Do Worship Leaders Hide in Worship?

It is an odd proposition – do worship leaders hide in worship? Even though they’re standing up front, in the most visible part of the worship space, leading the congregation in prayer and praise and acts of worship, are they hiding in plain sight?


Capture - Bob Merrit lectern
Grainy screen-capture image from video of sermon by Pastor Bob Merritt of Eagle Brook Church, showing minimalist lectern.

I’m struck after visiting two larger churches on Sunday – an evangelical megachurch, and a large Lutheran church. At neither service did any worship leaders wear robes. Use of a pulpit, lectern, or altar was minimal, and when a lectern was used it was an attractive but slim, minimalist stand. Much of the service took place with nothing standing between the worship leader and the congregation – no bulky altar, no robe, no imposing pulpit.

I saw the worship leaders’ bodies. Their movements and gestures. Their flesh and blood. There were no physical barriers separating them and us. They were open to us and to God. Nothing separated us.

Presiding at the Eucharist, behind the large altar.

When a worship leader wears a robe, their body is somewhat hidden, their legs are not even visible. Standing behind a solid altar and pulpit, half of their body is obscured. There is something vaguely decarnating (rather than incarnating) about the use of altars, pulpits, and robes; that is, there is something about this experience that minimizes (or reduces) the humanity of the worship leader rather than embracing or accepting of the flawed yet real flesh and blood of the leader. When a worship leader wears a robe, the only thing that is not covered up is the head – prioritizing thought and speech over other aspects of their carnality. I wonder if we like robes precisely because of this decarnating, flesh-minimizing – even neutering – effect. That might be the case, but I think it could be to our detriment, and to the detriment of our mission.

Preaching in/behind a wonderful, yet massive, pulpit.

When we minimize the real flesh and human body of the worship leader, we do something to the worship leader that we don’t do to the rest of the congregation. The leader is covered, robed, and somewhat beyond flesh. Yet the congregation is very fleshy, very carnal, very real. No robes for them. Nothing hiding them and their imperfections. The congregation comes before God and each other as they are. The worship leader doesn’t, but instead wears a covering.

The altar, pulpit, and robe are literally physical barriers that hide the worship leader from the congregation and which create a distance between the worship leader and the people with whom they are worshiping. Furthermore, in many of our churches, to use the altar the worship leaders often have to stand about as far from the congregation as they can while still being in the building, in order to get behind the altar that is against a far wall.

I understand that the altar, pulpit and robe all have their purpose and powerful symbolic meaning – drawing attention to the ritual act and the Word proclaimed rather than to the person leading that ritual act or proclaiming that Word. Nonetheless, I wonder if in our care to draw attention to the Word and Sacrament in such ways we don’t unintentionally create barriers and lose out on the chance to be a bit more honest about our carnality, our fallen flesh and blood, through which God promises to proclaim Good News and do great things. I wonder if we don’t miss out on the chance to cultivate a more personable, relatable experience of worshiping the God who comes to us in the flesh and blood of the person of Jesus Christ.

You’re not going to see me leading worship in jeans and a flannel shirt any time soon. But I am wrestling with this issue of how the way we worship shapes our messages, intentionally and unintentionally, for longstanding members and visitors alike. The way we use furnishings and liturgical garb in worship deserves scrutiny, particularly as cultural norms change over the years and the ways in which received patterns of worship may or may not carry with them the same meaning as they did in previous generations, particularly for those not raised within our church traditions.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

16 thoughts on “Do Worship Leaders Hide in Worship?

  1. I don’t mean to sound sarcastic with the question, but isn’t the worship leader supposed to be hidden? As in, “don’t look at me, look at that to which I point.”

  2. My lack of interest in much contemporary worship is also related to barriers: the phalanx of speakers, mics, cords, stands, etc. that separate the musicians from the congregation they are supposed to be leading in song. When I am called on to lead a song or provide an offertory, I insist on a standing mic and the simplest of music stands that free me to use my voice, my hands, and all the rest of me to communicate the text.

