Leading Worship SUCKS!

Essays, Featured, Music — By on March 5, 2012 at 1:00 pm

It’s been said that all a worship leader needs to have is a pure and righteous heart, and if they have that quality of holiness, things will magically turn out like the Brooklyn Gospel Tabernacle — the worship will be angelically flawless.

Finding musicians and singers who are passionately “on fire” for God, putting them on the worship team, and assuming that everything else will fall into place sounds too good to be true. It is. Worship is much more complicated than that (insert gasps here).

Communal musical worship is somewhat mysterious and unquantifiable. There are no formulas or solutions to how it can be properly facilitated, making the job of “facilitating worship” that much more difficult. There are so many paradoxes, interpretations, and complexities within musical worship that it often becomes impossible to categorize, describe, or explain.

For example, after a worship service one particular person may be moved to tears, while another may think they just suffered through the most excruciating half hour of their entire life. One person may have wished to sing for hours on end, while another feels that the set has gone on for far too long. Some think the music was too loud, while others complain that it was too quiet. Some accuse the vocalists of looking distracted and distant, while others accuse them of “entertaining” and “putting on a show”. One musician feels God is telling him to play a particular melody, while another feels God telling her that everyone should stop playing altogether so the congregation can worship in silence. Some feel that the music should be more “thoughtful” and “reflective”, while others feel that it needs to be more “energetic” and “emotional.”

And on it goes. The advice to simply “listen to God’s voice” is wise and true, but what if people are hearing God’s voice and claiming that God is telling them to do things that contradict each other? Why does one worship experience end up being a life-changing event, while the next week it seems to suffer?

The changing factors aren’t just spiritual or theological. What happens when the sound equipment suddenly shrieks from feedback? What happens when the sound system completely fails altogether? What if a guitar string breaks? What if the lead singer gets a sore throat? What if an unattended child runs wild and starts jumping onstage and screaming into the microphones? What happens if the air conditioner seems set for thirty degrees below zero, or contrarily, the room feels like the middle of the Sahara desert? What if the baby next to you just pooped and now smells like the inside of a public Porta Potty? What if the person standing in front of you has noticeable lice? What if you and your wife just got into a heated argument right before the service? What if some musicians forget to show up? What if they purposefully skip out on their commitments? What if the power-point attendant loses track of the slides that are being projected onscreen? What if the fire alarm goes off?


I wish every worship service I went to ended up being like one of the Hillsong services I see on Youtube — the ones where everyone is seemingly having a life-changing spiritual transformation. The musicians are perfect. The voices are hypnotizing. People are so focused on worshipping God that you would think they were all in some sort of drug-induced trance.

I once tried to replicate the Hillsong experience at my own church. I created a set with all of their songs. I practiced hard to copy the exact way they sang each verse and chorus. I forced the worship team to do the same. Then, when I thought we were ready, we brought our version of Hillsong to the congregation. Unfortunately, nothing went according to plan and I wasn’t prepared for what was about to happen.

I should have foreseen the first disappointment. Instead of being filled in a stadium-like atmosphere with thousands of hipster college-aged students, we were at my church, where there were about forty people, and most were above the age of sixty.

We had no light show, and were so short of audio equipment that we ended up having four singers per mic. Things got worse once we started singing. Nobody except us knew the music. The congregants confusingly stared at the screen and tried their best to mouth along with the lyrics they were seeing for the very first time.

It was as if two worlds had suddenly appeared within the church. One world consisted of the worship team, who were doing our best to be enthusiastic and energetic — just like Hillsong — and the other world consisted of the congregation, many who were too old to stand up, staring at us like we were clowns from another planet. Instead of Hillsong, that is exactly what we had become: alien clowns.

