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Music directors existed in Old Testament times (see these 56 references). But was there such a thing as what we now call a worship leader in Christian (New Testament and early church) times? Or is it a modern (re-)invention?

Additional information: we know that hymns were sung in Biblical times, including by Jesus and the disciples. And we know there were gatherings of thousands. These two facts suggest to me the early church may have worshiped in large groups, which would imply someone coordinating it. But I have no idea if that resembles a modern worship leader.

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I have heard that the singing was one of the major point under Martin Luther reformation. –  David Laberge Apr 3 '12 at 12:16
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I'd say maybe at a sunrise service... they have those pretty early. –  Narnian Apr 3 '12 at 12:29
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It's worth noting that music directors in the Old Testament were probably actually -very- much like modern worship leaders, in that there were groups among the Levites who were dedicated to leading musical worship and other kinds of praise. I have no research on the subject, but it's not unreasonable to believe that the first Christians continued this practice, and that it has evolved gradually ever since. –  asfallows Apr 3 '12 at 13:27
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@Narnian: oh, so that's what people mean when they talk about the early church... –  Wikis Apr 3 '12 at 18:31
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Hmmm... never thought of that. Well put! –  Narnian Apr 3 '12 at 18:33
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2 Answers

up vote 9 down vote accepted

It is a fairly natural idea to have somebody fulfilling this role, and various Christian traditions have done just that. The following are from Worship music: a concise dictionary (ed. Edward Foley, 2000):

Cantor [Latin]. "Singer" (1) In Christianity, a 5th-century term for the psalmist; later, the medieval singer (often cleric) who intoned and led the chants; more recently a leader of congregational song who often sings the verses to the congregation's refrain. ...

Precentor [from Latin praecino, "I sing before"]. (1) The leader of chant in a schola; the precentor usually intoned chants on the side of the first choir, while the succentor ("subcantor") intoned for the second choir. (2) Another title for the cantor. (3) In some reformation traditions, the liturgical master of ceremonies, with special responsibility for the choral services. (4) The leader of congregational song in a church having neither a choir nor instrumental accompaniment.

Psalmist [Greek, Latin psalmista]. (1) One who leads (or sings the verses of) the psalm, usually in responsorial style. The term appears in the 4th century in some lists of ecclesiastical ministers. (2) The author of a Hebrew Bible psalm.

Psaltes (pl. psaltai) [Greek; Slavonic pevetz]. "Singer, cantor." In modern Byzantine usage when plainsong is used a psaltes or cantor ordinary leads the congregation by intoning and carrying the melody. In the Byzantine era (6th-15th centuries) Hagia Sophia had 2 choirs of psaltai; the leader (protopsaltes) stood between them. ...

In general, the lines seem to be a little blurred between the roles of "main singer" and "musical decision-maker", as with modern "worship leaders". The Orthodox protopsaltis seems to have evolved from the first into the second role. The Catholic Encyclopedia says under "precentor":

Anciently, the precentor had various duties: he was the first or leading chanter, who on Sundays and greater feasts intoned certain antiphons, psalms, hymns, responsories etc.; gave the pitch or tone to the bishop and dean at Mass (the succentor performing a similar office to the canons and clerks); recruited and taught the choir, directed its rehearsals and supervised its official functions; interpreted the rubrics and explained the ceremonies, ordered in a general way the Divine Office and sometimes composed desired hymns, sequences, and lessons of saints.

The Synod of Laodicea in the fourth century restricted who was allowed to sing:

Canon 15. No others shall sing in the Church, save only the canonical singers, who go up into the ambo and sing from a book.

This is probably connected to the idea of having a person in charge of planning and performing the music in general. I don't know who had that job before the dates given in the references above (which go from the fourth century to the medieval period).

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This is a great answer! Very thorough and it looks complete. –  Wikis Apr 3 '12 at 18:05
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Specifing "Christian " eliminates going to the O.T. as that is Jewish tradition and starts the search in Acts and more specifically Antoch where the term was first used. If one looks at the modern day use of the term "Worship Leader" reconising that it is a relatively new position in the church, the following is a good guide.

Contemporary worship and worship leader or pastor ( formerly choir directors and such ) is inextricably linked to the Charismatic Movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. Several important aspects of this theology of congregational song are worth highlighting. This influence is largely of John Wimber and the Vineyard movement of the late 1970’s and 1980’s. Saying the Church needed to sing songs “to God” and not “about God.” Lyrically, this was manifest in the frequent use of the personal pronoun, “I.” Also the dominant paradigm for congregational song was the “temple” metaphor. Charismatic congregations appropriated their understanding of the temple layout as a “map” for worship. Scripture verses like Psalm 100 served as an anchor point for this framework. This approach to worship is reflected in the way many referred to the music in these services as “Praise and Worship”—“praise” being synonymous with the “gates/outer courts” and “worship” was the term used primarily for songs corresponding to the “holy of holies.” It’s also important to point out that this theology of worship, while undergirded by “praise and worship” songs, understood the entire time of singing (the pauses, instrumental solos, spontaneous prayers, raising of hands, shouting, etc.) to be part of the progression from praise to intimacy.

It seems almost all denominations are moving to either what is called a contemporary service or a "worship pastor" ( also called praise/praise &worship leader or worship leader to use some titles ) to reach out to a new generation that is not attracted by the hymns of old.

( some facts borrowd from the seed bed )

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