What Is a Worship Leader?

worshipleader.gifI am a worship leader.  It’s the greatest job in the world.  To lead people before the throne of God, to help them to set their affections on things above, to watch the Spirit of God warm cold spirits into passionate love, to take them on a journey from revelation to adoration–there’s nothing I would rather do. 

I was a very wet-behind-the-ears seventeen-year-old freshman at Bible college when I was first thrust into this position.  And, for the next 5 years, I led musical traveling teams all across the country.  I loved it!  I gradually learned the tools of my trade.  I became a slick operator.  I could roll into a town and run the greatest youth rally that little rural church had ever seen.  I could setup the song packages in a church service in the way that I knew would generate the most oohs and aahs from the audience, or even the rare fundamentalist hand-clapping.  At the moment of corporate giving to the Lord, I would launch into one of my tried-and-true piano virtuosities.  I was well-loved by pastors and church people alike.  In some churches, I even became a bit of a celebrity, going back year after year–even doing music seminars for their teens about the evils of Contemporary Christian Music.

But I came to learn that the leading I was doing was only for me, not for my Maker.  What I lived for was the applause of men and the success of an event.  I honestly believed that no one could do it better than I.

And in time I learned a truth I had memorized as a child: that my heart was deceitful above all things.  It had certainly deceived me in this area.  Now, if you had asked me at the time why I did what I did, I would have given you the answer that I was trying to pursue excellence for God.That sounds good, except it’s the wrong answer.  What I needed to learn was how to pursue God, not excellence.

There were several people who had extraordinary influence on my life in this area.  One who stands out in my mind is Dean Kurtz.  Dean was the music minister at the church where I attended seminary in Pennsylvania.  Now, although I didn’t attend church there (I was working in another church on the weekends in Maryland.), I had the opportunity to interact with Dean in many different settings.  In all of those settings I discovered that Dean was really serious about worship.  It didn’t seem to be enough that he ran a large choir and orchestra in one of the biggest churches in the area.  Overseeing the school music program in their Christian school didn’t do it for him either.  Dean was all about making sure that his worship leading was biblically-based.

Well, as obvious as that may sound, that was news to me.  Sure, I used the Bible; I had proof texts for everything I did and believed musically.  However, I took verses out of context and misinterpreted them to fit the outline I put together.  It was an honest mistake driven by youthful zeal and inexperience; there was no devious plot to pervert a biblical theology of worship.

I thank the Lord that I learned from Dean that the Bible must be primary in my quest of divine worship.  I thoroughly enjoyed spending a year in seminary in one of his classes, looking through each biblical passage on worship…discussing those passages…letting them sink in deeply.  What I discovered is that the Bible has quite a bit to say about worship–well beyond my proof-texting!  I began to see something or should I say Someone else too beyond the sacred pages.  I began to look at God in a way I had not experienced in my Christian life to that point.  Through studying the worship of God, I began to get to know my God.  I began to learn what He likes and what He hates.  And while that process is still underway (and will be forever), I began to change, radically, in the way I led worship.  Now, I lead people to worship a Person–a Person who is real and present in our times of corporate worship.  Before, I had led people in an emotionally manipulated process to enhance their appreciation of the service of worship, rather than the Source and Object of worship.

Another man who has helped guide my thinking in worship planning is the late Dr. Robert Webber.  Although I get criticized each time I bring up his name on my blog, I really do owe him a debt of gratitude.  While I would not and do not agree with many aspects of Dr. Webber’s ecclesiastical mindset, he helped me think seriously about leading people in worship.  Although I spent a day with Bob at a seminar in Pennsylvania, most of what I have gleaned has come through his writings.  He was a prolific writer on the subject of worship.

Bob helped me think historically about how I lead worship.  You may think “So what?” but this was very helpful to me.  I began to study how the early church (100-300 A.D.) worshipped.  It fascinated me how they connected things like the Lord’s Supper with anointing of the sick.  I enjoyed learning how the liturgy developed and how worship should include more than just praise songs and invitation songs.  I learned about the importance of creeds and importance of confession in worship.  It was a journey I appreciated greatly.  I have implemented some of it into the way I lead worship today.

