Interview With A Worship Leader Veteran

by Kristen Gilles

in Interviews,Worship Leading

I want to introduce you to my lifelong mentor in all things life and worship leading. He is also one of my closest allies and friends. And he is undoubtedly one of the most fervent, faithful intercessors in my life. He is, most importantly, my dad.

Steve Smith has been faithfully persevering in his role of worship pastor for over 35 years at Restoration Christian Church in the small town of Sellersburg, Indiana. He’s endured many hardships in this leadership role, including dealing with my teenage attitude while I was serving with him on the worship team. And he’s overcome many challenges, including having a limited number of willing, skilled singers and musicians to serve with him in leading worship.

I’m privileged and excited to share this interview with my dad, a worship leader veteran, since many of you have been or are in or will be in the same boat he’s been rowing for all these years. I’m very thankful to serve at Sojourn where we have an large number of exceptionally talented musicians and singers, but I know that most churches do not have such a deep bench on their worship teams. And many worship pastors and leaders are faithfully leading their congregations without receiving much monetary compensation, if any.

Regardless of the ideal or less than ideal circumstances surrounding our roles of service, we’re all called to persevere in the work God’s given us by His grace and through the power of His Spirit. That perseverance is what I’ve seen in and learned from my dad and I wanted to invite him to share with us some of the things he’s learned in his journey as a worship pastor.

Kristen: How and when did you end up being a worship leader?

Steve:  Shortly after returning home from my first (and only) year of college, God led me to this group of believers that were meeting in the basement of a bank in Sellersburg.  The first Sunday night I attended, there was one guy leading worship (vocals only) accompanied by one guy with an acoustic guitar and one guy with an upright bass.  After the service, I introduced myself to these guys, told them I played guitar, and asked if I could join them in leading worship.  They said, “Yes!”  The following week, I started playing along with them.  The songs were so hard to learn.  Each song had like three chords and some even had four!

Kristen: What was your mission statement as a worship leader? How did you encourage and lead your team in fulfilling this mission?

Steve:  My mission statement was “To worship the Lord in spirit and truth, and lead others into the place where God can touch their heart.”  I honestly believe I encouraged my team in this more by example than anything else.  But I consistently articulated this mission statement to them, and frequently gave them opportunities to speak it back to me.

Kristen: Describe the greatest challenge you faced as a worship leader and what you learned from it.

Steve: That’s a tough one.  Some of my greatest challenges were overcoming obstacles between my ears.  I went through a season in my late twenties when I was battling a lot of fear, and it was extremely hard to stand in front of the congregation and lead them in worship.  There were times when it took everything I had to not run off the platform and out the door.  But the Lord was faithful to deliver me from that!  I learned that praising Him in the midst of trials is the perfect vehicle for expressing my faith in my faithful God.

Kristen: Throughout your years of worship leading, you led a widely varied group of musicians and singers (from the very skilled and experienced to the unskilled and inexperience;, from the older and wiser, to the younger and not so wise) in both times of plenty (deep bench on your team) and times of scarcity (no bench and maybe not even a full band to start with). What are some practical things you’ve learned in your experience described above, and how would you encourage worship leaders to navigate the sensitive situation of responding to eager, willing servants whose musical skill levels are below average?

Steve: The most practical advice I can give regarding this is to leverage what you have, not what you don’t have.  It’s cliché, but play to your strengths.  For instance, if you are short a bass player, don’t sing “Trading My Sorrows”.  If you are short a drummer, use songs that don’t require much percussion, or can derive their percussion from a piano or acoustic guitar.  I’m not suggesting that you don’t ask things of your team that will stretch their abilities, but you are inviting trouble (and stress) if you attempt things that your team is just not capable of doing.  You don’t have to sing the hottest songs just because everyone else is.  “One hand full of rest is better than two fists full of labor and striving after wind.” (Ecclesiastes. 4:6 NASB)

Kristen: People who serve on elevated platforms (figuratively and literally speaking) tend to struggle with a performance complex—desiring to be known and praised for the works of their own hands (and voices). Worship leaders are no exception (myself included)! How have you addressed this performance complex in yourself and in your team?

Steve: There is an unavoidable performance element to leading worship, especially in the current worship paradigm.  So it’s important to be prepared and play/sing to the best of your ability, but it’s perhaps more important to remember that God shares His glory with no man, especially not with you!  Get over yourself.  You’re just not that important.  Focus your heart and mind on Christ and do everything you can to focus the attention of your congregation on Him too.  If you desire the praise of men, you should get off the platform until your heart no longer desires that.

