Worship Leader Turned Theologian

Sam Talbert

When Sam Talbert joined Western Seminary’s Bay Area Cohort, he had been leading worship teams for over a decade. But as he began to dive deep into theology and hermeneutics in his cohort classes, he came to realize he had been focused on the wrong things as a worship leader.

“Much of the evangelical church has fallen in love more with the music than with Jesus,” he laments. “And to a large degree, so had I.”

Growing up as a pastor’s kid with a love for music, Talbert was given opportunities to play drums and guitar on worship teams at an early age. His musical talent paved the way to a role as a full-time worship leader at a Bay Area church shortly after he graduated high school. As a young worship leader, he focused a lot of his attention on the music, technology, and productive value of the worship service, being quick to incorporate the newest top-40 worship song into his set list without sitting down to evaluate the truth behind the lyrics.

He remembers a discussion early on with other worship leaders about a controversial song and how he tried to reassure them that “people will still be worshipping even if the words aren’t spot on.”

The church needs to invest in young people, but they should know the Scriptures. It’s hard work, but so worth it.

Talbert looks back on that conversation amazed at how much his perspective has changed. He recently graduated from Western with his MA in Ministry and Leadership, and he credits his seminary experience for helping him see that the music is never the main point of worship.

“Seminary buried this conviction deep within me: how critically important the theology of our songs is,” he says. “As a worship pastor, I have a responsibility to shepherd the flock by giving them sound, theological music.”

Talbert came to realize that many of the songs coming out of the Christian music industry emphasize a “feel-good emotionalism,” rather than what is revealed in Scripture about who God is and what He has done. Over time, a worship leader can depend on the music to draw people to worship, rather than the Spirit of God. This approach harms the congregation and weakens their love for the triune God.

Sam Talbert

“People aren’t going home singing sermons, they’re singing songs,” Talbert points out. “If our songs are simply feel-good emotionalism, we are leading people astray.”

Talbert also acknowledges that many new songs and albums in the Christian music industry rarely stick around for very long, as worship leaders strive to incorporate what’s new and relevant. In contrast, certain modern worship songs, like “In Christ Alone,” have sticking power because they don’t depend on the music.

“Romantic love songs about Jesus just don’t do it for me anymore,” he says with a chuckle. “Now I rely more on hymns which sink so deep because the focus is more on theology than the music.”

Not only does Talbert have a different approach towards the songs he sings. He also has embraced his role to disciple the other members serving on the worship team at his church.

“It matters to me that their hearts are engaged with the Word of God. This is a spiritual act and I want to do my part to invest in them.”

Talbert looks back with gratitude on the impact that his seminary degree has had on him as a worship leader. As he looks to disciple other young ministry leaders, he is quick to encourage them to seek sound, theological training.