Should Unbelieving Musicians Lead Worship?

It’s Wednesday morning, and I’m sitting at a conference table in the middle of a mega-church cafe. Picture the greatest Starbucks you’ve ever seen, but for church people, meaning any way they can fit a Biblical word or phrase like He-Brews into something that relates to a coffee drink…they do.

Today I happen to be surrounded by ten or so worship leaders from surrounding communities who were invited to come together to share their trade secrets and insider knowledge about all things related to the ministry of worship arts. It’s no surprise that the conversation moves from light chit-chat about media and tech, to horror stories involving computer crashes, bad drummers and why church organs are actually ironic and awesome again. Up to this point, I’ve admittedly been a quiet, distracted observer, checking my I-Phone in between sips of my Psalted Caramel Mocha when suddenly the conversation shifts to who among us brings in musicians to lead worship who are not….well…saved.

Ok, now they have my attention.

The conversation starts going clockwise around the conference table, which thankfully, I’m at the end of. One guy says “Yeah, I have a drummer who’s not a Christian, but he’s only playing drums, so I don’t think it’s a big deal”. Another guy says “As long as they’re not singing the words, I think it’s totally fine. I mean, it’s not as if they’re leading or anything.” The next guy agrees and adds, “You know what, I think it’s a great way to evangelize unbelievers and get them into church”.

“Is it?” I mumble incredulously to myself, as I nervously wipe a drop of caramel mocha racing nervously down my chin.

At this point I realize two things: First, I’m cringing at the flippant, rapid fire responses to something I consider to be a serious issue and with that in mind, I see that I’m going to have the opportunity to offer my irritable two cents in like a minute, which I’m not looking forward to since I’ve only known these fine gentlemen for like seven minutes. Before I could worry any further, the conversation took a turn to a less divisive (for me at least) topic, but it caused me to want to further explore what I think is a not often discussed theological conundrum in many churches today.

Mountain or Molehill?

So what’s the big deal? Does it matter if we have unbelieving worship leaders on Sunday? After all, if all they’re doing is playing an instrument, they’re not really “leading” are they? I mean, isn’t having an unbelieving musician on stage who can play well going to be less distracting than a believing one who’s chops aren’t all that great? How would anyone know if the drummer’s not saved, anyway? It’s better for him to play at church than at a club, right?

I think a better question to ask is this: who does God call to lead worship and how does He call them to lead it?

…and it was the duty of the trumpeters and singers to make themselves heard in unison in praise and thanksgiving to the Lord, and when the song was raised, with trumpets and cymbals and other musical instruments, in praise to the Lord, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever…” 2 Chronicles 5:13a

First off, it was assumed that worship leaders in the Old Testament needed to be people who knew God. The understanding here was that only people in a covenant relationship with God could offer acceptable praise to Him, so for the nation of Israel to bring in an awesome musician from a neighboring, pagan nation to help lead a worship service would have been unthinkable. Today, we worship in and through the completed work of Christ. To consider worship being offered outside of Jesus is incomprehensible with New Testament teaching. True worship is only found in Christ. (John 4:24)

Secondly, the musicians needed to be able to play in tune and in time. Though we can all agree that there are going to be groups and individuals who accomplish this with varying degrees of skill, the point here is that we do our best with the talents God has given us, knowing that we will always be serving a perfect God through our own imperfections. This is actually good news, because it keeps worship as a humbling experience of servitude to God rather than a performance driven display for man.

Thirdly, it says that the aim of these musicians being able to play in tune and in time was to give praise and thanksgiving to the Lord. The end game of all true worship is praise and thanksgiving to our savior.

The Object of the Worshiper

The problem with using unbelieving worship leaders is that they’re unable to offer either praise or thanksgiving, regardless of how in tune or in time they play. Before Christ enters our hearts and the Holy Spirit stirs our affections for the glory of the Lord, the strumming of our guitars and the beating of our drum kits will ultimately be an exercise in self-glory.

It’s contradictory to what we know about God to imagine that He would call worship leaders whose hearts worship something other than God to lead others to worship God alone. Only a redeemed heart is able to truly affirm the Lord’s goodness and His steadfast love. It’s worrying to think that somebody representing the living God on stage would be someone whose heart has not been made alive by God’s grace and mercy.

But don’t we want unredeemed people at church, Ronnie? Of course, but God calls us to repentance before He calls us to lead others to it. A better plan might be in caring for the hearts of our unbelieving musicians before we put them in a place where they’re expected but not able to do it for others. Getting together for jam sessions, concerts and coffee goes way beyond the agenda of simply getting them “on the team”, if there’s a gospel intentionality behind it all.

But how do we know if any musician playing on a Sunday morning is saved? The answer is by the fruit of their witness for Christ and the affirmation of other believers to that affect. What a grace it is for the body of Christ to be able to look at their worship leaders on Sunday knowing that they are redeemed sinners leading other redeemed sinners to receive God’s grace, the spirit’s conviction and the assurance of our salvation.

Here’s the second part of our passage:

 ”…the house, the house of the Lord, was filled with a cloud, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God.” 2 Chronicles 5:13b-14

Let’s be careful here and distinguish between New and Old Testament worship. Our churches will certainly not be filled with a cloud of God’s glory on Sunday mornings. Nevertheless, it is still God’s desire that His churches be overwhelmingly filled with the glory of His Word being proclaimed through the singing, preaching and praying of His people.

With that in mind, we should be careful not to treat His glory like a frivolous thing, while at the same time remembering that it’s not dependent on musical excellence at any cost, either. What we should always be mindful of is that it’s through the praise and thanksgiving of believers that the spirit moves in the hearts of unbelievers.

For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh— Philippians 3:3

Only people filled with God’s spirit can point others to His glory.

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