The evangelical church is awaking from its liturgical slumber. In the past, many pastors and worship leaders relinquished their responsibilities to shape the worship service, leaving this task to an often well-intentioned but commercialized “worship industry.”
Too often, worship leaders have taken their eyes off the local church. Many contemporary worship paradigms have been derived from parachurch ministries: Christian conferences, Christian radio stations, worship “concerts,” and worship recordings. These edify in their own way. The ongoing worship gatherings of the local church, however, have unique goals and responsibilities by virtue of both their regularity and also the role of corporate worship in the life of a believer, which parachurch paradigms cannot replace.
Many local church worship leaders are recognizing their responsibility to thoughtfully lead their congregations in musical worship. Many desire to be taken seriously as thinkers and pastors. Many sense an incongruity between the doctrines of grace they’ve embraced and the worship paradigms they practice. That is, “young, restless, Reformed” worship leaders sense a dissimilarity between their Calvinism on their bookshelves and the revivalism in their liturgical patterns. Or if they don’t entirely recognize it, they at least feel something is wrong. Something smells Finney.
Zac Hicks—canon for worship and liturgy at Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama—has written a new book to address this situation. The Worship Pastor: A Call to Ministry for Worship Leaders and Teams is a collection of 17 meditations on different aspects of a worship leader’s vocation. While recognizing that worship is a whole-life expression of devotion to God, Hicks focuses his attention on the corporate gathering of the local church. This gathering can’t be replaced by other events, like personal devotions or nature hikes, because “God reserves special gifts of his presence for the physical and corporate worship gatherings of the church” (37).
The chapter titles all begin with the phrase “The Worship Pastor As . . .” and unfold 17 different ways for worship pastors to consider their role—church lover, disciple maker, prayer leader, theological dietician, missionary, and emotional shepherd, among others.
Hicks is unusually cognizant of broad patterns across our Christian landscape. Much of his advice might be categorized as warnings against attractional church ministry. Against the homogenous principle, he writes:
I have found that exposing a congregation to a wider variety of musical styles beyond their favorite genres has the added benefit of creating a more flexible and generous worship culture, warding off idolatries associated with consumerism and selfishness that so often plague a church’s musical appetites. (176)
Against the dangers of juvenilization, Hicks calls the worship leader to serve as “a mortician for the body of Christ, one who faithfully prepares the church for her encounter with death—not as a final experience of defeat, but as a transition into life everlasting” (135).
The book proves that worship practitioners can be well-read. Hicks frequently draws on a wide range of authors, from the contemporary insights of James K. A. Smith, Simon Chan, and John Witvliet to older thinkers like Martin Luther, Thomas Cramner, and Jean-Jaque von Allman.
Given all these strengths, it seems small-minded to discuss anything else. So the following two compaints aren’t so much criticisms of this book as indications about how Hicks advances the conversation and how it can move forward.
First, Hicks often uses the word “pastor” not in reference to an office in the church, but as a verb and as modifier. “As you plan and lead worship services week in and week out, you are pastoring people . . . and people are conferring on you a certain pastoral authority” (28, emphasis added). This allows Hicks to write across several traditions, but perhaps it costs him opportunities as well. The role of a worship leader is a cultural creation. It’s not equivalent to the Old Testament’s role of the priest or the Levite. Various traditions have differing views, therefore, on the actual office a worship leader holds. Some traditions within the Protestant spectrum give wide latitude to the song leader and invest them with such a level of authority that the office of “pastor” is probably essential. Other traditions might view the role through a diaconal lens. Hicks’s concern is that leaders who view themselves merely pragmatically ought to embrace the ministry mindset that seeks to grow God’s people through thoughtful participation in the Sunday gathering.
Second, Hicks’s enthusiasm for the gospel’s finality occasionally overshadows the Bible’s call to “make every effort” to grow in the Christian life (2 Pet. 1:5). He writes:
Old Adam loves to sing about what he is doing for God. And even when placed in response to the gospel, singing about what we are doing for God can very quickly cause Old Adam to rise up and stop the ears of faith from hearing and remembering those blessed words, “It is finished,” drowning them out with his own shouts, “Look at what I'm doing!” . . . If the Old Adam is to die, he must be starved. (77)
Celebrating the gospel in corporate worship involves promises and assurances, but it must also include exhortations and warnings. Gospel assurances ground, but don’t replace, biblical exhortations for believers—exhortations concerning personal sin (Rom. 6:11–12), loving others (Eph. 4:32), and glorifying God (1 Cor. 6:19–20). Hicks’s chapter on “The Worship Pastor as Watchful Prophet” reassures concerned readers he doesn’t hold to some of the more extreme views, but worship pastors ought to help their people put to death the deeds of the body (Rom. 8:13).
Some of the worship leaders who would most benefit from this wisdom are unlikely to read 200 pages of carefully reasoned, historically rooted thinking. That is a shame. Along with Bob Kauflin’s Worship Matters and Mike Cosper’s Rhythms of Grace, this book is a must-read for worship leaders.
This longtime worship pastor is glad to have picked it up. It’s a book that should have us all singing.
Zac Hicks. The Worship Pastor: A Call to Ministry for Worship Leaders and Teams. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016. 224 pp. $17.99.