From the first note to the last, what is played musically in church matters. Music is one of the historically prominent and powerful vehicles for our Christian worship—today as well as in the past. Whether the worship is expressed on a Fender Strat or sung by a choir in full robes, the music matters. Like the beams of a building need competent engineering, the execution of our music leadership requires skill. You can compensate all you want with automated loops, tracks and auto-tuning, but in the end polished bronze is still bronze. Gold is the real thing. Just because something is shiny does not make it valuable or worthy in the long run. Is what we are offering as valuable as we think it is? Good musicianship and the several components that it contains matter.
I was one of those who entered church music and worship leadership without any idea what I was getting into. Basically, in my day the term “worship leader” was not added to the church leader glossary. I did not have the image of anything other than stodgy hymns in the repertoire of the church musician. Sure, there were some gospel songs and hippy-guitar-tunes sung at youth group. And, there was the CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) scene that I briefly thought I should join, but did not. I sang standards as the front man for a big band at age 16. To think of an industry of modern worship as we have it today was not conceivable. Nonetheless, yours truly began leading worship and has lived a life as a professional musician—mostly in the context of Christian music and the local church.
Today, there are schools of worship. There is a mature music industry of Christian music that has a growing and profitable branch called modern worship. I meet younger worship leaders and music leaders who have grown up with the dream and image of leading worship. You can be almost famous and lead worship. In church, you actually have better gear than most night clubs offer. Professional musicians that sacrifice to play in their field would be shocked to see the entitled attitude of some church musicians. You have to be crazy to think that a green room even exists in most places pros play. And if you play for more than 100 people, you are playing for a number larger than what most play for on a regular basis.
So, why is skill in musicianship on the decline in church? Why is it that we are not teaching music to our next generation—theory, technique and performance? YouTube can teach a kid a guitar riff, but music is far deeper than that. Artistry is by far the least thing worship leaders are asked to develop. If it works, we are fine with the lowest common denominator in our music. The roof on the building is one thing. But music is a commodity that we know is going to change rapidly, anyway. So, why invest in musicianship? Why should skill be any more than it needs to be to get the job done?
Just because a church worship leader can copy and paste the latest sounds and mimic the stage words and movements of popular worship leaders, should he or she? We debate and celebrate our distinctives in theology and history as churches, and we should. But do we know how the music we are copying into our house of worship fits these? The trained and skilled musician can write and curate for his or her own church in a way someone who mimics others cannot. Being a professional musician means you understand who you serve—your people. Our culture loves to reverse engineer the unusual successes of the few, while disregarding the consistent healthy practices of the many. Learn much from that conference and the megachurch, but identify that you are not those leaders serving the people they serve.