Early one Sunday morning I found myself scrubbing a dirty toilet in the church bathroom. It was my buddy Steve’s idea. He’d proposed this idea of scrubbing toilets before practice, thinking it might help us approach our role as worship leaders from a perspective of servanthood.
Out loud I said, “That’s a great idea.”
In my head I thought, “This is a terrible idea.”
But Steve was right. The church has developed an unhealthy trend in turning our worship leaders into rock stars. I’m convinced we’ve given way too much ground to the unhealthy cultural phenomenon of worshiping celebrities, even within the church. We have our own brand of superstardom. And if we aren’t careful it can become strange, ironic form of idol-worship.
When we think of the stereotypical “rock star,” the word humble doesn’t usually come to mind. More like always late to gigs. Loves being the center of attention. Stares in the mirror for way too long. Gets into fights when someone steps on their ego. Undisciplined and overindulgent.
And yet, our culture loves rock stars. And if most of us were being honest, we’d kind of like to be one ourselves.
Seeking the warmth of the spotlight is a real temptation for many worship leaders, and I’m no exception. For most of us who lead from the stage, there’s a strong desire to be popular, widely recognized, and successful. In the days of giant music festivals and mega-churches, it’s really tempting to use our platform to exalt ourselves in place of Jesus. Most times without even realizing it. That doesn’t make us the devil, that just makes us human.
But the worship leader has a higher calling. Our musical ability, our platform, and our creativity are wonderful tools. We want to perform well and we sure hope our music is entertaining. We want for people to like us. But when we aim to make ourselves the center of attention, we diminish the space for God in our worship services. Like John the Baptist, we simply prepare the way for the Lord. We must become less, and he must become more (John 3:30.) And this works itself out in our daily motivations.
I admit it’s easier said than done. The social dynamics of leading worship can be really tricky. How does a person, on stage in front of a few hundred (or a few thousand) people divert the spotlight off themselves, and onto Jesus? Leading people to follow someone else seems like a bit of an oxymoron. So what makes the difference between truly leading people to worship God versus leading a self-centered-group-sing-along-rock-show with some Jesus sprinkled in?
It’s really tempting to blame the setting. The stage, the lights, the sound, the drum riser. I used to get really wrapped up in these externals. I used to think that churches who used big lights and sound were pretentious and really into themselves. I had the whole “Jesus didn’t use big lights and a fog machine, so we shouldn’t either” sort of attitude. But then, I saw some guys lead from the “big stage” with deep humility. And I also saw some guys who led in a small room with no sound system who were trying to be rock stars. It turns out the setting is mostly irrelevant.
Leading worship with real authenticity comes down to the motivations of our heart. I admit this is an issue I struggle with constantly. I have to ask myself hard questions, and often give humbling answers. Am I spending more time in worship and prayer than I am on trying to write a hit worship song? Am I hustling to gain biblical wisdom or just more Twitter followers? Do I hope to look more like Jesus, or more like my favorite rock star? None of these are inherently bad things, but they can become idols when they take the place of God in our ministry.
I’m convinced that the worship leaders that will make the biggest difference are not necessarily the one with the most Twitter followers. They’re the ones that look most like Jesus. If we are faithful to let God deal with our ego, He is faithful to respond with grace. He’ll give us the pure motivations needed to lead with integrity. He’ll take our fish and loaves and feed the thousands. He’ll produce the humility that breeds authenticity and transparency. People will see that we practice what we sing, and be quick to follow us in worship.
It’s wise to be skeptical of our society’s obsession with rock stars and celebrities, and confessional about our own ego. Imagine if we as worship leaders became known for our “anti rock star” attitude? Always early, always prepared. Quick to give God the glory. Humble and servant-minded. Submissive and helpful. Disciplined and skilled. Willing to scrub the toilets in the church bathroom before we stand in front of a congregation to lead the sung prayers of the people. An attitude like this might not make for a great rock ‘n’ roll icon. But then again, people who trash hotel rooms don’t make for very good worship leaders.
“But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” - Matthew 20:26-28