In his chapter of the book For the Beauty of the Church, Eugene Peterson draws the distinction between a job and a vocation, which is very, very helpful for church musicians and worship leaders to grasp. Peterson says,
In our present culture, the sharp distinction between a job and a vocation is considerably blurred […] How do I keep the calling, the vocation of pastor, from being drowned out by job descriptions gussied up in glossy challenges and visions and strategies clamoring incessantly for my attention? (85).
Peterson explains that a “job” by definition, can be defined by a task(s) that are somewhat clearly defined, and the success or failure of the “job” is measured by the success or failure to complete those tasks and see the corresponding results. No results? No wages. Job fail.
But he defines “vocation” as something bigger, specifically related to being a Christian artist in the Church. The argument is that vocation means you love something – be it oil painting, carpentry, or playing the cello – so much that you’ll do it whether you’re paid to or not. It’s just who you are; and you may work other “jobs” that have nothing to do with your true love of a hobby or art form, but you’ll keep investing in that because the love goes much deeper. You think about that thing, and care about it for much stronger reasons than making a wage. It’s part of who you are, not just what you do.
This is so important for musicians and worship leaders in the Church (who are, or should aspire to be, artists in their own right). The certain level of “pop” worship music culture today has created a model that isn’t all good for your typical church musician and worship leader. You see, the goal isn’t necessarily to ever become a paid, touring “worship” musician. Now please understand I’m trying to address a cultural trend that’s bigger than any one well-meaning and popular worship leader or recording artist. At this point in my life, I’ve been leading or helping lead church music for Sunday morning and midweek gatherings in my church for the better part of 14 years. And I’ve seen the pop-worship-music model affect church musicians in a couple of interesting ways.
First, I’ve seen a certain amount of discontent spread among quite a few musicians – discontent with leading music in a church that either can’t promise a pathway to touring and other kinds of bigger influence, or discontent with a church that doesn’t seem to promise much artistic encouragement or challenge. And I don’t just mean to critique my own home church. I’ve known plenty of musicians who have flocked to churches where they’re really not needed, because these churches seem to have a promise of promotion or of being a pathway to upper echelons of the worship music “scene.” People there are recording music, they’re writing songs, they have a worship leader who’s worked in Nashville with some big recording names – and musicians who could bless a congregation with their talent and passion for good music, go where there might be a chance of moving beyond the local church, to a bigger music scene.
Second, I’ve seen quite a few musicians with great promise and potential, never actually rise to that potential because they don’t believe they have what it takes to see any real “measurable” success in their church’s worship arts. They don’t have a desire or have quite the skill set to go the “pop worship” route, and tour or record, so they stop short of faithfully serving their local church, because the whole “pop worship” job scene has somehow become connected with a philosophy of local church life. We worship leaders often think that if we’re not going to record an album or go play Christian music concerts, or if we’re a musician who isn’t gifted to be the official music leader or worship pastor of our church, then what’s the point?
The point, actually, is this – God calls believers to teach, admonish, and encourage one another whenever we meet, with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19-20, Col. 3:16). The Holy Spirit exhorts us in the Old Testament to “bless the Lord at all times,” and to have his praise continually on our lips; to play skillfully on the strings, and sing and make melody to the Lord, for He has been gracious and kind to His people. Singing helps the Word of Christ dwell richly in us, helps us remember and keep close to the God who called us to Himself. And those musically gifted in the Church should be involved, deeply, in helping their local church families to sing, and sing well.
We need a greater sense of vocation in how we serve our churches with music. Let’s forget about the “tangible” goals of making it big, gigging and touring with our band, or recording albums. Forget about the job descriptions, in a sense, and define your role as something bigger. Or, let’s fit the job descriptions within the larger vocational perspective. When this sense of vocation replaces the pressure to participate in the popular worship scene, we’re freed to pour even more of ourselves into music and worship arts. We’re freed to be faithful, week-in and week-out, helping our churches sing together. Sometimes serving our local churches will grow, maybe unexpectedly, to produce a more public reach of ministry (by recording or taking your band on the road); but often, the only compensation many church musicians will receive for their hard work is those times of singing, and the good pleasure of our King. And that has to be enough for all of us. So we have to think vocationally.
In an increasingly post-Christian culture, jobs in the “pop worship” scene may find it more and more difficult to maintain. There may not be as many record deals, or paychecks to go around for doing this stuff. But the Church will remain, and will need good music. The Church will always need vocational artists that, regardless of their jobs and stations in life, will think and care deeply about the singing of their church, and work hard in their extra hours to practice, create, and serve their church families with as much artistry, excellence, and joy as God grants them, and for as long as the Lord tarries.
Josh Starkey is director of corporate worship and music at Grace Brethren Church in Simi Valley, CA. He and his wife, Jenny, have three small kids, and have been part of their church family for over 10 years. Josh blogs at My Borrowed Words. You can follow him on twitter @joshuastarkey.