Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Worship Leader Pop Stars

Note: I introduced some of these ideas in a blog I did back in November. This blog is a further development of those ideas that is perhaps a bit more coherent.

A few months ago I read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, an intriguing look into what really makes certain people successful. Outliers no doubt challenges many of the commonly held ideas in our culture concerning success, namely that success is simply the product of brilliant individuals who ‘pull themselves up by the bootstraps’ and make it by sheer grit and determination. Gladwell digs into the success stories of Bill Gates and the Beatles, among others, to show that success has just as much to do with what a person has access to as it does with talent or ambition.

For example Bill Gates happened to grow up in a town that had one of the first supercomputers and just happened to go to a school where he and a few friends were allowed free time to program on the computer during the off hours. This meant that by the time Gates was 20 he and his companions knew as much as anybody in the world about computers. He was certainly smart and had drive and ambition, but apart from living in Seattle during those years and having access to program on some of the first supercomputers he would not have had the knowledge and experience to succeed in the way he did.

Gladwell also makes the case that The Beatles logged in thousands of hours playing live gigs in Hamburg, Germany before they ever made it big. During the Hamburg years The Beatles would play 10 hours a day, seven days a week which, as Gladwell sees it, prepared them to be great performers, songwriters and to go on to be the biggest rock band of their day.

I wonder if this Gladwellian theory might be relevant concerning the successful contestants on American Idol as well. I found it interesting that in the last season of American Idol more than half of the finalists were either worship leaders at their churches or sang in church on a regular basis (in fact Chris Allen, the winner of American Idol, was a worship leader at his church). What’s more is that these Christian worship leaders beat the other contestants not while doing gospel songs but while doing pop music. Gladwell’s theory would look at this tendency of worship leaders making the top 12 on American Idol as an indicator that churches have now become the place where more people have access to participate in music, specifically pop style music, than anywhere else in America (at least for a certain age demographic). In other words, just as Bill Gates had access to program on some of the first computers at a young age, and just as the Beatles had an opportunity to play thousands of hours of music at a young age in Hamburg, more than half of the contestants on American Idol have had access and opportunity to be involved in music from a young age and to be consistently singing in front of people… and just like Gates and the Beatles, this has put them at a competitive advantage.

In one respect it is really cool that churches have actually become a place where folks can engage with music in a serious way (not just ancient hymns but the kind of stuff you listen to on the radio). The downside is that the church has so learned to speak the cultural language concerning performing music that it has lost some of it’s perceived authenticity and credibility which has had the effect of disconnecting it from the very ones in the culture which it desires to reach. In many ways Christians have beat the surrounding culture on it’s own terms, but this has come with a high price tag. The reality is that for many in our world worship music is nothing more than jingles to sell God rather than songs that truly connect folks with the presence of God in an authentic and meaningful way. Worship songs are perceived by many outside of church in much the same way as a performance of songs on American Idol are—inspiring perhaps, but nothing more than that (watch the Youtube clip of "Shout to the Lord" and it is no wonder why they might think this). There is very little sense that one might actually encounter God in a time of singing songs together and this is perhaps the biggest downside to the success of worship leaders and worship albums in our culture right now. Whether you see Christians breaking into the mainstream world of pop music as a good thing or not I think it speaks a lot to the complex issues of Christians trying to connect with the culture and connecting the culture to God. Any thoughts?


mikeruel said...


You have just posted something that I have struggled to get my arms around for years.

Pop/Rock Star by definition is the opposite of a Worship Leader. A rock star is looking to get all the spotlight on themselves, while a worship leader is supposed to focus the spotlight on someone else, someone greater than them - our Lord Jesus Christ.

I am baffled by a few recent seemingly Rock Star Worship Leaders - the perception, the read I get from them from knowing little to know about them other than the promotion I see, is that they are promoting themselves. Their trite, simple, and vacuous lyrics obviously thrown in at the last minute are devoid of doctrine - are meant to go along with driving rock beats and slick production. Sure, they are great tunes - but is that all what we are going for here?

There also seem to be a few "good ones" that seem to resist this tidal wave and consistently put out good, solid, Biblical worship music that facilitates the experience with God....but they seem lost in the static of selling products.

