A sure way to raise an eyebrow is to tell someone outside generic North American evangelicalism that you are a “worship leader.” It’s a relatively recent phenomenon, and not without confusion and controversy.
He was unnecessary under the hymnal era, when the song canon descended like a dove from the denominational principalities. In that day, we all pretended to read music, relying only on the bracketed piano introduction and lip-syncing pulpiteer for our musical cues. Maybe there was a choir director, but the congregation navigated the service by mostly visual cues. The best being the removable-type hymn board at front, with last week’s giving and attendance.
But by definition, the contemporary style renders a hymnal obsolete from the moment of printing. In this aural idiom, a worship leader provides two functions: he gives visual and vocal cues to guide congregational singing, and selects repertoire from the explosion of available worship music.
Some object to the worship leader terminology, fearing that it blurs the roles of Jesus and the Holy Spirit leading us to the Father. These fears are exacerbated by poorly chosen and frighteningly common expressions that seem to prove the term has, in fact, confused categories. Have you heard someone say, “That worship leader just connects me to God?” While the guitar man is part of the assembly, and in one sense has the tabernacle presence of God individually (see 1 Cor 6:19), the primary temple of the New Covenant is the body of Christ, the gathering (1 Cor 3:16).
So the worship leader’s job is not to mediate God to you as a priest, singularly. (That would be a Roman Catholic view.) This view irritates many Reformed-folk, and rightly so. Rather, the worship leader equips the saints to do the work of the ministry, as the gathering of New Covenant priests (that’s all of us, see 1 Pet 2:9) minister to God and to one another. The worship leader does not lead you to God any more than any other priest in the assembly, but he does lead by setting the table with musical and visual cues to facilitate our ability to perform our priestly duty to one another.
So, I do not denigrate leadership. However, this flavor uniquely parallels Christ’s servant leadership. Wise worship leaders lead as those who seemingly don’t. If we mainly perceive, “He ministered to me,” something has probably gone wrong. If we reflect on the gathering, “I met God through His people,” the worship leader worked.
I see the term as basically neutral, but care deeply about the right reality behind it. To whatever extent the term creates the wrong idea, I say let’s replace it. But I’m not yet satisfied that any of the alternatives fix the problem, or that they don’t create new (or worse) ones.