Churches across the Southern Baptist Convention are struggling to find worship pastors, but shifting from traditional church music degrees to biblically grounded worship may be part of the solution, one seminary professor said.
Joseph Crider, dean of the school of church music and worship and a professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said the shortage of music and worship pastors is at a level he has not seen in many years.
“I receive multiple calls and emails every week from pastors and churches looking for worship leaders,” Crider, who has been leading and teaching worship for nearly 30 years, told The Baptist Paper.
The reasons for the shortage are complex, he said.
“As churches moved away from children’s choirs, youth choirs and even adult choirs, musical opportunities and training within a ministry context diminished significantly,” Crider said. “Therefore, generations of young people were not exposed to music making in the church for the purpose of helping lead others in worship.”
Transition in training
Also until about 15 years ago, Crider noted, music programs in seminaries and many Christian colleges were focused on “traditional music training that was aligned closer to a conservatory education rather than a ministry-based curricula” that closely followed the musical expressions of Southern Baptist churches.
“In some cases,” Crider said, “students were being trained for a church world that simply didn’t exist anymore.”
As a result, the numbers of students seeking traditional church music degrees shrank significantly.
The growing diversity of musical styles within many congregations is another contributing factor in the shortage, Crider said.
“Frankly, worship leading in a modern evangelical church is demanding and difficult work, especially when pastors view corporate worship pragmatically (focusing on what attracts crowds) rather than from a biblical and theological lens,” Crider said.
Despite the decline in available worship ministers, Southwestern and its undergraduate school, Texas Baptist College, are seeing an increase in students seeking worship leadership training.
“New students enrolled in our programs for spring 2023 doubled from 2022,” Crider said. “This past fall semester, we enrolled 50 new students in the school of church music and worship.”
Southwestern aims to cast a greater vision for why the church needs leaders to facilitate biblically-grounded worship on a weekly basis, Crider said, and the faculty does that in part by speaking at churches and conferences to help churches develop their understanding of Christian worship.
“One of the most important things a church can do is to remember that in corporate worship, God didn’t intend His people to gather around music — something that changes so frequently with culture and something that is so individualized among people with personal digital playlists,” Crider said.
“God called us to gather around Jesus Christ who never changes and His Word that never returns void,” he added. “Using one of the psalms as a call to worship and then singing a wonderful, familiar hymn a cappella can be more effective than we can imagine.”
Crider consistently asks students to consider what is at stake on Sunday mornings.
“I think the answer to that question is people’s view of God,” he said. “A.W. Tozer once said that the most important thing about any human being is what they believe about God. Every week, worship leaders have the joyful and, I believe, holy stewardship of recalibrating people’s view of God and of themselves in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
That recalibration comes through the proclamation of Scripture, prayer and the lyric content of the biblically-based songs and hymns churches sing, Crider said.
“As the world bombards people every day with false views of God and crazy ideas of what human flourishing is, what happens in weekly worship should be intentionally and thoughtfully designed to help people be reminded of what’s really real — the gospel of Jesus Christ and how we can live in light of His gospel.”
Steve Bowersox, chair of the worship leadership and production technology departments at the University of Mobile, said that last year at graduation the school was presented with 35 more positions than they had graduates to fill those positions. He says it has been that way for the past five years.
“Last year, I had churches trying to hire our seniors in February, and we had to kind of talk them into letting them stay until graduation,” Bowersox said. “Churches were grabbing them real quick. The same is true of our technology students.”
Bowersox identified a higher demand for what is required of worship leaders these days, including that they aren’t just good singers but are truly pastors who understand ministry and calling.
He is hopeful the need for worship ministers will be met as student ministers and others identify a new generation of leaders. Bowersox recommends such people get as much experience as possible by working with worship leaders and seeking formal training.
‘Language of music’
“I would encourage them to learn the language of music. Learn not just to play a guitar or play chords or sing, but if they’re going to be a true, full music minister, they need to learn the language of all that is involved in the long-term roles of being a music minister,” Bowersox said.
At Samford University, the Ministry Training Institute offers two worship leadership tracks through online certificate programs.
“Students can complete these certificate programs in less than one year from the comfort of their home,” Kevin Blackwell, executive director of the Ministry Training Institute, said. “Along with the accessibility and short duration of the certificate programs, they are also more affordable than you think.”
Courses in the certificate programs at Samford include designing creative worship, biblical foundations for worship, the worship leader as pastor, music principles and theory and rehearsing for worship.
“The courses are deeply rich in theology, yet practically focused on the daily tasks of being an effective worship leader,” Blackwell said. “In a time where trained worship leaders are hard to find, these certificate programs offer an option to be equipped to serve by experienced faculty.”