Today, I am writing to you from the future.
Your future, to be exact.
It isn’t exactly what you are expecting or planning for it to be, but it is good.
Should I mention that you are no longer wearing skinny jeans?
Bell bottoms are back in and, being the trend-setter that you are, you have a pair in every pastel color.
I’m sorry to say that banjos and Nords are passé and the theremin has taken over as the instrument that will single-handedly up your worship cool-factor.
It’s a new world and you are leading the way, pushing the limits of what a worship leader can be.
Wherever you are today, it is inevitable that your future will look very different than your present. Even if you are dead-set on never changing, the world around you won’t stop re-inventing itself.
In the realm of worship, we have seen such an influx of new sounds and a diversification of different styles over the past five years. Our definition of what is considered “worship music” is ever-changing and expanding at a rapid rate.
How will you find your place in this future world?
Will there even be room for you?
I am right there with you. I am thirty-three years old. I have a receding hairline. No longer am I the cool new kid on the block or the youngest guy on our staff. I lead a team of twenty-something worship leaders. I still feel pretty cool and I am making a modest effort to keep up with the current styles. But I am in transition. I fear being that guy still trying to be a trendsetter, but who should have gracefully bowed out a long time ago. I ask questions like,
How do I stay relevant and yet true to myself?
How do I know when or if I should hang up my worship-leading hat and start a new journey?
How do I know if it’s the end of my era?
At some point you have faced or will face these questions in your own life. I wish I could give you a simple answer for what you should do when you reach this point, but I can’t.
Some people like Martin Smith, Michael W. Smith, and Darlene Zschech have somehow found ways to adapt to new styles throughout many years of ministry. Others have gone on to pursue different callings like planting churches, leading other ministries, or roasting coffee. I’m not sure what God has in store for you, but if you are going to remain relevant as a worship leader here are a few things you must do.
Maintain A Relevant Style
Notice I didn’t say the most current style. You just need a style that is relevant to your particular setting. There is still room in the Kingdom for choirs, pipe organs, and “Lord I Lift Your Name On High”, but there is not room in every setting for those things. There is room in the Kingdom for grinding synth leads and songs like John Mark McMillan’s “Skeleton Bones”, but there is not room in every church for them.
If you want to stick around as a great worship leader, you need to be adaptable and open to change. That is why I used the word “maintain”. The people you are leading are changing. The culture they live in is changing. Your style will need to change along with them in order to stay relevant. I believe you should encourage your congregation to sing new songs and experience new styles of worship. Just be sure to do it slowly and with the established culture of your church in mind. Your preferences should always be subject to the vision and style of your leaders and those whom you are leading.
One note on maintaining a relevant style: Let’s stop pretending that we all have to lead the same way. Let’s stop looking down our noses at people who are still singing hymns or people who aren’t yet singing modern hymns or whatever. Just quit! If style is what defines us, it will divide us. Style can distinguish us, but Christ must define us.
Let Someone Else Lead With Cool
Great news! You don’t always have to follow all the latest trends, but don’t isolate yourself from the next generation of leaders who do. Embrace your differences and spend your energy learning from one another. Don’t shrink back from teaching them about your experience. It is valuable and useful for training others. Your styles may be different, but find common ground in foundational principles of worship leadership.
Also, don’t just tell them you think their ideas are cool. Give them opportunities to experiment. Let them push you and those you lead into new territory. I have been so thankful for my team that keeps me in tune with what is new and noteworthy in the realm of worship. Collectively, we have taken our team to a level that I couldn’t possibly have taken it to on my own.
Never Lose The Wonder
Since I heard Matt Redman’s song “Mercy” for the first time last year, I haven’t stopped crying out to God with this prayer in my heart.
May I never lose the wonder
Oh the wonder of your mercy
May I sing your hallelujah
If you want to last as a worship leader, your fiercest battle will be against growing numb. You will become numb to the wonder of God and His love for us. You will find yourself in a place where you have become comfortable with your definition of God. You will put him in a box or sum him up in a song and think you have Him figured out. This is a dangerous place.
How do you keep the wonder?
You show up. Not on a stage. You show up alone with Jesus. Nearness to Him is the cure for numbness. Fight for this! The people God has entrusted to you are fighting this battle too, and they need you to lead the way.
When all is said and done, it may be that God is calling you on to something other than leading worship. Or maybe he is just calling you to experiment with a new style. Whatever the case, remember that the end of every era is only the beginning of something new. Never stay where you are when God is leading you on. Don’t be afraid of the future. Walk courageously into it. Lead on.