“[It is often assumed] that a study of the nature and character of God will be impractical and irrelevant for life. In fact, however, it is the most practical project anyone can engage in.”
– J. I. Packer, Knowing God, 18-19
It should be peculiar to encounter a worship leader, expressively passionate about God in the context of corporate worship, who says things like, “I just don’t get into all that theology stuff. That’s for intellectual-types.” It should be peculiar. Many times, however, it’s not. Why are many of our churches getting away with the destructive belief that passion for God is merely expressed in an exuberant public presence in corporate worship?
Part of the problem is that we’ve truncated passion for God into experience of God. A while back, when I was searching for a worship leader position, a prominent church in the area told me that the bottom line for them was finding someone who could “lead us into the presence of God.” This is not a bad thing at all, but it can betray the priority of what’s most important—experience. And I’m afraid that this has become the bottom line for many worship leader job descriptions. This priority, holding strong for several decades now, has fostered an anti-intellectual bent to the worship leader “office.” It has molded a context where deep study and understanding of the Bible and theology has been shoved out and quarantined in the sphere of pastors, seminary professors, and “intellectual-types.” Even more alarming, I’ve heard more than one worship leader comment that the Bible study and theological reflection is actually stifling to one’s raw passion for God. Hogwash.
If worship leaders are passionate about God, they will be passionate about theology. Why? Because true worshipers who desire to experience God desire to know God. The question I have for worship leaders who want nothing to do with Biblical studies, philosophy, and theology is: What god do you think you are worshiping? Have all the encounters you want…but do you know Whom you are experiencing? If you don’t, you might not be worshiping God but an idol of your own crafting. And we all know how God feels about idols.
Now does this mean every worship leader needs to be a nerdy introvert with the Institutes glued to their nose every second they’re off stage? Does this mean that worship leaders need to spend their time in the detailed depths of systematic theology? Of course not. Not every person is wired that way. But wiring is no excuse for not diving into that “theology stuff” at some level. A worship leader who has no time or room for theology has a passion for God which is superficial at best and fake at worst. If all you’re interested in doing is “rocking out” a crowd, please overhaul your game plan or fire yourself, because you’re doing absolutely nothing to usher the Bride of Christ into greater conformity and likeness of her Husband, and you therefore have a hollow ministry.
On the positive side, let me share a brief testimony. I remember not that long ago back in college, when the study of theology was first brought my way, that it dramatically transformed me as a worshiper. When I share this with people, I tell them, “During this period, God went like this [with my hand pointing upward], and I went like this [with my other hand pointing downward].” I remember attending worship on Sunday, fresh off the heels of a week of solid theology classes, more passionate about God, more enraptured with Him, more attuned to His Spirit’s presence, more internally engaged.
My friend and new-hymns-hero, Kevin Twit, has said, “Hymns are theology on fire.” The reason that deserves a resounding “amen” is because theology ignites worship. This can be put another way: Knowing God more fully makes you worship more deeply.
If you’re a worship leader (or even worshiper) in this boat, my advice is to approach a pastor or someone you trust in this sphere and ask them what might be a good introduction to theology. I might also recommend Knowing God, by J. I. Packer. If you’re still reticent, my challenge to you is to just try it, even for a week, and see if it doesn’t transform your worship for the better.