Worship Leading, Ageism, and the Fear of Getting Old

Zac HicksWorship Theology & Thought19 Comments

Talk show host Dennis Prager is well-known for saying that his generation—the boomer generation—is the stupidest generation in American history. This comment, perhaps extreme, summarizes the multitudinous errors of that generation of young people that grew up and ushered in the large cultural changes in the United States in the 1960s.  One of those errors is the worship of youth.  The phrase “youth culture” would have been unintelligible prior to the 60s, but now it is common speak.  The glamorization of youthfulness affects everything from marketing and entertainment to presidential elections and local church ministry.  And obsession with youth culture has affected the ministry of worship, as well.

I had a recent phone conversation with a worship leader friend of mine who leads music on the other side of the country.  In a candid moment, we were both expressing concerns about the longevity of our jobs as local church music leaders.  We wondered whether, in ten to fifteen years, we would be viewed as out-of-date, irrelevant, washed up, and cheesy—one of those old guys trying to look and act young.  Ultimately, we questioned whether we would be as effective in doing our task once we started “looking old.”

No worship leader really voices it.  No congregation overtly acknowledges it.  But many of us think there is something lacking in a worship leader who has gray hair or smile lines.  He or she must not be truly “with it” and up on trends (another value exposed which needs to be challenged).  He or she wouldn’t be capable of authentically crafting and leading a musical style that is current and fresh.  They might be just fine in a traditional or blended worship environment, but if we want to “reach young people,” a forty-something at the helm is no good.

This is lamentable.  And (to make up a word) repentable.  That we were even having such a discussion tells us that culture’s obsession with youth has invaded the heart of the church.  What does the Bible have to say about being old?

Is not wisdom found among the aged? Does not long life bring understanding? (Job 12:12)

I thought, “Age should speak; advanced years should teach wisdom.” (Job 32:7)

At the window of my house I looked down through the lattice. I saw among the simple, I noticed among the young men, a youth who had no sense. He was going down the street near her corner, walking along in the direction of her house. (Proverbs 7:6-8)

The glory of young men is their strength, gray hair the splendor of the old. (Proverbs 20:29)

Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father.  Treat…older women as mothers. (1 Timothy 5:1, 2)

Prior to the 60s, the elderly were much more celebrated in culture.  Most native cultures—from Native Americans to native Hawaiians to native Africans—favor the aged as the source of knowledge and wisdom.  Such cultures actually look to the elderly for guidance for the future (imagine that!).  Nowadays in the West, the elderly are irrelevant cultural cast-offs.  They are the Dalit caste of modern America.  We quarantine them in homes.  In church meetings, we roll our eyes when old Mr. Jones stands up and wags his finger in the air.  And we worship leaders brush off their comments like dust on our feet.  And we move “forward.”

Though I’ve never heard it from a single one of them, I’d bet that every twenty-something who’s been a worship leader for more than a year has had the thought, “What happens when I get older?”  (Implication: I have to do something different, because this can’t work.)  I know a few forty- and fifty-something worship leaders who are currently looking for positions in churches, and I know that the market is tougher for them. 

This ageism is more than just bias and prejudice.  It’s sinful idolatry.  And I’m guilty myself of playing into the hands of these gods every time I entertain a fear of getting older or judge an “older” worship leader as irrelevant or out of touch.

The truth is: the more I’ve gotten to know the generations of worship leaders above me, the more I realize that the Bible is true.  With age comes wisdom.  Churches should desire older worship leaders.  Though youth should not be despised (1 Timothy 4:12), biblical wisdom reminds us that being young carries liabilities against which we need to be on guard.  I long for my generation of worship leaders to have open and honest conversation about this evil bubbling under the surface.  I long for us to confess it, to repent of it, and to seek its change.

19 Comments on “Worship Leading, Ageism, and the Fear of Getting Old”

  1. Definitely an issue out there… thanks for bringing it to the surface. I think part of the problem is that the church (universal) is looking for a music leader, rather than a worship pastor.

  2. Zac,

    I resonate with this post, and find myself smack dab in the middle of this world. I find myself guilty of saying, more than once, that I will be irrelevant as a worship leader in a decade or so. But that stems from my own biases and agism. I do wonder what I, a twenty-something worship leader, look like in 15-20 years. What does my worship style look like? Who resonates with how I lead?

    Maybe a question that this raises in my mind is, where is the marriage between being musically "relevant" to a young demographic AND leading from experience and wisdom?

