When Worship Leaders Stink
Confession. I’m not a blogger.
I don’t read that many blogs, and I certainly haven’t written one before. It’s not that I don’t like them … in fact, I think many blogs have great things to say.
It’s just that many of the blogs I’ve read before that express an opinion over something that I am passionate about (worship, ministry, leadership, etc.), can be contradicted by some other person’s blog that expresses the exact opposite thought … and often, both writers support their arguments well with good evidence and reasoning.* I’m convinced that, because of the nature of social media and how it has changed our world in the last 10 years or so, people find it even easier to argue with one another publicly, on the internet, for all to see. It can get nasty as one author tries to be the loudest voice in the verbal brawl, and frankly, all too often it reflects poorly on how believers treat one another.
So from the get-go, please know that this is not my intent. My intent is not to argue. It’s not to be louder than the “other guy.”
It’s simply meant to stir conversation and thought. It’s never a bad thing to ask good questions. And my hope is that this writing drives us to better, deeper questions. So let’s dig in.
This year, ACU Summit is focused on the Psalms, with the theme “Sorrow, Hope, and Joy.” I love this. I love the Psalms. I love how they explore the fullness of human experience, and how in every situation, in every circumstance, there is space to worship.
I want to take a moment and focus specifically on the author of the majority of Psalms: David.
I’ve always loved the character of David. Maybe it’s because of our common love for music and song-writing. Maybe it’s because he is one of the earliest examples of a worship leader that we see in Scripture. But in 1 Sam. 16, this little shepherd boy’s life gets turned on its head. In verse 4, the prophet Samuel arrives in Bethlehem to anoint a new king. He comes to the home of Jesse, where Jesse then proceeds to parade all of his sons before Samuel, hoping one of them will be the next champion of Israel. I imagine it to be an ancient-Israel version of a GQ modeling competition, if there ever was such a thing. Seven of what I imagine to be the tallest, strongest, burliest and most athletic men pass by Samuel, and God says, “No.”
“These aren’t the men I’m looking for” (spoken in the voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi).
What Samuel is looking for in a king is not what God is looking for. Finally, Jesse calls for his last boy David to come before Samuel. Verse 11 says it poignantly:
“There is still the youngest,” Jesse answered, “but he is tending the sheep.” (emphasis added)
Hold on to that phrase about the sheep; we’ll come back to it.
So Samuel anoints David as the next king of Israel.
Now fast-forward just a few verses to 1 Sam. 16:14 and following. The passage opens by stating explicitly that “the Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul.” Saul is no longer king. He may sit on the throne and live in the palace, but in the eyes of the God who put him there, his time is over. Saul is tormented by an evil spirit (also from the Lord) and seeks help from his attendants. One of his attendants answers Saul and tells him about David. Saul sends messengers to retrieve him from his father’s home. But something here hit me like a ton of bricks a while back. Check out verse 19:
Then Saul sent messengers to Jesse and said, “Send me your son David, who is with the sheep.” (emphasis added)
Hold on to that phrase about the sheep; we’ll come back to it.
But did you catch that? David has just been anointed king over all Israel. He has the God-given right to the throne, not Saul! And yet, where’s the very first place that the shepherd-king goes after he’s been anointed?
Right back to the sheep.
Not to a throne room. To a sheep pen.
Not to a fancy bedroom. To a stable.
Not to fancy perfumes and oils. To smells and stinks.
Now we turn the page to 1 Sam. 17. David takes a picnic lunch to his brothers down on the front lines in the battle between Israel and the Philistines. Everyone is stunned and cowering before the might of Goliath, the champion of the Philistines. David starts inquiring about Goliath and why the armies of the Lord are afraid of him, and soon he is brought before Saul (who is still not king, and yet acting like it). Saul rebukes David for his seemingly brazen claims that he can defeat the giant, but David responds in kind:
But David said to Saul, “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” (1 Sam. 17:34-37, emphasis added)
Remember the phrases about the sheep I asked you to hang on to? Time to come back to them. They’re important because David’s time with the sheep equipped him to take on the battles that God had for him later in life.
So, what does this have to do with the worship leader?
I hear the word anointed get tossed around a lot when it comes to worship.
“Wow, that worship leader is anointed.”
“Worship was anointed today. You could just feel it.”
I’m not sure if the use of that word is correct or not when it comes to each person’s own unique experience of a person, place, or time. But I have experienced this: many times, when a person feels or receives an “anointing,” they run to a platform or stage.
But when I see David receive his anointing, I see a completely different response.
He goes back to the sheep. Every time.
He’s not in any hurry to run to the fancy palace. He’s in no rush to be the front-man, the headliner who is centerstage. He’s not trying to get the most attention for his newest EP drop on Spotify or Apple Music. He goes back to tending the sheep. And he stinks because of it.
Worship leaders, who are your sheep?
Who are you leading? Who are you serving and protecting? And if I may, who are you shepherding? In Churches of Christ, that term may be used predominantly for those who are elders of the local church, but I would argue that there is a shepherding component to any role that anyone plays in the life of the church.
“Shepherding your church” means loving them well. It means leading them well. It means that, like David, you are willing to sacrifice yourself for the sake of the sheep. It means that you are in close relationship with them so that you smell like them.
And sheep can be stubborn. They don’t always like to be led.
Do you remember that one fight you had with that one guy over singing too many “new” songs?
Do you remember that one lady who was convinced that God had given her the voice of an angel, and God gave you the opportunity to, uh, transition her into another ministry position?
Do you remember that one Sunday (or two, or three) where it seemed like no one wanted to be there, and all you saw from the platform were lots of blank faces staring back?
But you, worship leader—you know (or at least you ought to know) where you are leading them. Ours is not a role of “forcing worship” upon our people. It is merely prompting them out of the sheep pen and into a space where the kingdom of God does its transformative work within them.
Our job is to merely open the gate and lead them into greener pastures.
So spend time with your sheep.
And don’t be afraid to stink.
*For those of you who blog regularly, whether as a job or hobby, this is not an indictment of your work. Rather, let me say thank you. Thank you for helping us as human beings to ask deeper questions that force us to examine our thoughts and beliefs, and if necessary, to grow.