Significant Six: The Upward Call of the Church Music Leader

Thanks to those who have given feedback – either online or in person.  It’s been great to continue these conversations.

During my 20+ years in music ministry, I’ve had the opportunity to work with several music-leader (worship band leader) interns. It can be a great joy or an immense frustration. In all cases, it adds many hours to a workload. The optimal scenario for a church music intern is one wherein the intern is not ‘needed’ on a weekly basis to serve up-front but also has the opportunity to observe and learn without expectation to fill a leadership gap every week. Not only because an every week role is more of part-time help – especially if his/her supervisor is unable to give real-time, direct feedback due to other obligations. But more importantly, those leading any aspect of a worship service will influence the faith of those attending and this should not be handled lightly.

One year, an intern asked me,

“What is the most important thing a worship leader needs?”

My answer was a single word: “humility.”

Over the years, and with multiple intern experiences, I have had ample opportunity to think through that question at length and below are characteristics I would consider essential for any church looking to appoint a music director/worship pastor/music ministry point person – paid or unpaid.

The responsibilities, availability, sacrifices, and requirements for paid staff in this position are considerably higher than those of a volunteer servant.  And well they should be.

We live in a unique period in history where a nominal musician can be put in a place of leadership if he has the right tech knowledge and tools, and pull off a slick, well-coordinated experience for those gathered in a church.  The result may be an emotionally “fulfilling” or “engaging” time – but may ultimately leave attendees “charged”, but unchanged by the Gospel.

It’s concerning to me that when looking to hire this position, many churches ask for “a video of you leading music” – but a well-produced video cannot indicate a person’s attitude, interpersonal skills, heart to serve, teachability, leadership ability or dependability.

What should a church look for in a music leader? Especially hired staff?

While the characteristics below are listed sequentially, in reality, they are intermingled, with each complementing and building up the other.  You can do something professionally well, but miss the fullness of the beauty of the Kingdom that Jesus Christ so often talks about.

Though I know this list could expand – here are The Significant Six: Core Characteristics of a Fruitful Church Music Leader.

1. Life-defining spiritual encounter with the Christ of the Scriptures.

I am careful how I phrase this. At first, I thought about saying “a radical conversion” – but I know some who have grown up in the Church, who are as passionate about adoring and acclaiming Christ as any leader converted from another faith or an irreligious past.

By this, I mean that the person should have a defining moment in life where he/she has understood the enormous depth of their sin, embraced the offer of forgiveness in Christ alone and has chosen to joyfully surrender life in all aspects to Him. A person who adores and seeks to honor Christ. The person leading music must have come to a life-altering understanding of and relationship with Jesus.

To be sure, no Christian is perfect this side of glory.  But one who leads the people of God should be convinced fully of whom it is they are leading people to praise.  The music leader should be one who not only passionately pursues Christ on stage, but off stage in every relationship as well.  Like Timothy, they should set an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity.  Tall order?  Yep.  Essential?  Yep.  Often needing to repent and refocus? Yep.  But wholly given to this aim?  A resounding – Yes!

Sadly, it is possible for someone to be a brilliant musician whose faith is based solely on Christian bookshop home decor clichés or Jesus memes or sermon soundbites rather than on a personal, growing relationship with Christ.

Those leading the gathered people of God must know their station as rescued, not self-righteous.  Not merely as ‘leader of the band.’

This leader must own an understanding of the extravagant, meritless grace of God, and have a longing for the Presence and Person of God. They must possess a heart to learn/know how to direct others in repentance, joyful celebration, adoration, trust, and lament.

I say the “Christ of the Scriptures” because there are many ‘christs’ offered in the world today, and the music leader of church gatherings must not be swayed by false images of Christ – ones that would deny His lordship, or judgment, or mercy, or forgiveness, or His revealed nature.  It has become too easy for the church to embrace a musical hook over theological truth.

Our terminology becomes theology.

2. Basin and towel humility

I still think this is a primary (and often overlooked quality) for church music leaders.

Jesus Himself said,

“Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” John 13:14-17


“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:42-45

Let’s be honest – painfully honest – there are numerous valid reasons for the stereotype of artists as aloof, temperamental, condescending and elitist.

