Being a worship leader is one of the best things I’ve ever done. I love every moment of it. It’s a blast, it’s a challenge, and it’s meaningful. It’s right up there with being a husband and father.
Like any position of leadership, it’s also fraught with pitfalls, the most obvious of which is the lure of fame. Even in a small church like the one of which my family and I are members, it’s easy to feel like you’re on a pedestal – even if no one else thinks you are. (That being said, it’s also easy for others to put you on a pedestal.) You step onto the stage every Sunday morning with the spotlight shining on you. People complement you, tell you how talented you are, want your attention. It’s the great temptation of pride.
It concerns me to see the direction of worship ministry in the church these days. There seems to be such a push to record and distribute nationally or globally the music you’re doing at the local church level. It’s as though your ministry is not relevant or fruitful unless people on the other side of the country are playing your music on Sunday.
I tried to be a musician for a living. I had a band, which many of you know. We made a go of it for a while and did pretty well for an indie outfit just starting out. Things stalled out after a couple of years, and I believe there were two reasons for this. First, it wasn’t what God wanted for me (or the rest of the band – at least not at that point in time). Second, I was completely burned out.
After a very short time, it stopped being about Jesus or about the music. It was about booking the next gig. This is the difficulty of music as business – at some point the art is probably going to give way to the need to put food on the table. I was spending all my time trying to book gigs when I wanted to be writing music and touring. And even the little bit of touring we did wore on me because – even then – I felt that my primary goal was selling my product. I don’t have the personality of a salesman.
I believe it’s even more dangerous to mix business and worship. At that juncture, you’re mixing business with something much more pure and noble than art. How can we possibly combine a pursuit of money with our pursuit of the Living God? How can we respond to Him properly when it’s all wrapped up in money?
Think about the state of the music industry now? The economy, digital downloads, piracy have all contributed to the atrophying of CD sale, and the labels are trying every bad idea they can think of to get people to start buying again. Apple finally convinced them to let go of DRM protection. They still want to limit the number of devices you can play your songs on. And those things pale in comparison to what they’re actually doing to the music!
Pop music has always been formulaic, but periodically, you would see it changed by the random renegade who gets a record deal. The last time that really happened, though, was in the 90s. Suddenly, the face of pop music changed. Much like the music of the 60s, the grunge bands brought us incomprehensible lyrics (a big no-no in the pop formula) and musical experimentation. Then the post-grunge bands rode that momentum and created pop-rock songs with intelligent lyrics that people could relate to.
These days, bands are slavishly shackled to the formula – lowest common denominator lyrics, overly simplified music. The labels are afraid that’s the only way they can sell music!
That industry is the industry that is now shaping our worship music. That formula – a formula invented by people whose goal is to make money – is being applied to the way we worship God.
Worship leaders started gaining a national stage via the music industry years ago. Now, we’re seeking it. We’ve created a worship music industry. I have a hard time making that fit with what I know of God and Scripture, primarily because of the way the music industry in general works. Being successful in the music industry requires selling yourself – telling everyone how great you are – and that is entirely antithetical to the teachings of Christ. (Yes, I believe there is a difference between you telling everyone how great you are and your agent or manager telling everyone how great you are. However, I also believe that’s a gray area that requires further thought.)
Since when is it right for a worship leader to tell everyone how great his music is? How does a church justify marketing its worship ministry?
And honestly, this isn’t limited to music. We see it with pastors. We see it in the focus of the mainstream church on so called “evangelism” that exists only to make our institutions larger. We are attempting to define the success of ourselves, our ministries, our churches by worldly measures.
I’m not saying that it cannot ever be right for a worship leader or a church’s worship band to record an album or sign a record deal. But I’m not entirely uncomfortable with saying it’s wrong. I believe it’s tricky terrain to navigate, and we must be much more careful than we have been up to now.