Musicianship Matters! Five identifiers of a skilled worship musician.

From the first note to the last, what is played musically in church matters. Music is one of the historically prominent and powerful vehicles for our Christian worship–today as well as in the past. Whether the worship is expressed on a Fender strat or sung by a choir in full robes the music matters. Like the beams of a building need competent engineering, the execution of our music leadership requires skill. You can compensate all you want with automated loops, tracks and auto-tuning but in the end, polished bronze is still bronze. Gold is the real thing. Just because something is shiny does not make it valuable or worthy in the long run. Is what we are offering as valuable as we think it is? Good musicianship and the several components that it contains matter.

I was one of those who entered church music and worship leadership without any idea what I was getting into. Basically, in my day, the term “worship leader” was not added to the church leader glossary. I did not have the image of anything other than stodgy hymns in the repertoire of the church musician. Sure, there were some gospel songs and hippy-guitar-tunes sung at youth group. And, there was the CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) scene that I briefly thought I should join, but did not. I sang standards as the front man for a big band at age 16. To think of an industry of modern worship as we have it today was not conceived. Nonetheless, yours truly began leading worship and has lived a life as a professional musician—mostly in the context of Christian music and the local church.

Today, there are schools of worship. There is a mature music industry of Christian music that has a growing and profitable branch called modern worship. I meet younger worship leaders and music leaders who have grown up with the dream and image of leading worship. You can be almost famous and lead worship. In church, you actually have better gear than most nightclubs offer. Professional musicians that sacrifice to play in their field would be shocked to see the entitled attitude of some church musicians. You have to be crazy to think that a green room even exists in most places pros play. And, if you play for more than a 100 people you are playing for a number larger than what most play for on a regular basis.

So, why is skillfulness in musicianship on the decline in church? Why is it that we are not teaching music to our next generation—theory, technique, and performance? Youtube can teach a kid a guitar riff, but music is far deeper than that. Artistry is by far the least thing worship leaders are asked to develop. If it works, we are fine with the lowest common denominator in our music. The roof on the building is one thing. But, music is a commodity that we know is going to change rapidly, anyway. So, why invest in musicianship? Why should skill be any more than it needs to be to get the job done?

Just because a church worship leader can copy and paste the latest sounds and mimic the stage words and movements of popular worship leaders, should he or she? We debate and celebrate our distinctiveness in theology and history as churches and we should. But, do we know how the music we are copying into our house of worship fits these? The trained and skilled musician can write and curate for his or her own church in a way someone who mimics others cannot. Being a professional musician means you understand who you serve—your people. Our culture loves to reverse engineer the unusual successes of the few while disregarding the consistent healthy practices of the many. Learn much from that conference and the megachurch, but identify that you are not those leaders serving the people they serve. 

What does musicianship look like, then? Skilled musicianship is not simply demonstrating technique on an instrument. Under the surface, certain habits must be developed and maintained. I believe there are at least five factors that make up good church musicianship. Even though some of these components are not easy seen, I will attempt to provide some helpful cues. What happens if you ask the following behavioral questions of your worship musicians and leaders?

Do they play well with others? Unlike basketball, there are more than just a few on the court to support a superstar. The worship leader and participating musicians must know teamwork like the 1980 USA Olympic Hockey team did. Each player was good, but it was the synergy and commitment as a team that made them unstoppable. Too often church leaders and boards choose a worship leader they think will grow their church rather than one that will grow a team. That is a serious mistake as everything rises and falls on teamwork in music—especially, worship music.

Do they teach others? You might choose a worship leader who seems fantastic on the platform, but as I have said in my book, The Six Hats of the Worship Leader, you have to be able to replace yourself. Reproduction is what mature spiritual leadership is all about. Artistic leadership has historically thrived on mentoring the next generation. The musician who teaches is the musician who learns. To teach the young means you learn from the young so the surprising bonus in mentoring others is the reciprocal nature of it. Would it not be a healthier place if worship leadership was brought up instead of hired-in to your church?

Do they lead others? It is one thing to be able to play on a team, but the skill of knowing how to cast, prepare and rehearse a group are rare. How does a leader learn to lead? He or she learns by leading. If the hat of leading worship in front of others works well, it might be made null by the lack of skill to wear the hat of running a rehearsal. Attracting competent musicians requires competent musical leadership. So, that platform-centric view of worship leadership must be moderated with a value in how things are prepared.

Do they grow themselves? Being in any artistic arena requires honing your technique and inspiration. Have we viewed worship music more as a commodity than a craft? After all, we can copy and paste whatever we want. Musicians who work are those who grow. Church musicianship succeeds not by finding the next thing but by growing to be effective today. Musical leaders are musical learners. Do we value in our churches the mastery of a craft or simply care about the immediate result?

Do they serve others? Skilled musicians are artisans who know their community and love serving people. They adjust their preferences for what seems to accomplish connection and effectiveness for the congregation. Why should great secular performers serve their audience better than worship leaders serve their congregation? My virtuoso like skill matters little if people do not factor into the equation. Imagine if the band Chicago decided to be a hard rock band–which was their preference–and not pursue the resonance with their fans for the popular and softer rock they are known for? How many churches are missing out because what musically is being seen as “the thing” is chosen over what might connect best with the congregation? Mature musicians know this. Churches need servant-musicians today more than ever, don’t they?

