“Worship Leader” or “Worship Pastor”? Our Language Tells on Us

  • Written By 
  • Jonathan Swindal
  • Jun 29th, 2021

A number of years ago, in a moment of profound revelation, one of my friends was arguing that the “worship leader” wasn’t a legitimate role in the church because it wasn’t listed in Ephesians 4!

These typically-silly ministry debates generally didn’t concern me, but this time my interest was piqued. Can you believe that the Apostle Paul (presumably) overlooked us? Those who “usher in God’s presence” and “prepare the way” for God’s people to meet with him? If you sense a bit of playfulness here you’re onto something. 

My friend was correct in observing that “Worship Leader” is not among the positional or functional gifts listed in Ephesians 4. But fear not… Youth Pastor isn’t listed either! I kid. But seriously, what might this mean? Well, it doesn’t mean everything, but it certainly isn’t nothing. 


First, we need to remember that the Church is a living Body called to exist as a witness to the character of Jesus in every environment. This means that the Church will always be responding, reacting, and adapting to various cultures and contexts in the earth, as it points to the Kingdom of God. 


And for that to happen the organization and function of the church must evolve. New Testament churches typically met in homes. Churches in the Middle Ages met almost exclusively in cathedrals. In the 21st century, there are Jesus-loving faithful believers who meet in homes as well as in sanctuaries with 5,000 other people. The expression of the church has evolved over time and in various spaces. 


Second, while most churches are striving to “make disciples,” there are no two churches on the planet that do this in exactly the same way. 


What I’m hoping to communicate is that there is plenty of freedom for how we can faithfully gather to make disciples and proclaim the gospel as witnesses to Christ and his kingdom. And over time many streams of the church have explored the width of that freedom to include functional positions like “kids pastor,” “youth pastor,” “outreach pastor,” and “worship leader.” 

You may have noticed that above I listed them all as xyz pastor, except for worship. Why?

Because our language tells on us. And most of us self-describe as “worship leaders” rather than “worship pastors.” 


Now for some that might be to avoid presumption. You might think, “well I haven’t had pastoral training” or “I’m not licensed or ordained.” If so, there’s no shame. And I’m certainly not anti-leadership, but I do think the fact that we tend to utilize language that promotes leadership over pastoring can be problematic. (Please withhold judgment if your e-mail signature reads “Worship PASTOR”; I promise I know others whose signature doesn’t!) 


The Introduction to Zac Hicks’ book The Worship Pastor is titled “Ready or not, you’re a Pastor,” and how I wish I had realized that about a decade earlier. But actually, that’s probably how most of us feel. Like we’re asked to lead songs, yet we’ve really been baited into being a pastor! 


You might view your job as primarily “preparing music” or “singing songs,” but more than anything else you are putting words in peoples’ mouths that articulate what they think about God, themselves, God’s world. This is a pastoral task. Congratulations, you are a worship pastor.

So what does it look like to move toward being a “worship pastor”? 


First, it looks like awareness. 


Awareness that you are filling a pastoral role, awareness that the things you’re doing are pastoral tasks, and awareness that the people you’re leading you are also – and more importantly – pastoring. As you are becoming aware you will begin to think about your job from the perspective of a pastor. 


What do these songs communicate about the character of God? 


How are people in our community learning to approach God? 


What kind of environment am I curating in the rehearsals I lead? 


These are all pastoral kinds of questions. 


Sure, you have chord charts to create and harmonies to record, but the technical tasks are valuable insofar as they serve the pastoral calling to ultimately “make disciples.” 


Second, becoming a worship pastor means being intentional to make decisions toward the call to make disciples


This is where the job will change most dramatically. Who you select to be on the team (and what you prioritize in a team member), the songs you choose to sing (or avoid singing), how you run rehearsals (and what you expect of your team), etc. will all change when you think of yourself as one entrusted to pastor the people in your community through the corporate singing of songs. 


Look, there are dozens if not hundreds of ways to plan good sets and carefully craft rich and faithful liturgies for worship. No doubt. But the ones that are most faithful to the call are those that are done from the posture and heart of a pastor who genuinely cares about – and is therefore intentional with – what is sang, said, and done in the corporate worship gathering. 


And this is not a one-and-done kind of thing. I’m hoping that each and every Sunday I lead I become a little better as a worship pastor – even if my voice betrays me as I grow older! I’m hoping that the longer I’m singing the more sensitive I become to the Spirit and to those God has brought to the community in which I serve. 


If you feel inadequate, you’re in good company. 


God has a history of choosing weak things to confound the strong and poor people to confound the wealthy. But let’s not allow our inadequacies and insecurities to rob us of what we really have to offer to the communities we’re serving – and that is God himself offered to others through the gift of our lives. And does that happen? Well, that’s a pastoral question.


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