Most church planters talk about their worship leader the way an apologetic dad talks about an uncoordinated child at a soccer game.
“He's got potential.”
“She's a hard worker.”
“If we could get some better players around him, he'd really shine.”
Church planters know well that you have to make the best of your situation and use what you have. Too often this translates into a worship leader getting thrown on stage that either learned 5 chords in his dorm room last semester, or couldn't explain the gospel if a $10,000 gift card to "Guitar Center" was on the line. Every worship leader starts somewhere, but what is an acceptable starting point? How do you choose between a leader that is godly and one that is gifted?
A Repentant and Humble Heart is Not Optional
The scriptures repeatedly address the heart in the context of worship. Worship is always a heart issue. Look for leaders and volunteers that love the person Jesus more than their act of service to him. Do you sense an adoration of Christ in their life? Are they quick to confess? Are they teachable? What makes their heart beat faster; musical excellence or gospel transformation in people's lives?
It's a mistake to assume that because the teaching pastor carries the primary responsibility of doctrine and vision, that the worship leader can be any guy in a plaid shirt who can nail the latest worship anthem. Would you want the congregation to follow their example off-stage?
Challenge your worship leader in character issues, and name pride when you see it, in a loving but truthful way. While you aren't looking for a perfect track record, you do want to see a pattern of repentance.
Skillful Leading is Also Important to God
Despite its popularity, the idea that skill doesn't matter to God is simply not biblical. God raises up godly and skilled artisans to serve in their craft. This doesn't mean your worship leader needs to have his own record on iTunes, but it does mean that “sloppiness drains the vertical dimension out of gathered worship” (Calvin). Skill does not make our sacrifice more acceptable to God, but it does help us serve our purpose as worship leaders more effectively. Being properly trained and prepared helps keep the focus where it belongs, on Jesus.
Be Wary of Those Who are More Eager to Lead Than Serve
Most church plants will have a few eager folks that want leadership roles out of the gates. A good worship leader will invite the elders or pastors in their church to confirm their calling. If someone approaches you and says: “God told me I am supposed to lead worship here,” you should be very cautious. It is the exception to the rule that a person making that sort of uninvited claim turns out to be a solid leader.
Don't Forget The Sheep On Stage
As a lead pastor or church planter, it is ultimately your responsibility to select, coach, and disciple you worship leader. The lead pastor may not do the hands-on discipleship or training work, but if that's you, don't delegate your involvement in the process. If you think you're too busy, consider the following: if your average church-goers attend a 90 minute service, three times a month, they will give you 54 hours of their attention annually. Depending on liturgy, your worship leader will get roughly 18-27 of those hours. Your worship leader sounds like a wise place to invest your time, doesn't it?
Give your worship leader specific feedback that is truthful but also gracious, and explain why their leadership development will help the mission. Not saying what everyone is thinking on a Sunday morning about your worship leader is not loving towards your leader or the flock.
While he knows very little about music, the most important coach I have had in my development is my lead pastor Harvey Turner. He has constantly challenged the “why” behind worship ministry decisions and invested in me personally in our 13 years of working together. Worship leaders need this kind of care and shepherding.
"Look for leaders and volunteers that love the person Jesus more than their act of service to him."
Get an audition process immediately. Whatever your audition process looks like, make it robust enough to assess an applicant's understanding of the gospel, spiritual maturity, and level of skill. Don't buy the lie that placing an unqualified leader on stage is better than going without corporate worship in song for a season. If you feel unqualified to make a holistic evaluation, reach out to a worship pastor you trust to help.
Your worship leader certainly needs theological training. Maybe he or she needs voice lessons too. No matter the size of your church, let's not propagate a double-standard where other leaders are tested for character and competency, but worship leaders get a pass. It will take effort and time but you can have both. Aren't the Savior and his bride worth it?
Here is a brief downloadable PDF of some questions to ask in the audition process of a worship leader or volunteer. It's not fool-proof, but simply a tool to identify both red flags that may come back to bite you later, and strengths that will serve you well down the road. As always, pray for wisdom and discernment when appointing leaders, and let them be tested.
Father, guide us by your Spirit in raising up worship leaders that adore your Son and desire to serve and equip the saints you entrust to us...leaders that love you more than their gifting, more than emotional highs, and more than perfect productions. Strengthen the unity between lead/teaching pastors and worship leaders. Protect our flocks from wolves, and help us to discern between those that need coaching and those that need to be pulled out of leadership. Grow us in our love for your people as shepherds. Shape our gatherings to bring you glory.