Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Virus Of The Stage

Being a worship pastor has been one of the greatest opportunities to serve in my life. I grew up a military brat and I traveled the world because of it. When you are the son of an Army General you grow up on the stage. No lights, no haze, no crowd, just all eyes on you every day. Every grade, every curse word, every bad penalty taken on the soccer field, every girlfriend, every date, every shift at the job, every speeding ticket, and every newspaper ever delivered on my bicycle was under the microscope of, that's the General's son. So when I entered full-time ministry at the age of 37 to become a worship pastor, it was a fairly easy transition for me to assume the mantle of being on stage again.

Different stage, big screen, lots of lights, huge congregation and once again all eyes were on me. I was under the microscope of Pastor now. I was once again my father's son. I understood service, I understood what it meant to be "on". I know what it's like to walk into a room and have all eyes on you simply because of the number of people you play in front of. I was on the job just three weeks when I was listed as one of the top 20 worship leaders in the country. I had only been a full-time worship pastor for 11 months. Being on the stage, meant a lot of this stuff just came with the job. It was a job, one I didn't realize I had been preparing for my entire life.

So what happens when it comes time to leave that job? What happens when the stage literally shifts under your feet. All of the sudden the reason you were on the stage is no longer the reason you are wanted on the stage? You try to preserve your culture, but the culture continues to shift. You try to leave a legacy and implant your DNA, but your legacy is being challenged by people who supposedly knew you best. You try to protect your teams and the volunteers you served alongside all those years, however, your volunteers, you are told, belong to the church. Obviously, there is a ton to unpack here but I want to do this in pieces in case there are others out there that have experienced, are experiencing, or will experience what I'm still processing.

I've learned over the years that when the potential for something evaporates I am no longer interested and need to move on. The problem with this philosophy is not everyone sees the potential you do. Not everyone has the same vision for what you have a vision for. Finally, your vision may not be what you were hired to bring about. It was like this for me in corporate business. When you arrive at the corporate office and realize you enjoyed the front lines better. To leave the corporate office pretty much ends your upward potential. So similar to a church. I arrived at the big church, big stage, big team, big resources, big sound and lights, and big opportunities. Often the case with larger churches is your focus narrows. Just like as a company grows, not every great idea gets equal time. Eventually, you end up in a culture of yes men and women where good ideas can only generated from the top down, but communication has multiple layers going up, losing translation with each layer but maintaining its ability to roll downhill at lightning speed, loud and clear. You quickly realize you feel a lot like a hamster on a wheel. Just do your job and keep this machine moving. No room for failure, no room for growth, no room for creativity or change. Now you realize the potential for a future that includes you or your vision in some capacity is gone, and you are not even sure when the bus left the station but it is gone, and you are no longer on it.

This is where I found myself more than a decade after pouring my heart and soul into being a worship pastor. I had good job offers after I made the decision to leave, but my family situation was changing. My girls were graduating and heading to college my wife had seniority and tenure in her job and our entire lives were wrapped up in this city, our community, our small group and those we did life with. The big salary was gone, the big stage was gone, and all of the sudden so were all the people that insulated you from the harsh reality that somehow the enemy gained a foothold and part of what you did became part of your identity. This is when the real pain began.

I have shed many tears of pain and anger. We tell ourselves all the time, our identity must come from our relationship with Christ. So you can only imagine the pain of realizing that no matter how I protected myself, no matter how many guardrails I had in place, no matter how nice and tight my hazmat suit was sealed up, that virus still got in. It got in because I brought it in with me.

Part of my self-worth was in my ability to use the gifts God gave me to create something special, to leave a mark, to impact a culture or take a team and make it better than the sum of its parts. Now the thing I spent years protecting myself from, is trapped inside with me and I am its only enemy.

I now lead worship for a much smaller church, I am back to doing the job that 5 people did for me at the larger church. I have a great opportunity at this new church to settle in and not relocate my family but still continue to lead worship, develop a team, and for the first time to be heard when it came to impacting change on a larger scale. But no hazmat suit this time. No way I am going to go through that again.

Where do you go when the job no longer feeds the virus? I don't know. I don't know if you can do your job well and not take pride in it. But we all know what the bible says about pride. I don't know how to pour yourself into people and their families for over a decade and then flip a switch and remove yourself from those communities. I don't know how to push yourself musicially and bring the best out of your team until the wow factor is acheieved, then act like eh' it was nothing. But I do know this. None of that is what God called his worship leaders to do. Our job is to simply facilitate a God-focused worship experience and stay out of God's way.

