Are We Training Worship Leaders For A Church That No Longer Exists?


crumbling churchWorship change is inevitable as congregations consider the fluidity of their surrounding cultures and contexts. It would stand to reason, then, that the leaders who facilitate worship in those ever changing congregations must also learn how to develop, cultivate and lead change by listening to the voice of their community and congregation.

How will those leaders be prepared to recognize and respond to cultural shifts if the educational institutions that train them for ministry aren’t also embracing a comparable attitude of acceptance and adaptation?

Some colleges and seminaries have already modified their educational and methodological systems in response to the changing churches and cultures while still respecting the foundational tenets of the past. Their commitment to considering the pulse of the present and flexibility for the future has resulted in renewed enthusiasm and substantial enrollment growth.

Other institutions have been hesitant to embrace those needed changes and as a result have experienced waning interest and enrollment decline. Their curriculum seems to be preparing the students they have left for a church that no longer exists. If this is your educational institution, maybe some of the following suggestions could serve as a starting point to begin some new conversations.

  • Help students discover that music and worship are not exclusively synonymous. If music is the only driver during their educational preparation it will inevitably surface as the primary point of contention during their congregational implementation.
  • Don’t compromise their preparation for congregational acclimation in the name of institutional accreditation.
  • Open their eyes to the foundational tenets of worship based on history, theology, Scripture, prayer and communion before immersing them in the music.
  • In addition to traditional musical analysis, teach them to be conversant in the language and praxis of chord charts, capos and kick drums.
  • Educate them in the various and fluid dynamics of worship teams and praise bands as well as choirs and orchestras.
  • Keep them abreast of the current audio, video, technology and social media trends.
  • Expand their awareness of the arts to include other genres and media expressions beyond music. Help them understand that embracing the arts as both verbal and visual relieves the pressure for music to do it all.
  • Help them understand that leading music doesn’t necessarily equate to leading people.
  • Spend multiple semesters preparing them for staff and congregational relationships. Most worship ministry failures and forced terminations are as a result of leadership and relational conflict and rarely occur as a result of musical deficiencies.
  • Help them understand and appreciate the relational dynamics of multigenerations before ever considering the musical dynamics of those generations.
  • Train them to be curious and open but also judicious students of the culture.
  • Provide resources and principles to help them weather the changes that will inevitably occur in the future. Model healthy change that values conviction, collaboration and patience.
  • Encourage students to read ecumenically and study worship through the eyes of various denominations, faiths, cultures and generations.
  • Remind them constantly that their college or seminary training is not the end but the beginning of worship education. A terminal degree should not signify the death of learning.
  • Require institutional administrators and faculty to attend worship conferences, concerts, classes and workshops outside of their areas of expertise, stylistic preferences, contexts, cultures and even comfort. How can they teach new worship and media languages if they don’t speak them?

17 Responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Neil Brown on 13.10.13 at 8:51 pm

    Good stuff. I have been advocating this kind of nuts-and-bolts training for years. And, I wouldn’t mind being part of a faculty that espoused this approach to worship leadership education

  2. Posted by Bill Simpson on 13.10.13 at 8:51 pm

    I pray you will be heard on this, as you hit the nail on the head once again. Your suggestions are both targeted and measured–that is, they effectively address real needs without being overreactive. I always appreciate your thoughtful words. Keep up the great work!

  3. Posted by Dennis Allen on 13.10.13 at 8:51 pm

    Great words, as always, David. In fact, I am going to have my “Intro To Church Music Ministry” students read this entry and critique Truett-McConnell College on how effectively they think we are preparing them for music ministry. I am really proud of our department’s broad sweep of training for our students, but I’m sure we can always do better. One of my assignments over the next couple of years is to analyze the current contemporary worship and church music degrees, and make adjustments as needed to content. So, this topic is constantly on my mind. Thanks for the challenge!

  4. Posted by John Hollan on 13.10.13 at 8:51 pm

    Great words, David. Spot on.