  3. I really have to disagree with the idea that clerical robes and pulpits are a bad thing. Speaking as a lay minister, if I’m assisting or preaching, I want people’s focus to be on what I’m saying,not on my body or what I’m wearing. Having “front and center” people all robed also democratizes them, visually, IMHO. I’m just not a fan of “studied casual.”

  4. Ellen, Robb – yup. I get the critique of this approach, and too much personality or style or whatever can get us into all kids of trouble. And certainly worship leaders can make use of their robes and furnishings in ways that are lively and which help communicate the power to which their words and gestures point. Still, there was something powerful and impressive about their openness to the congregation and to God, without other barriers or interference. As someone who comes from a different tradition, it really struck me.

  5. Frankly, I’m grateful for the “neutering” effect of a robe. I often receive (much to my frustration) comments about my clothing choices, or even a perceived weight change. I’ve been told twice, in two different congregations (both times by older men), that my choice of a red jacket was “too distracting” and “too powerful.” Maybe it’s just a female leader issue, but I doubt it since I know folks often take note of my colleague’s choice of tie.

    An alb is not a fashion statement, obviously, but my hope is that its same-ness from week to week keeps the focus on leadership and proclamation, and not the fact that I forgot to iron my slacks the night before.

  6. Hey bro, first off I praise God for you. I think it’s great that your looking outward to see what others are doing, we can alway learn and always grow from others. In my church once the music starts my eyes close my hands go up and I sing. My pastor could set himself on fire and I wouldn’t know. I’m being sarcastic here but my point being is; it doesn’t matter if you have a pulpit or not, doesn’t matter what you wear, all that matters is that the worship leader can lead well, it’s all about glorifying Christ.–2

  7. You know, apart from the “don’t look at me, look at this” aspect, I actually wonder if we don’t miss a step by only half-heartedly embracing the vestments. Much of the time, it feels like we’re trying to be as “real” as we can while wearing clothes that went out of style a millennium or more ago. Why not take it full-on, in acknowledgment of the fact that something “otherworldly” is going on here.

    1. Policemen wear uniforms to set them apart, so that we can identify them. I think that the pastors’ robes, stoles, vestments, etc. have the same role. As a choir member myself, I really like it that I don’t have to worry about what I’m wearing on a Sunday Morning. I know that there can be no judging of my clothing during the choir number.

  8. Our last three pastors have been women. Two of them didn’t wear a robe in summer because they got too warm. One wore a stole anyway. I didn’t like seeing so much of body shape and movement when there was no robe.

    I’m wondering if the churches had Christian symbols. My daughter in laws church has no Christian symbols at all. There seemed to me to be too much focus on the musicians themselves and on the preacher. The walls and ceiling were black, so spotlights were used. The people were always in the dark. I kept wondering about the Bible verses re darkness vs light.

    1. One of my favorite alb/stole stories is this: When my wife was pregnant with our second child, she was on the altar presiding, her stole flowing down to the side of her body, pushed aside by her breasts and pregnant belly (the stole just *couldn’t* hang straight). Her curvy, pregnant – yes, sexual – self was on full display. And while distracting to some, I’m sure, it was also a beautiful sight.

      God uses us, not as disembodied voices speaking a disembodied Word, but as fully-bodied, sinner/saint creations proclaiming an Incarnate Word. We are gendered beings, made in God’s image, male and female. How we live into and express that is shaped in large respect by cultural expectations and experiences, yet our culture’s general unhealthy approach to sexuality needs an alternative – and that alternative is not a push toward a neutered, faux gender-blindness, but a more healthy approach to and acceptance of our sexuality.

      1. I doubt my reaction has to do with sexuality at all, since I’m a woman. Also, I like the idea that there are times that the pastor must use the symbols to set him/her self apart. The collar can do that and also the stole in certain settings. I make stoles, so I’m interested in stoles and what they communicate to the congregation. Or maybe others don’t notice them like I do ???? I do notice when the stole doesn’t hang nicely and comfortably around the pastor’s neck, and isn’t balanced. They can be made with different neck configurations, and some just aren’t comfortable looking.

