Thinking Out Loud

May 18, 2020

‘Worship Leader’ Should Never Have Been Made a Paid Position

Today we have a guest post in which I agreed to allow the author to remain anonymous. Agree or disagree? Comments are invited. (Where the author responds, it might appear in the comments as a forwarded email under my name.)

The other day, a Facebook user on a worship music user group (there are several out there) posted a rather long-winded, tritely worded and somewhat repetitive rant on how modern worship music songs are getting longer and longer. The writer had, with quite deliberate irony, was illustrating (cleverly, some thought) how it may be a problem. In the rant, they had cited some worship song on YouTube from a prominent ‘song-mill’ that was about 15 minutes in length.

The irony was apparently quite lost on most, as I couldn’t help notice that it wasn’t long after the post that the majority of the post’s readers came at the writer with knives, daggers and claws out! I watched as the comments began to mount, one atop the other, calling him/her out as a ‘Karen’ (slang for a privileged white woman in her middle age who also happens to possess a cheesy bobbed haircut) and slagging him/her for such a negative post.

I think the writer had had enough of the responsive negativity, because when I went to comment, the post had been pulled.

I feel for this person, as I too am a worship leader who has been watching popular Christian worship music shift toward longer and leaner (light on originality and variation) songs, seemingly in attempts to foster a true ‘worship experience’ for attendees, esp. in the larger churches and gatherings. (If you’re reading this in the COVID-19 era ca. 2020, it’s even further irony that none of the above-noted protracted worship services can even be considered or thought of as reasonable for online church services as most social gatherings are suspended or restricted.)

Because ‘the times, they are a changing’ (showing my age much?) my team and I were ‘passed over’ for worship leadership in our former church when the pastor decided to go with this new model, figuring it would attract the younger generation. Hymns and songs older than 10 years? Out. Long ‘basking sessions’ of post-rock style worship with choruses that repeat over and over again til eye-rolling commences in even some of the young in attendance?  In.

But the post questioning the present state of Christian worship music and the visceral reactions from several worship leaders forced me to remember something.

Being a worship leader (particularly in the U.S.) for very many, especially in the very large mega-churches, is a paying gig.

Now I’m well aware that in the New Testament the itinerant or local preacher was paid for his pastoring (and ancient documents like the Didache back that up) but are we supposed to continue in this present millennia with the Jewish traditions of the Levite tribe for that which should really be volunteer work? Didn’t the apostle Paul – a roaming preacher of the Gospel – also have a regular job to cover his expenses to set an example and to never give the church a reason to say, ‘Well, if he weren’t getting paid, he’d not be teaching this newfangled doctrine!’ Yet, he affirmed that the ‘ox shouldn’t be muzzled while treading out the grain’ as well. But worship leaders? Where does it affirm in Scripture that worship leaders are to be paid for their singing/playing songs in a church?

I strongly feel that because many worship leaders are being paid (sometimes ridiculous amounts – I have a chart someone made somewhere that shows their average salaries), they are beholding to their craft, their worth and probably feel impelled to stretch out their song-playing – make the worship ‘experience’ a huge thing in order to justify or validate their salaries or church’s budget.

And maybe this is why Christian music now is so redundant, repetitive and long-winded in character. It was quite interesting to see how some of the folks who blasted the Facebook writer for questioning song-lengths and incessant stanza repetitions ran to Psalm 136, because it clearly shows the repeated phrase ‘His love endures forever’ and which, of course, justifies their 10-20 minute song audience-winder-uppers. The thing is, I can read/recite that particular Psalm in about 2 minutes flat reading aloud at an easy pace!

Another defense tossed about was, “You gotta go with the Spirit. If the Spirit moves, you gotta keep on going.” I am looking for a reference that occurred in the later days of the early church that shows that song-worship went for extended lengths of time. Nope – found nothing. The disciples prayed while awaiting Pentecost. I’m sure they sang songs too, but prayer was the big thing going on and that was BEFORE the Spirit moved on them in a special anointing. Afterward? I see a lot of ministry and amazing signs and wonders at their hands, but no protracted singing sessions, except maybe for Paul and Silas in their jail cell. |(I guess if your hands and legs are bound and you can’t serve the Lord in any other way, you’d be apt to sing a lot too to both praise God in your difficult circumstances and to keep yourself from going mad from the isolation. But it’s worth noting that their songs we’re being heard by their fellow prisoners who were not saved Christians.)

Another justification many Facebook Worship leader group members came up with for their hyper-extended worship songs and praise sessions was, “Well, buddy, you won’t like heaven then – cause you’ll be worshipping God all the time there!”

“Well, okay then”, I would have retorted had I the chance, “let’s work toward not spending more time in service to the suffering and poor or attending to the needs of our families while living on this often demanding earthly plain and just dance before the throne 24/7 right now.” Nope nope… that’s not what worship is. Romans 12:1-2 tells us what real worship is. Songs, hymns and spiritual songs are to be integral to our lives in Christ, but the whole worship scene … tainted by cash-in-hand paid-for-performance worship leaders who have too much invested in their own net worth.

Lastly, with paid worship leaders, another serious issue can arise: the salaried worship leader will oft be inclined to do whatever he or she can to protect his or her gig. When this factor is in play it affords little opportunity for incoming talent from within the local church (or from churches elsewhere) to be utilized in the church for worship leading. The salaried individual holds all the cards, can get possessive or even jealous and feels threatened by abilities that rival his own. And what’s worse, the rival doesn’t want to be a burden to the church by getting paid for their musical offerings. What a racket!

Maybe Luther (if it was him who said it) was right when he said, “The devil fell from heaven and ended up in the choir loft.”