  5. Posted by David Gauthier on 13.10.13 at 8:51 pm

    Fabulous and realistic observation, insight and input. So practical for current ministers of music and pastors as well. May we always strive to be “real”.

  6. Posted by Wayne Causey on 13.10.13 at 8:51 pm

    David, thanks for articulating our collective challenge so well. I coordinate the church music program at Belmont University and and am evaluating the program in light of some of these exact issues. I am afraid we are indeed training students for a job that no longer exists. Thanks for the good word and i appreciate the graphic as sad as it is to see.

  7. Posted by jimmy millikin on 13.10.13 at 8:51 pm

    When and who began designating the music leader the worship leader. I believe that should be the pastor.

  8. Posted by Roger O'Neel on 13.10.13 at 8:51 pm

    Great post David! Right on. Very good suggestions for all teaching church music and worship. It is a challenge to cover how to be effective at staff and personal relationships while our students are still in school. Would love to hear how others are doing this…

  9. Posted by Vernon M Whaley on 13.10.13 at 8:51 pm

    David, you are right on target. It is my conviction that our call to the Gospel Ministry is a calling to meet the needs of people within the context of their culture. And, if anything, our music and worship is a reflection of the changing norms within our various cultures. Maybe those of us with the responsibility to train and equip don’t always ask the right questions. Keep up the good work. Thanks for asking the right questions.

  10. Posted by Skate To Where The Puck Is Going | Worship Links on 13.10.13 at 8:51 pm

    […] is going. That’s the phrase that went through my head when I read David Manner’s post Are We Training Worship Leaders For A Church That No Longer Exists? David […]

  11. Posted by Craig Collins on 13.10.13 at 8:51 pm

    David, by and large I agree with all your points regarding the training of future church musicians, but that said, I can’t help but have some concerns with regards to your first paragraph. A part of me thinks that sounds a bit like the inmates are running the asylum. Are we hired just to give them what they want and not what they perhaps need? Are we not there to lead and teach?

    In several churches I have been charged with starting a creative worship planning team for traditional worship, and tried to get the group to think “outside the box”, to look at creative and new ways and means of worshiping. I have been told several times by people asked to serve on the committee who have no liturgical or worship training whatsoever that they “know” what worship is supposed to be like, know what they want, and they don’t need a committee or anyone telling them how to worship. I have encountered many people who had no understanding of the basic elements of worship, what was important in worship and why (both from a scriptural and theological basis) yet had very definite ideas of what they wanted, and often were quite capricious and cavalier about what they wanted to add or subtract from worship. If the present and the future of church music are that we are hired to just give people what they want, then I guess I need to start looking for a new career, because that’s not what I believe I am called by God to do.

  12. Posted by David Manner on 13.10.13 at 8:51 pm

    Craig, thanks for the response. I agree with your voiced concerns about the first paragraph based on your interpretation of what I wrote. The “voice” of a congregation and community, however, is beyond just giving them what they want.

    In their book, “The Voice of Our Congregation,” Terry York and David Bolin proposed that each congregation has a worship voice unique to that congregation. They suggest that, “This voice, and its wisdom, is found by listening to its overtones. It is the voice heard and shared when the congregation prays together, eats together, cries and rejoices together. It is the voice heard and shared when a congregation works out its differences, blesses its children, buries its saints, and sings its carols of love and hope.”

    The shared events of life impact the worship DNA of each congregation. The unique worship voice is shaped while suffering through the moral failure of a leader; enduring the grief of a catastrophic tragedy; surviving a split; rebuilding a storm-damaged facility; or encountering exponential growth. Can a congregation ever worship the same during or beyond the occurrence of one of these events? And yet, those events serve as the unique framework for the worship voice of each congregation. York and Bolin remind us that “it is the work of the congregation to find its voice, and, having found it, to continually refine that voice toward clarity and beauty in ministry and worship.”

    It is our responsibility as worship leaders to help them discover their unique voice which moves us way beyond just giving them what they want.

