For several weeks now, Kanye West has been grabbing attention and headlines with his “Sunday Service” impromptu worship concerts across the country, news of his conversion, a new album entitled “Jesus Is King,” and appearances in a couple of high-profile mega-churches like Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church. The artist’s moves have generated mixed reactions, from elation to skepticism. For my part, I think there’s a great deal to be excited about and to give God praise for.
However, Kanye’s appearances at churches prompts a question for me. Not about Kanye, but about churches and standards of Christian worship. Think for a moment: Could Kanye West be a worship pastor at your church?
If you answer, “yes,” what does that reveal about the expectations and standards your church holds for public worship? What qualifications for leading God’s people in public worship does your church require? Is the primary (sole?) qualification musical skill and creativity? What about character and Christian maturity? Should the persons who lead the gathered assembly of God’s people not only point us to Jesus through the music we sing but also point us to Jesus through their lives and teaching? After all, music does teach (Col. 3:16).
But that last sentence—music does teach (Col. 3:16)—suggests something about the nature of gathered Christian worship. It’s more than a concert. It’s more than hype and flow and even feeling. It’s instruction and admonishment. Corporate singing is, in fact, part of the ministry of the word. We should be singing things that are theologically true. Leaders should introduce and bridge songs in ways that are pastorally wise and theologically responsible.
So, what does it mean for a church to invite Kanye West to “lead their service” or “perform” during their Lord’s Day gathering? Again, I’m not interested in critiquing Kanye. I watched the “Sunday service” in Salt Lake City, Utah. I was impressed by his testimony. I found his theological correction of “Jesus Walks” very compelling and edifying. The music was banging—as is “Jesus Is King.” Kanye is fine, although he’s a new Christian. But how do our worship leaders compare to Kanye—not in musical ability—but in maturity, character, discernment and pastoral bearing?
Here are three principles for leadership of congregational worship.
1. Pastors should lead God’s people in worship.
Pastoral ministry is more than preaching. As mentioned earlier, the ministry of the word is more than preaching; it includes public praise as well. As the church officers specifically called to lead the ministry of the word, pastors should have primary responsibility for the corporate singing of God’s people.
By this, I do not mean the senior pastor must be the one who does all the singing and plays all the instruments. Or that everyone in the music ministry needs to be a pastor. I simply mean the pastors should supervise public worship, select or guide the selection of songs, and make sure what’s sang and said in public worship is theologically accurate, true, edifying, and pastorally sensitive.
2. Worship leaders should be mature and sound in character.
Character trumps musicianship and vocal ability. We never want to sacrifice character or competence. But if we must lean in one direction or the other, we should choose character. We should choose character for at least two reasons. First, the Bible chooses character in 1 Timothy 3 and other places. Wherever ministry qualifications are the focus of a biblical text (1 Tim. 3:1-13; 1 Peter 5:1-4; 1 Cor. 4:1-2; etc), the biblical text emphasizes spiritual maturity and never emphasizes technical competence. We should emphasize what the Bible emphasizes: character.
Second, we want to emphasize character over competence (if we have to!) because worship affects people. Christian praise of God should involve the entire being (Mark 12:30). Such worship should be in spirit and in truth (John 4:24)—never feigned (Isa. 29:13; Matt. 15:7-9) or manipulative (1 Thes. 2:3-4). The worship leader causes us to feel a great deal that brings us joy. So, congregations can get emotionally attached to those who lead them in public praise. That attachment can be disastrous if it involves a person of unproven or unsound character.
Third, we want to avoid putting unproven persons in the Satanic and unique temptations and pressures leaders face. The alarming rationale of 1 Tim. 3:6 applies to worship leaders as much as pastors. Pride and the enemy’s condemnation can befall the novice with sudden force. That’s why it’s unwise for the Joel Osteen’s of the world to take a new Christian like Kanye–however talented–and platform them inside the church. The world and worldly Christians may fawn over him because of his celebrity. But wise Christians should understand that premature promotion poses a danger for Kanye and any other novice worship leader. We should lovingly keep them from such danger by allowing them time to mature over years rather than months.
3. Worship leaders should have some theological training.
Because public singing is a ministry of the word, the lyrical content of our songs is very important. We must sing true things about God and His work in the world. We must sing things that anchor our faith and hope in what is actually promised in the scripture. Our music ministers should provide the kind of pastoral care and commentary that nourishes the saints in the “green pastures” the Lord leads us through. For that to happen in consistently rich ways, our worship leaders (anyone directing the congregation in singing and speaking up front) should have some theological training.
Not everyone needs to go to seminary or have degrees in theology to lead worship. No one in the first century church had such degrees. But, some should go on to gain degrees where there is capacity and desire. Others should participate in courses and conferences that include theological teaching. Every worship leader should receive some discipleship and theological formation from the pastors in their local churches. And, independently, as disciples, worship leaders should be committed to reading solid doctrinal books alongside the things they consume regarding music and singing. The worship leaders who know God best will also lead worship best.
If Kanye West—a new Christian with exceptional musical gifts—were in my city, I’d be happy for the sheep in my care to check out one of his “Sunday services” gatherings. I think they would be highly edified.
But Christians should not expect to be led Sunday after Sunday by someone with musical gifting but as yet undeveloped Christian character and theology. What we enjoy as entertainment cannot be safely inserted in the place of congregational worship. More is going on than artistry. In our services, we’re being led into the presence of a God who has holy standards for both how we worship and who leads us in it.