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Review of The Worship Pastor by Zac Hicks

Recently an increasing number of voices from among contemporary worship leaders have arisen to challenge the common performance mentality and encourage a ministry mindset. Zac Hicks, Canon for Worship and Liturgy at Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, AL, adds his contribution to this growing list with The Worship Pastor: A Call to Ministry for Worship Leaders and Teams. Hicks argues that worship leaders are not simply leading music; rather, they are pastoring worshipers.

Hicks states his underlying thesis in the Introduction without defense or explanation, adding one of the more insightful sections of the book—a brief historical survey assessing why churches formed a split between the pastoral office and the church musician (15–17). Hicks believes that repairing this division requires, not a return “to antiquated forms and functions of worship leadership” (17), but rather a practical guide that describes the duties of a worship pastor. Each chapter of the book seeks to accomplish this goal by exploring the role of the worship pastor in various functions through which shepherding takes place.

For what Hicks describes as “rock star” worship leaders (17), many of the book’s prescriptions provide necessary corrective. Hicks helps them understand that they shape people’s beliefs and understanding of worship through how they lead, whether they recognize it or not (14). He correctly bemoans the loss of pastoral awareness among worship leaders and provides very useful tools to recover this critical emphasis by “filtering every decision they [make] and every action they [take] through the grid, ‘Does this build up the body?’” (53). He also avoids the common mistake among contemporary evangelicals of assuming musical forms are neutral; rather, Hicks correctly identifies the power of music in its ability to mimic emotion (64), wisely notes that “not all emotions are the best or the healthiest” (152), and rightly suggests that musical choices in worship can help to mature emotions (149).

Some omissions and inconsistencies weaken the overall value of the book, however. First, while Hicks correctly identifies the problem of dividing the pastorate from worship leadership, he does not present a substantive biblical case for why worship leadership is a pastoral role. Furthermore, by his own admission he “purposefully downplay[s]” the spiritual qualifications for a worship pastor, relegating the discussion at the end of the book to a half-page (194). This minimization of pastoral qualifications appears to derive from the fact that Hicks does not view the worship leader as a pastor in the formal sense at all, considering the moniker something of a metaphorical—albeit “serious”—function only (195). While his recognition of the formative nature of corporate worship is admirable, this admission in the final pages undercuts the potency of his overall aim.

Second, while Hicks in several places rightly insists that it is not the worship leader’s responsibility to “usher people into God’s presence,” even claiming that this is an unbiblical error of charismatic theology (17, 37), he nevertheless embodies this very underlying theology throughout the book. For example, he expects that in worship, the Holy Spirit will “come down . . . manifesting His presence to us” (33), defines worship as “a vibrant, emotionally charged” experience (34, cf. 38), suggests that music is a means through which worshipers encounter “awareness of God’s presence” (36), and articulates the gospel shape of worship liturgy as essentially an “emotional journey” that happens to resemble the Praise and Worship theology of charismatics like Judson Cornwall or John Wimber (151, cf. 165–67). This leads him to claim that “emotional flow” is a central concern in worship leadership (153), something worship leaders must carefully guide through demeaner (154), music (175), transitions (186), and “ambiance” (187), lest they lose the “desired affect” and interrupt the presence of God (184–85). Particularly telling is Hick’s regular acknowledgement and praise of charismatic theologians upon his own thinking (31, 36, 59, 153) and his attempt (which even he admits as a “stretch”) to fit charismatic liturgy within a gospel shape (167). What is worse is that Hicks does not seem to recognize his own charismatic presuppositions. For example, when exploring how charismatic, Reformational, and sacramental traditions each understand the presence of God in worship (35–37), he presupposes a charismatic definition of presence in his interpretation of all three, suggesting that each simply differ in how they think God’s presence is “tangibly” experienced. On the contrary, Reformational theology in particular does not simply find tangible presence of God in the Word rather than in music or sacrament, as Hicks argues; rather, the Reformers expressly differ from sacramental or charismatic traditions in insisting that the presence of God is something Christians enjoy intangibly through the gospel by faith, not through experience. As Bryan Chapell (whom Hicks often cites favorably) notes, the charismatic movement lost the gospel shape of worship when emotional flow became its chief concern.[1]

For contemporary worship leaders embracing a charismatic theology of the presence of God in worship, The Worship Pastor can help avoid focus on performance and recover needed emphasis on shepherding God’s people. Nevertheless, because Hicks assumes his understanding of worship rather than proving it, the book will have limited value outside those who agree with his presuppositions.

[1] Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Worship: Letting the Gospel Shape Our Practice (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 70.

Originally published in Artistic Theologian 6 (2018).

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.