More Than Technique: All worship planners and leaders have a pastoral calling

This article is adapted from an address Witvliet gave at the inauguration of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.

Most of us probably read Reformed Worship for practical ideas. We want to find resources, songs, texts, scripts, and images that we can use in our congregations—preferably by next week.

But perhaps we also are looking for something deeper, something more than techniques. Perhaps we need a perspective, a way of conceptualizing our role as worship leaders that will sustain us in our day-to-day work in our congregations.

This is especially true for battle-weary leaders. Many of us are burned out, worn to a frazzle from producing a full menu of services for weeks on end. Others are weary of working in congregations where "worship war" rhetoric takes the joy out of our job. Still others work tirelessly in congregations that don't seem to appreciate our efforts at all, or in congregations where worshipers come to church with impossibly high expectations of us and amazingly few expectations of themselves. In these situations, we need more than techniques; we need a vision to encourage, sustain, and inspire us.

The Changing Role of Worship Leaders

Over the past several years, a host of publications have featured articles on the changing role of the pastor in Christian congregations. They have attempted to describe the central image that pastors and their congregations have of the pastor's role. Are pastors primarily resident theologians? Skilled orators? Spiritual therapists? Ecclesiastical CEOs?

How a church and its pastor answer the question of identity makes a world of difference. It changes everything about how a pastor prioritizes competing goals, how a church thinks of its mission, how it searches for a new pastor, and how a seminary curriculum is planned.

As worship planners and leaders, we also operate with certain images of our role. These images subtly shape how we go about our work: which conferences we attend, which journals we subscribe to, what we do at committee meetings, how we organize our time.

During the past ten years, I've been privileged to speak with worship leaders from around the country in a number of denominations. I often ask how various leaders think of their role. Almost always, their comments fall into one of the categories described below.

Four Self-images


Perhaps we write and deliver sermons, making words come to life with persuasive narratives and apt metaphors. Perhaps we sculpt communion ware or sew banners, finding exactly the right materials, images, and colors. Perhaps we make music, attending to the nuances of phrasing, to memorable melodies and convincing harmonies. Or perhaps we labor over writing a prayer or a script for a drama or a new hymn or song. Like the artist Perugino, the musician Palestrina, the preacher John Donne, the hymn poet Isaac Watts, and host of other Christians throughout the centuries—we are craftspeople.

Directors and Coordinators

We may have job titles like "Director of Music" or "Worship Coordinator." We spend a lot of our time recruiting people. We run rehearsals. We have a reserved seat at nearly every meeting. We proofread printed orders of service. We evaluate and buy material. We make countless phone calls to find Scripture readers and flute players and sound people. As one person said to me recently, "This worship stuff is lot more complicated than it used to be."


However reluctantly, some of us see ourselves as performers. Whether we play the organ or participate in drama or preach a sermon, there is a performance aspect to our work. And no matter how much we or our congregations protest this label, we are still expected to put out, to play chords in tune, to tell interesting stories, to produce elegant banners. After a service we often hear comments like "impressive music" or "good job in that drama" or "powerful sermon." And whether we admit it or not, we do spend energy producing services to generate comments like that.

Spirihial Engineers

Some of us see ourselves as what I will call—for lack of a better term—"spiritual engineers." Our primary goal is to inspire people. We want to create moments that are packed with spiritual power. Not long ago, I received a call from a pastor asking advice on finding a worship leader. I asked, "What are you looking for?" The answer? "Someone who can make God present in our midst." Language like this is becoming quite common in want ads for worship leaders. Increasingly, churches are looking for people whose creativity, personal testimony, and charismatic personality can turn an ordinary moment into a holy moment.

A Better Image

These four images are common, but none are sufficient for the task.

Our craft is important. But the church does not exist for the sake of drama or poetry or music.

Our coordinating is necessary. But it is not enough. Martin Luther knew this. He once chided worship leaders by arguing: "We have stuck to founding, building, singing, ringing, to vestments, incense burning, and to all the additional preparations for divine worship up to the point that we consider this preparation the real, main divine worship and do not know how to speak of any other. We are acting as wisely as the man who wants to build a house and spends all his goods on the scaffolding and never, as long as he lives, gets far enough along to lay one stone of his house" (E. Plass, What Luther Says, vol. 1, Concordia, 1959, p. 302).

Our performance is perhaps inevitable. But it too is insufficient. This self-image does nothing to distinguish us from concert-hall entertainment, whether that be the Chicago Symphony or Amy Grant. It is one thing when worshipers greet us with "neat piece" or "fancy playing" or "impressive sermon." It is something entirely different when they simply say "I am at a loss for words to say thanks. Today you helped me pray."

