Should unbelieving musicians lead worship?

downhere to worship

Should non-Christians play on the music team during Sunday services?

On an issue often discussed in worship ministry, here’s  some arguments presented by Ronnie Martin  on today’s TGC Worship blog post.


So what’s the big deal? Does it matter if we have unbelieving worship leaders on Sunday? After all, if all they’re doing is playing an instrument, they’re not really “leading” are they? I mean, isn’t having an unbelieving musician on stage who can play well going to be less distracting than a believing one who’s chops aren’t all that great? How would anyone know if the drummer’s not saved, anyway? It’s better for him to play at church than at a club, right?

I think a better question to ask is this: who does God call to lead worship and how does He call them to lead it?

The problem with using unbelieving worship leaders [meaning, all musicians involved in leading a worship service 2 Chronicles 5:13] is that they’re unable to offer either praise or thanksgiving, regardless of how in tune or in time they play. Before Christ enters our hearts and the Holy Spirit stirs our affections for the glory of the Lord, the strumming of our guitars and the beating of our drum kits will ultimately be an exercise in self-glory.

“For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” –  Philippians 3:3

…Only people filled with God’s spirit can point others to His glory.

Bob Kauflin states a similar thing in his book, “Worship Matters“:

Even though musicians aren’t necessarily “elders” or “teachers” their presence in front of the congregation week after week implies that their life is worthy of emulation–not flawless, but demonstrating the fruit of the gospel. When that’s not true, the church gets the message that worship is more about music than the way we live. Likewise, when non-Christian musicians are used, we’re implying that the art of worship is more important than the heart. (p. 230)

At HBC (where I serve as the worship director), I try to interview each prospective musician and gain confidence in their testimony of God’s saving work in their life (sometimes it means asking their parents, or elders, where I’m not sure). Those who lead prayers, creeds and bible readings (e.g. worship leaders, bible readers) are held to a higher requirement and should be church members. It’s not a perfect science and probably not 100% consistent, but it’s an attempt to be faithful to shaping our gathered worship to communicate that true worship occurs where Jesus transforms hearts and lives.

Tim Keller and Dr Tom Jennings, in “Worship by the Book” takes the opposing view by appealing to the Reformed view of common grace:

We often include non-Christian musicians in our services who have wonderful gifts and talents.   We do not use them as soloists, but we incorporate them into our ensembles.   We believe this fits a Reformed “world and life view.”   The dualistic view in many evangelical churches is that a godly, sincere Christian who is an average musician is more pleasing to God than a non-Christian professional musician.   But Reformed theology teaches that God’s natural gifts in creation are as much a work of grace as God’s gifts in salvation.   In the film Amadeus, Antonio Salieri can see that Mozart, through “unworthy” in many ways, has been chosen by God’s grace to receive an artistic gift.   Musical talent is a gift of God, and to ask a musician to offer up that gift in a service of worship is a good thing both for him or her and for us.

It could be that Tim Keller writes from the point of view of including the 15th violinist in their string section for a worship service with classical music.  I disagree with him on this because whether you’re the sole drummer in a band or the 30th choir member, by being up in front of the church body in a leading role you’ve communicated that you’re leading them in worship. And there’s a danger of giving false assurance to a musician that they’re fit to do so if they don’t even understand true worship (through the perfect worshipper, Jesus Christ).

But I could be proven wrong, and it’s not a close-handed issue (i.e. other churches might land differently after thinking it through, and that’s OK with me).


Further reading:

Bob Kauflin – Non-Christians on the Worship Team

TGC Asks – Do non-believers play a public role in your church services?  (I especially appreciate the clear answers from Mike Cosper and Jonathan Leeman)

2 replies on “Should unbelieving musicians lead worship?”

  1. I’m currently experiencing this problem at my church with the pastor. He is strict in terms that non Christians cannot be involved on worship team. Bringing up many valid points. Currently I’m the worship leader and have a friend who can play guitar. He’s not a believer but respects our faith. He’s not interested in just coming to hear the gospel. So I invited him to play with us last Sunday night. He read the lyrics, heard the sermon and wants to learn Christian songs at home and is looking forward to coming back. Praise God. An opportunity for him to hear the gospel. But the pastor had an issue with him playing on the worship team and explained some valid points based on prior experience. I think discretion is the key on this issue. First of all, is there a specific passage in the Bible and not some interpretation? I approached him and invited him to play. Was God’s will involved? Am I getting some personal satisfaction out of it or trying to create better music? No. My intention is for him to hear the Gospel and pray that God will draw him to Jesus Christ. Hoping too that the lyrics will inspire him to seek the Truth. Is it better for the sake of a fellow believer’s conscious to exclude him from playing and lose a witnessing opportunity which may be God ‘s will for him to come to know and believe in him? What difference is it if there were a group of aethiests coming into the congregation and sing hymns with believers? Like Christmas. I believe this situation should be treated on its own merit. Asking ourselves, what is our gain in doing so. Is it for evangelising and for extending his kingdom. Or is it for self gain and for show. I know what Jesus is saying to me and I know what he would do. But we all see Jesus differently. God bless.

    1. Shane, it sounds like you’ve put much thought into whether it’s appropriate to include your friend on the worship team – that’s a good thing!

      An important thing to consider – aside from how we land on the issue – is your relationship with your pastor/elders. God has given them the responsibility for leading the church, and we’re called to joyfully submit to them (Heb 13:17).

      If your pastor has an issue with having a non-Christian on the team – even if you disagree, I’d encourage you to submit to his decision for now (you can keep discussing this together).

      “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand” (Mark 3:25)

      On the topic itself, there’s no bible verse or passage that will give you a definite answer (which is why faithful Christians will differ on this). But here’s some questions to help you consider some important and related principles:

      1) What’s the role of the worship team? Do you see yourself as session players at a gig, or are you and your team modelling and encouraging a church family in gathered worship? Can a non-Christian genuinely model worship to Christians?

      2) What is the purpose of a church service? Is it primarily an evangelistic meeting, or a gathering of believers (with unbelievers present)? 1 Corinthians 12-14 includes good amounts of detail, all addressed to believers about when they gather.

      3) What’s the normal means of evangelising and extending his Kingdom? (Romans 10:10-15)

      I love that you want your friend to know Christ. If your intention is for your friend to hear the Gospel, then share it with him – verbally! – and pray for God to draw him to Christ. He doesn’t have to play guitar upfront to participate in the church service.

      A common pushback is that if we “fence” the worship to believers only, we won’t have enough people to make up our team. I firmly believe that God is faithful and provides us with the people we need (and sometimes we don’t need as many musicians as we’re made to think…)

      The Lord grant you wisdom in this,

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