Image sourced uncredited at Worship War Weariness in 2014; the artist may be Dan Nuckols.


Related article: Becky Goes to Church (June 2018)

December 18, 2018

Worship Monopoly: A Fable

I got to know Peter and his family about ten years ago. Honestly, there wasn’t anybody in Rickford County who didn’t know them. His family was gifted musically, and they spread that gift around four churches.

His wife Marta was the organist and music director of the SBC church in the next town. Peter himself played keyboards and led worship at the Assemblies of God church. Their son Justin played guitar and led worship with his wife at the Foursquare church in town, and their daughter was the pianist at the United Methodist church.

“We control the music in four churches;” Peter frequently told me; though I bristled at the use of the word control.

But control was exactly what Peter had in mind for his little dynasty. “I eventually want us to control the worship music selection in the entire region; in the entire Tri-State area.”

“That’s about 50 churches;” I reminded him.

But Peter was undeterred. He sent out emails to the other worship leaders telling them they could “buy their weekly song selection” from his informal organization.

For whatever reason, some took the offer. Whether these worship leaders and music directors were tired of choosing for themselves I do not know. Perhaps they felt Peter’s family offered a degree of expertise beyond their own.

He emailed 52 churches and 13 (one quarter) took the offer. Combined with the four churches already under their family umbrella, they were choosing congregational sung worship songs for 17 churches, a few of which they’d never even visited.

Word started spreading beyond the area and he started getting requests from churches in other states.

“This is really big;” he told me, “We found a need and we filled it.”

I had told Peter that popular worship leader Tim Lonchris was my wife’s second cousin, so when his tour came to our state, Peter asked if I could score us free admission. I did wonder why the guy who was raking in a small worship music stipend for nearly two dozen churches couldn’t afford concert tickets, but I decided to let it go.

In fact, I did better. I got us backstage passes and a chance to meet Tim before the concert.

I started to introduce Tim to Peter, but Peter barged ahead, “My name’s Peter and I control the worship music in 27 churches across the Tri-State area.”

Tim’s brow furrowed slightly. “What do you mean control?”

“We choose the songs for the churches so they don’t have to have to choose them themselves.”

He then thrust a business card into Tim’s hand and then he told Tim how much he enjoyed his music. Then we had to find out where we’d be seated backstage, so we left the dressing room, but as Peter left I circled back.

“Sorry about that;” I said, “Peter’s little operation is probably unique, I’d say.”

“Yes it is;” Tim replied, but then he handed the business card to his road manager adding, “Remind me to follow-up with this guy; we need to look into this.”

August 22, 2017

Church Life: Special Music

In a majority of the middle part of the last century, a feature of Evangelical church services was “the special musical number” or “special music” or if the church didn’t print a bulletin for the entire audience, what the platform party often logged as simply “the special.”

While this wasn’t to imply that the remaining musical elements of the service were not special, it denoted a featured musical selection — often occurring just before the message — that would be sung by

  • a female soloist
  • a male soloist
  • a women’s duet
  • a men’s duet
  • a mixed duet
  • a mixed trio
  • a ladies trio
  • an instrumental number without vocals

etc., though usually it was a female soloist, who, in what would now be seen as an interruption to the flow of the service, would often be introduced by name. “And now Mrs. Faffolfink, the wife our beloved organist Henry, will come to favor us with a special musical number.” This was followed by silence, with the men on the platform party standing as the female soloist made her way to the microphone. (We’ll have to discuss ‘platform party’ another time.)

While the song in question might be anything out of the hymnbook, these were usually taken from a range of suitable songs from the genre called “Sacred Music” designed chiefly for this use, compositions often not possible for the congregation to sing because of (a) vocal range, (b) vocal complexity such as key changes, and (c) interpretive pauses and rhythm breaks. These often required greater skill on the part of the accompanist as well.

A well known example of this might be “The Holy City” which is often sung at Easter, though two out of its three sections seem to owe more to the book of Revelation. “The Stranger of Galilee” and “Master the Tempest is Raging” are two other well-known examples of the type of piece. Sometimes the church choir would join in further into the piece. (The quality of the performance varied depending on the capability of soloists in your congregation.)

By the mid-1970s commercial Christian radio stations were well-established all over the US, and broad exposure to a range of songs gave birth to the Christian music soundtrack industry. More popular songs were often available on cassette from as many as ten different companies. Some were based on the actual recording studio tracks of the original; some were quickly-recorded copies; and some of both kinds were offered in different key signatures (vocal ranges.) Either way, they afforded the singer the possibility of having an entire orchestra at his or her disposal, and later gave way to CDs and even accompaniment DVDs with the soundtrack synchronized to a projected visual background.

Today in the modern Evangelical church, this part of the service has vanished along with the scripture reading and the pastoral prayer. If a megachurch has a featured music item, it’s entirely likely to be borrowed from the Billboard charts of secular hits, performed with the full worship band.

This means there is an entire genre of Christian music which is vanishing with it. This isn’t a loss musically — some of those soloists were simply showing off their skills — as it is lyrically. The three songs named above were narrative, which means they were instructional. They taught us, every bit as much as the sermon did; and were equally rooted in scripture texts. The audience was in a listening mode, more prepared to be receptive. Early church historians will still despair over the passive nature of listening to a solo, but I believe the teaching that was imparted through the songs was worth the 3-4 minutes needed.

My personal belief is that this worship service element will return, albeit in a slightly different form, as congregations grow tired of standing to do little more than listen to pieces they can’t sing anyway because of vocal range or unfamiliarity. This may be taking place already in some churches.

We’ll be better served when that happens.

 

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