Former megachurch worship leader talks conflicting 'rock star' role, faith crisis, holistic worship

Unsplash/Keagan Henman
Unsplash/Keagan Henman

The role of a worship leader can be complicated and conflicting — at least it was for Aaron Niequist, who previously led worship at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids and at Willow Creek Community Church.

“There’s a part of the role I absolutely love. My job as worship leader is to focus people on God,” Niequist told BioLogos in a recent podcast. “And so what I do is get up on a big stage with lights pointed at me and my face on a jumbotron and me holding the microphone. In that context, I’m saying ‘hey, don’t focus on me, me, me.’ It’s a very conflicting thing.”

In his years leading worship at Willow Creek, which is one of the largest churches in the country, he felt like he had to “work against what the room was declaring really loudly — which is ‘focus on those people up on the stage in the lights.’”

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When he spoke with fellow worship leaders, many of them also wrestled with questions about their role.

They struggled with “the tension of ‘I know how to rock the house every Sunday, is that making the world better? Is that what it means to gather as the body of Christ every Sunday?’” Niequist explained.

Worship bands and contemporary music exploded in popularity in churches during what some have called the seeker-sensitive movement from the '80s and through today. It was considered a way to attract people, especially the unchurched, and help them turn to faith in Christ.

“If you’re trying to gather a large group of people, the kind of rock star worship leader thing is really effective,” Niequist acknowledged.

He doesn’t consider the approach wrong per se, “but we probably have to name what it isn’t doing — which is often forming people into Christ-likeness for the sake of the world, creating disciples.”

During his many years as a worship leader, he realized he was ultimately being asked to answer “how do we get the room fired up in the first 30 minutes of the service?” Again, he didn’t consider that wrong per se, but he felt there were more important questions to ask.

“If the question is ‘how do we get the room fired up,’ the answer is never corporate confession or extended Scripture reading or praying for our enemies,” he noted. “This wide array of historic Christian practices don’t fit.”

Niequist grew up in the church. Faith and music were a big part of his life. He first began to lead worship during his high school years at his church, where his dad and uncle were in leadership. By the end of college, he felt being a worship leader was “who God made me to be.”

But he hit a rocky point and had what he called “a real faith crisis” after college when he was around 22.

“There was just the growing sense that the faith that I had been handed didn’t work anymore,” he recalled. “It was like the air conditioner was only blowing warm air. It didn’t work. Why is this the story and why should I care? It was really weird.

“The experience of my whole life was being a Christian and suddenly I was wondering if it had run its course.”

The problem was, he was a professional worship leader at that point.

“How do you lead these songs, how do you say ‘let’s worship this God that I don’t even know if I believe anymore,’” he remembered feeling.

What helped him through that crisis was the support he got from his family and friends, who didn’t “freak out” but rather helped him as he wrestled with all these questions.

One friend recommended a book called The Divine Conspiracy by the late Dallas Willard. It changed his life.

“I remember where I was sitting, reading about the Kingdom of God, which I had never heard about. I had been a Christian for 22 years at that point and I had never heard a message on the primary message of Jesus which was the Kingdom of God.

That was the born again again moment for me,” he said.

“I was like ‘wait, if this is the story — it’s not just you’re a sinner, say a prayer so you can go to Heaven someday but if it’s you get to join what God is doing to redeem and restore all things, I get to? You get to? We get to? I’m in. Let’s do this.’ That was as much a conversion moment as I’ve ever had in my life and it was about the Kingdom.”

Niequist’s perspective on everything changed and so did his goals.

“It … reoriented the goal from getting people saved to getting us all into discipleship and Christ-likeness, transformation,” he said.

Up until then, the only tools in his toolbox as a worship leader were “four pop songs and a hymn.”

Desperate to express how wide the Kingdom of God is and his newfound theology and vision, he began to try new things as he led worship at Mars Hill.

Before leading a worship song, he decided to read the Scripture from which the song was written or inspired by.

“We had never done it,” Niequist said. “I had been a worship leader 10 years at that point and we’d never done that because that’s not the worship leader’s role; the worship leader’s job is to rock the house.”

When they read the Scripture and then sang the song, it felt “totally different,” he described.

Other new elements he and his worship team began to incorporate included moments of silence and saying prayers for the world. Though he thought he was pioneering something new or at least different, his worship partner informed him that what they were ultimately doing was liturgy — something generations of believers have done.

“It’s just our generation that lost this,” he noted.

From that point on, Niequist began visiting with a Jesuit priest and those of other Christian traditions, including Pentecostal, to learn and adopt the historical practices of confession, words of assurance, the Prayer of Imagination, and being open to the Holy Spirit, among other things, to enrich the worship experience.

“When I grew up, Catholics weren’t even [considered] Christians,” he noted. “Now, I’m sitting with this man who’s been a Christian longer than I’ve been alive and he’s teaching me these ways to align not just with the Church, with Christ and this and loves Jesus in a way that I didn’t even understand.”

He realized that during the first decade of leading worship he had only been serving one kind of meal every week and the “community wasn’t getting healthier.” To get healthy, he needed to serve a variety of meals.

“We have this wide family but most of us only stay in one room of the house. We live in this vast Christian mansion and most of us only stay in one room with the people who are exactly like us. What a loss,” he lamented.

At a time when many Christians are insulated, Niequist’s advice to young worship leaders is to “get around as many people different from you as possible.”

“I think the most unhelpful thing is to just get with three or four people who are exactly like you … and just agree all the time,” he noted.

“Get around people who are different and not to convert them to your way of thinking but to learn why do they do it that way, why do they see the world that way, what can I learn, what am I missing from my vantage point that they can help me see?”

As he reflects on his journey and on churches in the U.S., Niequist believes what’s lacking is putting things into practice.

“So many of our church traditions, we offer great inspiration, we offer more knowledge than anyone could actually actualize but we don’t offer the practices that transform us into being the kinds of people who could really live it out,” the liturgist said.

“Just you telling me Jesus said forgive your enemies — that’s good brain knowledge … How do I become that person?”

When he was struggling to forgive someone, the Jesuit priest he had been learning from taught him a four-part prayer.

That prayer “allowed me, every time I was willing to do it, to open myself in a new tangible, concrete way to what I know God wanted to do to help free me from the anger and to forgive this person,” he said.

Many churches today are formed around a set of beliefs or a statement of faith where members sign onto an "intellectual agreement," Niequist called it. And while that’s important, Niequist believes what churches need to emphasize more is practice.

"I think there’s something more holistic around the corner. I truly believe it’s going to be more about practices than beliefs," he said. "It’s not going to be anti-beliefs but it’s going to be finding what we believe as part of a whole that is based on what we do together."

People are formed by their practices; their brains change based on what they do over and over, he noted as he encouraged the use of liturgy.

Ultimately, the goal is to join God and participate in what He is doing — which is to bring “creation toward a redemptive, restorative end.”

“Jesus didn’t say here’s the truth, believe it,” Niequist said. “Jesus said I am the truth, follow me, join me. The invitation is participation.”

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