“Worship Leader”?

I hear the term all the time, but it still makes me scratch my head in puzzlement.

Of course, those who use the term “Worship Leader” are referring to the person who directs the music during a church service.

But is such a term accurate? Is it biblical?

(I wanted to add, “Or is it propagating heretical notions about the proper role of music and the meaning of “worship” in the life of believers”? But I won’t. Just feels overly snarky.)

I’ve already argued that it’s imprecise to call the singing portion of a church service “worship.” So maybe there’s a better term than “Worship Leader” for the person who facilitates that portion of the service.

Maybe Scripture can provide a better term. Let’s scan the most musical pages of the Bible, the Psalms.

Psalm 4 labels this person the “choirmaster,” or “Chief Musician,” or “director of music.” Psalm 5, 6, 8, 9, 11, 12, 13, 14, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 31, 36, 39, 40, 41, 42, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48 … oh, and most of the rest of the Psalms … identify the person leading the music with this same term.

Searching through various translations of the Bible, I see that the term “Worship Leader” never once appears in Scripture. Only terms like “chief musician” and “director of music.”

A tangential problem I have with the term “Worship Leader,” besides its being unsubstantiated by Scripture, is who is associated by it. Why is the person behind the music stand a “Worship Leader,” while the person behind the pulpit a mere preacher? Aren’t both contributing to the worship service? Aren’t both inviting us to engage the Lord?

Yes, we all love music. It usually resonates with us with more emotionally than preaching, or other elements in a worship service. Music feels more spiritual. It feels more worshipful. But that’s no reason to equate “music” with “worship.” And that’s no reason to reserve the term “worship leader” for the person holding the guitar.

About Author

Ted Slater

Ted Slater is part webgeek and part wordsmith; he feels equally comfortable massaging code and editing prose. He gets plenty of opportunity to explore both interests as senior website developer with Liberty Alliance. Ted is a follower of Christ, husband to Ashleigh, and papa to Olivia and Ava and Savannah and Noah and Dorothy.

  • I have been thinking about this post for a couple days and would like to respond. I feel qualified to respond since I am what most might call a worship leader, although my title is Pastor of Music Ministries. I have been struggling with whether I ought to say anything or not because I don’t want to violate 2 Timothy 2:14. (Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen.) So to avoid a quarrel, I’ll start with the positive. I love that you are THINKING! Nice going. Not only are you thinking critically, you are thinking biblically, even better. You have some good points, despite your self-proclaimed tendency for being overly snarky. 🙂 I think, though, that it is possible that you might be OVER-thinking the title of worship leader, when your blog post seems to be more about a misunderstanding of the concept of worship itself by the modern Church. From my perspective Worship Leader is the very general nomenclature describing a person in a position of leadership who presides/guides/facilitates/leads a service of worship. I would not, however, limit his/her leadership to only the music; and that may be the point of contention for you. 25 years ago, what we call a worship leader would have been called the music director, but I think we as a Church have learned a lot about what it means to lead worship; it is about more than directing music, as you have said. Your concern about the confusion in our churches about the definition of worship is valid. The 21st Century church has diluted worship to ONLY the musical portion of the service. At this point I feel it necessary again to call into question your language. You say, “But that’s no reason to equate music with worship”. In a way, you are right. The emotional component/power of music is not a good reason to equate it with worship. A good reason to equate music with worship is God’s Word. It is filled with teaching which closely relates music with worship. So don’t get yourself into an unrelated semantic problem here. Maybe I’m way off, but I think what you were trying to get at is that worship is not limited to a 10-20 minute time of singing on a Sunday morning. When the Body of Christ gathers to sing, we are worshipping, but worship is a broader concept than this special time of corporate worship. Worship is a communication between man and God which can take many forms, some personal, others corporate: from music on a Sunday morning, to praying together as a family after breakfast, to a lifestyle of holiness as prescribed in Romans 12:1-2.
    I wouldn’t go as far as saying ‘worship leader’ is an unbiblical term. I mean, there aren’t any ushers in the Bible either and I wouldn’t call them unbiblical as much as extra-biblical. And I think you are distracting from your main idea when you use the phrase “mere preacher”. It almost seems like you are belittling the explicitly biblical, God-given role and appointment of preacher. Careful, brother. Of course the preacher/pastor is inviting us to engage the Lord, but he has a title of his own and Spirit-appointed one at that.
    While I applaud your instinct to go to the Scriptures when facing a difficult question, I’d suggest that going to the Psalms to study about New Testament Church roles is a slippery slope. We don’t employ any Levites or priests, but that doesn’t make our church unbiblical; that was a different dispensation (not to wander off into an unrelated doctrinal discussion.). So to say that worship leader is unbiblical because the term is not in the Psalms isn’t good hermaneutics (Bible interpretation).
    So to sum up, a worship leader ought to be keenly aware that his role is spiritually deeper and broader than simply directing music. It is a role of ushering God’s people into His very presence. (Matt. 18:20) Let us (Christians/Christ-followers) not be distracted by the emotional appeal of music and in so doing, mistake the medium for worship itself. Worship is about acknowledging God, praising Him for who He is, remembering what He has done through history, especially through Jesus Christ, and encouraging each other in the process. (Proverbs 3:6, Ephesians 1:17-23, 3:18-19, 5:19 Philippians 1:21, Hebrews 12:28-29, John 4:23-24)