But the godly music leader recognizes there is an appropriate, servant-leadership structure given in Scripture, and Jesus’ words eclipse our sin-stained natural inclinations and predilections.

Any music leader who scoffs at this should be lovingly confronted and, if necessary, asked to stand down.

We can passionately offer ideas and thoughts on shape of service and ministry. And yes, there is a time to gently, graciously, confront a leader gone astray – but a majority of the time, a music leader should acknowledge and honor the leadership structure God has instituted in the church whilst recognizing that God will hold to account those who are leaders.

Basin and towel leadership – humble, servant-hearted, leadership – fleshes out in several ways, and these questions should be considered…

– Does this music leader feel an entitlement to leadership?

– Does the music leader talk condescendingly to others serving?

– Is this leader dismissive of the church’s history or current approach and/or leadership?

– Is this person willing to join in menial tasks when needed? (i.e. setting up chairs, cleanup after an event)

– Is this person willing to set aside personal preferences (musical or liturgical) to serve the Body?

– Is this leader willing to let others ‘shine’ without receiving the credit?

– Can they rejoice in another’s success?

– Is this person willing to be corrected when needed?  Is there a heartfelt willingness to repent when needed?

“God opposes the proud but shows favour to the humble.” James 4:6; Prov. 3:34

“Those to whom God manifests Himself He makes and keeps low in their own eyes and willing to stoop to any thing by which they may be serviceable to His glory, though but as door-keepers in His house.” – Matthew Henry

3. Biblical Knowledge

You may be surprised that this was not first.  A person can grow in Bible knowledge, but character is often harder to change.  Yes, our music leaders must be Bible-saturated – correctly handling the Word of God (2 Tim 2:15) because our ministry is a Word ministry (Col. 3:16) and we are not only responding to, but teaching a theology of God.

At the same time, we are warned in 1 Cor 13:2 and 1 Corinthians 8:1….

“If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing”

“knowledge puffs up while love builds up”

We can have an overflowing abundance of knowledge but dead hearts.  This is not what our Lord desires.

“Where the light of revelation is not accompanied by spiritual experience and power in our souls, then it will end either in outward formality or atheism.” – John Owen (Puritan author)

  1. Integrity

Psalm 78:72 is a go-to verse for those leading God’s people in any capacity.  It is both incredibly challenging and incredibly comforting:

“David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them.”

Those leading must have the same heart inclination ‘on stage’ and ‘off stage’.

The Greek word for an actor – one who pretends to be someone other than they are – is “ hypokrites”… hypocrite.

This can be a challenge, but recognizing that this Scripture is in reference to flawed king David is comforting.

We must recognize that we are still sinful people who stumble in ways small and large on our journey Home. But is the directional pathway of the leader’s heart one that desires to be walking in holy integrity, or one that plays a part during a church service, but quickly changes off stage?

In this regard, those who lead music must be people of their word.

Yes must mean yes. No must mean no. Commitments should be honored and not lightly brushed aside.

5. People Skills/pastoral heart

I’m an introvert.  Sometimes painfully so.

But in church music leadership, I am called to serve beyond my preferences or human limitations.  It is essential for a leader in this capacity to have (or work on) people skills and have a pastoral heart, genuinely caring for the welfare of people – both as a Body and individually.

Leadership is of necessity a call to servanthood.  We can only serve people as well as we know them.

Charging ahead with a vision irrespective of those you are leading is at best negligence and at worst tyranny, not leadership. And not every decision a leader makes through prayer is an infallible leading from God.

Music leaders must develop interpersonal team skills – when to challenge, when to encourage, when to help heal.  Church attendees/music & tech team servants are Imago Dei, with hopes and dreams and failings and broken pieces.  To see them as interchangeable cogs in a machine to achieve a task is not the kingdom of God.  It is merely economics in the worst. (Thank you Dan Allender)

(aside: Church, please stop using the words “product”, “consumers”, “target audience”, and “production value” when talking about the gathered people of Christ coming to worship Him.)

