What does a good worship musician look like, then? Skilled musicianship is not simply demonstrating technique on an instrument. Under the surface, certain habits must be developed and maintained. I believe there are at least five factors that make up good church musicianship. Even though some of these components are not easily seen, I will attempt to provide some helpful cues. What happens if you ask the following behavioral questions of your worship musicians and leaders?
Key Questions for a Worship Musician
Do they play well with others? Unlike basketball, there are more than just a few on the court to support a superstar. The worship leader and participating musicians must know teamwork like the 1980 USA Olympic Hockey team did. Each player was good, but it was the synergy and commitment as a team that made them unstoppable. Too often church leaders and boards choose a worship musician they think will grow their church rather than one that will grow a team. That is a serious mistake as everything rises and falls on teamwork in music—especially in worship music.
Do they teach others? You might choose a worship leader who seems fantastic on the platform, but as I have said in my book The Six Hats of the Worship Leader, you have to be able to replace yourself. Reproduction is what mature spiritual leadership is all about. Artistic leadership has historically thrived on mentoring the next generation. The musician who teaches is the musician who learns. To teach the young means you learn from the young so the surprising bonus in mentoring others is the reciprocal nature of it. Would it not be a healthier place if worship leadership was brought-up instead of hired-in to your church?
Do they lead others? It is one thing to be able to play on a team, but the skill of knowing how to cast, prepare and rehearse a group are rare. How does a leader learn to lead? He or she learns by leading. If the hat of leading worship in front of others works well, it might be made null by the lack of skill to wear the hat of running a rehearsal. Attracting competent musicians requires competent musical leadership. So, that platform-centric view of worship leadership must be moderated with a value in how things are prepared.
Do they grow themselves? Being in any artistic arena requires honing your technique and inspiration. Have we viewed worship music more as a commodity than a craft? After all, we can copy and paste whatever we want. Musicians who work are those who grow. Church musicianship succeeds not by finding the next thing but by growing to be effective today. Musical leaders are musical learners. Do we value in our churches the mastery of a craft or simply care about the immediate result?
Do they serve others? Skilled musicians are artists who know their community and love serving people. They adjust their preferences for what seems to accomplish connection and effectiveness for the congregation. Why should great secular performers serve their audience better than worship leaders serve their congregation? My virtuoso-like skill matters little if people do not factor into the equation. Imagine if the band Chicago decided to be a hard rock band—which was their preference—and not pursue the resonance with their fans for the popular and softer rock they are known for? How many churches are missing out because what musically is being seen as “the thing” is chosen over what might connect best with the congregation? Mature musicians know this. Churches need servant-musicians today more than ever, don’t they?
Do they assess themselves honestly? Knowing where you are strong and where you are not is the key to any good leader, even those who lead artists and musicians. As a keyboardist, I cannot do what many of my peers are capable of. However, I know what I can contribute and leave out the rest. A skilled musician will not overplay, but fit what is needed. Just because you can shred on the guitar does not mean you should at times play more than a single note or hold a pad if that is what is needed. You need to be self-aware to do this. If you get stressed with changes, a skilled musician will get the information he or she needs ahead of time and not show up with that left open. Mitigating weaknesses requires practice, and you cannot do that without being able to asses honestly what you bring to the table. Do you look for a worship musician who is self aware?
All of these identifiers are habits honed over time and none of them come easily. If you are a leader of musicians and worship leaders, my advice is to champion skill. In order to have these skills, character must be in place. Serving others, leading others, growing yourself and the rest all require discipline and humility. The rockstar mindset is a myth. A real worship musician works very hard, and part of that work will never be publicly recognized. Would you rather employ the prima donna that takes or the artisan that gives? Your own character is revealed in that choice.