In our own churches, we are likely to be the best trained musician or the most experienced worship planner. We need to put ourselves in positions where we are the least experienced person in the room. Yes, this is terrifying, but a frightening challenge is the surest way to grow.
A few months ago, I called a local jazz musician about getting lessons. I’ve been playing a weekly jazz gig on my string bass, many weeks writing new jazz tunes for the trio to sneak into our sets. I decided it was time to take things to the next level and have someone give me feedback on these new songs, teach me more jazz theory, and help me improve my improvising. When I got to his house for the lesson, I unexpectedly became anxious. I haven’t had a lesson in decades! What if he hated the songs? What if he discovered the many gaps in my mostly self-taught jazz education? What if he exposed me to be the jazz imposter I worry I am?
None of my worst fears came true that day. The teacher was generally positive, gave me some valuable things to work on, and sent me on my way more equipped for my jazz journey. My takeaway from this experience was not only a renewed appreciation for Lydian scales, but a deeper reflection on life, learning, and my role as a worship director.
I don’t know about you, but I fear being discovered to be a fraud. I am well-educated but never learned about X historical event. I’m well-read but don’t know Y author. I am an experienced worship leader but am the only person who has never heard song Z. The shame of inadequacy and fear of failure are strong motivators. Many of us deal with this fear by hunkering down in our little corner of the world where it’s safe and we won’t be challenged by those who might have different skills than us or—heaven forbid—be better than us.
The problem with this approach is that it almost ensures our stagnation. We remain comfortable, but our world grows smaller and our skills become stale. How do we fight this fear-induced atrophy? Our desire for growth must be greater than our fear and shame. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that we need to commit to failure. “If your article doesn’t get rejected by a number of journals” says one friend, “you’re aiming too low.” It is in moving out of our comfort zones, surrounding ourselves with intimidatingly skilled people, and even in failing that we will grow most.
“This is all very profound, Greg,” You say, “but how does this relate to worship?”
We all have a “worship wheelhouse”—a music style or worship context in which we feel most comfortable. We can play gospel piano like nobody’s business but fall apart reading four-part hymns. We can lead scripted liturgy with confidence and dignity but stutter and stumble our way through extemporaneous prayer. Indeed, most of us began worship leading during a particular era and were hired for our skills in leading the music of that time. But what happens when worship culture changes over time?
Over and over again, I’ve seen “it” worship leaders age out of their roles. You know the story: She was the most anointed worship leader in her town. When she sat at the piano and began to sing “Majesty” or “Lamb of God,” every hand was raised and every eye was moist. But now she’s in her 40s and has three teenagers—and even they would rather hear the cool band at the college fellowship. Sometimes these aging worship leaders are replaced by shiny, young leaders. Other times they can hang on to their roles as “legacy” leaders of a church or service that caters to their generation. But growth is not only about holding onto our ministry positions. If we feel called to serve the Church in worship and believe that age brings wisdom, we should do what we can to continue our ministries as we grow past the “expiration date” often put on worship leaders.
Learning and growing outside our comfort zones allows for long and fruitful ministries in several ways. It keeps us fresh, engaged, and open as new waves of worship come to our churches. It helps us discover new talents and roles for ourselves; in our twenties we may be a winsome, guitar-toting worship leader, but as the decades roll on, we find the Spirit is leading us into leadership roles, that we have a gift for teaching and mentoring, or that we are called into more pastoral aspects of ministry. Continued growth also keeps us from being old and cranky! As we grow older, it is so easy to complain about the “kids nowadays” and that they “just don’t write ‘em like they used to.” Learning new things keeps us supple enough to communicate across generations.
How do we achieve this ever-evolving approach to ministry?
First, we should all have a place to grow outside our church. In our own churches, we are likely to be the best trained musician or the most experienced worship planner. We need to put ourselves in positions where we are the least experienced person in the room. Yes, this is terrifying, but a frightening challenge is the surest way to grow. Join the best choir in your city. Take a college or seminary course in music, worship, or theology. Dust off your instrument and play in a rock band or jazz ensemble. Audition for a musical. Play your songs at an open mic night. The options are endless, but the goal is the same—leave the comfort of your own church and challenge your abilities.
Learn a new skill. Over time, our “groove” can become a rut that is so deep we can’t get out. Break up your routine by trying something different. A classically trained violinist may want to learn bluegrass fiddle. A worship guitarist might want to dive into classical or jazz guitar. A pastor could expand her wordsmithing by writing poetry or studying literature. All of these serve as a “sabbatical for the skills,” allowing us to reevaluate, broaden, and rejuvenate our craft.
Engage different kinds of people. We tend to be most comfortable with people of our own age and from the same ethnic and socio-economic group. As awkward as it can be at times, we grow most as we interact with people who don’t look, think, and sing like we do. Have coffee with one of your church’s traditionalists to ask what makes them love their favorite hymns. Watch a movie with the youth group and use an illustration from it in a sermon. Ask an immigrant or non-majority ethnic group in your church to teach you the songs they sang in their home churches. Mentor a young person and be mentored by an older person, imparting and absorbing the values of different generations. All these experiences enrich our own understanding of worship and keep us from believing that our way is the way.
All these things will challenge us—and perhaps cause no small amount of panic. But they will also build the creativity and resilience that will allow us to bend, not break. May we all resolve to grow our skill set, broaden our worldview, and become wiser, more gracious people with each new year.
**This piece was part of Greg Scheer’s podcast channel and adapted for written word. For more insights from Greg, tune in and check out his podcasts.