Should Non-Christians Lead Worship? – Matthew Westerholm
It’s an old dilemma: a church music ministry has a need, and a local unbelieving musician is available. But is this a match made in heaven, or a manifestation of . . . somewhere else?
At first, the biblical answer seems obvious. Growing up in church, I was startled by the stories of God killing people — Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5), Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10), and of course Uzzah (2 Samuel 6). It startled me to discover that many of the individuals whom the Lord put to death were executed for improper worship. While parts of the story confused me, one thing seemed clear: God’s love was a holy love. He would not allow his presence to be violated.
“Excellence in music can be a fine value for worship, but it ought not to be a church’s highest value.”
At some point, things obviously became less obvious. I read church leadership books that argued that churches should allow non-believers to participate in worship services. Non-Christians, they argued, who begin by belonging to a Christian community often move to believing in the Christian faith. From this perspective, allowing unbelieving musicians to lead worship is a powerful form of evangelism.
This argument once convinced me, but now I’ve changed my mind. And it has become much clearer to me as I’ve considered the issue from three different perspectives.
Perspective 1: The Church Leader
First, when we approve a non-Christian leading worship, church leaders confuse evangelism and excellence. At first, it seems noble that church leaders want to evangelize unbelievers, but evangelism ought not to be the central goal of a church’s gathering. And while it is assumed that only believers ought to represent the church by leading its gathering, it is especially true of corporate worship.
Consider just how confusing this situation could become. These scenarios usually involve excellent musicians who play an instrument rather than a marginal musician who does something many others could. It’s easy to imagine a church’s enthusiasm to welcome the unbelieving hotshot drummer who works in a recording studio. But why? Would the leadership of a church feel the same burden to evangelize if the unbeliever was a mediocre female vocalist who could not harmonize? If not, we ought to admit that the actual highest value on display is here is not evangelism, but musical excellence.
Excellence in music can be a fine value for worship, but it ought not to be a church’s highest value. And it certainly ought not to be smuggled into the church’s practice under the guise of evangelism.
Of course, some people have come to faith after participating in a church’s worship ministry. Praise the Lord! Every conversion deserves celebration. But stories about musicians coming to faith while leading worship are like stories of people surviving a car crash while not wearing seat belts — we are glad they are alive, but we ought not to build a policy around that experience.
“Worship is a believing heart’s response to the work of the Holy Spirit, not an emotional response to the quality of the music.”
Because church membership is “a covenant between believers whereby they affirm one another’s professions of faith,” (Leeman, 34) church leaders have a serious responsibility. Church leaders affirm the profession of another person’s faith when they allow that person to have a public, leading role during the church gathering.
And that affirmation is easily misunderstood, especially by unbelievers.
Perspective 2: The Unbeliever
Second, having non-Christians lead worship confuses unbelievers about the nature of salvation. In general, non-Christians rely on their good works to impress God and earn them his favor. This, however, is the opposite of the gospel.
Even when we try to explain the gospel’s distinction between faith and works, the confusion is hardwired into the unbelieving heart. Every sincere evangelistic effort ought to clarify this distinction rather than muddy it. But allowing a non-Christian to serve on a worship team ratifies and calcifies this misunderstanding of works-righteousness.
Imagine, in the spirit of Matthew 7:21–23, the tragedy of the unbelieving musician standing before the Lord on the last day. Imagine hearing him say, “But Lord, I played music for the church.” It may not feel pleasant to explain to a non-Christian musician why they cannot play their instrument for the worship service, but it is a pure kindness to help them avoid hearing those final words of condemnation.
Perspective 3: The Church Attender
Third, having non-Christians lead worship confuses the congregation about the nature of worship. A wise worship leader serves their congregation by carefully distinguishing between music and worship. When a church attendee complains about a musical style or aesthetic preference, a loving worship pastor might turn the conversation to the goals of the worship service. “We are leading worship,” he might say, “not performing a concert.”
Worship is a believing heart’s response to the work of the Holy Spirit, not an emotional response to the quality of the music.
But this crucial distinction is muddied when one or more of the platform participants actually performs a concert rather than worships the living God. A congregation cannot be blamed for being confused when the church leadership and the platform participants are sending confusing signals.
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“A wise worship leader serves the congregation by carefully distinguishing between music and worship.”
Imagine the mother of a bass-playing teenager. Eager to find a mentor for her child, she approaches the church’s bassist after the service to talk to her son. The boy sheepishly follows his mother only to discover that the man, instead of loving the Lord, performs at the church only to earn some money. There’s the danger: placing unbelievers on the platform undermines an opportunity to give the congregation spiritual as well as musical leaders to emulate in their fight for faith.
So, let us consider the good of both unbelievers and believers alike. Let us warmly welcome all people, believers and unbelievers alike, in our church gatherings (1 Corinthians 14:22–25). But let us clarify that the church belongs to Christ and not the world (2 Corinthians 6:14–7:1).
And let us use our church gatherings to show the world that the sanctuary is not a concert hall. It is the place where “the redeemed of the Lord say so” (Psalm 107:2).
Matthew Westerholm (@mwesterholm) is the pastor for worship and music at Bethlehem Baptist Church and assistant professor of music and worship at Bethlehem College & Seminary. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and three sons.