congregations where there is no vocal lead, only instrumental accompaniment, and I see bands with miked singers as in a continuum with that. I’m always upset when I can see some of the congregation sitting in slightly surly silence during songs – I think that automatically means as an organiser (not necessarily a singer / instrumentalist) I’ve done something wrong.
So I stick to labels I think are objective: singer, musician, songwriter. Those are objective; I do indisputably do all the things those names imply. But at least unless Kingsway put me under contract (their website refers to their artists as worship leaders), I will stay away from being a worship leader where possible.