Overview of Five Challenges Facing Lead Worshipers in New and Emerging Churches

A helpful article looking at the challenges that new and emerging churches face.

Early on in the film Cast Away, Tom Hanks' character finds himself stranded on a deserted island. One of his first experiments in food gathering involves fashioning a makeshift harpoon in an attempt to get some much-needed protein into his diet. He does not have much initial luck with this unwieldy tool.

Being a lead worshiper is somewhat akin to spearing fish in ocean shallows with an implement ill-equipped for the task. It is challenging to hit the mark under any circumstances, and extraordinarily difficult to do so under turbulent conditions, such as when the tide is rushing in. If you are called to ministry in the dynamic, chaotic setting of a newly emerging church, your ministry setting is by nature a turbulent environment. Thankfully, in spear fishing and worship leading alike, practice, determination, and experience helps. Before leaving his island home, Tom Hanks has become a grizzled veteran of spear fishing, almost habitually on target, even with the smallest fish.

So how does a man or woman called by God to the ministry island of a developing church become a grizzled veteran of worship leading? How does one get to the place where his or her spiritual leadership of a worshiping community is habitually on target?

Lead worshipers are an odd mix of traits and talents. At their best, they are people who love Jesus from the bottom of their hearts and can do so publicly in a hospitable, inviting, and contagious way. They are emotive people who are tempered by theologically discerning minds. They are intuitive people whose instincts are grounded in the Scriptures. They are people who are open to having their personalities utilized by the Holy Spirit but who can check their egos at the door. They are persons high in both transparency and substance. They have a sense of God's holiness and the fear that is due him, while also having a comfortable intimacy with the One who calls his people “friends.” Good lead worshipers connect their communities to an ancient story through accessible, relevant means. They know when to step up and when to step back; that is, they are discerning and wise.

Does this sound like you? Does this sound like a tall order? The unfortunate news for worship leaders is that possessing all of the above traits, talents, and spiritual gifts is not enough to guarantee a fruitful and lasting ministry. There are far too many examples of folks who love Jesus ardently but lead his church poorly. To be “wise as serpents” in such a setting means to come to terms with the levels of entrepreneurial creativity, self-discipline, management skill, and courageous leadership that are needed to make the church work as a healthy organization.

And the tide rises even higher. The general environment of a newer church is dynamic and chaotic by nature. There is no institutional history to fall back on, no way that things have been done before. The identity of a living, breathing church is being forged before your eyes by the grace of God. The potential for rapid growth causes excitement, and turbulence. The discipleship needs of young Christians inspire and drain. Victories and failures come fast and furious, causing a weekly, daily, hourly ebb and flow of ministry momentum. Naturally, this budding young church is under-resourced. The need for ministry constantly exceeds your capacity for it.

These kinds of challenges can make us hard and uncouth—the kind of people who don't mind shaving with the edge of a rock—but they can also make us experienced, savvy, and ready for any challenge. Tom Hanks' character did cut his hair with a sharpened stone, but he was also clear-headed enough to know what to do when Providence gave him a large piece of plastic.

In this first installment of a series of essays regarding new and emerging churches, I propose to name some of the questions surrounding the five main challenge areas faced by lead worshipers. Subsequent articles will address each challenge area in depth, seeking sharper clarity on each issue and assisting the reader in charting a course of solutions that promotes long-term ministry health and fruitfulness.

Challenge #1: The Frantic Challenge

  • How can a lead worshiper stay fresh and vital with 52 Sundays (plus holidays!) per year?
  • How do worship leaders keep the Sabbath when part of their work is on Sunday?
  • How does one choose what not to do in ministry? Are there commonly agreed upon boundaries for worship leaders?
  • How can one maintain the surety of God's call in the midst of business?
  • What is the relationship between a leader's private life and his or her public authenticity?

Challenge #2: The Finance Challenge

  • Help, my church is hugely under-resourced!
  • How can a church align its core values with its bottom line so that real-life expenditures line up with vision?
  • Is a worship leader obligated to engage in fund-raising?
  • How can a church balance excellence in presenting the gospel with the stewardship that God demands?
  • Are there ways to do quality, creative visual art in a variety of mediums on a shoestring? Where are there good examples of churches that are making this work?

Challenge #3: The Volunteer Challenge

  • No one told me the church was a volunteer organization! What can I really expect from a corps of volunteers?
  • Where are the top five spots to recruit willing, able, under-utilized musicians?
  • How does a lead worshiper discern which key volunteers to really invest in and disciple?
  • What happens when a leader knows that a volunteer needs to be “fired”?
  • Can worship leaders create service opportunities for Christians of all ages? Are there churches that are doing this well?
  • How can worship leaders help volunteers discover their spiritual gifts? (In Frederick Buechner's words, “Where their passion meets the world's deep need.”)
  • How can worship leaders creatively provide one-time-only, seasonal, and long-term volunteering opportunities?

Challenge #4:  The Communication Challenge

  • What is 360-degree feedback? Do I really want it? Need it? How often should I get it?
  • How do I go about giving and receiving feedback with “grace and truth”?
  • How does a leader set up structures so that churchgoers get the information they need?
  • What happens when there is tension between a lead worshiper and senior pastor?
  • How can the style and substance of a worship leader's ministry support the vision of the local church? How can a leader affirm what fits, eliminate what doesn't, and dream up new behaviors for the organization?

Challenge #5: The Creativity Challenge

  • Is there an optimal way to plan worship services?
  • What are the most important questions to ask when planning worship?
  • How does a leader identify and surround herself with key volunteers to maximize her strengths and minimize her weaknesses?
  • How can a leader promote participation in congregational song with a group that has little or no Christian experience?
  • What are the main movements of a worship service, and how can a leader most effectively lead into them?
  • What are the main dynamics of public prayer? How can a lead worshiper mentor others in effectively praying for a community?
  • How can an emerging church celebrate the sacraments with high levels of hospitality and meaning?
  • How can a leader facilitate a deeper, community-wide fellowship with the Triune God?

I hope this barrage of questions, and subsequent articles in the months to come, prove to be provocative and helpful for you and your ministry. I'd be grateful to hear about your experiences in leading worship ministry, and to entertain any questions or criticisms you might have about what you've read here.

—Gregg DeMey (gdemey@earthlink.net)

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