A number of worship leaders are transitioning to the world of secular pop. Within the Christian scene, particular worship leaders have built up a following. What does this say about the culture of worship in our churches?

On Wednesday May 20th, Kris Allen’s dreams came true. He shocked the world of reality TV by being crowned the winner of American Idol. Nearly 100 million people voted in the talent show final – which uses a similar model to X Factor in Britain. Allen was the underdog. It was fully expected that Adam Lambert, who had impressed the judges all season with his exceptional vocal range, would take the crown, but in the end it was Allen’s folksy, more downbeat, and if we are totally honest, more patchy performances which captured the imagination of the American public.


Some of the more cynical bloggers have suggested that the real reason Allen won was that he was a Christian (he leads worship at New Life Church in Maumelle, Arkansas) and the ‘Christian vote’ came out in force to support one of their own. Whatever the reason, the result means that Allen is on the brink of becoming a megastar.


He wasn’t the only contestant whose training ground was his church. Danny Gokey, who came third in the series, is the director of worship at a huge church in Milwaukee. It’s not out of the question that he could enjoy some considerable mainstream commercial success as well.


Ok, so it’s America, the land of the mega church and it’s different…but in recent years we have seen British Christians who have been involved in the worship at their churches (Gareth Gates and the Bedingfields for example) go on to have successful pop careers. These days, on both sides of the Atlantic, young, talented Christians are finding ways to transition from being worship leaders to mainstream celebrities. Even within the Christian scene, some worship leaders are being treated like pop stars. What does this say about the way worship leaders are raised up? Has the ‘professionalisation’ of the worship ‘scene’ meant that we honour God more, or do we risk turning worship, that most sacred of acts, into just another way of making money and worshipping idols?


Industrial revolution


In terms of worship in British churches, things have changed dramatically over the last four decades. The emergence of charismatic songs through the 70s, 80s and 90s has meant the style of worship has changed, and so have the organisational structures which deliver the worship. It is now common practice for large churches to employ a full or part time worship director, some of whom have gathered a following and release albums of their own material. “Long gone are the days of employing a volunteer organist and choirmaster,” says Matthew Macauley, worship leader at St Andrew’s Chorleywood. And he’s right. The whole thing is more professional. There is a wealth of worship CDs, events, training seminars, books and manuals, and with this, inevitably, an industry surrounding it has grown up.


Sam Hargreaves, co-leader of engageworship.org, thinks the impact of conferences and festivals has meant that churches are increasingly trying to imitate a professional ‘event’ feel in a much smaller setting. “This means that there is a greater divide between the band and the congregation, and there is a real temptation to putmusical excellence above heart attitude, innovation and honesty.” Of course, framed like this, it is easy to be cynical from the start, but it’s not as simple as saying that because worship has become more ‘professional’ it has become soulless. “If by ‘professional’ people mean a greater focus on developing skills, improving quality and being more adventurous creatively, then bring it on,” says worship leader and creative trainer Sue Rinaldi. “Being skilled and being passionate is very biblical. But if we have also created a celebrity elite, allowed consumer trends to dictate content in the search for profit and repeated safe and saleable formulae then let’s beware.” This is really the heart of the question – how do we maintain integrity now that worship and industry have become so much more intertwined?


Worship leader Andy Flannagan, now director of the Christian Socialist Movement, has seen what he perceives to be some very negative effects of a more polished worship scene. “I’ve just come back from the States and over there you can see the natural progression of where we are heading, and believe me, we don’t want to go there,” he says. “The first question I was asked in American churches was not ‘What is God doing?’ but ‘Whose stuff do you do?’ Churches compete to be the most professional in the town, attracting people to the ‘best’ experience. The amount of money spent on PA systems and instruments when there are people living in poverty just up the road was painful.” For him it’s not just at church level, but at industry level, that there are questions of integrity. “[Worship] songs are undercut if they are sold through a system operating with the same market principles that are actually causing most of the injustice in our world,” he says. “As we have all witnessed recently, unbridled free markets leave an open door to greed and the exploitation of the weakest.


“I don’t blame the companies involved,” he continues. “They are wonderful people, but especially at a time of credit crunch, if you’re running a business selling stuff, you go for another album from the guy who is guaranteed to get you big sales rather than truly straining to hear what the Spirit would say to the churches.”


