Rock stars are sexy. They stand on massive stages backed by incredible light shows while performing for people screaming out in worshipful adoration. They make great money, wear hip clothes, have rad tattoos, and get the best-looking women—all this for being able to write and perform music people enjoy.
This is the picture in many people’s minds when they set out to be worship leaders, as a result of the emotionally driven celebrity culture we have created and modeled for them in the Western church. When a leader is talented and charismatic, we tend to blur the line between admiration and worship, between imitating them as they imitate Christ and substituting them for Christ. With music, this is all the more dangerous because we are dealing with a naturally emotional medium.
But emotions are not bad in and of themselves. They are quite useful in engaging us holistically in worship. Consider how Jonathan Edwards, the great theologian and pastor, put it:
I don’t think ministers are to be blamed for raising the affections of their hearers too high, if that which they are affected with be only that which is worthy of affection, and their affections are not raised beyond the proportion to their importance, or worthiness of affection. I should think myself in the way of my duty to raise the affections of my hearers as high as possibly I can, provided that they are affected with nothing but truth, and with affections that are not disagreeable to the nature of what they are affected with.
It is the job of worship leaders to raise the affections of the people we lead to the highest possible height with the truth of the worthiness of God in our songs. And yet, while emotions are helpful handmaids of worship, the emotional and even sensual nature of music can make it difficult to know whether we are raising the affection of our hearers with the truth or simply the thrill of the song. We may go for the emotional jugular and completely fail to exalt the character, holiness, and majesty of God. The music becomes self-serving.
Perhaps the more common and deadly practice, however, is to use even the deepest truths of God to serve our own prideful pursuit of platform and prominence. Because we are in a culture that makes “Idols” out of men and women who can sing, people naturally put talented worship leaders in the rock-star limelight. This is a very tempting place to be as a worship leader, as that sort of public appreciation can be intoxicating.
Some years ago, I was beyond frustrated while serving in a church where I felt I was running on a hamster wheel. Week after week, I would “lead worship,” but it never seemed to elicit the response I hoped for. The people stood bored, uninspired, and generally apathetic, hands in pockets and arms folded. I was rarely thanked or encouraged, and it seemed I was wasting my time.
At the same time, I would travel to lead worship for conferences and concerts where my band would be paid well, fed well, put up in nice hotels, and constantly thanked and praised for our great work. When we led worship, people raised their hands and voices and sang loudly. Afterward, we would sign autographs, sell CDs and T-shirts, and take pictures with our “biggest fans.” I wanted more.
One day, in the middle of an argument with my wife over the whole thing, I shouted, “All I’m ever going to be is a local church worship leader!” As soon as I heard the words leave my mouth, the Holy Spirit began his work of conviction in me. He brought Ephesians 5:26-27 to mind to remind me that the church is the bride Christ gave himself up for, rather than a stepping stone for my own fame and glory. John 10 reminded me that the church are his sheep and they need a shepherd, not a rock star.
I was undone.
And then, because of his kindness, God used the wrecking ball of Psalm 46:10 to tear down the walls of strife I was experiencing from working toward the exaltation of the wrong name. Finally Ephesians 1 comforted me as an adopted son of God, who was purchased by the blood of Christ and blessed beyond comprehension.
Until that moment, I hadn’t realized that I had been searching for worth in things that could not give it, for satisfaction in broken wells. I was subconsciously using people to find validation, trying to create a better identity than the one I had been given in Christ. When people didn’t cooperate with my plans, I became frustrated with them, rather than humbly serving them as their pastor.
Okay Without Affirmation
I know many worship pastors are in the same boat. Many of us serve sacrificially, week after week, and are rarely noticed or applauded. We seek acceptance from the people we lead and serve, but instead we find grumbling and complaining rather than the affirmation our souls so eagerly desire.
This is not to say the grumbling and complaining or lack of encouragement is okay. This is to say that we are okay without affirmation. We will never be more noticed, loved, cherished, accepted, validated, encouraged, and satisfied than we are in Christ.
We will never have a greater identity than the one he has purchased for us on the cross. We are created in the image of God, bought with his blood, redeemed for his glory, adopted into his family, given an eternal inheritance, a new family, and the Holy Spirit to dwell in us!
We don’t need people to raise their hands and sing loudly in corporate worship. We don’t need to have them come to us after and tell us how great worship was. We don’t need to grow our platform, have a well-read blog, go on tour, lead worship at the biggest conferences, or have the top-selling Christian album on iTunes. We don’t have to be rock stars. We have Jesus. And Jesus is more than enough.