  3. I have felt this myself. I led worship for years and we got a new pastor – a little younger (although not all that much younger), very thin, cool looking. In other words, not like me, a slightly overweight middle aged mom of college students. I was 43 but I was made to feel 70. What was really strange was that my ideas and song selection were much more cutting edge and new than his, but everything I did seemed to be viewed as irrelevent and outdated. I am going out on a limb here and state that I always believed I would not have felt pushed out if I had been young and thin and very attractive. It would help if I was a young guy playing a guitar, but I just don't have the "look". No tattoos. Don't wear super cool clothes. Don't lead from a guitar. Not gorgeous. (think about females that become famous in leading worship or CCM. Always young. Always beautiful.) I do not look like a rock star. The feelings of feeling unneeded and unwanted at a mere 43 years of age led to a very dark season of life for me. I felt useless, thrown away, discarded – regardless of how well I was doing my job or how much I loved my team and congregation.. To be truthful, I made the decision to quit, but the writing was on the wall. And I was replaced – a 20+ year veteran of worship leadership – with a 20 year old that had never served as a worship minister before. Ever. It has been hard to hang on – I have questions about my calling and wonder if God is in some way through with me. It has made it difficult to keep on trying and putting myself out there. And it has made it difficult to trust the church again.

    Too often churches hire people who look good on stage, sound edgy, etc. but are not truly worship pastors. This is a mistake that is so lacking in wisdom. A worship pastor needs the gift of musicianship, communication, wisdom, people skills, and should have a pastor's heart for their people.

    there. My rant is over.

  4. Jan,

    Thank you for finding my post and being so honest. My heart breaks for you, and know that you have my prayers. I do believe that God can and does make callings "seasonal," but I also believe that when that is the case, He changes our heart for the next calling. I don't sense from you a changed heart. I sense that you still have a passion for it. From what little I know, then, it doesn't appear that God is done with this calling in your life, and know that I will pray for God's guidance for you. I hope you can find that place to use the gifts He's given you.

    In Christ,
    Zac

  5. Chris,
    If I could interject into your question (and forgive me if I am reading into this), but one of the biggest mistakes I see young worship leaders commit is to assume that worship that is contextually relevant to twenty-somethings is monolithic. In other words, I perpetually see that people think one tiny strand of modern worship is what ALL young adults want, Christian and non-Christian, mature or immature. I think that's a wrong assumption.

    There was an economics book a few years back entitled "The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More" by Chris Anderson. His point was simple: there is no monolithic culture of preference any more. Where some young adults prefer modern worship, others still like folksy hymnody, or others like jazz, or still others prefer 80s-90s praise and worship.

    To get to my point: I think much of the ageism in 21st century American evangelicalism comes from a particular strand of only one of these forms of worship: a narrow sect of modern worship. In my experience, I haven't found ageism with churches that minister to young adults in ways other than attempting a monolithic modern worship. These churches implicitly insist their worship leader wear jeans, gelled hair, a scruffy looking shirt that is often flannel, and have a young looking face. That isn't wrong, it's just that the expectation is obvious.

    In summary, I don't believe there is one way to be relevant, and thus a marriage of relevance and experience/wisdom is unnecessary. We need to bless our people with ways they like to culturally worship, but we just shouldn't assume that blessing happens in one way.

    Dave Strunk

  6. From what I hear, it appears some similar trends (at least in terms of hiring) are afoot with senior pastors as well. I recently heard a professor of preaching and seminary president speak about how he doubts whether he could get a job as a pastor anymore, given his age. I think he was mostly joking, but he was pointing to a real issue he sees in churches around the country.

  7. I have often thought of this issue. From birth, I was a rebel who didn't want to be like my parents. I didn't want to like what my older parents liked. I know I have become much more mature and conquered this ignorance to their type of music and other interests; but it worries me that some have not broken free from this. I think part of this want for a younger generation is based too much on strength. In society today, there is much more worry and stress. Those hiring worship leaders may think that a young leader can be more productive and is more up to date with music and society. They can miss the true meaning which is to ultimately bring people closer to God and resonate the words of the Lord into us. A job that has no age boundary.

  8. The problem is not just limited to worship leaders and has been discussed in sociology for years (cf Future Shock). But the problem is more pronounced for worship leaders as the music genres are changing at an ever increasing pace.
    I don't have an answer, but trying to please everyone usually results in pleasing no-one.

  9. most church music is really bad, just like most all other music is bad.

    worship people should be thankful they get to get paid to make bad music for as long as they can. other musicians / songwriters starve out decades earlier.

    worship leaders take themselves way too seriously. they really do.

