The greatest worship leader I’ve ever known never sang a single note.
He led worship for literally thousands throughout his life. Yet, he didn’t do many of the things those of us who consider ourselves worship leaders today typically think of as essential to our roles.
Al Clifft was my college choir director. An equally humble and inspiring man, he knew his students all by name and invested in them personally. We all knew him as “Al” and when he passed away last year he left a legacy that I know will continue to impact generations of worship leaders to come.
So often in this culture that has been heavily shaped by modern musical genres, we find ourselves consciously or unconsciously emulating what we experience not only at concerts and performances but also in many other churches. A worship band that occupies an elevated stage with bright lights focused on it is a very familiar scene for many of us and seems to be the way we do worship now. Yet I believe that so many of us struggle in this role as we find ourselves striving for transparency while the eyes of the congregation are often on us. Regardless of where we want the focus to be, it can be difficult to encourage our people to ignore what they see and focus on the unseen while the band is very noticeably front and center in a very physical sense.
I think the reality of this somewhat awkward dichotomy first hit me when I took my first full time worship leading position at a church right after graduating from college. Looking back on it now, I doubt I was really conscious of what was different between what I was doing there as a worship leader with a band and my experiences in the four years prior to that as a member of a worship choir. I knew that it felt different though.
The struggle we so often face is one that, I believe, might be overcome simply by redefining that analogy of a “band with an audience” to that of a “director with a choir.” We all want our people to sing, but how often are we treating them like a choir?
Al led worship through the relationship he had with his choir. The concerts we put on were truly some of the most worshipful experiences that I have ever been a part of, but his focus was always on facilitating the choir, which became the instrument of worship.
Imagine the shift that would happen then next time you step onto a stage to lead if you saw the people in front of you as a choir of voices taking their cues from you as they sing out melodies to their creator. Would the way you lead them be different? In our performance-oriented culture I think we have sometimes fallen victim to the temptation to perfect our image in such a way that we are no longer leading or directing worship. It might actually take some of the pressure off to approach Sunday worship as a “choir rehearsal” rather than a polished show for God. After all, He doesn’t want our perfection. He wants our hearts. In fact, the Bible is very clear that God’s desire is always for our hearts and not for sacrifice or religious activity. Consider this sobering passage from the book of Amos about Israel’s tendency to put the appearance of worship before an obedient heart.
Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Amos 5:23-24
At the risk of making us all rethink our callings let me offer some encouragement. If the act of standing up in front of your church body has ever started to feel like a religious activity or a show, think of yourself as the man or woman God has specifically called to that congregation to direct his choir.
For me, this changes the whole dynamic of what I am here to do and gives me confidence to lead with the kind of spirit that Al had: one of humility, authenticity and full of love and compassion for those he served.
Eric Heinrichs is a proud husband and dad of five awesome kids. He has been involved in music ministry from an early age and has led worship throughout Southern California in many different churches spanning a wide variety of sizes, denominations, and musical styles. The Heinrichs family currently serves at Saddleback Covenant Church in Mission Viejo, CA. To contact Eric you can visit www.worshiptones.org.