The Creative Tension: Calling vs. Skill in Worship Ministry Leaders

In any creative work, including worship ministry, we will always struggle with seemingly opposite priorities and motivations. Not only can we not resolve these tensions, but we should not do so. To settle a difficult and complex issue by going completely to one side is to push the pendulum too far one direction and can only lead to trouble.

Who should lead: those who are skilled, or those who are called?

While these two items aren’t always mutually exclusive, it’s easy to think of situations where one of these items win out over the other. I have played in (and contributed to) situations where musicians are hired based entirely on their skill, with no thought for spiritual maturity or alignment to the vision of the church. But I’ve also seen situations, especially in smaller congregations, where a leader is all heart and the music is of objectively poor quality.

Ultimately, we all realize that a worship leader should be both called and skilled, but which do we place priority on? Development of skill limits distractions and facilitates a transparent worship experience, but a focus on pastoral calling enables a leader with G chords and a capo to focus entirely on shepherding. So where do we end up in this tug of war?

The need for a calling

In Colossians [3:14], Paul describes himself a steward of the gospel for the benefit of the church, with nothing to offer of his own. Yet we know from elsewhere that Paul was extremely gifted, well educated, socially mobile, and politically savvy. But he knew that this was not his source of power. He referred to his calling rather than his background on many occasions.

There is a very real trend among church music that has been growing for the last 10-15 years, and that is worship as a career. There is a whole generation of worship leaders who have grown up after the praise movement, after Redman, Tomlin, and Zschech, and don’t know a world without celebrity worship leaders. Where once there were leaders that were dedicated to their congregations who became famous almost on accident (as is the case with those mentioned), we now have musicians who see worship foremost as a career path. And while we certainly need skilled musicians to lead the people, there is one problem: many of these do not love the church. They are not called to be shepherds, and they don’t really care where they are serving, so long as they can play/write/mix for a job. They don’t understand what it is to lead from a pastoral heart because nobody told them that’s what the job is. Consequently, I have had to turn aside several would-be worship leaders because they had no heart for the church. For many others, the conversation didn’t even get that far, because it began and ended with “how much does this pay?”

If someone does not first feel a burden for the church, and the need to disciple others, then there is little place for them in leading worship. This role goes far beyond the technical execution, and there will be a marked chasm between leader and congregation if the leader is not willing to cross it rather than stay in the green room.

The need for skill

Nobody is called to mediocrity, but many of us seem to think that we can get away with us. We hope that the Spirit shows up and relieves us of the need to practice and prepare (or the consequence of having done too little of both). To simply say that one feels called and therefore the quality of the delivered work is irrelevant is profoundly selfish, making the worship experience about how the leader feels, rather than about God, the true audience for our worship.

Having seen a skill-only approach, it’s very easy to run the other direction, assuming that polish is synonymous with a showy, disingenuous approach to worship. However, that approach quickly becomes a way to enable laziness and pride in a lack of polish, which is no better.

Solomon took great care and applied much skill to the building of the temple, and the tabernacle before was crafted with great detail and skill. Do any of us think that there is a higher purpose to our skills and their application than to lead people to see their Creator God? Why would we phone that in?

One demands the other

Calling and skill demand one another, constantly pulling us back toward the center of this tension, so long as we do not ignore them. A realization of one’s calling should convict and excite a leader to hone their skills for their Creator. A skilled musician in a worship setting should find themselves in awe of God’s condescension to make them a part of His work, and realize the heavy responsibility that this implies.

If our goal is not simply to create music, but rather to lead people to the cross of Christ, then these two ideas will always pull against, but also toward one another. Work your skills. Learn a new instrument. But read the word of God to find the calling that animates you to work those skills. If these two ideas are not at work in you at the same time, then you’ve either got a paid gig or an open mic night.

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