Caught in the middle is the body of Christ - who consistently approach me and ask me to do this latest hit or that one -- and I groan knowing full well that the lyrics of that catchy number that's been on the radio are not Biblical and probably won't help anyone grow closer to the Lord, and probably cause more theological confusion than growth in truth.

Also caught in the middle is the world - who must look at it and wonder what the heck is the deal with that? Rock star Christian worship leaders?

I too saw the American Idol a few weeks back where the "Worship Pastor" was auditioning. I read the Twitter explosion that followed where folks were in an uproar that Arvil Lavigne dared persecute a worship leader. I thought Avril's questions were appropriate. Let's assume that she isn't saved and is confused as to why a man who, one would think, has been "called" to full time ministry as a Pastor would suddenly want to pursue a career as a rock star – an American Idol - making himself the product. Her candor and tone of voice were quite revealing, as one who has been educated by life, that in the music biz – she knows full well that's what it's about.

Where I have an issue, is that as Christians, we are supposed to be about Jesus.

If we are called to be a worship leader, and I do believe it is a calling, we are also called to lead people to engage the greatness of God thru solid, Biblical worship music – not ourselves.


Pi Man said...

You’re right, Bro. This is a complex topic. A common thread in a “successful” person’s vocation, whether they be secular or not, is “passion.” Of course, the way “successful” is defined in those two dichotomies is no small matter. The obvious difference in the way a song is “performed” (in my opinion) should be evident when one has a personal understanding and personal relationship with God (when talking about music in a worship setting-not that you’re any less passionate about it in a secular setting). That being said, I, for example, can’t control how one interprets or judges what they think are my motives. And I don’t try to. I mean this nicely, but that’s their problem, not mine. Only God and I know what’s in my heart and what my true motives are. And certainly I’m not going to apologize for any performing arts training I’ve received anymore than Tiger Woods would for always having a golf coach. You still try to develop your craft, your God given talents. When one looks at Darlene Zschech singing “Shout to the Lord,” I would hope they would sense something a bit different than the Idol version. Maybe we (Christ followers) don’t want to be labeled as such. Maybe we’re afraid of being ostracized. Maybe we’re losing our identity because we’ve sat on our asses so long worrying about offending others with our message, though ironically, they have often offended our beliefs. I don’t know, but sometimes I think we’re just too comfortable in how “plain” and “vanilla” we are, if that makes any sense. I’m not saying “get in their face.” I just mean confidently, boldly, and with love, making sure our message is known and that we don’t blend in so well that there is no discernable difference in our lives and theirs. Another thought is that even though a non-believer may in fact come initially and for a while to a service just because of the music, is that necessarily a bad thing if they eventually come to know the God of the universe loves and forgives them? I think not. One size does not fit all. And I’m thankful for that. Indeed, we do have to crawl before we walk before we run. I’m so thankful that, as you have often said, we don’t have to be perfect to come to God. He takes us right now, right away, just as we are with all our brokenness and baggage, unconditionally with His great mercy and love, and then starts cleaning up the mess we’ve made of ourselves. While we all have this mission (to share the love of God through Christ), I think you as a Pastor now have the unique opportunity to of course explain that to your congregation. That hey, it’s okay to come for the music, the fellowship, the coffee (Amen!). But in the finally analysis, if you don’t eventually understand what it means to have a personal, life changing encounter with the God of the universe, then all that other stuff doesn’t mean much… except maybe the coffee. (Ha!) Guess we’ve got to be patient, and keep planting and nurturing the seed as it grows, and let God determine the season to harvest. Indeed, He does make everything beautiful, when? In His time…. Good stuff Bro. And nice black & white pic on the top of the blog now. Peace. TA

Batsirai said...

Maybe the problem isn't so much worship leaders becoming pop stars, but Christians with pop star dreams becoming worship leaders cause it's the ' closest' they can get, and their talent makes them an 'obvious' choice. Many are not 'called' so to say, but have choosen a ministry that makes 'sense', after doing a gift inventory test! In such cases, the lack of a calling leads to the pursuit of other open doors.