WHAT IS THE IMITATION TRAP?
I noticed the trap in pulpit ministry before I saw it in music ministry. Young preachers imitating older or better known preachers. Cadence, vocal pitch, even attempting to mimic the humor or jokes, and sometimes just outright stealing stories and analogies employed by the preacher they obviously admired.
The same thing is true in music ministries and if you’ve been around long enough you’ve probably seen it yourself. Churches whose bands play note for note everything exactly like it was off the record. The singer who is obviously trying to be Kim Walker-Smith or the worship leader who is shouting things because he heard Matt Redman do it.
The Imitation Trap is seeing the success of someone else, and assuming that this is the way that you have to do it. To judge your success not on what God has called you to do, but on how others live out their callings. I want to present four reasons that we as worship leaders should avoid this trap at all costs, and a positive alternative to imitation that might just be a way forward for you, and your ministry.
1.) THE PRESENT IS ALWAYS THE PAST
I don’t need any more new songs. It’s not that they are bad or that the old songs were better; it’s just that I don’t need them. I could stop hearing new worship songs and still introduce new songs to my church every Sunday for the next 10 years. That is how big my back catalog is, and I would venture to say the same would be true for a lot of churches.
When I came to my first church as a worship leader, their song list was very different than the one from my previous church. I quickly realized that even if I did a new song every Sunday I would never catch us up to the song list I was used to because my old church kept adding new songs, they were always going to be a step ahead of me.
The same principle applies to worship ministry in general. You can try really, really hard to emulate what you see or read about the ministries at churches like Hillsong, Bethel, Elevation, Fresh Life, The Village, Saddleback, etc. But by the time you bring your church to that point (assuming it’s even possible), all of those churches that you’re trying to copy have moved forward to the next thing. You will always be a step behind.
The first reason to avoid the Imitation Trap is that it will always leave you a step behind.
2.) THEIR CALLING MAY NOT BE YOUR CALLING
A friend of mine just built a studio at his church; it’s pretty nice. They’ve got the Mac Pro’s running the latest version of Logic and Pro Tools and all the other gear you’d expect to find. They put out an album. Whether it was good or not isn’t for me to say, but I can say that it wasn’t received in the way they had hoped it would be.
Why did they make a record? Did they have a thriving artistic/songwriting community in their church? No. Did they have an audience watching their worship service on YouTube? Was there demand? Was it a natural response to how God was growing their music ministry? The answer to all of these is of course, not really.
So why did they make the record? Because it was what other churches were doing.
There are churches who strive and struggle needlessly because they are trying to be something God has never asked them to be. The small church plant barely 6 months off the ground that’s trying to operate like the large, established church that birthed them. The rural church with a worship leader who acts like you’re in the heart of NYC. Then there is the urban church that moves to the suburbs so they can have a large meeting space.
The second reason to avoid the Imitation Trap is because you may be trying to live out a calling that is not yours. God never called you to be like the church down the street or the church in some other town. He’s called you to be you, your church to be itself. A good verse to consider here is John 21:22-23 where Jesus tells Peter that it doesn’t matter what he’s called someone else to do, it only matters what Jesus has called Peter to do.
3.) THEY DON’T LIVE WHERE YOU DO
I believe in contextualization; I believe it because I see it in the Bible. In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, the Apostle writes that he has “become all things to all men that I might win some to Christ Jesus.” He states that “to the Jew I am a Jew, and to the Greek I became a Greek.” I believe that there is a biblical principle for us to follow, that we should minister to our church in a way that makes sense to our cultural context.
For example, my last church was a church plant about an hour north of Seattle, in a smaller, semi-rural area. Country Music radio stations were 3 out of the top 5 radio stations in the area. I know this because I looked it up. So I started mixing in this vibe, seeking out older hymns and spirituals with a southern flavor. That all changed when I moved to California. It was a different city, in a different state, with a different cultural context. So to the rural town, I’m a rural town worship leader, and to the Northern Californian, I’ve become a Northern Californian.
A great example of this is a church I know of in the heart of one of American’s most secular neighborhood. They have no cultural context for KLove or Air1 radio. This church has folk, indie rock, and even techno/electronic worship bands. While I enjoy what I’ve heard from these musicians, almost none of it would work at my church, and in the same way, the majority of what happens at my church probably wouldn’t go over well there.
The third problem with the Imitation Trap is that you might be imitation something or someone who is specifically geared towards a very specific context that doesn’t apply to you. I’m really glad that the guys in the Rend Collective didn’t try to be Hillsong United. In the same way, I am thankful that Citizens and Saints didn’t try to be Rend Collective. My hope is that you will do what your are called to do, in the context that you are called to do it in, and that everyone else (myself included) will do the same.
4.) THEY CAN’T EVEN IMITATE THEMSELVES
The dirty little secret to all of this is that most of the churches that people try to emulate couldn’t emulate themselves. Mars Hill music was very different before they hired a bunch of outside musicians to lead their bands. Elevation Church and Bethel both hire outside musicians like James Duke, and Stu G to come in a work on their records. All or most of the musicians at the big church who’s stuff you watch on YouTube are probably paid.
Now, I’m not saying that’s wrong or evil. I am also not saying that there isn’t a big church somewhere with homegrown talent, or that any of the churches I’ve mentioned are without homegrown talent, because that’s obviously not the case.
What I am saying is that you may be trying to copy something that can’t be copied. In some ways this goes back to the last point regarding context, in that if Elevation church were the size of your church, or in your churches context, they probably wouldn’t do things the same way as they do know in their context.
The fourth problem with the Imitation Trap is that you’re trying to imitate something that isn’t real. I’m not questioning the genuineness of another church. I’ve met and spent time with folks from some of these well known churches and they are awesome brothers and sisters in Christ who have a passion for him, his church and his glory. But if you’re running and pushing a volunteer music team to operate like paid, professional musicians then you are only hurting yourself.
It reminds me of Acts 15 where Peter asks why people were burdening “believers with a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors were able to bear?” I don’t think it’s unreasonable to make this application: why are we burdening our music ministries with expectations that even these massive churches can’t meet on their own?
INFLUNCE IS DIFFERENT THAN IMITATION
I once told a friend that “I’ll borrow a good idea from anyone.” I’ve seen great ideas from every church I’ve mentioned here, and some even better ideas from churches you’ve never heard of. But it’s always been with the goal of moving towards what God has called me, or my church to do and to be.
I’m thankful for the insight and example that many ministries have. I’ve really appreciated some of the online training via YouTube that I’ve received from brothers like Paul Baloche or Bob Kauflin. James Duke is an incredibly influential guitar voice to me personally, and I even enjoy a Hillsong tune once and a while. I am thankful for the influence of all of these and more not mentioned. But I am even more thankful for the freedom in Christ to be who I am, and for my church to be what God has called us to be.
As a final thought, I realize that this is a broad topic and that I’ve spoken in broad terms. I also recognize that I’ve mentioned specific groups and people directly as examples. If I didn’t speak clearly on something or something you read came off as being poorly worded or disagreeable, please email me or leave a comment so we can avoid confusion and miscommunication. Who knows? It’s very possible that I could be wrong on something.