Leading Others Into… Worship? Critiques of Many Student-led Worship Teams
By Janice Thompson Posted on October 10 2009
Tina knew in her heart that she was destined for greatness. Her family had groomed her for it from the time she was a youngster. They’d given her piano lessons, voice lessons, ballet lessons, drama lessons—anything and everything to open doors of opportunity. She knew just the right words to say, and just the right way to say them, to impress the ones who needed impressing. As Tina entered her teen years, she slipped quite comfortably into her youth group. She was, after all, prepared for any leadership role that might be offered. She’d been preparing for this moment for years.
It happens in large congregations and smaller ones, at city churches and country ones. Teen leaders. They’re rising to the occasion. Like cream rising to the top of the container, they’re taking positions of leadership from within their own youth groups. Youth pastors around the country are doing a phenomenal job of raising them up. This is more than a trend; it’s a biblical principle. It’s what discipleship is all about.
However, once teens are elevated to a position of leadership above their peers, problems can develop. In no area is this more evident than in that of worship. With the spiritual resurgence among teens in the last decade, many youth ministries are being built around a central time of worship—intense services with heart-pumping music creating very intimate times of worship. This has provided a wealth of opportunity for musicians, instrumentalists, and vocalists alike. They are given an awesome title, a title that would set even King David’s heart ablaze.
They stand before the youth group, encouraging others to worship as they worship, praise as they praise. They alternate between lifting their hands in heavenly bliss, and clutching the microphone as if their very lives depend on it. They enter the throne room of God with grace and sensitivity. They are wholly given over to the call.
On the stage.
Sadly, once offstage, many begin to show their true colors. More and more, youth pastors find themselves facing Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde teen worshippers. Many of the same kids who are best at ushering others into the presence of God seem to be leading them somewhere else entirely offstage. When the spotlight goes off and they’re planted among their peers, they often sing a much different sort of song, the song of self. Many struggle with varying degrees of pride, a common problem among adult musicians and others in the arts and a common problem among teens in any leadership role.
So what is a dedicated youth pastor to do? Maybe Johnny is the most gifted kid in the group. Perhaps he can “bring down the house" during worship. Maybe he plays better than any other guitarist in the church. Perhaps he’s a superstar vocalist. Maybe he can really go to town on those drums. Does this automatically assure him a place on the team? Not necessarily.
Who Should Lead?
When asked what they thought the “qualifications" for leadership in youth worship should be, Christian students and leaders from a wide variety of denominations, age groups, and cultures responded this way:
Teens must have a heart after God. They must prove that they’re not only a Christian at church, but also at home and school. I know that talent is important, but heart far outweighs it.
I think that leaders should be strong Christians who have a background of at least one year of church attendance.
Youth worship leaders should be good at what they do. They should want to be in it [the worship team] to worship God and not to get attention.
Character is the major area for leadership, especially in the youth world. This, of course, leads to trust by those leading as well as their parents. Character-Vision/ Insight-Courage/Risk-and Influence are four areas that create effective leadership.
—Robert, Music Minister
The absolute #1 quality needed in a youth worship leader or worship team member is a no-holds-barred, absolute strive to reach the heart of God. I’d say that having an extraordinary amount of talent doesn’t even matter. A worshipping heart and a desire to see other teens pursue God is essential!
The #1 attribute of a youth worship team member is the commitment to purity and a truly worshipful heart. The talent does not need to be exceptional, but there needs to be some talent in order to express the excellence that should be present in anything God has His hand in.
They need to be plugged into the whole church and not just the youth group. Leaders should have a testimony of an experience with God ready at any moment.
—Don, Adult Pastor
Teens in leadership. They’re on a meteoric rise to stardom. Thus, youth workers’ discernment levels need to rise along with them.
Caution is the key. For young Christians, watching a leader fall can be devastating. If teen leaders don’t turn out to be all they’re imagined to be, this can be discouraging to their peers. When it’s bad enough, some abandon their faith in God because they’ve lost faith in a fellow believer. And if the teen is living a life of hypocrisy and the youth leader doesn’t recognize it, the other teens in the group (and their parents) may begin to wonder about the Youth Pastor’s discernment. Since teen leaders are often placed before the group, it’s assumed that this person has the full approval of church leaders. If the teen takes a tumble, it can create any number of problems, all pointing back to the one who placed her in that position in the first place.
Never was this more vividly displayed than in the life of Mark. He was a multi-talented teen worshiper who had a gift beyond extraordinary. His vocal ability was unparalleled. He had won several vocal competitions, and was known by all as a tremendous talent. He was also a strong Christian. At least, he appeared to be. His youth pastor adored him. Adults in the congregation adored him. Mark was placed in a position of leadership in his youth group, given the role of soloist, instrumentalist, and overall worship leader. He was everyone’s pride and joy.