I desperately tried to salvage the set. I sang louder. I closed my eyes tighter. I bobbed my head up and down. I started to sway my body. I was turning myself into a lame Christian version of Mick Jagger. I peeked one eye open to see if the congregation was responding — they weren’t. Things had gotten worse! Most of the congregation had become tired of standing and had now sat down. A few people had gotten up to “go to the bathroom.” It felt like we were comedians who were mistakenly booked to perform at a funeral service. In a last ditch effort to “lead” people into worship, I did what I had seen worship leaders do a million times before — I started acting like a radical televangelist.

I used my fire and brimstone voice. “God is good! How many of you believe that God is good?” I yelled with as much enthusiasm as I could muster. The worship team continued to play the lead-in to our next song, a song that was lively, upbeat, and loud.

A few heads nodded with me in agreement.

“Amen! Alright then, I want us to take a moment to just focus on God. Turn your hearts to Him.” The music continued to play.

“Cut out any distractions.” At this point, most of the congregation was probably trying to cut me out, along with the rest of the worship team.

I prayed. I hoped. I felt like God could do a miracle and turn things around. “Alright now, as a worship offering to God, I want us all to stand up and raise our hands during this next song!” We started the song and I finally opened my eyes. Although most of the congregants were once again standing, nobody (with the exception of my wife) had their hands raised, and everyone still held an expression on their face that exclaimed, “This is weird and awkward.”

It was weird and awkward. The Hillsong routine was a complete failure. Later that week the pastor understandably received lots of complaints, feedback, and just plain confusion regarding our worship, and he graciously relayed the information back to me. Lesson learned.


You can’t just copy worship. It’s not robotic or routine. Sometimes it may not even make sense. Like God, much of it is mystical and mysterious. Sometimes it happens during a church service, in your car, at work, or at the most random moments in your life.

No matter how hard you prepare, pray, or try to make worship “work,” sometimes it just doesn’t. This is why worship leaders need our constant prayer and support. It’s not easy to be tasked with such an important responsibility.

I know what people are thinking: “But it is easy. It’s just about focusing on God and loving Him.” I agree to a point, but then I witness scenes similar to the ones from the Academy Award winning documentary entitled Marjoe (1972). It’s about the infamous traveling evangelist named Marjoe Gortner, who purposefully documented how he “tricked” people into a “worship experience”. The images are chilling. He leads worship. He sings. He preaches. He has an alter call. Thousands are moved by the “worship”. Fathers are weeping. Teenagers are asking for forgiveness. Congregants are responding to the calls for salvation in astounding numbers. They are immersed in a “worship experience”.

But after the service, Marjoe Gortner confides to the camera crew how he manipulated the environment in order for people to donate large portions of money to his “ministry”. He laughs. He admits he doesn’t even believe in Jesus. He counts the cash he made from the night’s offering. In the end, I can’t theologically explain whether the worship was genuine or not, or even make sense of everything that happened, but I do know that trying to manipulate our congregations — or forcing Hillsong on them — is wrong.

There are no simple solutions or patterns to follow. I wish there were. I wish I had profound answers or easy fixes. They don’t exist. Sometimes all we can do is strive to give God our best.

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  • Michael D. Bobo says:

    Worship transcends our entertainments. I’m happy to see you understand this truth. God doesn’t want to be treated like a celebrity. His ego is far more secure than ours.

  • James says:

    I think pastors or Pulpit ministers are needing to learn their version of what you are speaking about.

    The special voices they ramp up into. The double standards they play out every Sunday. The emotional manipulations carefully planned . . . as taught by seminaries and bible colleges. Formula ministry and the mindless repetitions coming out of the pulpit zone. The Evangelical church is every bit as repetitive as any local catholic church out there. Martin Luther would be nailing his thesis to the doors of the Evangicals many times over.

    Nice thoughts Stephen. You made me cringe alot because you were nailing it. Now turn it into some kind of TED like talk!!

  • TC says:

    Excellent article! I also found the movie you referenced on Google videos. That is unbelievable. (http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-178629120699935619)

    • Steve says:

      Thanks for posting a link to the documentary! It’s pretty insane, engrossing and disturbing, and it provides a lot of good discussion material for Christians and church leaders.