Do they assess themselves honestly? Knowing where you are strong and where you are not is the key to any good leader, even those who lead artists and musicians. As a keyboardist, I cannot do what many of my peers are capable of. However, I know what I can contribute and leave out the rest. A skilled musician will not overplay, but fit what is needed. Just because you can shred on the guitar does not mean you should at times play more than a single note or hold a pad if that is what is needed. You need to be self-aware to do this. If you get stressed with changes, a skilled musician will get the information he or she needs ahead of time and not show up with that left open. Mitigating weaknesses require practice and you cannot do that without being able to assess honestly what you bring to the table. Do you look for musical leaders who are self-aware?

All of these identifiers are habits honed over time and none of them come easily. If you are a leader of musicians and worship leaders, my advice is to champion skill. In order to have these skills, character must be in place. Serving others, leading others, growing yourself and the rest all require discipline and humility. The rockstar mindset is a myth. Real musicians work very hard and part of that work will never be publicly recognized. Would you rather employ the prima donna that takes or the artisan that gives? Your own character is revealed in that choice.

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Rich Kirkpatrick

Rich Kirkpatrick

Writer, Speaker, and Musician. Rich Kirkpatrick was recently rated #13 of the “Top 75 Religion Bloggers” by Newsmax.com, having also received recognition by Worship Leader Magazine as “Editor’s Choice” for the “Best of the Best” of blogs in 2011, 2014, 2015 and 2016.

28 comments

  1. I had the privilege of serving with and under you Rich. I appreciate the insight you share in this article.
    My question(s) to you is…should there be prerequisites/requirements in order to serve in worship in an adult worship environment, and if so to what extent?
    Should a worship leader disqualify someone due to their lack of skill in certain areas?
    If one does not feel led to expand their skillset is that a bad thing? Specifically speaking… Worship today seems to be rock band driven. I find less keys, and more acoustic and electric guitar driven worship as being the norm.
    If someone, male or female, does not have the instrumental ability to play guitar, keys, drums, etc., should that eliminate them from serving. Must people serving have multiple skills to serve in an Adult Worship environment? Where, when would the voice and heart be enough? Thanks much and God bless!

    1. Hi David!

      Disqualification sounds bad. But, redeployment is necessary at times. However, church leaders are too concerned with trends and disregard who they have. Skilled musical leaders can cast and make a variety of musicians work. This goes against the grain of copying what others seem to be doing. Piano is back in pop music for instance as is orchestral music. Why be married to one marketable style when you can do more?

  2. I had the privilege of serving with and under you Rich. I appreciate the insight you share in this article. My question(s) to you is…should there be prerequisites/requirements in order to serve in worship in an adult worship environment, and if so to what extent? Should a worship leader disqualify someone due to their lack of skill in certain areas? If one does not feel led to expand their skillset is that a bad thing? Specifically speaking… Worship today seems to be rock band driven. I find less keys, and more acoustic and electric guitar driven worship as being the norm. If someone, male or female, does not have the instrumental ability to play guitar, keys, drums, etc., should that eliminate them from serving. Must people serving have multiple skills to serve in an Adult Worship environment? Where, when would the voice and heart be enough? Thanks much and God bless!

    1. Hi David!

      Disqualification sounds bad. But, redeployment is necessary at times. However, church leaders are too concerned with trends and disregard who they have. Skilled musical leaders can cast and make a variety of musicians work. This goes against the grain of copying what others seem to be doing. Piano is back in pop music for instance as is orchestral music. Why be married to one marketable style when you can do more?

  3. I had the privilege of serving with and under you Rich. I appreciate the insight you share in this article.
    My question(s) to you is…should there be prerequisites/requirements in order to serve in worship in an adult worship environment, and if so to what extent?
    Should a worship leader disqualify someone due to their lack of skill in certain areas?
    If one does not feel led to expand their skillset is that a bad thing? Specifically speaking… Worship today seems to be rock band driven. I find less keys, and more acoustic and electric guitar driven worship as being the norm.
    If someone, male or female, does not have the instrumental ability to play guitar, keys, drums, etc., should that eliminate them from serving. Must people serving have multiple skills to serve in an Adult Worship environment? Where, when would the voice and heart be enough? Thanks much and God bless!

    1. Hi David!

      Disqualification sounds bad. But, redeployment is necessary at times. However, church leaders are too concerned with trends and disregard who they have. Skilled musical leaders can cast and make a variety of musicians work. This goes against the grain of copying what others seem to be doing. Piano is back in pop music for instance as is orchestral music. Why be married to one marketable style when you can do more?