Music leaders also demonstrate care and show honor and value to their teams by being musically prepared and arriving to rehearsals and events prior to volunteers – certainly not consistently late. A music leader’s time is not more valuable than anyone else on the team.

Music leaders must develop interpersonal congregational skills.  I owe Malcolm duPlessis a massive debt of gratitude for helping me see this.

You cannot serve your congregation well if you do not know them.  Church music teams that hide in green rooms communicate a separation God never intended for Christian worship gatherings.  Music leaders that only talk to the musicians before or after service are isolating themselves from those they say they are serving.

I once guest led at a church with a “green room” for the musicians.  From 15 minutes before service until 10 minutes afterward they were either in the green room watching service on a TV or on the stage.  It was so disconnecting.  During the message, conversation drifted from a comment about what was said in the sermon to a full-blown (and inappropriate) conversation about weekend plans – with little regard for the Word of God being proclaimed “out there”. It was all a matter of watching the clock.

We gather as family…. as the people of God.

Not superstars.  Not guest appearances.  Not performers and audience.

What might it say to a congregation that the musicians are only ever visible when doing music? Are they part of the congregation? Or is theirs a role that exalts them above needing to sit under Gods Word with the hoi polloi?

Want your church family to grow in their engagement in worship?

Get to know them. Not as a means to an end.  Get to know them… as people…as spiritual brothers and sisters, spiritual mothers and fathers.  As relational ties are formed they will know to what degree they can trust you as you lead them.  Be radical and consider yourself a member of the congregation filling a temporary role like a steward (usher).  Not ‘the band.’

Music leader – do you know your church family?  Are you dismissive of the very young or old, thinking they ‘don’t get it’? Are you beholden to the opinions of financiers – knowing that if you do the ‘right music’ you’ll get funds for your ministry desires? Do you only interact with people of the same temperament, or ethnicity, or affinities?  Do you interact with the dearly-loved person with Downs or Asperger’s or CP or a cognitive disability?  What about the brother or sister who is just plain annoying or awkward?

  1. Musically skilled

We return to Psalm 78:72

“David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them.”

and Psalm 33:1

“Sing to him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy.”

Perhaps you thought this qualification should be first or even second.  God does care about quality in worship from those tasked with serving in that capacity – not simply a “joyful noise”.  If you disagree check out Malachi 1.  (ouch)

A music leader should be skilled in their area just as the one in charge of the church finances should be skilled; just as a builder skillfully builds to honour God with work that will last; just as a Sunday school teacher pours his heart into the lesson and praying for the children he serves.  Their ministries are more than their practical skills.  It is not perfectionism.  This is a call to ever increasing skillfulness – both when leading alone and in a team context.

–  Can she play her instrument and lead the people at the same time?

– can this person lead if the entire band call in sick? And the tech toys die? The power goes out?

–  Is his rhythm consistent?

–  Does he have an ear to arrange the band so it’s not just a ‘wall of sound’?

–  Can she cue the band for entrances, exits, repeats, etc.

–  Can he bring the band back into sync if tempos become loose?

– Does this leader work on building and refining these skills, or default to what’s easiest?

– Is the leader serving his context, or just playing ‘like the recording’?

– does she bring a degree of creativity and variety that best serves our context?

– can this leader lead our musical context well? Traditional Hymns? Modern? Gospel? Latin? A blend of a few?

– can this leader lead different tempos (largo to allegro?) Does the leader only choose introspective, naval-gazing tunes or only ‘4-on-the-floor’ breathlessly-collapse-when-the-song-ends selections?

Is this a high calling? Absolutely!

Is this an easy role?  No.

Just as a church wouldn’t wouldn’t stick anyone behind the pulpit to “just give a talk”, neither should a church just stick anyone behind an instrument and mic to “just do music”

Is it discouraging? Often.

But don’t throw in the towel!  Just as God’s people need preachers to skillfully explain the Word, so they need music leaders full of skill and integrity and compassion and an observable love for God.

And God has called men and women to serve Him with these characteristics, for His glory, the edification of the Church and the expansion of His kingdom.

May we as church music leaders be ever-growing in our calling.

Grace and peace to you.

Have I missed an essential? Comment below.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s