“Music Leader” and “Worship Pastor”: What’s the Difference?

“Music Leader” and “Worship Pastor”: What’s the Difference?

What do you call the person (besides the preacher) who is upfront for most of your church’s Sunday morning service? Let’s consider two descriptions—“music leader” and “worship pastor”—as two different ways of leading God’s people in corporate worship.


A “music leader,” as I am using the term, is a musician who is recognized as uniquely talented among the congregation. Usually, they have more musical training or more public performing experience than other people in their congregation.

When a music leader plans church events, they import the values of their musical training and performing experience into the worship service. If they are classically trained and have performed in concert and recital halls, they might evaluate their worship services for their rhythmic accuracy, perfection of pitch, and attention to historical nuance. If they are self-taught and have performed in popular and rock music venues, they might evaluate their services in terms of spectacle, daring stage antics, and building a shared experience with other people of the same demographic.

Either way, music leaders choose songs that fit them, or songs they feel comfortable performing. Often, when their congregation expresses feedback (or criticism) to improve services, a music leader is stunned. Musicians normally play to a paying and appreciative audience. The people who disapprove of a musician’s music don’t normally complain; they just go somewhere else in order to listen to someone else.


By contrast, a “worship pastor” recognizes that the key noun in their job description is pastor. And as pastors, they labor to know the world of their people—their joys and successes, their burdens and laments—and they labor to know the world of the Scriptures. Worship pastors live, to use John Stott’s phrase, “between two worlds.”

Worship pastors work to plan worship services that survey the grand themes of Scripture—the goodness of creation, the perversion of sin, the brokenness of our fallen world, and the person and work of the Lord Jesus. Worship pastors inform their personal preferences and broaden their limited perspectives by studying the worship practices of the gathered church around the globe and throughout church history.

Worship pastors ask questions like, “If my congregation had to explain the gospel to an unbeliever using only the lyrics of the songs we sang last Sunday, could they do it?”

Worship pastors receive feedback (or criticism) from their congregation as a grace from God. While they will not implement every suggestion from every church member, they care about how their ministry is serving their people. As pastors, they love their people and want to see them grow in their ability to know the gospel and recognize the riches that are theirs in Christ.


Now certainly the extreme differences that I’m describing between “music leaders” and “worship pastors” don’t exist in real life. There are, of course, many faithful people who serve in the worship ministries of their local churches under the oversight of their elders. Seen this way, facilitating the upfront portion of a worship service is more diaconal than pastoral. Different local churches who desire biblically faithful worship ministry structures can choose from many options.

But at Bethlehem College & Seminary, we are investing in the paradigm of the Worship Pastor. We are training men who are steeped in the Scriptures, flipping Greek vocabulary cards and devoting time to hiding God’s Word in their hearts. We are training men who are proficient on their musical instruments and skilled to lead other musicians.

Above all, we are training men who love God and use music, and who refuse to switch those two priorities.


Because the glory of God will cover the earth like the waters cover the sea, worship pastors are part of an unstoppable and invincible task. Consider joining us. If you know qualified men who aspire to become worship pastors, encourage them to enroll at Bethlehem College & Seminary. And consider investing your heart and resources in the one thing that will last for eternity: the everlasting worship of our eternal God. For he alone is worthy.


My new Post at DesiringGod: The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Means

Here’s my newest article for the fine folks at DG. It’s an elaboration on a tweet I sent in early May. First, here’s the tweet:

5 weeks, years, & decades

Now, here’s the article.


As a brand new worship leader, I loved choosing songs. I loved finding a new song that pounded my heart and changed my world. I loved arranging that new song so that the big key change would bring the shekinah glory. And when I placed five of these beloved songs in the perfect order, I was sure the heavens would rend, Christ would return, and the eschaton would arrive.

So, when the heavens didn’t rend on Sunday morning, I didn’t understand. Did I need volunteers who were more committed, or more talented, or more committed to talent? Did I need a pastor who was even more supportive? Was it the equipment? Or the sanctuary? And why couldn’t my congregation be more like those conference attenders I saw on that worship video?

Running Fast for the Short Run

Over time, it became obvious that my view of God’s work was too narrow. I overestimated the immediate impact of my five beloved songs. I believed instantaneous revival was the ordinary response of people to a well-done service, and I was wrong. Because God can work immediate miracles, I was overlooking the Spirit’s more ordinary (but no less miraculous) gradual ongoing work.

And so I changed my perspective. I began to look for and celebrate God’s extra-ordinary blessing of my church’s ordinary gospel work.

Worship leaders need this perspective to persevere in ministry and to avoid unnecessary frustration. And we can persevere and avoid that frustration by forming weightier aspirations for the people in our church. But to begin, we must look beyond our five beloved songs and imagine the faith-growing effect of worship over time.

Read the rest.

And thanks for noticing, Challies and Warren&World!

New post at DG: Those Dragons Underneath Our Beds

Well, the good folks at Desiring God finally got me back into blog world.

How we approach a situation reveals what we expect to find.

Imagine it is 2 A.M. and I’m asleep. My wife taps my shoulder and says, “I heard something. I think there’s an intruder downstairs.” My mind immediately kicks into high-gear. I reach underneath my bed and grab a 7-iron — to protect the family — and slowly make my way to the kitchen where my wife heard the sound. Even though I live in a hundred-year-old house, I know exactly how to sneak down my staircase without making a creak. My heart pounds in the still night. My eyes search in the dark: the doors, the hallway mirror, the main-level windows that I know a person can squeeze through. 

