Book Review: Worship Leaders, We Are Not Rock Stars, by Stephen Miller
Stephen Miller, Worship Leaders, We Are Not Rock Stars. Moody Publishers, 2013. 128 pages. $13.99.
Imagine yourself entering a Christian church for the first time. You’re from a different religious background, curious about the teachings of Jesus. One of the first questions you might have to ask is: “Who is the guitar-wielding, distressed jeans-wearing, facial hair-sporting figure that appears before me on a larger-than-life Jumbotron, shrouded in stage fog and professional lighting, inviting me to sing along as he croons into a microphone?” Welcome to Christianity. You have just met one of our most beloved (and caricatured!) personalities: the worship leader.
It is these personalities that Stephen Miller addresses in his thoughtful appeal, Worship Leaders, We Are Not Rock Stars. Miller writes not as a dispassionate critic but as a concerned practitioner. He serves as the worship pastor at The Journey in St. Louis, Missouri.
DIAGNOSIS AND SOLUTION
What’s the problem among those who lead corporate worship in today’s churches? According to Miller, it’s the “prideful pursuit of platform and prominence” (17). He astutely observes that such a craving for self-fulfillment is not stylistically bound, but can take place among rockers and traditional choir-directors alike (16).
If that’s the diagnosis, what’s the solution? Rather than take the negative route and simply attack all that worship leaders do wrong, Miller adopts a positive approach. He sets out to define what a worship leader is and to persuade his readers to adopt an understanding of their role informed by biblical principles.
Miller succeeds wonderfully at this task. If I had been able to read his book when I was leading corporate worship as part of my job years ago, my ministry would have been better. He provides many correctives that worship leaders of all stripes would do well to heed. Here are three worth highlighting.
First, worship leading is far more a matter of character than of talent. Miller reminds those who lead in worship that they are first and foremost worshipers before they are leaders of anything (37). He beckons them to find their worth in the redemption purchased by Christ rather than in the stardom purchased by compromised integrity (49). He rightly prioritizes the worship leader’s role as a theologian (73) and an evangelist (100). And, in an area of church life where “creativity” can be used to justify all sorts of unwise practices, he wisely reminds his readers that “art is a wonderful servant but a terrible master” (110).
Second, Miller emphasizes the congregational nature of corporate worship. Nothing undermines an entertainment atmosphere in public worship like the reality that Christians are called to be “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19). Therefore, Miller is right to insist on music that is simple enough for all to be able to participate: “We want to make it as easy as possible for people to engage as we call them to make melody with their hearts to the Lord” (111). I would add that when your church turns down the volume of the musical accompaniment, the volume of the singing congregation might just reach new heights as the words become more audible and worshipers hear one another articulating majestic truths.
Related to this is a third strength: Miller advocates structuring the worship service to reflect the contours of the gospel message itself. He suggests what I might call a “liturgy with a lower-case ‘l’”—not so much a predictable and inflexible form as a framework for developing themes over the course of the service. Using Isaiah 6:1-8 as a guide, Miller proposes a five-“movement” structure: Call to Worship, Adoration/Praise/Thanksgiving, Confession/Repentance, Assurance, and Sending/Commitment (84-88). It would benefit countless Christians if more churches rejected the flat approach of a handful of songs plus a sermon, and adopted a more content-rich structure such as this one.
The thoughtfulness of Miller’s overall liturgical form, however, only makes it more perplexing that he does not mention how preaching and the ordinances contribute to the proclamation of the gospel in the course of a worship service. Both of these should be part of Christian doxology: God is worshiped as the preacher expounds the truth of his Word, and as the gospel is displayed visibly in baptism and the Lord’s Supper. One is left to assume that Miller overlooked these essential elements due to his focus on worship leaders in particular.
THE BEST CONTRIBUTION TO THE WORSHIP CONVERSATION
Beyond these practical suggestions, Miller’s best contribution to the worship conversation comes when he recommends that we think about a worship leader as fulfilling the biblical office of elder or deacon. He argues, “The Bible never says that being able to sing and play an instrument calls someone to lead His church” (58). Therefore, the worship leader must conform to scriptural expectations for church leadership. Such a high standard of character and doctrinal trustworthiness is necessary given Miller’s definition of a worship leader: “A person who exemplifies worship in all areas of life as an example for the church to emulate; who pursues God with everything and lives a life of holiness that worships through obedience in all things; who leads the church in an all-encompassing lifestyle of worship” (24). That sounds like a pastor to me!
One implication of this is that if your church is looking for someone to lead corporate worship, don’t first try to find a charismatic personality who’s a guitar ace. Instead, seek out a shepherd (a pastor) or a servant (a deacon) who is qualified for that biblical office and who is also competent to serve the flock through worship leadership.
In fact, I would have liked for Miller to follow this argument through to its logical conclusion: how it would affect our language. Miller advocates keeping the “worship leader” moniker (23), but if the person leading corporate worship occupies a biblical office, then he should receive the appropriate title.
ONE LINGERING QUESTION
This discussion about biblical office leads to one lingering question. If the worship leader is essentially a pastor or deacon, then does every church need a worship leader in the same way that it needs pastors and deacons? Surely the answer must be “no.” Plenty of churches have no designated leader of corporate worship beyond the pastor himself. My own large church in an urban area doesn’t have a “worship leader,” unless you count the volunteer who coordinates our musicians. A pastor or elder usually leads our corporate worship through words of exhortation, prayer, and instruction about the songs.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to argue here against the worship leader position—I was one for many years! I simply want to observe that if we have assumed that a “worship leader” (read: polished musical superstar) is necessary for our churches, we may have unwittingly built the music stage at the front of their churches into a pride-promoting pedestal—one that makes corrective books such as this one necessary.
It will be up to each congregation to decide if having a designated pastor or deacon of worship is wise. If so, then Miller’s book is a wonderful introduction to what should characterize that leader. For all the worship leaders out there—and for all those who lead in corporate worship through song without that title—serve yourself and your church by letting Miller’s thought-provoking book critique your heart. And then respond by praising the One who beckons sinners like us into the joy of worshiping his name.