As Leonardo DaVinci's "Vitruvian Man" reminds us, for thousands of years society has searched for what they consider the perfect person- the ultimate physical shape and representation of humanity. Do we search for these qualities in our worship leaders as well?
As our churches have adopted more modern styled music and instruments that reflect a semblance of popular culture, we can also see that we are beginning to expect something different of our leaders who stand up on the stages in our local churches. But even while these changes are happening, we rarely talk about them openly.
Should leaders be "attractive"? Should worship leaders be trim? What if they are overweight? As strange as these questions might seem, if we do not talk about them we risk letting our unspoken actions become what guides us for the future. Indeed, it is our actions (and not our words) that ultimately attest to what we truly believe. Some would say that our actions in churches across America show that we are copying the modern music culture by trying to present leaders who look the role of pop musicians/artists. Is this true? Let me start with a couple of stories.
Sunday Morning: Weight and See
Several years ago I was leading worship for a special event. Myself and three other (more well-known) leaders were providing the leadership for a worship conference. During a break in the conference a person came up to me and introduced themselves. In the course of conversation, they said,
...I was glad to see (leader's name) leading at this conference. It's been a while since I've seen them on a stage. They've really put on the pounds! Probably why they aren't as popular these days. It's a shame to see leaders in God's church let themselves go like that...
After the initial shock of their statement left me, I realized that this sentiment was one I'd heard and even felt before. I looked down at my own stomach, and realized the extra 40lbs of weight I'd put on in the last 15 years had probably not endeared me to a "stage" either.
Sometime that same year, I was talking with a well-known and well-traveled worship leader. He spoke candidly about his attention to staying thin and trim, believing that it was important to maintain his credibility as an "on-stage" personality.
Fast forward 6 years. I was at another event in another location across the country. After a good time of corporate worship, several people commented to leader on almost exactly the same two points- what a "great" time of worship it was; and how the person looked "good". Person after person said almost the same precise thing:
"That was a great time of worship. Man, you are looking real good these days."
What struck me about this last example was how many people said the same thing, and how they chose to say those two specific things.
The Big Question: Are Ugly Leaders Allowed On Stage?
The reason I am bringing this up is precisely this- what does worship leadership have to do with how a person looks? If I am overweight, should that be a consideration or qualification of "stage" leadership? Think about this in two ways-
First, what is your philosophical response. In other words, what should be the position we take about how a person looks that gets on a stage. Taken from Biblical, theological, value-based perspective what should be our position on this.
Second, what is your practical response. In other words, what is the pragmatic position that you or church actually do take? Do you ask leaders to stay in shape, thin or look a certain way? Is there spoken or unspoken expectations about what is acceptable on-stage in terms of weight, style and attractiveness?
The Modern Church: No, Not on Stage.
Philosophically, I don't know of too many churches that would say overtly that a worship leader should be disqualified for leading from a "stage" because of their weight or appearance. There are some that argue (and I have heard this often) that leaders should show by example that they are people of moderation and control, and this includes their weight. Of people who say this, I have never heard anyone say the primary concern is the health of the individual leader, but rather it is the image they are portraying that reflects poorly on "God's best".
Practically speaking, modern churches seem to be gravitating more and more towards an emulation of their worship leaders as "music artists". I believe this is because the "worship leaders" as we have known them have become a group that is highlighted by a few successful/popular commercial artists. Those worship-leaders-turned-artists (such as Chris Tomlin, Hillsong, Jesus Culture, Gateway Church, New Life Church, Paul Baloche, Lincoln Brewster etc) become emulated by the leaders in the huge number of churches that love and appreciate their music. As a practical result of that, it is human nature to emulate those we admire. We see those people who are "successful" as "worship artists" and in churches across America we see worship bands and leaders trying to emulate the look as well as the music and style of their "heroes".
Let me say a few things here.
First, I have worked with literally thousands of churches in the last 15 years through various work related contexts. In that, I've had the opportunity to talk with hundreds of leaders personally. My statements and summarizations that I am giving here is a reflection of those connections, discussions and communities. Certainly, I did not take a scientific poll to come to the characterizations I have come to in this article. But it does reflect a broad number of churches in a varied number of settings.
