Following on from my previous post, about the way that Bible studies work in small groups, I have some equally subversive thoughts on “worship leaders”. (My wife said that my post on Bible studies sounded “grumpy”, so apologies if that was the case, and I will do my best to sound cheerful today).
The role of “worship leader” is firmly established in every church I have been to. The worship leader is responsible for choosing and introducing the songs in a meeting. In charismatic churches, the typical worship leader fits the following description:
1. Plays the guitar and can sing reasonably well
2. Has a vast mental database of praise and worship songs for all occasions
3. Is a master in the art of extemporaneous prayer
In a noncharismatic church, the worship leader is typically an elder, so requirement 1 is dropped. These days there is an abundance of books for worship leaders and conferences for worship leaders as well as lots of church meetings for worship leaders to attend to discuss worship leading. I have been to many such meetings and read many books over the years, particularly when I was myself a regular worship leader while at university.
The subjects that are covered by these books or meetings fall into two broad categories:
1. what it really means to praise or to worship.
2. the practical details – organising a band, playing your instrument well etc.
I have never heard anyone address the question of whether the early New Testament church would have any idea what a “worship leader” was or was supposed to do. Preachers looking for Biblical models of worship leading always head straight to the Old Testament. But the New Testament is frustratingly silent on how these things were organised.
In 1 Cor 14:26, Paul talks as though he expected songs to be contributed by a variety of people, not just selected by one worship leader. Of course, there was no one person holding a guitar (or a CD player remote control) in those days. They also were presumably not held back by what songs they had the word sheets for (because they had none).
Now I have been in meetings where no songs have been officially chosen, but rather people are encouraged to make requests from the hymn book (or simply start a song off themselves). This can be quite dynamic, but it can also degenerate into everyone vying to get their personal favourite in. If you’ll permit me to speculate, perhaps in the early church there weren’t “requests” as such, but in a typical meeting there would be two or three people whose particular gift was to bring a song. They would come with a few songs “in the hearts”, and lead the meeting in them if and when the time was appropriate. These might be Psalms, or some early Christian hymns or even spontaneously made up songs. I might be way off track here – I don’t know enough early church history to be sure.
So my questions for today are: Did the very early church have worship leaders (in the sense of one person responsible for choosing the songs), or is this a more recent invention? Is it a good thing to give this responsibility during a meeting over to an expert, or should we look to encourage greater diversity by letting anyone bring a song? If we were to change our meetings so that there was no designated worship leader, would this be a recipe for disaster? And how much of a loss would it be that the quality of music would undoubtedly suffer?