Scenario 1: An unemployed worship pastor confided in me recently. He had just candidated with a church and it seemed like a perfect fit. But after a successful interview process where he led worship at the Sunday morning services, the elders pulled him aside for a private conversation. “You’re perfect,” they confided. “But frankly, we’re looking for someone younger.”
Scenario 2: He arrived a little late to our monthly meeting of local worship pastors and leaders, but it didn’t stop him from urgently sharing something. “I’ve got an issue, and I want your opinions,” he interrupted. “I’ve had an influx of musicians in my church lately. They’re really good, and they want to join my worship team.”
“Sounds great. What’s the problem?,” we queried.
His reply caught us off guard, “They’re coming from another church in our area. They said that their church doesn’t want to use them anymore, because they look too old.”
Scenario 3: I’m on a speaking tour of the Pacific Northwest, and a hipster worship leading guitarist I just met is explaining his church’s worship team philosophy to me. “It’s an issue of branding,” he declared matter-of-factly. “We’re trying to reach twenty-somethings, so it’s really important to sound just like what people hear on the radio.” His implication is clear: You can’t do that with old people.
Scenario 4: I’m speaking at a worship conference, and I decide to take some time between talks to slip into a session on worship songwriting. Dozens of young, aspiring, guitar-toting, white males in skinny jeans wait for an opportunity for their song to be heard by a panel of worship industry experts. As one song after another is played, it is obvious that they are talented, driven, focused—and quite cookie-cutter.
I’m witnessing a growing trend in some churches these days. And that is to quietly retire older worship leaders and musicians in favor of younger, more hip-looking equivalents. And let me be clear on this: I don’t have anything against young leadership, and I strongly believe it is an extremely important part of ministry to disciple and empower young men and women to serve and lead worship in our congregations. They bring a fresh, creative, and necessary expression to the church. The issue is that I am seeing—more and more—wise, talented, heart-driven, mature worship musicians and leaders, both vocational and volunteer, being “retired” from ministry.
Obviously, there are a myriad of complex factors involved—from clashes in leadership style and church vision to personalities and salaries (yes, more experienced worship pastors get paid more than less-experienced ones). And those with artistic temperaments can be quirky and free-spirited and set in their ways, which seems less acceptable the older one gets. So the issues are larger than simple age discrimination. Still, it is disheartening to see the church acting so much like the world.
Maybe my twenty years in vocational ministry have made me overly sensitive to these issues. And maybe I’ve just seen too many good men and women get passed over. I’ve personally heard the stories of worship pastors and leaders deeply hurt and spiritually broken by the churches they served. But personal feelings aside, perhaps it is more. Perhaps at the heart of it, it may be an issue of ecclesiology. In other words, what is your definition of church?
If your primary definition of church is something that happens on a Sunday morning, then it makes sense that the resources and programming and personnel would be event-oriented, and what is presented during the services—from countdown to smoke machines and laser lights, from presentation technology to message, from songs to worship leaders—would cater to attracting certain people and creating memorable experiences in those services. Creating your brand becomes an important part of an event-oriented ecclesiology, and it only makes sense to use a demographically homogenous worship team (e.g., young hipsters or modern rockers) to further inculcate your brand.
But if your primary definition of church is a community of people who love and follow Jesus, then it is less about the programming and more about creating a community of disciples. Not that the service doesn’t matter—because it certainly does—but the focus of the service would be very different. Your service would be more a reflection of the community that is already there. And your worship team may be more a reflection of your church family, with senior citizens playing alongside teens and thirty-somethings. It certainly isn’t as sexy looking. But perhaps it would look more like the Church.
The dirty little secret is that, in an effort to create more attractive services, some churches are actually looking more and more like the high school cafeteria. There is the Cool table, the Nerd table, the Jock table. No one wants the uncool guy or gal sitting at their table. At least, not on the worship team table.
What are we modeling when only “cool” people lead worship? What are we really valuing when we quietly retire those “mature” musicians? And what are we saying to the ever-growing older segments of our congregation when we put an unspoken age limit on those on stage? Are we valuing and serving and empowering them? Where do we model generational relationships and mentoring? How are we loving the people who are already in our midst? What are we really gaining when a church stops looking like the Church?
A caveat this blog by saying “some churches.” This is certainly not true across the board. But I do think that it is happening more and more in a lot of larger, influential churches, the kind that many other churches take their cues from.
This is what my worship teams look like: Older and younger guitarists sharing the songs of their generation with one another. Older drummers willing to learn modern styles, and younger drummers willing to learn Old School. Older and younger choir members hanging out together. Team members praying with and caring for and loving one another. Young men and women being empowered to lead the congregation. People of different ages, genders, ethnicities, and stylistic preferences gathering together to make great music for our Great God—both on stage and in the pews. The great diversity of the Bride of Christ worshiping the Author of Diversity.
Have you experienced this in your church? Are you in a church who exercises these practices? Are you a young or mature worship leader? What are your thoughts?
[NOTE: Since writing this blog, I’ve had hundreds of responses and thousands of reposts, prompting me to write a response which is available here. Also, I encourage you to check out my book, Imagine That: Discovering Your Unique Role as a Christian Artist.]