Nowhere did it say, arrange and produce a killer set with the city's best musicians, nowhere did it say to have a photographer capture great shots under the lights and haze so we can build our social media traffic. Nowhere did He ask us to produce a worship set that sounded exactly like what our congregation hears on the radio. We were never asked by God to own the best gear or write the hit songs. We were never asked by God to monetize our social media channel or build a fan base. We were never asked by God to launch our worship leaders into professional concert worship ministries. 

This is the virus of the stage.

God wants our character first, then He will use our competency. But we live in a world that tells us we have to lead by example in order to be relevant, however, all over this planet, there are tens of thousands of worship leaders that are relevant to their volunteers, to their congregations and to the families of those they serve with. They have no means to produce a killer set, no resources to buy the best gear, and no physical space big enough to light, haze and film a killer worship set to post on social media. I've been on both sides I've seen both worlds, and while ego, pride, self-righteousness can infect anyone at any level, I am writing this to caution those of you who will one day find themselves no longer on the big stage, no longer surrounded by the best players, and longer with any capability to produce and film something special that happens during worship and share it with the world.

Who do you want to be when the room goes dark, the career that should have never become a career comes to an end and with each passing day, you find yourself further and further away from where you thought you were going?

Me... I want to be a worship pastor who still finds pleasure in the beauty of a transparent song written to our creator, not to our congregation. I want to be a worshipper who still cries when it's just me and my instrument in an unfinished basement. I want to be a servant who will bring whatever gear he has left to help another musician find his/her gifting to serve at church. I want to be that lover of worship culture that always gives a guitar away or buys a guitar for a kid that wants to do what you do. I want to be that person who doesn't need a worship set to have their heart of worship validated. Some of you may read this and think this is just a bitter former worship leader whose time has come and gone and they weren't ready for the new reality. I hope that is not the case. I hope you will follow me on this journey so maybe I can spare some of you the pain of the virus of the stage before you are fighting for your spiritual lives. I know a lot of good came from my service in worship. I know lives were touched and people opened their hearts up to Christ because of songs and experiences they had during worship.

All I know is when my children put me in the ground and I have no more songs to write and no more words leave my lips in praise this side of heaven, I will be remembered not as a worship leader, but as a person who loved God and His presence and spent time in it. Even when that time was a painful detox from the virus that can be so easily misdiagnosed as worship ministry.


  1. "The corporate office" can be found in the most unlikely places. Will always be glad to call you friend.

  2. Charlie, I am a member of that very big congregation. I still love it there. It is God who sends the peace down into my heart when I sit down in that North balcony. But, it was you who sent him there 8 years ago when I came in on a whim, just looking for peace. I miss Joe and Dave. I REALLY miss you. I volunteer at the Healing center and that does my heart good. But, I need to go into church on Sunday and feel that tingle and cry. The holy spirit sustained me and kept me excited about getting to church again next Sunday

  3. Hey Charlie,
    Mike here... I have lived out every detail you shared. It hurts my heart to see so many pushed aside that poured out their hearts for years.

    For me, Having to lead worship and constantly wonder if it was acceptable to the pastors in the front row made my stomach curl. It was all intended for God in the first place.

    It broke my heart to be brought into the office and told that I was not to sing any songs that spoke of shouting or dancing because the pastors didn't want to deal with what may happen.

    I was later told that he wanted the songs to be exactly like the record. (where is the atmosphere of worship when you have to perform a song?)

    After being removed from the post of worship pastor, because of aging out, I was allowed to lead worship, but I wasn't allowed to applaud my Lord because I was being distracting to others who needed to be able to hear the click track. I was also told not to free worship or sing anything during the instrumental parts because I was interrupting the little voice that told everyone when to sing the verse and chorus.

    My last time leading I was confronted with being totally disrespectful for not wanting to use the click for one of the songs (because I wanted to just play one song without the click to actually be able to worship).

    Any sense of "worship" had been removed for the "show" and I honestly felt a sense of the Lord leaving the building...

    I since have moved away and have found a new home where the Lord comes first, the Spirit of worship reigns and I've been able to freely express what God has poured into me in the first place... to lead people to His throne (and using your words that have been my own words for 20 years) and get out of the way. Worship is alive and well and His Spirit is breathing in this new found home...

    Thank you for sharing your heart, which so many of us have felt and lived through and had no voice to share. Bless you, man of God.