  • Thank you, Jonathan, for your comments.

    I appreciate your encouragement to “not be distracted by the emotional appeal of music and in so doing, mistake the medium for worship itself.” That’s a big point of what I’m trying to do in my recent blog posts, and am glad that that came through in my writing.

    I also agree that my overreaching goal here is to address a “misunderstanding of the concept of worship itself by the modern Church.” In this case, I’m simply exploring how a misunderstanding of “worship” may manifest itself in the titles we use on Sunday.

    I do have to disagree with your concern about discussing “words.” I am very concerned with being precise, and being accurate, in my theology. Words convey meaning, and the misuse of words confuses meaning.

    G.K. Chesterton wrote something I agree with:

    “What is the good of words if they aren’t important enough to quarrel over? Why do we choose one word more than another if there isn’t any difference between them? If you called a woman a chimpanzee instead of an angel, wouldn’t there be a quarrel about a word? If you’re not going to argue about words, what are you going to argue about? Are you going to convey your meaning to me by moving your ears? The Church and the heresies always used to fight about words, because they are the only thing worth fighting about.”

    I’d like to address some specific things you wrote now. Your words will be quoted, and mine follow.

    “From my perspective Worship Leader is the very general nomenclature describing a person in a position of leadership who presides/guides/facilitates/leads a service of worship.”

    I disagree. The *senior pastor* leads the worship service (which may include music, offering, sermon, the reading of Scripture, Communion, and other things). The pastor of music ministries is under his authority, and is primarily responsible for the music portion of the worship service.

    “I wouldn’t go as far as saying ‘worship leader’ is an unbiblical term. I mean, there aren’t any ushers in the Bible either and I wouldn’t call them unbiblical as much as extra-biblical.”

    The role of a congregational “worship leader” is neither explicitly used, nor implicitly described, particularly in the New Testament. Scripture does, however, speak of an “usher-type” role within the church (Acts 6:2f) …

    In the Old Testament, the closest thing I could find was “director of music.” Nothing about “worship,” and nothing in the New Testament. Indeed, music is rarely mentioned in the New Testament. When it is mentioned, it simply closes a meal (Matthew 26:30), or is used to teach/correct (Colossians 3:16), or is used as a kind of impromptu doxology (Romans 11:36, Luke 1:46ff). Hm. Actually, neither of those last verses say anything about “singing”; indeed, Paul and Mary may not have sung those words. Interesting …

    “So to sum up, a worship leader ought to be keenly aware that his role is spiritually deeper and broader than simply directing music. It is a role of ushering God’s people into His very presence.”

    I’ve heard that phrase before — “ushering God’s people into His very presence” — but I can’t make sense of it. God is omnipresent. I am ALWAYS in His very presence. I cannot be further “ushered” into His very presence. His presence cannot be “invoked,” and just as we cannot escape His presence we cannot be any nearer His presence.

    The songleader, however, CAN help facilitate engagement with God, by “magnifying” Him and helping me engage with relevant and sound doctrines (e.g., what Christ has accomplished on the cross, what heavenly destiny awaits us, how mysterious and awesome our God is, how He has delivered us and will deliver us through trials, and so on).

    I’ve been serving on-stage as a “worship team” keyboard/piano/organ player for decades, since before grad school. That may explain why I think so deeply about the use of music in Christendom.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts, Jonathan!

