That’s the word I find myself consistently returning to as I reflect on the last nine months, which I spent going through the Worship Leader Development program at Austin Stone Community Church.
I’m an advocate for context, so let me begin by telling you a bit about myself. My name is Luke Brawner. I’m a worship leader in northwest Houston, in a mid-sized, predominantly white, upper middle class, suburban, denominational church. I’ve been here just under four years. Prior to starting this job, I had very little experience leading worship. I’d been a singer/songwriter for a decade or so, and had toured a bit, both as a solo artist and as the frontman for a less-than-successful folk-rock band you’ve likely never heard of. But, I had minimal experience leading congregational worship. In fact, I grew up in the Church of Christ, a church that at the time worshipped entirely a cappella. So, I’d never really even been around any “worship leaders.” The whole “worship music” culture was (and in many ways still is) completely foreign to me. I spent the last 4 or 5 years consciously stumbling through, trying to figure out what’s what, and learning most everything I know the hard way.
Then last summer, Aaron Ivey caught my attention when he began tweeting about the Worship Leader Development program at Stone. I was intrigued. It sounded, based solely on the name, like precisely what I was in need of. Development. I don’t think I was necessarily a BAD worship leader. I mean, I tried hard, I meant well and I trust that God worked despite my inadequacies. But there were certainly a few gaping holes in my ministry. I decided (kind of on a whim) to apply for the program, assuming they’d never accept a guy who lived nearly three hours away.
Thankfully, I assumed wrong.
It would be impossible for me to capture everything I’ve gained over these past nine months in a single blog post. So, I won’t attempt to. I will simply share with you a couple of the more significant ways in which my life and ministry has been transformed under the leadership of the worship staff at Austin Stone.
My transformation began early in this course when Todd Agnew taught a class on the importance of spiritual disciplines in the life of a worship leader. I distinctly remember feeling as though a tremendous weight had been lifted off my shoulders hearing these words from Todd:
“You’re not successful as a worship leader because of your skill set. You’re effective because God chooses you. The question isn’t “how can I play a better song?” or “how can I build a better worship set?” The question we need to answer is “what kind of man or woman does God choose to use?” And the answer is that He uses messed up people. Humble, earnest, broken, weak, messed up people. You’re never going to be a good worship leader as long as you’re trying to be a good worship leader.”
Oh, sweet relief. Those words STILL affect me, nine months later.
Todd challenged us that night, rather than working to “improve” in our ability to lead people well, to humbly pursue the characteristics common to the type of folks God chooses for leadership. Things like authenticity, a sincere and active love for the Word of God, selflessness, prayerfulness, etc. I left that night convinced of this truth: the more spectacular I try to become, the less useful I’ll be to God.
My transformation continued with a class Aaron Ivey taught on “How To Shepherd Your Band.” The title alone was challenging for me in that I, in no way, considered myself a “shepherd” for anyone; least of all, the volunteer band I lead alongside. Within the denomination in which I work, having never attended seminary or gone through any sort of candidacy process, I’m not technically considered a pastor. Prior to this program, I suppose I had embraced that, and perhaps even found some liberty in it. So long as I didn’t carry the TITLE “Pastor,” I didn’t have to bear the weight of actually “pastoring” anyone.
How wrong I was. And how thankful I am to have been called out and corrected.
I’d say that perhaps the greatest transformation I’ve experienced over these months is with regard to how I understand my role in the lives of the people I lead and lead alongside. I have a much deeper understanding of what it means to actively pastor or shepherd people, regardless of my job title. I’m thankful to now be carrying the weight of that conviction day in and day out. My heart for the 50+ volunteers I work with has completely changed. Nine months ago I simply worked alongside them. They did their thing. I did mine. We worked together well enough, but that was about all we did. I did little to show them how valuable their ministry was. I did little to show them how much I appreciated them. I did little to train them or make sure their needs were being met. I was failing to lead them in any substantial way. While I can’t honestly tell you that I’m a perfect leader today, I can tell you I love these people better than I used to. I pray for them often. I try on a regular basis to show them how much I appreciate their selflessness in ministry. I shepherd them. Again, not perfectly, but I’m learning. That simply would not be true but for the many ways in which the leadership of The Austin Stone has shepherded me over this last several months.
Now, perhaps you live even farther from Austin than I do. Or perhaps you simply can’t commit hours on end each week for 9 months to develop in your ministry. I can appreciate that. These months have been undeniably difficult. My wife has sacrificed time with me, the band at the church where I lead gave up their weekly rehearsals for 9 months as they landed on the same night as my class, the church sacrificed to help FUND my weekly travels…it’s required a lot from a lot of folks. So maybe the Worship Leader Development program isn’t right for you.
If that’s the case, I’d implore you to prayerfully consider any way you might be able to attend the Austin Stone Worship Conference this October. I’d challenge you, wherever you are in your ministry, however many years of experience you may have under your belt, however “good” a worship leader you may already be… submit yourself to the idea that there are ways in which you may need to develop. Take the time to get away for this one weekend and soak in all you can from these gifted folks and their equally gifted friends. I’m confident you’ll come away a more effective worship leader. I’m confident you’ll come away more in love with Jesus. I’m confident you’ll come away transformed.