Time would soon reveal that this young man struggled with temptations and sins far beyond what anyone, including youth leaders, knew. He was dabbling in everything from alcohol and cigarettes to sexual sin. He stood before the group as a leader, and yet those in the group who really knew him, knew better. Some sat quietly and waited, hoping the youth pastor would figure it out on his own.
In the meantime, Mark was enjoying an incredible rise to fame. His head began to swell with the thrill of it all. Girls swooned. Mark crooned. Friends sighed. Mark lied. Leaders grinned. Mark sinned. And no one in leadership was the wiser. It took an unbelievable “fall from grace" to open the eyes of those in authority. When the moment came, no one was more surprised than the Youth Pastor. And yet the teens in the group had known all along.
And then there was Candy. She was a beautiful girl with an equally beautiful voice. Like Mark, she had been elevated from a young age. She was the pride of her denomination, and had been given exceptional opportunities to “minister" in front of large crowds of people. As Candy took her place behind the microphone in her youth band, she caused a few wrinkled brows among the other kids, for she had already developed quite a reputation among her peers as a snob. She talked about herself incessantly. Her identity was in her own vocal ability. She compared herself to others, often laughing at their failures.
Every time a solo was to be sung, Candy assumed she would be the one to sing it. Other girls, perhaps not as “developed" vocally, stood in line waiting their turn...which never came. Candy ruled the roost. In the meantime, youth leaders continued to elevate her, smiling at her accomplishments as if they were their own. Her victories were their victories. They never even saw the broken-hearted girls who cried themselves to sleep at night because they weren’t given a chance. They never noticed the ones who slipped out the back door of the youth room and never returned.
By What Standard?
How do we deal with the struggles that “celebrity" leaders can face? Where do youth pastors find the students leaders who are who they say they are? Here are a few questions youth leaders are asking when looking for kids to entrust with leadership:
• Do they have teachable spirits?
• What types of reputations do they have with their peers?
• What types of reputations do they have with their peers’ parents?
• Do they always crave the center of attention?
• How does the pastor feel about each one’s leadership potential?
• Do they have a problem with rebellion/authority at home or school?
• Do they have a history of comparing themselves to others?
• How do they handle flattery? With a humble and contrite heart?
• Do they criticize others with similar gifts? Is there a jealousy problem?
• Do they take the time to lovingly mentor others in the group?
• Do they struggle with anger?
As I’ve worked with teenagers over the last twenty years, taking the time to answer these questions has helped me determine whether or not particular teens were as ready as they “appeared" to be.
I’m also learning to listen intently to the voice of God when leadership decisions must be made. God alone knows who needs to be placed into each available position, be that on the worship team, or in any other area of youth ministry. God’s idea of a leader may be vastly different from my own. When it came time for Christ to choose his leadership team, he picked ordinary, everyday people, not necessarily the most talented ones.
With that in mind, here are a few suggestions from teens and leaders about how to build the strongest possible worship team:
Start from the ground up. Begin with a new plan. Be willing to hurt a few feelings by doing so. This may not be easy, but you’ll learn a lot about the character of the teens just by doing this one thing. Those who respond negatively may need a second glance.
A “felt" call to worship, service, or another leadership role by all members is essential. Interview each candidate separately and find out his or her leadership philosophy. You’ll learn a lot this way.
Find out who they are outside of church walls. Get to know them on a personal basis; know that they really have a heart for God. Tune in to what others say about that person.
Youth leaders must stress unity among all the student and adult leaders. They should go on outings and retreats together. Never set one person in the group as “the" leader. Let different youth lead at different times.
Give opportunities for those less talented to lead where they can.
A key to success for the leaders is allowing time for regular, anointed prayer times together as a leadership team. (For worship leaders, they should be committed to spending nearly as much time in prayer as in practice.)
Involve the parents of student leaders. Ask parents to sign a covenant agreement with the understanding that their teens must be held accountable for attitudes and actions at home and school, not just church.
Youth leaders must be willing to pour their lives into the leadership team. It is the responsibility of the youth pastor/leader to instruct the teens in the true meaning of worship, service, and other aspects of youth ministry.
Allow room for mistakes and for growth. Teens need to know that they can be given second chances. If poor behavior warrants dismissal from the team, stay close to the teen for a specified period of time, with the understanding that a right attitude will ensure his/her entry back onto the team.
Locate gifted, anointed adults from your congregation who can help the group fine tune their skills in leadership roles. Allow them to mentor the teens and act as encouragers and role models.
Developing strong leaders will not happen without hard work and time. Most important, though, is a renewed emphasis on the character of student leaders. Talented teens may come and go, but leaders who are true to their calling will never be forgotten by their peers.