I was having lunch with a young local worship leader yesterday, and we were jamming on what it means to lead well and yet not seek the spotlight. Matt Redman nicely summarizes what the sweet spot looks like:
I often define good worship leaders as those who lead strongly enough so that people follow but not so strongly that they themselves become the focus.*
That’s it, right there. It’s the perfect summary. But at least for me, I’ve sometimes found the line between those two poles desperately hard to find. Now having served extensively in several different church contexts in four widely different cities/regions (Honolulu, Los Angeles, Denver, and South Florida), I have come to the conclusion that there is a measure of relativity with the line between leading well and attention-seeking, and this all depends on at least four factors.
1) Your City-Regional Culture
A lot of people talk about “Western” and “American” sensibilities, and we need to. Identifying our cultural idols and unspoken societal values at that level is important. But many commentators have noted the distinct personality traits of cities and regions. For instance, the line between what is perceived as leading well and attention-seeking would be very different in the urban northeast and the rural midwest. I felt a similar difference between the overall cultural climate of Denver and Ft. Lauderdale. South Florida is a much more glitzy culture, which prizes high-energy, pristine entertainment that is immediately gratifying. Denver is much more cerebral and sophisticatedly nuanced. Consequently, my “up front” presence on Sunday mornings in Denver was much more understated, both in physical positioning and in overall demeanor and expression. I think if I had taken my Ft. Lauderdale leadership style back to Denver, it would have appeared distracting and showboaty. On the flip side, upon transitioning to Ft. Lauderdale, I’ve received more than my fair share of well-meaning feedback that people want me to “really lead” them, and not “hide.” More flash, in this context, actually helps people engage in worship.
2) Your Ethnic Culture
If you’re in a metropolitan or multicultural context, you run into the reality that leadership is perceived differently depending on one’s ethnic background. For instance, in south Florida where I serve, I’ve talked to a few African-Americans, Hatians, and Latinos in our congregation who (though they put it more graciously) find my leadership underwhelming and weak. They would feel better led if I were more “out front,” as it were. I can immediately then turn to some older Anglo folks in my congregation and get nearly the opposite feedback: “Zac, it would be great if you could make worship less about you and more about the Lord.” So sometimes, the disparity between how people perceive your leadership has to do with sensibilities shaped by one’s racial and ethnic background.
3) Your Tradition’s Culture
I’ve observed that, in varying Christian traditions, how people perceive whether you’re attention-seeking or leading well is largely related to the ethos of worship leadership in the perceiver’s tradition. For instance, I’ve found that many worshipers from Pentecostal and charismatic traditions are used to highly interactive, strongly emotive, visually demonstrative worship leadership. At the same time, if one of their worship leaders were to step into a role in your average Episcopal, Lutheran, or Presbyterian context, the perception of that leader would be that he or she is showboating or trying to make it all about himself or herself. The culture of these latter traditions would perceive such leadership as distracting. Within these more apparent extremes are a host of subtleties that aren’t as quickly or as easily discernible, but any perceptive worship leader in any worship context should know what I’m talking about. In their church, there will be certain (largely unspoken) conventions, mores, and guard-rails of propriety of how a worship leader behaves in order to adequately lead but not press beyond into something that appears to be attention-seeking. Processing the dynamic of varying Christian traditions and backgrounds is one of the most helpful eye-openers to understanding the apparent relativity of the line between good leadership and self-aggrandizement.
4) Your Church Culture
Individual churches, too, have specific cultures of propriety when it comes to worship leadership. Sometimes they are in line with their own tradition, and sometimes they defy their tradition’s sensibility. So, a good worship leader who seeks to lead well without being perceived as seeking vain glory will have their antennae up for the “leadership vibe” of their own church. Sometimes the sensibilities of their church are a mishmash of city-regional, ethnic, and tradition issues. Usually, medium to large churches have enough people that the backgrounds will be diverse to the point that the worship leader can expect some tension (like I experience here in south Florida). But it is this particular culture which I believe the worship leader has the most opportunity to actually shape, because it is in this sphere where life-on-life ministry actually takes place. In my opinion, intentional worship leaders who are faithfully shaping the worship leadership ethos of their local church are actually doing the diagnosis of what’s needed with the above three things in mind. If they’re entering a new church, they add a fourth dimension of determining how their predecessor(s) led so as to factor in what people are most immediately used to. I might just also briefly add that worship leaders should additionally pay attention to how their church’s architecture shapes the worship leadership ethos of the local assembly. A cathedral “speaks” about a different kind of leadership propriety than a theater. (Ironically, for me, Coral Ridge was designed to be a majestic modern cathedral that functioned as a performance arts center and broadcast venue. It’s one of the most unique and confusing architectural contexts I’ve ever served in.)
5) Your Temperament, Heart, & Calling
Ultimately, though, I contend that how people perceive your leadership can often boil down to your heart. I’ve been in extremely “performancy” contexts where I could sense that the worship leader’s heart was to serve and empower the people of God to corporately join in the praises of the Lord. Likewise, I’ve been in very subdued contexts with a very “hidden” leader, but everything about how they led (perhaps even without being seen) screamed, “Look at me!” Most people have a sixth sense about this kind of thing. They can sniff out a leader’s motives and intentions. Therefore, I ask every worship leader to take inventory of their heart and calling. If your heart is to be a performance artist, ask yourself if you understand the difference between “gigging” on Monday through Saturday and leading worship on Sunday. If you don’t perceive a difference, please, for the sake of the church and for your own sake, step aside and let someone else lead, no matter how much it might hurt the bottom line of your bank ledger. The people of God don’t need you on display, but Jesus on display.
In short, I don’t think there is a cookie cutter, one-size-fits-all answer to what it looks like to lead without fame-mongering. Notice, too, that I haven’t spoken about musical style. Often rock-worship critics will highlight the inherently performance-laden nature of the genre, but I’ve seen too many self-impressed choir directors and organists to believe that it’s an issue of genre alone. Therefore, as with nearly everything, we must begin with the heart and work our way out. In the end, it’s not so much that issues of leadership are relative as much as they are highly contextual…and the contexts are multi-faceted. These are complex issues, and I invite worship leaders to open up dialogues with their fellow church leaders and members to discern what kind of leadership style they might be called to.