While the three images of craftsperson, director, and performer are incomplete because they do not shoot high enough, the fourth—that of spiritual engineer—is problematic because it overshoots. Our concern for attending to holy moments is important. Yet none of us, no matter how charismatic we might be, can—by our own creativity or ingenuity or effort—make a moment holy. Scripture records a long line of those who tried. Think of the prophets of Baal at Carmel or the servant who wanted to support the ark of the covenant as it was transported. At the dedication of the concert hall and chapel at Luther College, Westin Nobel chose the anthem on the Pauline text, "God does not dwell in temples made by human hands"—a powerful reminder that God's presence is to be received as a gift. It cannot be engineered or produced.

These four pictures of our roles are incomplete.

As worship leaders, we have the important and terrifying task of placing words of prayer on people's lips.

Toward a Pastoral Image

We need another, richer image to give us our identity—not to displace these others but to put them all in context, to correct their overstatements. We need to see planning and leading worship as pastoral tasks.

Though only some of us have the word "pastor" in our job title, all of us have shepherd-like roles. We need to take the advice of the fourth-century document Constitutions of the Holy Apostles: "Be a builder up, a converter, apt to teach, forbearing of evil, of a gentle mind, meek, long-suffering, ready to exhort, ready to comfort, as one of God." Only after this advice does this ancient church order go on to speak of skill: "When you call together an assembly of the Church, it is as if you were the commander of a great ship. Set up the enterprise to be accomplished with all possible skill, charging the deacons as mariners to prepare places for the congregation as for passengers, with all due care and decency" (Ante-Nkene Fathers, vol. 7, Eerdmans, 1979, p. 421). The craft and coordinating and "performance" in our work finds its ultimate goal and purpose if we approach it with a pastoral heart. It finds its purpose in acts of hospitality.

As worship leaders, we have the important and terrifying task of placing words of prayer on people's lips. It happens every time we choose a song or write a prayer. We also have the holy task of being stewards of God's Word. Our choices of Scripture and themes for worship represent a degree of control over people's spiritual diets, over how they feed on the bread of life. For holy tasks like these, the church needs more than craftspeople, coordinators, and performers, and none with the hubris to be "spiritual engineers." The church needs pastoral people to plan and lead its worship.

Certainly, our role as "shepherds" does not displace aspects of the other roles. We still cultivate gifts as clear and articulate speakers, technically proficient musicians, ingenious artists. We are still coordinators, calling meetings, running rehearsals, proofreading copy. While we aren't spiritual engineers, we do—with fear and trembling—take the part of priests, placing words of prayer on people's lips that may well resonate deep within their soul and draw them, by the Spirit's power, closer to God.

Profile of a Pastoral Worship Leader

I have found several things to be true of persons who take a pastoral role in planning and leading worship.

A Love of Learning

First, they are people who cultivate the gift of a discerning mind, who have a deep and growing knowledge of Scripture, who love the truth of the Christian gospel and are eager to probe its deepest questions. They are people who love to learn. They know that leading worship requires more than good intentions. So they read books and journals, take courses, and attend conferences to hone their pastoral sensibilities. They know that the quickest way to make worship relevant is to make it a profoundly true portrayal of the Christian gospel.

Pastoral leaders constantly ask whether the "psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs" of the church's worship are sung "so that the Word of God may dwell in us richly" (the forgotten purpose clause of Col. 3:16). They worry about the link between theology and worship: whether worship in their church depicts God as indifferent and far removed; whether it gives the impression that prayer is simply an act of cognition or, conversely, an act of pure emotion; whether worship in their congregation makes it clear that the Bible is central to the life and faith of the church. They know that worship expresses the deepest theological convictions of the community, that it reveals as much about the belief of the community as do catechisms and confessions. In short, they know what Dutch theologian Gerardus van der Leeuw knew when he quipped that "one can't tap the finger of liturgy without immediately getting the whole hand of theology."

Because of this theological bent, they are always making self-conscious choices between good and bad, better and worse. They are willing to say no to a text or narrative or image or song that is inaccurate, simplistic, or sentimental. They have an instinctive way of telling the difference between evangelistic zeal and personal aggrandizement, between aesthetic critiques that are spiritually astute and those that are simply pretentious, between changes in worship that are wholesale capitulation to market forces and those that are a breath of spiritual fresh air after years of stagnant, routine Christianity. Such is the nature of their discerning minds.