  • Hmm. Interesting. Y’all are using some big words … too big for me, but here’s my two cents.

    First of all, I find it interesting that when Jonathan mentions not wanting to quarrel over “words” he quotes 2 Timothy, but when Slater mentions wanting to quarrel over “words” he quotes G.K. Chesterton.

    Secondly, I disagree with most of Slater’s “rebuttals”. I don’t believe I’ve ever been in a service where the senior pastor hadn’t given “authority of the worship service” over to the “director of music”; Acts 6:2 references feeding widows, not an “usher-like” (collecting offering/tithes) position; even if “worship leader” is never explicitly or implicitly mentioned in scripture doesn’t make it anti-Bible; and, does the Bible state that God “inhabits the praises of His people”? Clearly praise to God “draws Him nearer” to some degree … or do you have another explanation.

    Anyways. That’s my understanding.

    (On a side note, I’m guessing you’ll have a different understanding after a few months at Hope Church.)

  • I like what you said about discussing words and I agree whole-heartedly. (My agreement doesn’t extend to the Chesterton quote, though.) I love words and I also appreciate lexical precision. In fact, my wife has a specific expression she uses to convey, “Huh? You used one of your words again that most normal people don’t use or understand. Care to demystify it?” Yes, in ONE expression she conveys all of that. (Any unmarried people just disregard this paragraph.) The discussion about words is important; however, I distinguish between discussion and quarrel. What you and I have here is a good, healthy discussion. As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. I am benefiting and learning from our conversation. In contrast, quarreling and wrangling would be a degenerated, heated argument which has ceased to be productive and beneficial and instead involved sinful attitudes and behavior. Moving right along.

    Your statement about the senior pastor leading the worship service is interesting. It seems like we might be talking about a difference in liturgy or pastoral roles. In our church, while the senior pastor is my authority, he does not carry out the action of leading the services on Sunday mornings. Maybe I’m splitting hairs because he is certainly involved in the planning stages in the weeks leading up to each service so there is no question that he is exercising his leadership, albeit in an indirect way. Maybe the roles in your church are parsed out differently. How does that relationship look in your church?

  • Good thoughts, Ted. I’m not sure whether the term itself is particularly hurtful, but I see where you’re coming from. Whether we use that term or another, from where I sit, seems to depend on how thoroughly we want to invoke the Regulative Principle in our services. It’s not so much that it needs to be explicitly a term from Scripture, I think, as that it be a term that accurately describes the role being taken. Thus, “music leader” and “director of music” are probably equally helpful; “worship leader” isn’t, at least the way most churches do it. “Minister of music,” “deacon of music,” and other similar titles may be fine; I think the real helpful shift is in identifying the individual as being responsible for music as opposed to worship.

    I agree with you that we make a mistake when we suggest (with that title and other aspects of our nomenclature) that the preaching isn’t worship, because the very best preaching is. Piper has commented, and Jared Wilson recently expounded on the notion that preaching should be exultational. It should be a time of the pastor worshiping God and drawing his congregation to do likewise. Perhaps part of the challenge for many congregations is that their preaching is nothing like this, and as a result the only time worship happens in their service is during the singing. That’s a real tragedy.

    On Timothy’s penultimate paragraph: not all churches work that way, however common it may be in modern, broadly evangelical settings. Especially in more formally liturgical (we all have liturgies; the question is how thought-through they are and how formal they are), it is much more common to have the actual “senior pastor” be more meaningfully leading the whole of the service.

    For a contemporary (non-formal liturgy) example, I like what I know of how Capitol Hill Baptist runs their services: there is a pastor responsible for leading the whole of the service. He welcomes, transitions, comments between songs, prays (for a [relatively] long time, as it should be!), and generally orchestrates the entire service. I don’t recall whether he is always the one preaching or not—I think not—and it is not always the senior pastor. The elders (all of whom also preach, I believe) rotate through this role. Now that is a worship pastor—but, appropriately, the “worship” could be dropped from the title, because all pastors could be worship pastors. In this case, he is simply the man responsible for orchestrating the movement of the service.

    Jonathan—I don’t think Ted meant “mere pastor” in the way you construed him to mean it; to the contrary, it seems you’re both agreed that the preaching of the word is an extraordinarily important thing.

