How many times in your life have you been completely derailed from your intended path? Not the kind of derailing that drops you neatly off at your plan B, but the kind that pulls you off the track, spins you around, and leaves you stranded with no clear path in sight?
I was in college when it happened to me.
At the young age of 18, I was already certain of the path laid out before me and it involved a career in music ministry. Namely, it was me on stage at some big, fancy church, guitar in-hand, leading people in worship. To those unfamiliar with the world of Christian worship, the very notion of a music ministry career might seem odd. But, to me, it was everything. My faith was pretty mature for someone of my age and I had a pretty solid theological understanding of worship, so that was a good start. I loved singing. I loved church. (I loved singing in church.) I had just recently started playing the guitar and had dabbled in song-writing. I believed I had been given a set of skills that could be used to serve, not just attend church. Put it all together and a life working in ministry was the perfect fit. So perfect, in fact, that when I left home for college, it was to complete a degree in Worship Arts. (Yes, they have college degrees for that.)
And here I am, folks. The proud owner of a BA in Worship Arts. But, that career in music ministry? It’s nowhere to be found.
I’ll spare you the sordid details of the four years between the decision to pursue a career in music ministry and the decision to absolutely not pursue a career in music ministry, mostly for the sake of space. (I’d be happy to speak one-on-one, of course.) Instead, I’ll offer a quick walk through the journey that took me from almost- “rockstar worship leader” to, well, whatever I am today.
First, I realized that working with and for Christians is really hard. Not hard because they are any worse than non-Christians but because they are so seldom better than non-Christians. I learned this quickly as a student at a Christian university. I’m sure my friends engaged in full-time ministry can attest to working with/for wonderful people, so this is obviously not true in all places and in all circumstances. But, for me, the reality of a lifetime surrounded by and working with Christians started to look a little disappointing. I wanted ministry work to be full of encouragement, drama-free and supportive. But people are people, after all, and even the prettiest people can look ugly sometimes. Right or wrong, I was a little shell-shocked when I realized that signing on for a life working in churches did not guarantee a peaceful work environment.
Also, after a year or two deeply embedded in what I’d call “contemporary worship culture,” I started to develop some serious issues with the music I was hearing and playing. Sure, it was fun to play. But what was it actually communicating about the nature of God and our relationship to him? I hadn’t really discovered “new hymns” yet and even though I was reading a lot of Robert Webber and completely bought into the concept of liturgical renewal and “ancient-future” faith, I hadn’t seen a lot of it in action. At least not by my peers. And at least not in a musical language that made any sense to me.
I was also struggling personally. My faith had always had a certain heaviness to it. And then, about mid-way through college, I entered a really difficult season of my faith. At the time, none of the options set before me seemed to speak to what I was experiencing, at least not with the depth I longed for. I actually got to the point where I had to completely disengage from leading because the words themselves seemed disingenuous, like lies. I felt like a fraud.
I valued honesty so much in life and in ministry that I couldn’t be a part of a culture where worship and truth seemed mutually exclusive. And it became clear that, if I couldn’t be honest in worship, I had no place leading God’s people in worship. I had never been good at faking it. The Church does not deal kindly with people like me–people who have a hard time keeping their mouth shut. And because I hadn’t quite figured out the appropriate venue or the appropriate way to address both my personal and ideological issues, I chose to simply step down and disengage from being a “public Christian” entirely.
Sometime around then, it became obvious that I also had no business being a celebrity–even a small-time, church-sized celebrity. I had no interest in having my face printed on the cover of a worship cd or my name appearing before the phrase “worship concert.” Even if my heart was in the right place–which, let’s be honest, could I promise that?–I couldn’t guarantee that the people worshiping with me were not, in fact, worshiping me or the music or the feeling they got when the bass drum kicked in on the second verse. Walking into the spotlight felt more and more like feeding Christian culture’s addiction to the “cult of personality” and the worship of super-Christians.
So, where do you go when you’re 3/4 of the way through a degree in Worship Arts, but you have absolutely no intention of continuing on into a career in ministry?
Well, I finished my degree, for starters.
I spent my last year focused on what I knew and loved about the history of worship and the Church, rather than what I found objectionable about contemporary worship culture. I wrote my senior thesis about, basically, the vapid nature of contemporary worship expressions and how they are insufficient for meeting our need for depth and honesty in worship. One of the implications of this insufficiency is that there is and will be a strong, post-Evangelical presence in the 21st Century Church, one that more closely resembles historic, Biblical expressions of worship and liturgy. (My paper was not nearly as articulate as that, as far as I can remember. But that’s basically what it said.)
After I graduated, I considered moving on to Graduate school to study the theology of worship even further, but I was still struggling so deeply in my personal faith that it just didn’t seem like a reasonable option. So, I found something else to do for a little while, to clear my head and let my heart and faith repair. I followed a boyfriend 300 miles to Cincinnati, Ohio and joined AmeriCorps, committing the next two years to full-time community service.
I starting writing more music, music that was decidedly not intended to be used as worship music (at least not in any corporate setting). It helped me heal a bit and reason aloud through my confusion at the complete derailment of my life. It provided the medium for honest expression that I couldn’t seem to find while working in an official ministry capacity. And it brought me together with many, many more people who had experienced the same thing as me.
I found safe places to worship. The first was an Anglican church in Wheaton, IL where I could be more-or-less anonymous, augmented by a Bible study with a small group of trusted friends when I couldn’t motivate myself to get to church on Sundays. When I moved to Cincinnati, it was a vibrant house church network where I was absolutely not anonymous, but I was welcomed–loud mouth and all–without any strings attached. These two places helped me rebuild my concept of worship and Christian community.
And, in small places and small ways, I started to dip my feet back into the world of ministry. I ended up married to an ordained Pastor, so that forced the issue a bit. But, even before that, I took small opportunities to help lead and administrate worship for God’s people when invited. I try to be always a step back, always a little hesitant, but willing to help when it seems prudent.
I explored the new frontiers of contemporary worship music, music that borrows more closely from Biblical expressions and Psalms, speaks more clearly about the nature of God, and leaves out the subjective “me and Jesus” talk that was so prominent in the worship music written when I was an adolescent. I learned to immerse myself in this music. These are the songs I wish I knew back when I was young and felt alone and without a voice in my struggles. I have also learned to give credence to various expressions of personal worship, when used in their proper context, even if they don’t satisfy my particular need.
And, in this current season of my life, I am trying to allow myself the enjoyment of reminiscing about that sweet time in my life when worship was less complicated and came more naturally from my heart. And to allow other folks–including rockstar worship leaders–to enjoy their ministry and worship lives without projecting my own personal baggage on them.
“Fear and trembling” are two words that come to mind when I consider my future role in the Church and how my gifts and skills can and will be used for ministry. I have no idea what the future holds and whether or not I’ll be derailed again and tossed into a different path. My husband and I are poised and ready to jump whenever the next step is evident. And I’m sure that what I’ve learned about myself, my own wavering faith and intentions, and the value of honesty in worship and community will help define my role. But I’m still so very unclear about what that role may be.
Safe bet: the future doesn’t involve me being a rock star.
Those days are, thankfully, long-gone for me.