Pop Idols


The development of a ‘celebrity culture’ within the Christian world has been much discussed, though it should be said that this is not limited to worship leaders. Nonetheless, the way the industry has developed means that worship leaders now produce albums, are marketed and go on tours, much in the way that secular pop stars do. “The whole celebrity culture has invaded the Christian world too,” says Macauley, who released his own album, As for me, last year. “I think this is largely down to the fact that the industry behind worship music still needs to make money to survive so they have had to compromise in certain areas in order to promote artists/worship leaders and sell products.”


But Macauley defends the worship ‘scene’ and those who are init. “It simply wouldn’t work having someone with an undisclosed identity singing and playing behind a large white sheet on stage,” he says. “I would be reluctant to criticise anyone, none of us get it right and I think we should spend more time celebrating one another’s successes rather than going on and on about this person’s motives or lack of humility. Surely the influence of Godly men and women shining bright in the culture that we live in is a good thing?”


However, what alarms Flannagan about the worship ‘industry’ is the effect he perceives it to have on the up and coming generation of worship leaders – from emails to him asking ‘How do I get into worship?’ meaning ‘Please give me advice on record companies and connections,’ to visiting a worship band who spent more time arranging some moving lights than praying or rehearsing for the evening service. “It is obvious that more and more their motivation is…to be well known among Christians rather than make God well known among everyone,” he says. “When you go down a certain line where ‘professionalism’ becomes the key value, that endpoint is inevitable.”


In How would Jesus lead worship, Sam and Sara Hargreaves identify an unspoken ‘pecking order’ that exists within the Church as regards worship leaders, going from ‘big in the US’ at the top of the tree, to ‘leads the music when everybody else is on holiday’ at the bottom.


“It is so easy to get sucked into the idea that the really important worship leaders have CDs, tours and glossy photos,” Sam says. “This seems to me so far away from the heart and attitude of Jesus, and a dangerous capitulation to pop star/worship idol thinking.”


And then there’s the effect on us as worshippers. Can we really connect to God if we are preoccupied by the worship leader? “Nothing will kill what God is doing in our generation faster than if we take our eyes off the one we are called to worship and we start worshipping the worship or the worship leader,” says Tim Hughes, director of worship at Holy Trinity Brompton and founder with Al Gordon of the WorshipCentral school. However, many churches are experiencing the ‘worship the leader not God’ syndrome, particularly among teenagers becoming attracted to the good looking worship leader on stage. “The ‘stage effect’ is undoubtedly alive and well on planet earth,” says Rinaldi. “The psyche of humanity does elevate those who appear before them on a platform – especially when music, lights and large venues are involved. Throw into the mix a few life-changing experiences and you do have the perfect cocktail for ‘people to adore people’ rather than God.”


It affects the quality of worship in other ways too – for example the danger that the industry has created a culture of consumers rather than worshippers. “It’s always easier to grab for someone else’s new song than to be creative ourselves,” says Flannagan. “[People’s] own worship vocabulary has been stymied and neutered. I fear that many folks when left to their own devices (without our technological devices) will struggle to relate to God, because so far their experience has just been second-hand.”


Performing or worshipping?


Perhaps the most significant effect of this whole ‘worship idol’ trend is the impact it has on the actual worship itself. Has worship become more about a leader showcasing his new music or performing to a crowd than about encountering and praising God? “Worship is a spiritual activity, it is not a performance,” says Hughes. “Yes we need to strive for musical and creative excellence but when this comes at the expense of seeking God and laying down our own agendas for his, we are in real trouble. The role of a worship leader should always be to lead people into God’s presence and then get out of the way.”


It’s very easy for the observer to say ‘worship leaders shouldn’t be about performance at all’ but, for some of them at least, it is unrealistic to think that separating the two is the answer. “My first question would be ‘What exactly is the difference?’” says Macauley. “The more people I speak to about this subject the more confused I realise everyone is. People don’t know what the difference is and are struggling to find the blurry line that divides the two. I guess my answer is that I am living out my life as an act of worship before God as best as I know how. The key for me is that we are real with the people that we are leading, integrity and character should be the first things on our list as Christians in any kind of leadership.”


