During my summer travels I love visiting different churches. This year I noticed something at an AMiA (Anglican Mission in the Americas) congregation that has become a bothersome trend: calling the music leader the “worship leader.”
What is worship? Is worship singing songs and lifting our hands in the air? Come to St George’s on a Sunday and you will sometimes see me worshiping in this manner. My concern is not a more modern/charismatic approach to worship music, but our understanding of worship itself. What is worship? Is worship, as many churches seem to think, only the music? “After the worship team, our teaching pastor will share a message.” If worship is more than just music, why do we call those who lead music the “worship leaders?”
What does the Bible say about worship?
Worship in the Old Testament is probably best seen through the lens of the Law, in which Yahweh tells Israel, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them…” (from Exodus 20, ESV). The foundational Old Testament understanding of worship (Hebrew shachah) is to subject oneself to another, to bow down before another.
Old Testament worship is frequently linked with sacrifice. In Genesis 22, Abraham and Isaac head to Moriah to offer a burnt sacrifice to God. When they see the place where they will perform the sacrifice, Abraham tells their servant, “I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” Sacrifice was an act of contrition, a way of saying, “God, I acknowledge that your ways are right, and I have acted contrary to your ways. I am sorry that I have done so.”
The New Testament word for worship, proskuneo, has a similar meaning, a focus on reverence and demonstrating respect by physical acts such as bowing or kissing the hand. In Acts 10, Cornelius falls at the feet of Peter in worship. Peter, of course, stands him up and tells him not to do so, since he himself is a man just like Cornelius. But note the posture of Cornelius’ worship: prostrating himself at Peter’s feet, pronouncing himself subject to Peter. The full-orbed, Biblical picture of worship, from Old and New Testaments, is that of subjecting ourselves to God, paying him tribute and respect.
What about worship and music?
So, isn’t that what we’re doing with our music? Don’t we sing in praise of the Triune Creator, giving him the honor due God? Music is an amazing way of connecting on many emotional levels to God in praise of him. It is a gift from God that should be used to give praise and thanks back to him, and it should lift our souls to new levels. The problem is that limiting worship to music truncates our worship. Remember again the Biblical picture of worship: respectful subjection to the God who is Holy Love. If the only time we recognize worship is in conjunction with music, it leaves the real possibility that whole areas of our lives are being left out of being subjected to God.
What if we saw every aspect of our corporate worship truly as worship? Do we worship the Lord when his Word is read? That is, do we subject ourselves to the Truth of Scripture and to the one who is the Truth when we hear his will for us and our lives? Do we worship the Lord when the sermon is preached? That is, do we respond to the exhortations given to follow Jesus more closely? Do we worship the Lord in prayer? That is, do we bow before him, saying, “Not my will but yours be done.” Do we worship the Lord when the offering plates come down the pew? That is, do we give honor and thanks to God for all he has given us? Do we worship the Lord at the Holy Eucharist? That is, do we receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ and seek to use the grace imparted to become more like Jesus?
Worship is vital to the life of the believer, yet if we define worship only in relation to music, we potentially lose sight of just how vital it is that every aspect of life is subject to God. When we call the music leader, the “worship leader,” we fall prey to a narrow, one-sided view of worship, rather than the full, robust picture of worship in Holy Scripture.
And the Worship Leader is…
Just as the priest is the leader of worship in the Old Testament, so a priest is our worship leader today. But of course this is not just any priest; it is Jesus, the Great High Priest! The Book of Hebrews makes it clear that Jesus our high priest is the one who leads our worship, again, in the context of sacrifice (see especially Hebrews 10). Jesus’ worship, Jesus’ submission to the Father, is the perfect submission to the Father. Jesus leads our worship.
OK, OK, Jesus leads the worship, but it’s kinda hard to see him on a Sunday morning! Who is the visible worship leader in your church on Sunday morning? In the sacramental context the congregational worship leader is not a musician but the one who represents the Great High Priest: the priest. The priest leads the congregation in its reverential honor of the Holy God. The priest leads the congregation in submitting to Scripture, in admitting and repenting for falling short of God’s commands, and in feeding on the Flesh and Blood of Jesus Christ offered once for all.
Perhaps non-sacramental congregations are a bit different but similar (this isn’t my area of specialty, as you will see). While the Great Shepherd is the worship leader of the universal Church, in an individual congregation, the under-shepherd, the pastor, is the worship leader. There may be many under-shepherds, depending on the way the church is set up, each of whom could be considered a worship leader.
To name as “worship leader” the music leader reduces our view of giving honor and glory to God to a musical context only. The Bible makes clear that our worship of the Creator must be our whole being subject to him. Only in intentionally seeing Jesus as our Great High Priest, and in rightly naming his representative, the priest/pastor, as worship leader, may we recover a full, Scriptural meaning of worship and its place in the church—not as one element of our service, but as the theme which runs throughout.