  9. I think that there is some value in recognizing the importance of vulnerability as a worship leader. I do not preach from the pulpit. I kneel down to eye level when I bless the children. I do however wear an alb and celebrate the eucharist from behind the massive altar. I was taught that the alb makes me “every person”, so rather than turning me into a disembodied head, the alb makes me more accessible, classless and genderless so that I am more, rather than less, available and vulnerable.

    I remember a time when most altars were attached to the East wall. The clergy turned their back to the congregation, becoming a barrier between the people and God, while the elements were consecrated. The alternative is to face the congregation, and make them participants in the action of celebration. I should not be the focus when the loaf and cup are raised. I do not see myself “hiding” but revealing the correct focus for our attention by standing behind the altar.

    I guess for me, the issue of vulnerability is about being accessible and vulnerable beyond the worship hour, so that I am accessible and vulnerable in what I say and do in worship with the people I lead.

    To be honest, I am glad that the congregation is not thinking about my clothing choices during worship, in part because it frees me from being self conscious about them. Sinner that I am, if I were not wearing the alb, I would be tempted to project a less authentic image of myself. “Perfect” clothes can be just as much of a “shield” as an alb.

    Maybe the alb is a kind of shortcut, but it is probably the best way for me to be authentic and not distracting to the worship.

  10. I am convinced that the casual approach to worship leadership and the display of a certain “acted out” message is just as much a costume as my alb. Whenever we stand before the public to proclaim Christ, we add a certain dignity that is not natural to us, whether it is in “stained glass” speech, or rich vestments, or “studied casual”. What we all want to reveal is God, and the people of God can be thankful that we find so many ways to proclaim Christ, so that what they came to hear has no impediments FOR THEM. Bless our hiddenness, O Lord, and reveal yourself!

  11. Sometimes I wear an alb. Sometimes I wear street clothes. I almost never preach from the pulpit. I’m short to begin with and even though the pulpit is adjustable, it’s too high at it’s lowest setting. I’m 5’5.” We try to have a constantly changing worship within the liturgy of the ELCA. Sermons often include congregational conversation, sometimes with each other and sometimes as a large group. I agree that the alb isn’t a fashion statement. As for the rest of it, we don’t do much sameness in the adiaphora of worship. We try to include everyone in worship preparation, making worship a group expression centering on word and sacrament.

  12. Yes, I am with Ellen, it is not about the Leaders, that is drilled into us at Seminary, it is about God. But, I also feel you are on to something here and the key is – How are we perceived by those worshiping? Are we approachable or unapproachable? And does our clerical shirts, albs and vestments get in the way? It boils down to relationship building and being very careful of barriers that we unknowingly put up and intentional when we plan out our worship services.

  13. It seems to me that we might work to achieve a middle way on this matter. I agree with the other replies here that albs are helpful in hiding some of the distinctions of gender and body shape/size that separate us. I also think a well designed alb highlights the face and hands of a leader and draw attention to the body of the leader in helpful ways. The furniture and architecture of worship ought point to the things that are central — a modest reading desk with a real bound bible or lectionary that allows readers and proclaimers to see and read a text in the view of the whole assembly, and a table, perhaps looking more like a table and less like a half-wall, moved more and more away from an east wall and more and more into the center of the room where people can gather around it with a presider standing in the midst for all to see more clearly. But these lectors and preachers and presiders and other ministers, while serving the body with their bodies, are always pointing beyond their individual bodies to the signs that show us God — the book with its stories and poetry, the water and oil of dying and rising, the bread and wine of sustenance and festive joy, and the full assembly with all of our diverse bodies become one body. And please, for mercy’s sake, presiders and other leaders should not stand at or behind tables (altars) or reading desks (lecterns) at the gathering rite, the prayers of intercession, or the sending rite, but in full view of the assembly, without books or binders, having memorized the primary prayers and ritual texts, and greet, pray, and send us in full view of all the people.

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