I recently played at a church for the first time in two years. It may not seem that long in the scope of a lifetime, but for someone who played every Sunday for the majority - almost the entirety - of their youth and young adult life, it's a big piece of time.
It got me thinking about church culture, as most things do...
I used to lead a band at my church back home. At the time, I wore my heart on my sleeve (mostly because I never had a reason not to, and I wasn't really aware that there was another way to be). I was just learning how to navigate heartache, joy, loss, pain, belief, whatever it was. That journey of learning was messy, and the group that I led in worship absolutely loved when my vulnerability poured over into the music. They loved my emotion, no matter what emotion it was. At first, it was encouraging, but it quickly became a commodity.
God tends to take away elements of comfort around me when I need to make a change. Like anyone, I'm resistant to change, and I don't even recognize the need for it unless I feel uncomfortable. In this case, He began to remove band members one by one - by way of college, new opportunities, even death - and it left me up on that stage, alone, weeping through every song. I missed my friends, the family I had built in music. I was lost and in pain from a) being alone, and b) trying to understand the complexities of death in the context of faith (and in the separate context of church).
One morning, when the set was over, I was approached by leader after leader, all telling me how wonderful and powerful worship was that day. To my young mind, that meant that if I were to be a good worship leader, or musician, or Christian in general, I needed to let everyone have access to the entirety of my heart and soul.
Little did I know how toxic that mindset would be.
The truth is, we overlook the mental health and capacity of worship leaders. If they aren't emotional, charismatic, and completely transparent, to the point of unhealthy exposure, we don't want them leading us. We don't typically choose those who are quiet and reserved, or those who aren't flashy and overt, and I think that's a big mistake.
Worship leaders are expected to have no boundaries, much like preachers, and rather than teaching those who are qualified in skill and knowledge in the ways of healthy vulnerability and true leadership, we'd rather choose the ones who are louder, outwardly charming, and attractive. Sometimes, that means we overlook qualities that could be harmful for that person or for the congregation, and we focus on their "leadership skills." In many cases, we've exchanged healthy boundaries for uncontrolled emotion, exchanged meekness for ungrounded passion, and exchanged true leadership for the ability to woo a crowd and put on a good show.
This culture isn't necessarily created by these musicians, but by the demands and expectations that come from church goers as a whole. It isn't only an issue in a worship setting either. You see it happen all the time with any artist that associates their craft with their faith. It isn't to say that some of these extroverted, charming people are not qualified leaders either. Not at all. There are certainly traits that help a leader lead well, like the ability to include others, to put themselves out there as an example for others to be honest and vulnerable, etc. I just wonder where the church's priorities are when selecting leaders of worship in our culture.
Music is powerful, I think we'd all agree on that. The ability to create music does not stop once someone reaches a certain age; it isn't exempt from those who are introverted and quiet; it isn't tied to a specific rig setup or an "industry standard" sound; it doesn't require an unhealthy amount of emotion to be expelled from stage. Music is capable of much more than the church's restrictions.
The inherent value of creativity that is found in music speaks volumes to the existence and glory of God. We do not need someone to experience that power in front of us so we can imitate it, or so we can have access to "good worship." What we need is a team that can usher us into the presence of God, shining the light forward and being as unintrusive to that process as possible. That doesn't mean we shouldn't expect a level of excellence from worship leaders. Excellence is both a part of being unintrusive and honoring to God.
What would happen if we spent time, as worship leaders and teachers, teaching one another about that inherent power of creativity*? What if worship became truly participatory? I don't necessarily mean that every person should learn an instrument, just that once we can recognize the existence of God through the human ability to create, we can look at a drummer, or a guitar player, or a lighting tech, or a teacher, or anyone who taps into their creative gifts, as a worship leader, and we can take pressure off of those with the microphone.
"Preach Jesus, and if necessary use words."
- Saint Francis of Assisi
Christ had boundaries with those He led. It was not about withholding anything from them; it was about preserving His own relationship with the Father. What would happen if today's church approached worship as a precious gift to care for, rather than a commodity or a selling point to church hunters? Worship can still be held to a standard of excellence - that standard would simply extend outward from the image we've created of the "perfect worship leader."
*If you'd like to read more about the inherent value of creativity, please consider reading my master's thesis. Contact me for page password.