Over the past years, I’ve been in a number of churches and conference settings where the worship was led by a worship leader or worship pastor. For those not familiar with the idea, in churches this is often a full-time paid position, sometimes a part-time position, and sometimes just voluntary. The worship leader is often involved in selecting the songs in consultation with the preacher, training musicians and singers, practicing through the week, and teaching the principles and practice of worship. Whether full-time or part-time, the climax of the work each week is leading the worship at the Sunday services.
I’ve seen this done really badly and I’ve seen it done really well. More recently, I’ve seen some good examples of this and appreciated the difference it’s made to the worship experience. It can be especially helpful in teaching and training people with no church background how to worship God.
So, should conservative Reformed churches adopt this practice?
Some of my Presbyterian friends will say, “Our precentor is our worship leader.” For those of you unfamiliar with this term, this is a person who leads the singing in Psalm-singing churches that do not use instrumental music. However, it’s hardly comparable to the modern day “worship leader.” Usually the precentor is given the psalms by the pastor just before the church service and he has a few minutes to choose the tunes and then sing the first few words in the hope that the congregation will recognize the tune and join in before too long. At its best, it’s heaven on earth; at its worst, well….
Some of my Dutch Reformed friends will say, “Our organist is the worship leader.” It’s true that the organist probably exercises the greatest influence over such worship services. An organist can make or break worship services. But should the organist be the most influential person in the worship?
Many of my conservative Reformed friends will be resistant to the modern idea of a “worship leader” and certainly of a “worship pastor.” They will view it as a modern innovation. “We never had them in the past. Why should we need them today?”
I’m sympathetic to this argument, especially because I’ve seen some really awful examples, where the worship leader ended up becoming the only worshipper, or, even worse, ended up being the one worshipped!
So let me suggest a “compromise,” one that I believe is biblical. Reformed pastors should view themselves not only as preachers but as worship leaders. Very few do. If you doubt that, ask how long most Reformed pastors spend preparing their sermons, and then how long they spend preparing the worship. I know, I know, the sermon is the worship too; but I’m speaking especially here of the singing part of worship.
Let’s assume I’m right, that Reformed pastors should be not only the best preachers they can be, but the best worship leaders they can be. What would this look like? How can a Reformed pastor grow in his ability as a worship leader? Here are some basic steps to begin with.
1. Regularly teach the congregation about the elements of worship. Don’t assume that people know why we worship the way we do. By way of sermons, book recommendations, small booklets, articles, and occasional brief comments introducing the elements of worship, explain what we are doing and why.
2. Motivate people with the benefits of worship. Encourage worshippers by reminding them of how worship has a heavenward, outward, and inward impact. Explain how God is pleased, unbelievers are impressed, and souls are healed via songs of praise.
3. Choose appropriate songs. Too often this is done at the last minute and almost as an afterthought to sermon preparation. The Reformed worship leader should select songs that will form a fitting beginning, middle, and ending to the worship service, as well as fit the theme of the sermon. Songs should not simply be the pastor’s or the congregations favorites. And sometimes explain why you chose the song and the connection with the sermon.
4. Model a true worshipper. This is where I believe there is greatest room for reformation in Reformed congregations. Way too often, the preacher is hardly opening his mouth during the worship songs. He is looking around the congregation, shuffling his papers, or just half-heartedly mumbling the words while his mind is clearly elsewhere. This must inevitably undermine the congregation’s worship. The pastor has a responsibility to be one of the most enthused and engaged worshippers in the whole congregation, in the hope that his example excites and ignites the whole congregation.
At this point I hear some objections rising up.
“But I’m not a singer.” Turn off your mic then and make a “joyful noise” to the Lord even if you can’t make a joyful harmony. If the sound of your worship can’t inspire others, the sight of your worship can.
“But I don’t want to be the center of attention.” You already are. You’re standing at the front, you’re visible to everyone, you’re the representative of God to the people and of the people to God. Accept the reality of this and take the responsibility for it. No one is asking you to raise or clap your hands. Just open your mouth wider and at least look alive.
“But I don’t want to be an actor.” Why assume that a vigorous worshipper is an actor? Maybe this gets to the heart of the problem, that worship is not in the heart. If true worship is in the heart, will it not naturally break out in at least the face and lips? I must confess sometimes I have acted in worship — but the act was to maintain a stoic “Reformed” expression when my heart was bursting at the seams with joy. That kind of acting has got to be wrong.
“But people will think I’ve gone charismatic.” Seriously? Just because you look up from your psalter/hymnal from time to time, and actually put some energy into singing? Ever had a look into heavenly worship (Rev. 4, 5, 14, 15, 19, 22)?
“But this will feel so uncomfortable.” Initially, yes. But so did preaching at first, didn’t it? You’ll get used to it and so will the congregation. And think of the gain, not just the pain. Imagine the possibility of improved worship bringing more glory to God and more good to souls.
“But is this really that important?” Whether you’re Psalms, Hymns or CCM; whether you have a worship leader or are the worship leader, the principles of Keith Getty’s words are relevant:
“Singing isn’t just some side-subject. Singing is the second most common command in Scripture. So it has to be absolutely crucially important for the spiritual transformation of the individual, the family, the church, and the witness to the community…So any pastor who isn’t taking an active role in the leading of worship and working closely with his worship leader is probably abdicating his responsibilities.”