  13. Posted by Allen S. Hendricks on 13.10.13 at 8:51 pm

    Great post David. Thanks to Mark Powers (SC Baptist) for sharing this with me. Like Dennis above, my students will be directed to this post for their own good and with permission to hold us accountable for the content of their education.

    Music in the church has not been stripped of its responsibility to minister. We must train “worship” leaders and not just song leaders. Worship leaders are concerned first with proclaiming the Truth of the Gospel of Christ, selecting music with lyrics that are theologically sound. Worship leaders intentionally plan and lead corporate worship. Worship leaders recognize that they are called and placed as missionaries in a specific place with a specific culture or in some cases specific cultures. They follow God’s leading to minister to and through the indigenous culture(s) of their field. I’ve always taught to leave things better than you found them. However, worship leaders prayerfully look to God for His definition of better for that place at that time. Worship leaders are keenly aware that their Lead Pastor is that congregation’s on-site worship leader. They also know (as do genuine Lead Pastors) that Christ is THE Worship Leader in the present before Holy God.

    Yes, worship leaders need to be prepared to minister to and through the church that does exist but their base of training must be broad enough to prevent cultural relevance too quickly becoming cultural obsolescence. Upon the foundation of sound theology, follow with relational Christian leadership, and finish with solid musicianship, including “chord charts, capos and kick drums.”

  14. Posted by luke on 13.10.13 at 8:51 pm

    I understand what the writer of this article says, but we can talk about the good ole` times until we`re blue in the face, the reality is we`re losing our generation if we don`t change the packaging of what we`re presenting,Jesus. Can somewhat tell me what did all these past music writers composers get their inspiration from??? I could tell you, from people before them, maybe the gregorian chants, baroque style music, classical composers……this argument keeps going on and on, We fail to recognize the evolution of mankind, we are evolving, and we have to adapt and look forward and use today`s technology to enhance our quality of everything. From music to lighting, etc…..We can now do it, in the past we couldn`t . I love Andy Griffith and Mayberry times , too, but we need to look ahead…..Why is it, at home, at work we like to have the latest of everythin, but when it comes to church, we`re always cutting corners…….Move ahead, in any job if you don`t think about the future, you`re not going to make it. Why do we tolerate activities in the church to still run like 100 years ago. All 4 Gospels and the Epistles are proactive in nature. They talk about going into all the world and making disciples and baptizing them in the name of the Father Son and The Holy Spirit….not saying, Well we used to do it this way”…..So much more could be said, but i have to go be proactive, instead of harboring on the past.

  15. Posted by Craig Collins on 13.10.13 at 8:51 pm


    Thanks for your thoughtful response. In light of the definition by York and Bolin which you present in that response, I am in agreement.

  16. Posted by Dave Briley on 13.10.13 at 8:51 pm

    David – Absolutely spot on! As I read down the list of suggestions, it conjured up many thoughts and feelings I was having 30-40 years ago as I went through college and seminary. Why couldn’t have some of those suggestions been embraced years earlier? I received great musical education at both Baptist institutions for which I am extremely grateful, but lacking in training for the “real” church we (I) would be inheriting in leadership and the culture that was already changing before our very eyes as we entered the 80’s-90’s. It appeared to me then and less now, that our educational institutions and denominations are hesitant to embrace the nuance in cultural shifts and adapting accordingly. Fortunately that is changing more rapidly to meet the current needs of our churches and I welcome it! Thanks for your thoughts!

  17. Posted by jay ezelle on 13.10.13 at 8:51 pm

    Very good insight David. As someone who continues to learn what true Biblical worship is and looks like, your blog has really helped me understand that the Heart has to be in tune with that of Jesus’ if we are ever going to help lead others to the throne room, whether by instruments, leading, guiding…etc. if a true love for Jesus, His people, and a sound Biblical theology are all in place, editing styles and format come with the territory, but the core always stays the same. JESUS.

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