    I also think that dismissing the Psalms as a helpful guide for our worship is unhelpful (to put it mildly). It is true that we don’t have priests and Levites, but then again: we have become a kingdom of priests, led by a priest-King. The Psalms have always been a part of the church’s approach to worship, and Paul references them in his letters. You might be able to argue that we’re not bound to follow their approach exactly (and I might be inclined to agree with you), but we should still pay close attention to them and learn from them in shaping our own worship.

    (As a side note: your point about a different “dispensation” certainly highlights how differences in theology affect our hermeneutic at a substantial level! I’m on the other side of that fence, and accordingly see a great deal more continuity between Israelite worship and our own. Goes to show, IMO, that doctrine is really important—postmodern evangelical wishywashiness notwithstanding!)

    PS-Ted, I really like the design of the blog. Really nice use of colors, shapes, and typography; it’s clean and really elegant. Any chance, by the by, you could bump up the text size in this entry box? It’s kind of tiny!

  • Is this better? 😉

  • Roxanne

    Amen Ted and Chris Krycho!
    Ted could I just say what a blessing it is to be reading your lucid and constructive writings about the bible and biblical application in our present day situations again.
    As one who formerly really struggled to understand the true meaning of “worship” in my early christian walk. Could I just say that this blog post resonates for me. Thanks for writing it. In my experience at my former church I’ve heard the saying – we can’t be late for the worship! [or praise and worship] meaning the first part of the service of singing. I have found you really do think you need the “worship leader” present in order to “get into God’s presence”. And worse – that “worship” of God is only through singing. It took many years for me to realise that you worship God with ALL aspects of your life. And if the term of worship leader poses the danger of needing someone to “usher you into the presence of God” then that truly IS unbiblical. That’s why Jesus died. And the veil was torn in 2. No one has to usher anybody anywhere these days. All it does is promotes spiritual laziness in the rest of the congregation from truly working out their salvation and undertaking their spiritual responsibilities to achieve the spiritual growth and maturity God intends of all Christians.
    God’s every continued blessing on all your good work Ted.

  • It’s much improved. Still a trifle small, but vastly more readable than what came before!

  • Chris,
    I loved your first paragraph all up until the last sentence. I especially liked the way you articulated, “It’s not so much that it (worship leader) needs to be explicitly a term from Scripture, I think, as that it be a term that accurately describes the role being taken.” We have talked in this discussion about the importance of expressing ourselves and our doctrine carefully. So let’s not overreach when trying to bring our people to a biblical understanding of worship by saying “the music leader is responsible for music as opposed to worship”. As you men have said, the entire service is worship. So I felt that the phrase “as opposed to” was backward. Instead of explaining to him that he is directing music, not worship (which is not accurate), let’s teach him and the Body of Christ what the fullness of the term worship is according to the Scriptures. I think we agree upon the point that the 21st century church has at least a blurry understanding of biblical worship. The worship leader/music director/pastor of music is in fact leading musical worship, and will be followed by the senior pastor in leading the next portion of the worship service. (I think the title of one of Ted’s other blog posts says it so well, Music ≠ Worship.) Most importantly, in the big picture, if the pastors preach and teach the Body of Christ what worship is from a biblical perspective, then the importance of the TITLE of the person who mc’s the service is less critical. Having said that, when that person is himself a pastor, then your comments about distinguishing the fact that he understands that he is ONLY leading music as opposed to worship are problematic. I gather from the posts above that your churches have a non-pastor in the role of music leader. As a pastor myself, I consider my role of leading the service (everything besides the preaching, unless it’s a day where I AM preaching) one of worship leader. I lead the call to worship (which involves Scripture and music), musical worship (which involves Scripture and music), prayer times, communion along with the senior pastor and other pastors. Maybe it is important to make sure that if a church has a non-pastor leading the musical worship, the pastor and elders should ensure that he/she has a mature understanding of biblical worship, because that person will help the church identify the meaning. If he/she doesn’t get it, then the people will be confused, and vice-versa.

  • Chris,
    I forgot to mention something. I apologize that my comments about going to the Old Testament for direction on church roles seemed like “dismissing the Psalms as a helpful guide for our worship”. I did not intend that in the least. You are right, they are instructive in many, many ways, not the least of which is as a helpful guide for worship. My comments were specifically in reference to church roles in the New Testament Church.

    I am so thankful for you men, my brothers in Christ. Thank you for your insightful comments and heartfelt participation in this discussion. I wonder what Ted will bring up next!