By Dave Ray
Worship leaders, there’s a question that’s been gnawing at me for the last few years. And it’s actually a part of my story. Maybe your story is something like mine.
After taking piano lessons when I was a kid, I picked up a guitar when I was thirteen and taught myself to play my favorite songs by Audio Adrenaline, DC Talk, Newsboys and Jars of Clay. When I was a freshman in high school my youth pastor asked me to lead worship for the youth group, and so every Sunday morning and Wednesday night I would lead a few songs while strumming on an old hollow body electric guitar – without an amp – while occasionally joined by a friend on an old drum set with heads that hadn’t been changed in years. Let’s just say we had plenty of room for improvement.
Then my worship pastor began adding a few more “contemporary” songs to our Sunday morning services and asked me to play drums. Now, let’s be clear. I barely have enough coordination to keep a steady tempo using a handful of kick-snare patterns. But drum fills? All but the most basic are well beyond my skill level. Put those things together, and I might have been the least imaginative drummer in worship music history. I think I hold the record for most consecutive “ka-ka-boom” fills. (That’s two snares and a tom, for those unfamiliar with the wildly unstandardized world of phonetic drum pronunciation.)
I also wore a headset mike (a la Phil Collins) and would contribute harmonies whenever the moment was right – which in my view was pretty much always. I never met a third harmony part I didn’t love. The problem was that I barely had enough mental capacity to keep the beat alive to begin with. I could keep the beat OR I could sing in tune, but I couldn’t do both at once!
I know it wasn’t pretty. I’m certain that I would cringe to watch video of myself at those stages of my musical development. Thank goodness the iPhone hadn’t been invented yet. But those years were also crucial to my musical and spiritual development. I learned the responsibility of leadership from my youth pastor. I learned how to serve the church from my worship pastor who, for all the years I was there, was never paid. I learned to love a great harmony from our bass player, Karen. And I learned faithfulness from my mom who played piano and keys and never missed a Sunday.
Now I serve as the worship pastor of a church that is much bigger and has far more resources than the church where I grew up. Our worship team is a mixture of paid musicians and volunteers, all of whom are much better than I was in those early years. And I wonder, would there have been a place for “high school me” in my worship ministry?
And that’s the question I have for you as a worship leader. Where is the place for the developing musician in your ministry? Is there a place in your ministry where someone can be bad?
Our job is not just to facilitate worship – which is important! – it’s to develop worshippers, and specifically, to develop the next generation of worship leaders, guitar players, singers and organists that will serve their churches in the decades to come.
I know of a number of churches doing that task well – they are mentoring their singers, discipling young worship leaders, and training musicians and media team members. It’s hard, time-intensive work.
But others of us have lost sight of that priority. I see churches cancelling children’s music programs and student ensembles, bringing in paid musicians to every worship service, and ditching their choirs, thereby eliminating the places where an ordinary musician can grow and learn and serve the church. I see churches putting all their efforts into the production and quality of their worship events and foregoing the harder work of developing and discipling musicians and worship leaders.
And I get it. All the hip, cool, sexy churches are slick with a capital S. They make worship look like a rock concert. And in all those incredible worship videos, with the auto-tuned vocals and overdubbed guitars and Beat-Detective-perfect drums, the camera on the giant boom never once sweeps across the surging crowd and zooms in on a teenaged drummer wearing a Phil Collins mike and trying to decide between singing that third harmony part or keeping the right tempo.
I don’t have it all figured out yet. But this question is a crucial part of my journey. And it’s a foundational principle that I want our worship ministry to be built upon. My only encouragement to you is to make this question a part of your journey, too. Start doing the hard work of discipling and developing worshippers. Figure out what works for your church and your ministry.
Buy headset mikes for all your drummers.
But don’t get so caught up in what is hip, cool and sexy that you miss the decidedly unhip, uncool, and unsexy teenager who needs to learn from you what it means to serve the church.
He just needs a place where he can be bad for a little while.
David Ray is a father of three, husband to Jess, who is the talented one in the marriage, and the Worship Pastor at Bear Creek Baptist Church in Houston, Texas. The latest EP from Dave & Jess Ray, Goodness and Mercy, is available on iTunes and at daveandjessray.com.