So, what is a worship leader?  I would suggest that a worship leader is someone who is able to get people thinking about Who God is, what He has done, and what He has said; and, as a result, lead people in the proper and passionate expressions of confession, adoration, thanksgiving, praise, and repentance through singing, prayers, testimony, the reading of Scripture, and meditation.

In all reality, there is not really a need for a worship leader.  Those who, like me, believe in the priesthood of the believer are fully able to worship God on their own.  They don’t need me.  I don’t have a special connection to God that they don’t.  However, as a pastor who focuses his time on worship, I am able to help my congregation think about worship as I model right worship so they can be better equipped to minister to God in worship.  In our culture today with its non-stop surge of information through every imaginable medium, our people walk into our church buildings with minds going in every possible direction.  With a little creativity and a great deal of passion, I think worship leaders can help people get their minds off the earthly and onto the heavenly.  It is a sweet privilege to lead others on this journey.  Though it demands preparation, both personal and liturgical, the work is well rewarded as you watch others worship the one true God in spirit and in truth, just as He requires.


8 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Dan Basham on October 10, 2007 at 11:53 am

    I really enjoyed this blog, and the honesty that you portrayed in it. In the last three years I have been “thrust” into the position of “worship leader” in our church. Something that I knew nothing about when I started. ( I could barely lead a congregational song)
    It has been a learning/growing experience that I am so thankful for. It has made me look at my personal standards of worshipping /serving God in a whole new way.


  2. Posted by Brandon on October 12, 2007 at 6:47 am


    Thanks for the article. I appreciate the emphasis on the Person that a leader is leading to. It almost seems in some circles that the worship leader position has overtaken the youth pastor position in popularity or appeal.

    What dangers do you see in the elevation of this ‘position’? (I recognize it as a pastoral ministry, while realizing it may not always be treated that way)


  3. Brandon,

    Thanks for your note. I’m not sure how to answer your question. On the positive side, I think that a renewed emphasis on biblical worship in our churches is a great thing. If the position of worship leader is being appreciated because more guys are more serious about their preparation and approach to leading their congregations in this area, then praise God!

    On the other hand, I suspect that the position itself is more popular today because of the emphasis on popular music in many churches, even fundamental ones. In that sense, many worship leaders actually become referred to as artists and are viewed more as a celebrity than a pastor because of the popularity of the music. I would say that is alarming and dangerous because it does exactly the opposite of what a worship leader should seek to accomplish in his ministry. To be honest, I’m at the point now that if people in my congregation are all ga-ga over me after a particular service, I am suspect of myself. Did I manipulate the service toward an experience, rather than toward God? Sometimes, a service is especially moving when we meet with God. I just am leery of men’s praise after what I have lived through in my early years.


  4. Posted by Joy Wagner on October 12, 2007 at 10:30 pm

    I appreciated reading the testimony of a man who lives what he writes. I directed a traveling team for 3 years and I have visited in hundreds of different churches. I can honestly say that there are only 2 other churches in all my travels where the worship service is as God-exalting and purposeful as the services where you minister. Thank you for pointing me to Christ in the worship service. Also, thanks for teaching me from the texts of songs instead of just waving your arms. So, I think that people’s reaction is strong because they have not experienced that God-focused worship in many other places. It does make an eternal difference.


  5. It is my honor, Joy.


  6. Brain,
    I can’t believe you brought Webber up again, man!

    Thanks for this post, brother. I appreciate your passion in this area. The couple of times I’ve been in a worship service that you were leading during the last 5 years or so were truly challenging and a tremendous blessing. I remember the first time I went to a service you were leading in the gymnasium of the old SSBC campus. It was so different from anything I’d ever seen in a worship service. It was challenging, convicting, and caused me to focus solely on our great God. I can honestly say that I’ve only been challenged in such a way in one other worship service (led by Dan Forrest, btw).


  7. Brian,
    I too have been thrust into the worship leader position, for me it was after the prior WL got out of the USAF and went home. I just so happend to play guitar so I took the job. Before I read your blog, I was just choosing songs I liked and played them for the people. Of course it was not for me but for God. Thank you for opening up my eyes to what I need to do to become the worship leader God wants me to be.


  8. Brad, thanks for the encouragement. I’m glad the Lord used these words to challenge you. I’ll keep you in prayer as you lead your people before the throne.


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