Being a Worship Leader Isn’t Enough Anymore

This is a significant moment in history for those of us compelled to lead others in this thing called “worship.”

I started leading worship when I was 19 years old. I had no idea what I was doing. At church camp, I was powerfully touched by the Holy Spirit, and there I felt like Jesus told me he wanted me to lead worship. Actually, He said, “I want you to do what he is doing”, referring to Billy Foote, who was leading camp that week.

There were no famous worship leaders at that time to look to. In fact, this was long before Billy had ever written “Amazing Love.” He was just a broke seminary student with a guitar leading a bunch of adolescent kids toward the deep end of God’s heart. After camp, leading worship became this thing I had to do to obey Jesus.

I’m 41 now, and things have radically changed in the past 22 years.

In that span of time, an industry has evolved around the word “worship”—a multimillion dollar a year enterprise.

In 1992, I’m sure few people could have even fathomed a “worship artist” selling out an arena on tour to support their latest CD. That kind of thing just wasn’t on the landscape.

Not only has an industry evolved, but so also an identity—the “worship leader.” The phrase did not hardly exist, nor mean what it means today, 22 years ago. By identity, I don’t mean subtle aesthetic, I mean the thing that drives and defines a person, the core of who they are and who they feel called to be in the world.

Things have caught on, and this is the first time in human history that thousands upon thousands of men and women around the world are choosing “worship leader” as a vocation. It’s a very real historical phenomenon.

In 2000, something very strange began to happen in my life that confused and liberated me at the same time.

It’s as if Jesus came and stood with me alongside my career. We both looked at it together, and he simply whispered, “Is that what you thought I wanted you to do with your life?” He continued, “You’ve read all of the documentation of my life, and that’s what you thought I wanted you to do?”

I realized suddenly that my life and vocation looked NOTHING like the life of Jesus.

I didn’t know a single person that didn’t know Jesus. I didn’t know an orphan. I couldn’t name a widow. Everyone in my life looked like me, thought like me, and talked like me.

What has ensued is a 15-year identity crises. I’ve been trying to catch up ever since. Suddenly I was asking, “What kind of worship leader am I if my life looks nothing like Jesus? Have I ever understood worship at all?”

In the last 22 years, I’ve been privileged to record, tour, play conferences. That’s the goal, right? I don’t think it is anymore.

This is a significant moment in history for those of us compelled to lead others in this thing called “worship.”

An awakening is happening RIGHT NOW in the hearts of many worshippers around the world. We have all stood in service after service asking God to “move,” and His answer is to move US.

It’s as if we are being awakened from sleep by a hunger pang. We are hungry for more than we can currently see in this industry, and we long for more than the identity of “worship leader.”

“Follower of Jesus” seems to be the heart cry rising up, and we need people to disciple us into it.

Jon Shirley
Jon Shirley is husband to Alissa and father to Reave and Beck. He's working as a worship leader, pastor, disciple-maker and missional practitioner at a church called The Gathering Network in Kansas City. The Gathering Network is a network of missional communities that exist to follow Jesus to make wrong things right. Jon is a respected worship leader with over 20 years of experience as a church leader, songwriter and recording artist. He has a tremendous passion for developing the character of young worship leaders and a restless fascination with the person of Jesus that has dramatically impacted his vision for the worship leaders of today and tomorrow.