“Worship and performance…Those two words are nearly always used as if in conflict with one another,” adds Rinaldi. “But maybe there is a good meeting point between them. Performance is about utilising your God-given gifts to the best of your current ability. It’s about knowing who gave them to you, developing them wisely, and responsibly using and delivering them for the intention for which they were given. Functioning in that way is worship.”


Growing leaders


So what do we do about all of this? How do churches encourage and grow up worship leaders who can lead people into a place where they can encounter God, without squashing that talent or gifting, while at the same time avoiding any culture of celebrity? Here are some things to consider:


1) Motivation


Encourage worship leaders to look at their motives. Challenge them and hold them accountable. “Motives are the most important measurement for what we do,” says Rinaldi. “Am I elevating myself and buying into the celebrity status assigned to me (no matter how small and transient) or am I elevating the sovereign one whodesigned the universe and incredibly loves his creation?” “As a team we always spend time preparing ourselves spiritually, praying and trying to grow as a team and what it means to be worshippers and worship leaders,” says Hughes. “We are continually reminding ourselves that we have a responsibility in terms of the musicality and sensitivity in which we lead but ultimately we need to be fully dependent and reliant on the leading of the Holy Spirit.”


2) Participation


Take inspiration from writer Leonard Sweet, who says, “There is a new standard of excellence: the quality of the participation, not the quality of the performance.”


Consider whether singing along with someone from the front is the best way for your congregation to participate in worship. “Worship that is sung is very prescriptive,” says Flannagan. “It leaves very little room for interaction, participation and individual creativity. I often ask people, ‘How do you know where your people are at if all you ever do is tell them what to sing?’ That’s what we do with our words on screens. It’s like karaoke. God desires our expressions of worship to be honest, heartfelt and of-the-moment, rather than us only relying on someone else’s words and experience, even though that is also an essential discipline. Obviously there needs to be a balance between an established canon of material that carries theology/tradition and spontaneous creativity, but I fear that at the moment, the pendulum has swung much too far in one direction.”


3) Creativity


Look at ‘widening’ church worship to include other outward expressions such as artistic, visual, dance and movement or video and images. Or consider liturgy, silence, prayer and meditation as an integral part of corporate worship. These things might help to take the focus off the worship leader and back on to God, but beware of change for change’s sake.


“The whole point of a time of worship is to engage the people of God in giving God unified glory and praise” says Macauley. “But let’s not just include things to be different or on the cutting edge. Whether it be the arts, media or meditation, none of it is a surprise to God. I think we have to ask ourselves two questions in order to know whether or not to use new ways of worship. Does it serve the people of God? Does it glorify God? If it does then go for it!”


4) Action


Finally, think in terms of worship being a whole life experience, not just something which happens on a Sunday morning.


“I think we need to rewire our brains so that the word ‘worship’ no longer means ‘just singing’,” says Hargreaves. In their book, he and Sara sum up the biblical picture of worship in three phrases:


– Worship is about reverently drawing near to God.


– Worship is being obedient in service to God’s design for our lives.


– Worship is offering God the praise and glory he alone deserves.


“The biblical picture is of these three distinctives being worked out both in our gathered meetings and in our scattered lives,” he says. “We once did a Sunday of blessing our local community through acts of service, but we were very careful to say, ‘We are not cancelling our Sunday worship – we are worshipping as we paint single mum’s flats and pick up litter and clean up graffiti.’ I think it will take a concerted effort from church leaders, celebrity worship leaders and unsung, local worship ‘heroes’ to bring about this kind of mindsetshift, but I think it could revolutionise our worship, our discipleship and our mission to this broken world.”


“It is always dangerous when a church believes worship is simply five songs sung before a talk,” agrees Tim Hughes. “Biblically we see that worship is the whole of our lives. When we sing the songs in a manner that is detached from living a life of worship, God is not interested. Amos 5 is clear - to the Israelite nation who are trampling and neglecting the poor for their own selfish gain, the Lord says, ‘Away with the noise of your songs! I cannot stand the music of your harps. But let justice flow like a river, righteousness like a neverfailing stream!’”


“I am often challenged as to what a worshipping church looks like,” says Sue Rinaldi. “Good music? Large choir? Lots of people? Successful worship CDs? Or one that passionately longs for and sees transformation all around, especially within the very fabric of society and neighbourhoods? Maybe our mission is to discover the worship God is looking for – a life of worship that will exalt God, be guided by the Holy Spirit and change the streets.”