  4. Wow, Charlie. Thanks for sharing your heart and your story.

  5. Great words Charlie. I think many of us look around and wonder what has happened to the Church. I have never been in a really large situation as you were but many of us from smaller place know we cannot compete with the big productions...and that is a problem. We are not supposed to compete by consumerism drives church growth...not an experience with God. Just an experience...I remember being with you at a small conference and I saw the frustration of a worship leader that really wanted to lead worship...not perform. Good stuff..I will be looking for more...

  6. Thanks Charlie for your transparency and for sharing your story. We were at VCC when you first became worship leader. I always was so blessed by your humility and sincere worship of our loving Father. You also sought to encourage others to use their talents. The Lord did use you in my life to lead my heart to worship. Thank you for that gift!

  7. Well said. Thank you for sharing. I would add that tech team leaders often go through similar experiences and the heartfelt emotions that go with it.

  8. Charlie,

    I am so sorry for the struggle you have endured. I moved away before Dave and Joe left, and I called that big church my home church for many years after I moved. God finally got through to me and I stopped listening to the messages about a year ago (I didn't miss a single one before this). That church was a very big blessing that transitioned me into an incredible new part of my spiritual journey, and it breaks my heart to know even the small amount I know about events and "transitions" since I left.

    Charlie, I was there when you became the worship leader, and I hope you know that your heart was visible then and you blessed me - and countless others - over the years. And I know your heart is visible again now. Please protect that no matter what, because it's a heart that loves our Lord. I pray for continued healing for you.

  9. Great words, Charlie. Beyond proud of you and am right alongside of you. Went from big to small and back to big and have seen and experienced it all over a 24 year Worship Pastor "career".

    Now being a Lead Pastor (2 years into it) I am leading like I was never led. Leading from a position of exalting the team. Pushing for their very best while avoiding the "appearance of" or a performance style. Genuine, inspirational, connecting to God first and then others. We can't lead where we have not been. This is where God has led me and this is where I lead my team to.

    From afar you have been an inspiration to me and I am sure many others. You responded to a random email I sent years ago and I have respected you and your leadership before and especially because of that response. You were genuine and humble. It meant a lot to me.

    Excited for you and praying for you. May God bless your future greater than you ever had in your past and may God bless your family like never before.

  10. Charlie,
    After teaching high school music for 22 years and then teaching Music Ministry in a Christian college for 6 years, and all that time leading worship at various churches as a volunteer, I decided to go into full-time worship ministry at a church. After 15 years of that, I retired from a large church 4 years ago now. And while I can understand what you wrote, I did not have that experience (nor would anyone else really - because we all are unique and different from each other). After several years of me as the lone worship leader, plus some volunteers we hired another worship leader (younger of course), but I stayed on. That whole first year I kept saying to him, "What do you want me to do now, boss." He was leading the team now not me. As the changes came, and they DID, the one thing I kept reminding myself was, I needed to hold on to things 'loosely'. Where did I learn this concept, I learned it from the lead pastor and other ministers in the church. I see a lot of your experience in other churches also. I see this as the main fault of the church leaders. It seems like they are not wanting to as you put it "to facilitate a God-focused worship experience and stay out of God's way." While that may sound like it is a worship leaders job, in reality it is the responsibility of every leader in God's church. I see the problem as methods got in the way of principles. And I see this problem in a lot of churches.
    I went from full-time to part-time, so how did I handle that? I was always in on the planning and programming part of the job. I saw my job as becoming more of a servant-leader. What could I do to help others do their job better. But all that, (that way of thinking, that way of leadership) I believe comes down from the lead pastor and the elders of the church.
    So what am I doing now after 4 years retired? Still playing and singing, go to a planning meeting when I want to, and with the experience I had at being a worship leader and teacher, I started a ministry to help worship leaders and their teams become better at what they do. And help the church become more aware of what true worship is.
    What do I tell older worship leaders who may find themselves in a similar situation?
    Hold on to your gifts loosely.
    It's not about you.
    Be a servant-leader by helping others do their job better.
    Be an encourager.
    Be a listener.
    And then find a hobby! :)

  11. I have gone through what you went through, in a different setting.
    It is really hard, when the stage is not there...
    Dealing with that, can be very confusing!
    Evah Gachanja

  12. Bro, I love your honesty and transparency... 'when the music fades, and all is stripped away, and I simply come...' that's worship