Being a worship leader is a tricky task, according to Aaron Niequist.
Niequist, a former worship pastor at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids and Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago, described his job as one that is, at times, “very conflicting.”
“There’s a part of the role I absolutely love; my job as worship leader is to focus people on God,” he said during a recent interview with BioLogos. “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 conversations with other worship pastors, Niequist said he’s discovered he’s not alone. In fact, a lot of worship leaders struggle 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?’”
Over the course of his time in music ministry, he felt much of his job was reduced to getting a congregation “fired up.” But Niequist, who grew up in church and first started leading worship as a high schooler, knew something was missing.
When he was 22, Niequist said he entered “a real faith crisis.” He was leading worship, all the while uncertain if he really believed anything he was singing about: he was at a crossroads.
Then a friend recommended a book called “The Divine Conspiracy” by the late Christian philosopher Dallas Willard. The book is all about the Kingdom of God, a concept he’d never heard about. It changed Niequist’s life.
“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,’” he recalled. “That was as much a conversion moment as I’ve ever had in my life and it was about the Kingdom.”
Niequist then shifted his focus as a worship leader. He began focusing less on evangelism and started to emphasize discipleship. Instead of just leading worshippers in song, Niequist began to incorporate prayer and Scripture readings into his ministry — something he admitted he had “never done” before that point.
He turned to believers in other faith traditions, like Pentecostalism and Catholicism, for their insight. It was through those interactions that he learned to diversify his worship diet.
“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 said. “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?”
Rather than simply singing about forgiving your enemies, for example, Niequist learned about the importance of putting it into practice, of leading congregants in prayer and giving them the tools they need to do the very things they are singing about.
“Jesus didn’t say, ‘Here’s the truth; believe it,” Niequist explained. “Jesus said, ‘I am the truth, follow me, join me.’ The invitation is participation.”