  4. I had the privilege of serving with and under you Rich. I appreciate the insight you share in this article.
    My question(s) to you is…should there be prerequisites/requirements in order to serve in worship in an adult worship environment, and if so to what extent?
    Should a worship leader disqualify someone due to their lack of skill in certain areas?
    If one does not feel led to expand their skillset is that a bad thing? Specifically speaking… Worship today seems to be rock band driven. I find less keys, and more acoustic and electric guitar driven worship as being the norm.
    If someone, male or female, does not have the instrumental ability to play guitar, keys, drums, etc., should that eliminate them from serving. Must people serving have multiple skills to serve in an Adult Worship environment? Where, when would the voice and heart be enough? Thanks much and God bless!

    1. Hi David!

      Disqualification sounds bad. But, redeployment is necessary at times. However, church leaders are too concerned with trends and disregard who they have. Skilled musical leaders can cast and make a variety of musicians work. This goes against the grain of copying what others seem to be doing. Piano is back in pop music for instance as is orchestral music. Why be married to one marketable style when you can do more?

  5. I had the privilege of serving with and under you Rich. I appreciate the insight you share in this article.
    My question(s) to you is…should there be prerequisites/requirements in order to serve in worship in an adult worship environment, and if so to what extent?
    Should a worship leader disqualify someone due to their lack of skill in certain areas?
    If one does not feel led to expand their skillset is that a bad thing? Specifically speaking… Worship today seems to be rock band driven. I find less keys, and more acoustic and electric guitar driven worship as being the norm.
    If someone, male or female, does not have the instrumental ability to play guitar, keys, drums, etc., should that eliminate them from serving. Must people serving have multiple skills to serve in an Adult Worship environment? Where, when would the voice and heart be enough? Thanks much and God bless!

    1. Hi David!

      Disqualification sounds bad. But, redeployment is necessary at times. However, church leaders are too concerned with trends and disregard who they have. Skilled musical leaders can cast and make a variety of musicians work. This goes against the grain of copying what others seem to be doing. Piano is back in pop music for instance as is orchestral music. Why be married to one marketable style when you can do more?

  6. I think you mean "prima donna" not "pre-madonna". And I’m counting six identifiers, not five.

  7. "Would it not be a healthier place if worship leadership was brought-up instead of hired-in to your church?"

    While I don’t entirely disagree with this, I’ve had struggles with this the last year or so. I would love to get your opinion (and anyone else’s really) on this.
    We have a worship pastor at our church. When they’re away, it’s up to two of us other musicians who do have experience leading, to cover for them. We prep everything, songs, keys, schedule rehearsal and lead rehearsal with parts preparation and have an overall vision for the sunday worship time.
    I know how many hours it takes to prep a well crafted worship set, that you don’t just throw together, and you make sure you’ve rehearsed everything yourself before band rehearsal so you know what you’re leading the group to. There’s a reason it’s a paid job in a lot of churches.

    However, I have a full time job of my own. But I’ve heard many worship pastors talking to each other about how they have someone they’re getting to lead more and more, and how they’re really coming along and growing, and have a gift for leading worship, etc..
    I can’t think of any other job, where you can get paid for it, and then find volunteers to do your job for you while you take vacation, go to some cool conference, or are guest leading at another church somewhere else or something. I could never convince some volunteer to take my job for me one week while I still get paid? But just because it’s church, I should be happy to do it?

    I’m not arguing to get paid, that’s not the issue at all. But I struggle with the idea that it’s a great thing to "mentor" or "teach" other people to do your job for you that you’re getting paid for, when they already have a full time job, kids, house, on and on…

    I’ve just run into this a few times in the last year or so like I said and sometimes I struggle with having a good attitude about it. I’m all for volunteering my time and my gifts to my church and I do so a lot, but I question the concept of teaching others to do your job because those are just weeks you get paid to do nothing… no?

    Thoughts? 🙂

    1. Nathan, you bring up very important issues.

      "There’s a reason it’s a paid job in a lot of churches." AMEN!

      Let me explain, however, some of the complexity. There are several aspects that go beyond being a musician and being the front man in a church worship leader position. I have been paid full time for many years in some settings, but I cannot ever think of a job where I was paid simply to lead worship. I ran 52 projects a year, plus holiday and assisted other structures and administrative things in the church like communication. I even did hospital visits, managed employees and ran an office.

      If a worship leader is full time and is paid only to lead worship and say write music, then those who fill in for him or her should indeed be compensated. But, leadership is what I believe is paid for in churches, not simply talent or skill. Leadership means a system is maintained, grown and that more and more people serve the church in some way.

      A church is a volunteer organization. The Red Cross employees have a mission to employ volunteers, otherwise the work they do would have to gain income or profit, In this way, the church is a volunteer organization as well. You get paid to support this when you work for a church. Think of this: why does the symphony need benefactors?

      Now, when it comes to musicianship, very few get paid full time to do music these days. You must build several platforms and pipelines to make a living. A writer might teach lessons, sing at clubs, then make some income on royalties. So, in reality it is not like a lot of trades. Perhaps it should be. This is one reason I wrote this post. We often devalue the musicianship and the work it takes, You are surely helping bring to light a consequence of this!

      Blessings,

      Rich

      1. Rich,
        Thanks for your thoughts.
        Great point on all fronts and thanks for explaining so well. I was not considering some of those things.

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