Church-goers these days have rising expectations for the quality of worship. We want worship to be an authentic encounter with the living God, a quality gathering for the Christian community, and an effective means of reaching those exploring Christian faith. In fact, we have gradually placed more weight on the role of worship in accomplishing the church’s mission.
Those who work as worship planners are well aware of these rising expectations. And they try to meet them by providing thematic services with spoken transitions that aid the flow of worship, appropriate musical expression, and visual appeal. But how are we doing in equipping worship leaders to meet congregational aspirations? And what must we do to address these needs in the future?
During the fall of 2004, the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW) sponsored an online survey of worship leaders. This survey queried both paid and volunteer staff who plan worship in evangelical and mainline Protestant circles as well as the Roman Catholic Church. We heard from 1,873 North American worship leaders representing 45 different circles of church affiliation. Of these, 717 cited CICW as their primary connection to the survey. We spent the winter and spring months analyzing and comparing results. Here’s what we discovered.
The Training Landscape
Foremost, we learned that the training landscape is quite similar regardless of respondents’ church affiliation, whether Protestant or Catholic, mainline or evangelical. Responses from those identified through the CICW mailing list typically matched responses from the larger variety of churches we surveyed. The good news is that over half of all survey respondents indicated that they are being actively trained as worship leaders; and over 90 percent of those trained reported their instruction as effective. Worship leaders are learning a significant amount about the nature of worship and are putting their knowledge to good use. Given this, let’s take a look at some of the more specific results from the CICW-related respondents regarding the source of training, the format of training, and the topics of training for worship leaders.
Sources for Training
Who trains worship leaders? According to our survey results (see chart 1), denominational resources are the principal source of training, cited by almost 40 percent of respondents. In addition to these resources, training is provided by lay leaders, individual pastors, and schools with experts—each typically providing about 16-18 percent of worship leader development. These sources of training balance the larger influence from denominational resources.
But what’s most interesting about the data is the preferences regarding future training. Survey respondents indicate that while denominations, lay leaders, and individual pastors will continue to be influential, they have a rising preference for training by specialists, who are often associated with schools. It appears that worship leaders are looking for training from those who have developed specific knowledge and expertise in the area of worship.
Formats for Training
When we consider the format for equipping worship leaders, strategies for development become a little more complex (see chart 2). Right now the most typical formats for training are the large seminar, formal schooling, and one-on-one mentoring. Yet the desires of worship leaders, whether they are part-time volunteers or full-time employees, are changing. While one-on-one mentoring continues to be a preferred approach, the desired format for training is shifting from formal, large-scale events to smaller, decentralized venues. Respondents are seeking more retreats and local workshops as training forums. They seem to be looking for smaller venues that tailor worship to the specific needs of their congregations and communities. While they want access to expertise, they prefer that such training be delivered in a decentralized fashion. Doing so may require those with worship-related expertise to combine more travel with the provision of training through online, real-time technology.
What are the topics worship leaders want to learn about? The survey asked respondents about a wide range of options (see chart 3). Currently, worship leader training is substantially focused on teaching people about the nature of worship planning and the basic elements of worship. But worship leaders’ preferences for training topics are shifting too. While learning how to plan for worship remains an important priority, worship leaders want to be knowledgeable about a broader topic range: how to manage and motivate other worship participants; how to relate worship to the broader mission of the church; how to use media and incorporate diversity into worship. Perhaps this means that many leaders have learned about the basic elements of worship and are now eager to connect those ideals to the specific locations in which they find themselves. They may be ready to add nuances to their basic understanding.
Too Little Feedback
Finally, the survey results indicate that despite all the encouraging and helpful results regarding the training of worship leaders, there’s one important gap the church has yet to fill. It’s apparent that very few worship leaders receive any feedback on their contributions, especially feedback that helps them improve their individual efforts. We must not only be sensitive to worship leaders’ training needs, but we must also learn how to provide, with both honesty and charity, feedback that helps individual leaders grow. Without such, we lack an essential means to improve individuals’ worship contributions.
It’s encouraging to learn that worship leaders want to be trained. And it’s heartening to see congregations’ increasing desire to connect worship to local church missions and to honor diversity among worshipers. If churches now provide further access to expert training, share the knowledge worship leaders seek, and build better feedback systems, God’s people will continue to grow in deep and joyful worship of our trinitarian God.