I remember the line like it was yesterday. It was a plea, of sorts, that I had been given by a senior pastor who I was coming on staff to serve under. I believe he meant what he said and that there was a part of him that truly wanted the worship ministry of his church to progress and advance into the 21st century. Unfortunately, that sentiment began to change not long after I had started the “advancing” process.
A little background:
God had brought me kicking and screaming out of the music industry into a part time, then full time worship position. Prior to that, I’d spent almost two decades in the music industry doing exactly what I wanted both creatively and musically, with absolutely nobody ever daring to stand in my way. This was my A-R-T, after all. The more creative, obscure, excessive and indulgent, the better. The only side effects were critics who accused me of everything I just described.
But worship arts was different, and I understood that. I had no intention of trying to practice as much creative magic as possible on Sunday mornings. I felt I had at least some grasp on context and how to move forward slowly, honoring where people were at and where they’d come from. When I was told to “bring us in into the future”, I was thinking that maybe we’d try to move away from Gather vocal harmonies, relearn some old hymns, or play some songs written AFTER “How Great Is Our God”. Just some subtle, incremental changes.
What I quickly discovered was what they really wanted was for me to maintain what they’d always done, while wearing jeans and Wrangler shirts to give it a more…umm…”contemporary” look. Needless to say, frustration set in, but I learned a few things as God painfully tore away the idols of creativity that had inflated my heart.
Does any of this sound familiar? After countless conversations with worship leaders around the country, I’m positive it does. So what do you do, worship leader? What do you do if you find yourself in a church that hasn’t even graduated to using the words “Worship Arts” to describe their music ministry? Is it possible to actually thrive in this type of environment or should you just grab your guitar and pack it in? Before you get too dramatic (because you are an artist, after all), I’d ask you to humbly consider these five things:
Remember that limitations are good things – Having unlimited creative powers in the area of worship will usually end with the church’s gaze being fixated on the spectacle rather than the Savior. Unlimited anything has never done anyone any good other than Christ, whose limitless attributes are a testimony to His glory. Start seeing limitations as a grace.
Work creatively within your limits – Having some parameters to work within can actually help hone in and shape your creativity. Many creative types lack balance because they’ve never been told that standing upright is always better than falling dramatically to one side or the other. If you have a pastor that insists on doing things the same way they’ve always been done, why not try coming up with ideas that actually emphasize the things he does like? See, you’re already being creative.
Strive for clarity – Spend an inordinate amount of time time praying and practicing to be as clear as possible. Clarity in what you say, clarity in what you play. Godly worship that is clearly executed is like gospel preaching that is clearly heralded; it will stir our affections for Christ.
Reject perfectionism – Perfectionism is not only a really cute word for pride, but it’s also one of the greatest killers in existence of musical creativity and spontaneity. The greatest temptation for worship leaders is often self-exaltation. We easily forget the specifics of our role and use the creativity God has given us to reflect our own glory instead of His.
Embrace excellence – It’s always best to do something well. If that seems obvious, visit a handful of churches this Sunday and tell me if you can spot any room for improvement. Always aim for excellence over cleverness and complexity. Doing something simple but well draws far more attention to Christ than playing something poorly but has higher artistic content. Good discernment comes by remembering who it is we’re worshiping.
So there it is, worship leader. You may feel like your pastor is stunting your creative growth, but be assured that God is growing you in humility, patience, self-control and if you’re not careful, maybe even a little more creativity.