Kristen: For those worship leaders who may have their own kids or other family members serving on the worship team, describe your experience in leading and serving with your own family members (your wife, your daughters, your son, your niece, etc.). Is it any different from leading your non-relatives?

Steve: There are several temptations parents face when doing anything with their children.  One is to expect more from them than everyone else.  Another is the opposite extreme: cutting them slack while holding the rest of the team to a higher standard.  I loved having my family on the platform with me in leading worship.  It was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever experienced.  I have a great relationship with my children, so I believe they always wanted to please Dad and make him proud (in a good way, of course).  And my beautiful bride never needed any motivation to give her all in worship.  There is nothing she enjoys more than singing heartfelt praises to God.

Kristen: Describe the challenge of being a full-time, non-staff, worship leader while working full-time as an IT professional to support your family. What disciplines did you practice to help you manage your time and resources in an effort to do both of these jobs with excellence?

Steve: This one is simple.  “No man can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other.” (Matthew 6:24 KJV).  I constantly battled the desire to be a full time worship leader against the need to provide for my family.  In 1988, a brother spoke a word from the Lord to me, “. . . I’m not gonna have you just do one thing, but it’s gonna be many faceted, and you’re gonna move in that anointing from this day forth  . . . .”  And in 1992, a brother from South Africa spoke this word to me, “Now this church is not the source of your ministry.  Don’t wait for it to be big enough so it can support you.  That’s not what God wants.  God says, I’m the source . . . .”  It was hard for me to accept, but I eventually did come to accept it, and all I can say is that God truly did give me the grace to multitask between the aspects of my “day” job and leading worship.

Kristen: What resources do you recommend for worship leaders who may be on a very limited church budget? How can they best equip their team with new music, etc.?

Steve: There’s so much material available on the Internet and some of it’s free.  I suspect your readers don’t need much guidance on this topic.  One thing I will say is, don’t be a thief.  Pay for what you should rightfully pay for.

Kristen: You’ve written many songs and shared them with your church over the years. Will you tell us about your songwriting journey—how it began and how it’s evolved and why you’ve persevered in writing new songs for the church? Tell us also how you typically write a song, how a theme is inspired and fleshed out.

Steve: I wrote a few songs before I even received Christ, so I knew I could do it.  But after being born from above, I started writing songs from my heart to the Lord.  These were not worship songs, and I actually thought at that time that God would use me as more of a touring artist than a worship leader.  It didn’t take long to realize that leading worship was a much higher calling (for me) than performing for people.  My songwriting always came from inspiration – a verse of Scripture; a melody floating through my mind.  I was never any good at “crafting” a song based on talent –because I don’t have that much!  The Lord once spoke to me that I would write songs in waves.  A wave of 10 songs would come, followed by another wave, etc.  That’s exactly how it was with me, and I would say it’s probably been at least 6-8 years since I’ve written a song.

Kristen: Can you offer any encouragement that you’ve received to worship leaders who are also songwriters and desire to “get their songs out there” but seem to be getting nowhere beyond the walls of their own church? What has God taught you through your own songwriting journey?

Steve: If God wants your songs out there, it will happen.  He’ll open doors for you.  Don’t forget that He is God and He does whatever pleases Him!

Kristen: A couple years ago you went on a long sabbatical in an effort to recover from severe burnout in your worship leader role. Will you describe how you came to need a sabbatical, what you learned and experienced during your sabbatical, and how things were different after you returned to your leadership role?

Steve: I was never burned out from worshipping.  I just grew weary of the planning, preparation, and various frustrations that accompanied the role.  Things weren’t a whole lot different when I came back, but God did give me the grace to persevere for a few more years before I eventually knew it was time to turn my responsibilities over to another.

Kristen: Please offer any other insight and encouragement you’d want to have had 30 years ago.

Steve: I think I would’ve enjoyed spending time with other worship leaders in the area.  I’m now leading something called SICMA (Southern Indiana Christian Men’s Association), and the focus is on leveraging small groups that seek to develop meaningful Christ-centered relationships with other men for the purpose of accountability, honoring God, and inspiring others to want to know Him too.  I think I would have liked to have been part of a regular small group of worship leaders.  We could have dried one another’s tears!

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