A Pastoral Heart

Second, they are people with a pastoral heart. They know the names, faces, and stories of people in the congregation. They can spot visitors and welcome them to the assembly. They know who to ask to serve as Scripture reader or flute player or sound person—because they know both who has the necessary skills and also for whom that participation would be a meaningful act of service.

This is possible because they are people of prayer. They are able to shepherd others because they constantly pray for them. One choir director I know prays for each member of her choir prior to rehearsal. Rehearsals are transformed from a joyless exercise in note-learning to a profound opportunity for pastoral care. Perhaps because of this, these people know how to lead others in prayer. They choose texts and songs that lead people not to say, "I enjoyed that music" or "that was a neat song" but instead, "through that song I confessed my sin to God" or "through that song I was able to praise God more truly."

A Spirit of Joy

Third, pastoral worship leaders have a spirit of infectious joy. Romano Guardini, a twentieth-century German theologian, once observed: "Worship has one thing in common with the play of the child and the life of art—it has no purpose, but is full of profound meaning. It is not work, but play. From this is derived its sublime mingling of profound earnestness and divine joyfulness." Serving as a congregation's worship leader and planner is like entering a playground. There are all sorts of joyful discoveries awaiting you. There are mentors to learn from, new ideas to explore, creative gifts to develop.

What the church needs most is not another hymnal, a new sound system, a revised prayer book, or another set of published scripts. What the church needs most are discerning, prayerful, joyous people who treat their work as worship planners and leaders as a holy, pastoral calling.




During our final year of graduate school, my wife and I had the opportunity to visit dozens of churches from many denominations. On this year-long journey, we encountered numerous worship leaders who saw their work as a pastoral task. We found congregations where

  • worship leaders taught the second and third grade church school class the musical refrain that was used a month later in a congregation prayer. In this way, these children became full participants in that congregational prayer.
  • worship leaders prepared a devotional guide for their members, challenging them to make Sunday worship the anchor of their personal and family worship. From Monday through Wednesday members relive the Scripture texts, hymns, and prayers of the previous Sunday. From Thursday through Saturday they prepare for Sunday by studying, praying, and singing the songs of the coming service. (For a similar resource, see the sample HomeLink devotion on p. 19 designed to accompany the service plans on pp. 10-18.)
  • all those who visited the sick from January through March brought with them a simple but beautiful calligraphy print of a new hymn text, then read that hymn-poem as part of their pastoral visit. In April, the same text was introduced in worship. Rather than complain about another new tune and text, dozens of members of the congregation found a profound connection between their worship and their prior time of crisis.
  • the organist played an organ voluntary that was appropriate for the theme of the day but also happened to be based on the hymn that had been sung one year earlier at the funeral of a young child in the congregation. Most worshipers on that Sunday had no idea of the connection, but for the family of that child, the organist became a pastoral caregiver.
  • a guild of visual artists were given a large space in the church to use as their studio during the week. Not only did a group of artists find a church home, but the church was also blessed with communion ware, banners, and bulletin covers that were breathtaking in their simple beauty.
  • fifth-grade pianists participated in worship, not by nervously playing their recital sonatina as a offertory but by playing a simple melody of a familiar hymn to close the congregational prayer. The music was at once less complicated and more meaningful for everyone present.
  • the annual youth service was canceled. Instead, the congregation made a commitment to involve at least five members of the youth group every month as Scripture readers, instrumentalists, and prayer leaders.
  • the pastor prayed for adopted children and their parents (something we rarely hear) during the intercessory prayer. This prayer reminded all worshipers that they are adopted in Christ, and it was a profound act of pastoral care for many in the congregation, especially for those for whom adoption is the most significant source of their own sense of self.
  • members agreed to sing one song from another continent in each worship service. "We need this tangible act," they said, "to remember and celebrate the worldwide body of Christ—for our own spiritual health. Without it, we are prone to think of ourselves as a whole church."
  • children come forward not for the usual object lesson accompanied by what has become known as "the congregational chuckle," but for a simple, hushed moment where the pastor blesses them, and the children in turn bless the rest of the congregation.
  • the leadership voted to the change the job title for their musician from "director of music" to "pastoral musician."
  • the entire post-Christmas adult education program focused on Holy Week worship. "Through our education program," said the director of worship, "we want to prepare people spiritually to experience the most profound worship possible during those important days."
  • a signing ministry made worship accessible to those without the gift of hearing.

These few examples—and many more I could cite—show what can happen when worship planners and leaders treat their tasks as pastoral tasks. Many of these examples can be adapted—at least in part—to churches with 75 members or 7,500 members.

Rev. Dr. John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.

Reformed Worship 49 © September 1998, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.