Second, I know some, and have personally talked to many, of the people who are prominent "worship artists" (such as Paul Baloche, Chris Tomlin and others). These are genuine folks who desire to follow God, to equip His church, and see God receive all the glory due to Him. The vast majority personalities that have become successful "worship artists", that I had the opportunity to get to know, are truly worship leaders whose one desire is to see God magnified.
Third, as in almost all things in life, most people learn to do things by imitation. Carpenters, lawyers, police officers, speakers, cooks, writers, engineers and musicians all learn to do their craft well as they see what others do and take the best by imitation, incorporating that into their skill set. We would be silly to think that this would not be the case in worship leadership as well. Mentors and gifted leaders in every facet of life provide us with living "lessons" from which we can learn what practically works and what doesn't. I say this because I do not know of any worship leader who consciously set out to simply copy the image and techniques of a popular "worship artist" with the hopes of duplicating their success by using those attributes.
But what do we actually see in churches?
Today's Worship Leader: Mimicking the Professional Artist.
What one actually encounters in many contemporary churches is a reflection of years of transformation of popular artist image being mimicked by local worship leaders. The results of this show up in very practical terms:
- Be fit and trim.
- Wear appropriately cool, but not too dressy clothing (depending on the worship artist being emulated).
- I've even heard the occasional accent and voice inflections of popular artists being mimicked.
- Often times there is unspoken desire that if they play all their "cards" right, some day they will make it on a released worship recording, write a song sung by the nations, or become a worship leader in a large church.
Of course, this is usually not said explicitly. But the culture of the local church and pervasiveness of this trend seems to go on almost unquestioned. Some might say "Not fair, you are stereo-typing people". That might be true. But stereotypes appear because of real commonalities. I've heard this and seen this from so many places and people that I've come to believe it is at least as common (if not far more) as the stereo-typed angry church lady playing the same tired hymns on a dusty old organ in the dying rural church.
And this brings me to a personal confession as well- as a worship leader, I've felt and heard the pressure to follow these kinds of expectations as well. I've asked myself the questions "do I need to lose weight to be on stage" and "am I wearing something appropriately cool enough to lead worship today"? Thankfully, over the years, I've had some encouraging mentors and friends who have reminded me of the important values related to worship and leadership that reoriented me to help answer these questions for my life and in my local church responsibilities.
My question is not about the people who are, in effect, emulating the image of their heroes (with or without knowing it) as a way to envision their own success for the future. My question is about the people (the rest of us) who do not meet those expectations of stage sex-appeal.
What About Joe Normal and Jane Average?
What if you are overweight? What if you aren't attractive? What if you don't dress like a successful/hip/cool musician or artist?
Do we have a place for those people in church leadership? Or has sex-appeal become such an important consideration in our "stage" presence that we need to make sure our "up front" people represent something attractive about our churches?
I realize that I am asking questions that seem rhetorical to some.
Some will outright demand that spiritual and leadership qualities are all that matter- but is this what is truly being practiced in your church?
Others will say that we must show "God's best" and this might mean asking people to hold to certain appearance standards when it comes to weight or even looks- but is this truly about glorifying God, or more about wanting to draw a crowd, and build a church through what marketers call "sex appeal"?
The goal of this article is to get leaders and churches to think about the issue here of "image" of our stage leaders. Are we creating cultures in our local churches that intentionally rely on sex-appeal to attract visitors? If so, is this ok? We must talk about these things with our church staffs. If we do not the unspoken values of pop-culture (in this case, the values of the successful musician/artist) will continue to be duplicated without honest, Biblical and Christ-like thinking helping us to direct our church communities.
Look forward to hearing others thoughts on this...
p.s. be sure to post your thoughts or comments below..
Many of the comments and followups we've received are asking about a connected issue- age. This is a topic that we've written about (and we have a video about from author Ian Morgan Cron). These issues can sometimes both intersect along the topic of "image". If you want more information on the specific area of "ageism", we already have an ongoing discussion at : http://www.kimgentes.com/thinkjump-journal/2011/7/14/worship-leader-wanted-20-something-guitar-playing-male-think.html