Meanwhile, my wife is upstairs with her phone. She has dialed “9” and “1,” and she has her finger waiting on that second “1.” She’s waiting for me to scream, or for someone else to scream after I yell, “Fore!”

See, my whole approach to this situation reveals what I expected to find.

Read the rest . . . Those Dragons Underneath Our Beds

Thanks to new friends David Mathis and Jonathan Parnell for getting me to finally put the thing on paper. And thanks to Tim Challies and Kirk Cameron (among others) for the HT. (UPDATE: Someone translated this to Spanish!)

A Response to Jamie K.A. Smith’s “Open Letter”

Dr. Smith,

I recently received your open letter, and I must say that I have benefitted greatly from it. No surprise, since you’ve written many other things which have similarly helped my thinking, and (you’ll like this) formed me into a more thoughtful practitioner of contemporary worship.

Since you wrote a letter, and not a diatribe or rant, I hope you won’t mind a response. One difficulty from an ‘open letter’ must be this: no one feels qualified to answer.  But after a third person sent me the link, I began to take it (in the best sense) personally. For whatever else anything is, as Meg Ryan said in You’ve Got Mail, it ought to begin by being personal.

This post summarizes your letter with its basic two-point argument, and then respond to your points briefly and in my own order. I take the essence of your letter to mean:

Point One: The musical goal of a local, gathered church is participatory singing;

Point Two: Overpowering stage volume reduces (and sometimes eliminates) congregational participation;

Conclusion: Loud volumes (and other thoughtlessly borrowed secular concert stagecraft forms), have no place in our worship services.

I reply, “sort of,” “sometimes,” and “kinda.”

To point two, I would answer with a hearty “sometimes.” Your concern is fair, and has been sounded by thinkers in the contemporary church movement, though perhaps not [irony] loudly enough [/irony] to be heeded. Bob Kauflin’s gem, WorshipMatters, says “the sound of the musicians shouldn’t dominate or overpower the congregation. . . . They are the real worship team.” I consider regular doses of sensory overload a ‘steroid’ which enables consumer Christians to feel strong in their faith. When regularly consumed, this ultimately masks the weakness of their faith.

To your point one, I offer a weak “sort of.” I wonder, as did other readers, if your concerns conflate ‘singing’ with ‘worship.’ (“If we, the congregation, can’t hear ourselves, it’s not worship.”) We would all agree that deaf, mute, and quadriplegic believers in Christ worship Him. This points us to the truth that worship is primarily an inward event of faith that externally manifests itself among various believers in various ways. Our church services should allow latitude for those external manifestations.

Calvin wrote that Christ “did not will in outward discipline and ceremonies to prescribe in detail what we ought to do” since “he did not deem one form suitable for all ages.” This allows local churches “to change and abrogate traditional practices and to establish new ones” so that their practices may “be variously accommodated to the customs of each nation and age” (4.10.30). Would Calvin grant that ‘loud music’ is a custom of our nation and age that churches could accommodate? Could, in some congregations, occasional stunned “aural vertigo” (neatly coined, btw) be a suitably worshipful response to the loud proclamation of God’s greatness? Or is it an immediate defeater of worship?

Further, I wonder if ‘participation’ is the chief end of Christian gatherings. You rightly warn ministers like me against the dangers of creating individualized, emotionally driven “God-experiences” for consumer Christians. Here [hear] Here [hear]!

But I might nuance your point differently. Of course, individualism is a common culprit, but Heidelberg reminds us that faith must be personalized (“not only to others, but to me also”). Is there room for Heidelberg’s warning in your concerns?

Because it is offered in Spirit and truth, Christian worship transcends location and renders cultus obsolete. So, Christian worship is like breathing—believers do it all the time. To paraphrase Vaughn Roberts, Saying you are going to church to worship is like saying you are going to bed to breathe. However, going to bed without breathing—that’s a nap from which you’ll never awake. My point is that worship of God is essential to a believer’s life, while mutual edification is particular to our gathering together.

As to your conclusion, I offer a “kinda.” My perspective may seem backward. While you warn church musicians against poor-man’s presenting of a concert, I view secular concerts as fallen man’s aping of the transcendent. Sensory overload may not promote learning, but a worship service serves a primarily doxological, rather than pedagogical, purpose.

Practically, I propose the following.

  • All churches using contemporary music should own and use a decibel meter.  This is a sure way to progressively move volume discussions  from subjective preferences to objective intentionality.
  • The [music and media ministries – ED.] should, under the direction and approval of its elders, create a volume policy.  My suggestion would be to nuance that policy to usually create space for the congregation’s singing to be well heard, but also allow for moments of exuberant celebration.

Christ’s bride is celebrating her risen Lord. I say, “Let’s all turn it up.”

Since the point of your blog post was to champion thoughtful reflection over uncritical practice, I hope this post makes you successful. I’d welcome a response, but you are probably challenging a whole new subset of church practitioners to thoughtful reflection. I can’t wait to read it.

Best wishes, Matthew Westerholm.

Liturgical Gnats

William Evans observes a fascinating phenomenon and offers some provoking questions in a new blog post, entitled “On Liturgical Gnats and Theological Camels.” Here’s a tease:

Does at least some of the current interest in “traditional worship” have more to do with the postmodern turn to the aesthetic than with a principled concern for truth?  I recently observed to a theologically astute friend (and one with a long history in Reformed worship discussions) that I have been struck by the fact that some conservative Reformed proponents of traditional worship would seemingly rather hang out with PCUSA Barthians who practice traditional worship than with other Evangelicals who share their view of Scripture but whose worship sensibility is more contemporary.

Read the rest HERE.