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How Leaders Grow Worship: Insight from Dan Wilt

Lindsey Gatlin

Lindsey Gatlin

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– From Cutting Edge, “Worthship,” Spring 2011

Dan Wilt of Nashville, Tennessee is the Learning Community Director of WorshipTraining.com, which provides online and live training programs for the contemporary church. He is an internationally respected worship leader, songwriter, author and trainer. Dan has been the Director of Vineyard Resources in the past. We talked to him about growing leaders in their worship abilities.

What is your general picture of the current community of worship leaders?

Let me say that I love the church, and I love worship leaders and pastors. I love the gifts given to us in the contemporary worship experience. I’m a person who sees the flowers in a garden before the weeds. But there are certainly particular “weeds” that linger in our worship community, choking and disorienting many young and old worship leaders. So it’s worthwhile to focus on those weeds; what must be done with intention and focused resources as we move into 21st-century worship.

After over 20 years of being a worship leader, training worship leaders, and caring for the spiritual formation of worship leaders, I am more convinced than ever that the young worship leaders of today – but also other pastors and leaders – need training in the fundamental concept of what worship is truly about.

What would you say that is?

If worship is really all we mean it to be, trust it to be, and expect it to be, then it could be the most important word in human language. There is currently so much white noise surrounding the word “worship.” We give equal weight to words like “music” and “allegiance” when we talk about worship. As a result, most worship leaders in church life can’t see the forest for the trees. This is a grave problem.

Worship does include music, but music is an expression of something that may or may not exist outside of it. Worship is an infinitely bigger idea than the music we often define it by in our contemporary worship settings.

Without that fundamental issue settled, along with some thoughtful training on the vast topic of worship, young worship leaders tend to believe that what they are working toward creating is great music and some experiences that make people warm toward God.

But we’re not. We are engaging in a spiritual act of self-offering in response to God’s great love. And music happens to be one of the vehicles through which we do that. There are a thousand other vehicles as well; we just happen to have had a worship renewal in the church in our day related to music.

Are there consequences that have come from that? The renewal has been a gift, certainly. But we have overemphasized musical renewal to the point of confusing a generation of Jesus-disciples. Worship leaders are trying to mimic form without reflecting on the content of worship. They work toward getting great sounds and creating beautiful moments in gathered worship…but they often do so without a strong context in their minds.

What is the best way to address key training elements that creative leaders need?

The most important issues to be addressed are these: the meaning behind the gathered worship experience, worship theology, worship values, and the heart of the one leading gathered worship.

As I have trained new worship leaders through the years, I always begin with 1) an exploration of worship’s meaning and theology, 2) a reflection on the vast resources of worship history, and 3) a foundation in worship values and leadership.

Worship theology should address the nature of God (Creator, King, Trinity, Savior), the nature of the human beings who worship (sub-creators, image bearers, community builders and salvation storytellers), and then the nature of gathered worship itself.

Worship history must remind us that music is just one of the many worship languages the church has spoken throughout the ages. The worship languages of time (daily, weekly, yearly and lifetime expressions of worship), space (architecture and environment), public prayer, public scripture reading, sacramental actions (baptism, the Eucharist, foot-washing, the Kiss of Peace, high fives), visual art and music have all been vital ways that we respond to God corporately and express loving surrender to him.

Worship values can reorient worship leaders to vital discipleship themes that must shape corporate worship: intimacy, integrity, accessibility, cultural connection, and nurturing a Kingdom expectation as a leader.

Once some of these ideas are in place and are stirring conversations in the worship leader’s mind and heart, I find it much easier to start talking about music, creativity, visuals or lighting.

The reality is, our surveys and other surveys yield all the same answers. Every church worship team primarily seeks musical and creative training. After this “felt need,” they want practical, technical training in everything from sound to hip visual worship to songwriting. But I’ll challenge these needs. I don’t believe what is wanted is actually the first thing that is truly needed. What we need are theologically reflective, creatively dynamic, values-rich, and historically/culturally aware worship leaders. That’s what keeps me up at night.

What other advice would you give to pastors or worship leaders?

If I had the ear of every worship leader and pastor at this moment on earth, I would say this: We need to prioritize inspiring passionate worship leaders who are musically strong, richly inspired and innovative – by giving them the time, opportunity, and resources to reflect on what the human worship story is really all about.

I’ve met thousands of great musicians, artists and very effective worship leaders. But I’ve met few who have given their lives to also be astute in ministry skills, their own spiritual formation, and their understanding of the holistic nature of worship. If we can begin to care as much about that worship leader’s formation as we should the formation of the lead pastor, then we may actually begin to crack the code on the church impacting the postmodern world through the arts.

How can church planters and senior pastors better equip worship leaders in their churches?

Every pastor and planter I know has a world of needs at their door, needs that knock hard every day. Energy is as scarce as time and money. There is often an ache in their hearts to see the worship life of their communities – and themselves – rise to the richness of which they have dreamed.

But here’s the rub: It takes time, resource and energy to equip a worship leader. If the worship music and arts component of Sunday services are going well, they divert time, energy and resource to building up weaker parts in the church’s gathered worship life. The focus of equipping begins with a firm, clear and unrelenting decision in the heart of the pastor: “If I want us to grow rich in our worship life together, I must invest something into the equipping of my worship leaders. If I don’t, we’ll get short-term results that will fizzle out when the first big change has to occur in our community.”

I’ll speak from my 20 years as a pastor: The best thing a pastor or church planter can give its worship leader is a ticket to get some education and spiritual development from like-minded creative leaders. Expecting them to learn in the same way (and by the same forms and approaches) as any other ministry leader just won’t work in the long run. Creative leaders need a different approach to their development. Equipping needs to be relational, story-based, metaphor-rich and even slightly geeky. Yes, that includes cool technology.

So, what do we do? We typically bring in live guests (which can be fantastic, I might add) for a shot in the arm and some quick discussion about the needs of the worship leader. After shelling out that cash, we hope for the best in the future. In hard economic times, we even back off of the live events and trust God to keep us all inspired by less costly means.

Value development. Expose your worship leaders to other great musical leaders. Pastors must think like investors, not buyers. The skills of your worship leader will gather people. The heart and mind of your worship leader will keep people and disciple a healthy community for a long time.

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