  10. Do you think that the old should make way for the young. There could be a communication to people of your not being a church that believes in the opportunity and talents of a younger emerging generation if they are not being allowed places of leadership. I think the Church struggles more with entrenched leadership which stifles the opportunity for others and the next generation than it does prejudice against older people. I understand the idea of our obsession with youth but in all honesty I have heard these same remarks from church cultures that are trying to make themselves feel better about aging and struggling with insecurity about their future. Make way for the young. Fearing for the loss of your job makes me think the focus is in the wrong place. We have an "older" worship leader who does a fantastic job but also has trained and releases much younger leaders in his stead regularly. I think some positions require the old to be thinking "who is next" and "how can I help them?"

  11. I'm 30 years old. I'm not sure how it happened. Just 2 years ago I was the "young 28 year old worship leader". Now I feel like the athlete whose agents are looking for fresh legs that can keep things moving. I've definitely already began to question the longevity of this ministry in my life. But I think that ultimately it comes down to what God has called you to do. So maybe your hair's greying. Maybe you can't pull off the "skinny jeans". Who gives a snot? Is this what God's called you to do? Then be obedient to that. And if the time comes that you reach that ripe old age of 35 and decide to hang up your guitar, then grab a wheelchair and worship with your oxygen tank beside you.

  12. Wrinkle Man, thanks for your honest, even funny, thoughts. This is tough. You're right, though. In the end it all comes down to call. Let's hope that the worship leader's church community is seeking to discern that call as much as the worship leader him/herself is. This would alleviate a lot of these issues.

  13. I've been leading worship for 28 years and it didn't dawn on me until just recently that I might be perceived differently than I was years ago. I am a 56 year old female and although my husband is the pastor of our church and my position is somewhat "secure", I don't want to become old fashioned in my craft . I don't like the shallow trends I see in worship today and have a strong conviction to find and introduce to our church Biblically rich worship songs and modern hymns. I like many styles but the lyrics have to be God centered. So because I haven't bought into the pop worship, man centered trend I may be perceived as "old". Heck, I am old (I guess) but who cares. I can still sing and play with the best of em and I have a young sound. My husband and I were just talking about this and I think as "older" worship leaders we need to make an extra effort to be musically relevant but not compromise on content. We need to cater to all the ages within our congregation not just the youth. We are to serve all of them not just our musical preferences. We need to be mentors to the younger up and coming worship leaders and musicians and incorporate them into our ministries. A church where all ages are seen serving together is the ideal. Thank you for this subject. It needs to be talked about and seen through the lens of scripture.

  14. already i can see the ratio of response, more males than female. jan, i feel your pain. there are very few extraordinary male pastors who have the wisdom to relate with a female worship leader without feeling threatened or just plain feeling awkward. a true worshipper comes from passionate relationship with Jesus. not from feeling comfortable with people we work with, the sound we produce or the sense of acceptance by the crowd.
    when my time came, i fought to the teeth to keep my heart right to be able to graciously step aside. it was the right thing to do to keep the peace. the turmoil and gut wrenching pain was mine alone to bear in silence. in that dark season i know in my heart the Holy Spirit spoke to me and said: "the calling comes from God, it is spiritual; the title is man's attempt to encapsulate its essence and never could. I have found that without my title, my greatest calling as worship leader (still) is to continue ministering in love……. the place of leading is no longer up front, on stage; but in a little corner in my bedroom, praying for the new breed of "worship leaders" who are rising up…. many without preparation, no spiritual mentorship, packed with talent but lacking in discipline and wisdom……because truly, only God can help them BECOME….
    I have to speak God's truth over them .."they are fearfully and wonderfully made.. created in His image and likeness… before time began He called them for his purpose….." now, here they are and in my eyes – so young, raw and "unworthy" of the high calling…. but God's Spirit says otherwise….
    So I now devote my time on my knees, praying for God's new servants to become worshippers that please Him first, before they are concerned about what pleases the crowd. That they become more like Jesus and please the Father. That they never feel the pain of rejection and bitterness I had to go through, when it is their time to let go and let God.
    I won't lie, it still hurts, sometimes I still have to fight the urge to sometimes scream at them: "Are you stupid?" and sometimes I am just darn bitter….but I fight with every ounce I have in me to get right back to: "Jesus help me see you, trust you, obey you, love them, pray for them,…"
    Hope this helps……

  15. Hey, Zac! Great post! I'm an older leader and have suffered this ageism thing. It sucks. Thanks for speaking out! Chiz

  16. I'm 54 and when I was young and growing up in the church I was told I was to young quite a few times.
    Many times I was rejected in my age being young and than I got sick and was in a car accident. God healed me, but it was a slow process. God has used me for a few years, but than I got sick again. Now I'm afraid to even try to go out there as a artist because of my age. God is healing me again a slow process. Praise GOd for his healing and I shouldn't be worried about how old I am and that I won't be accepted because of age. It seems now to be all about the young generation.

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