  • Lucinda S. says:

    You inspired me to look it up, and I think we can take comfort in Mark 9:38-42. In the end, if this man’s actions – genuine or other – opened people’s hearts to the Lord and to truth and change in their lives/patterns, then that is good. If his actions (especially through distribution of this documentary, I imagine) cause people to stumble, he will be held accountable.

    Either way, justice is in God’s hands, and our worship goes on.

  • Nan Roberts says:

    Snork! That is a great article. I’m on our worship teams. I run the computer (the slides), the soundboard and sing (in different weeks). Thank God I don’t have to lead worship. That Hillsong imitation is hysterical, and I’m so very glad indeed I had no part of it.

    One thing I can say, though, is the worship team has to rehearse. They have to know how to play their instruments and how to sing, and how to sing on pitch, and everybody has to know their parts. And the sound person and the computer operator have to rehearse with the band, and work on fine details. It doesn’t just happen, it takes work, and work every week. It’s the worship team *leader* who follows the Spirit’s lead, and the team pays attention and follows the leader. And then you lead the congregation.

    Oh, and we discovered that it’s a really good idea to introduce one new song at a time.

    But we still don’t sound like Brooklyn Tab or Hillsong or the Newsboys. But we’re pretty good, and sometimes very good. The congregation does worship God, often. But geesh, dude, I hope I’m never called to lead worship. I’d rather be a booth dweller and run sound or the computer. Or be a backup singer.

    So you’re right, you leaders need lots of prayers. The whole team does. I’m soooo glad I’m not you.

    Much affection,

  • Matt Miles says:

    I needed to read this two years ago. Coming from the other side, as a non-worship leader, I was hypersensitive to the manipulative nature of worship music and decided not to sing at all if I wasn’t sure it would be genuine. It got to the point where my wife said she missed my singing. I’m not old, but I actually shy away from Hillsongish music and prefer low-key choruses and hymns. I still have my preferences, but hopefully now I’m more inclined to admit they are just that. Like you said, there’s no perfect formula.

    And alien clowns would be a cool band name. You should go with that.

  • Such a great article! I used to attend a church that was heavily Latino, and there were many times that jokes were made about the white people in the church not having enough rhythm to clap and being too stoic, too conservative, too traditional in their worship. There seemed to be the notion that if you weren’t raising your hands, weren’t crying, you weren’t really feeling it, weren’t really worshipping, weren’t really loving God. I’ve attended lots of churches where we give “praise offerings,” a round of applause for God. The pastor has then gone on to say something along the lines of how we must love football more than God because our clapping is pathetic, and then the crowd—er, congregation—goes wild with claps and cheers. But is being outwardly emotional, lifting your palms, clapping on beat, clapping loudly really worshipping? Sometimes, but not necessarily. Sometimes seeing other people worshipping openly like that can cause others to let their guard down and experience God. Sometimes it’s just manipulation. A lot of it goes back to an individual’s personality, too. For me, sometimes I’m at my most worshipful when I’m at my quietest, stillest moment.

  • Jim Barringer says:

    Wow. What a great article. I’m a worship leader myself, and I have firsthand experience with most of the frustrations discussed here (plus a few more).

    I laughed especially hard at the “someone feels like the song is two minutes too long; someone else is disappointed that it has ended so soon.” We encounter that on nearly a weekly basis in my church.

  • kersley says:

    When our worship leader tells us, “Just follow the leading of the Spirit!” I tease him–”YOU follow the Spirit. WE’LL follow you!”

    I actually got on the worship team to serve. I’m a very low alto and I can’t sing most melodies unless I switch from one octave to another and back again. I was frustrated by the lack of strong harmonies on worship teams so, even though I wasn’t that great myself, I finally agreed to give it a try. I don’t usually get that emotional, worshipful feeling–I’m too busy trying to remember my part and get my fingers around a C#m7. But every Sunday I worship through my spiritual gift of service.

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