It’s Time to Break Free from the Cover Band Model of Church Leadership

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The church today is full of people (pastors, worship leaders, etc.) trying to be someone else — and it’s time to break free from the cover band model of church leadership. 

Maybe you can relate to how we got here. 

At times, I have found myself imitating other leaders—wanting a particular sound or look I saw somewhere else or echoing a preacher or leader I admire. 

The way you can tell that we’re in the cover band model of church leadership is simple. 

Go to any growing church (and many trying to reach new people) and you’ve heard it, seen it, or sung it all before. 

  • The same music. 
  • The same vocal bridges. 
  • The same sermon style. 
  • The same stage set.
  • And, sadly, sometimes the same sermon (plagiarism is a serious problem in the church). 

As a different kind of church emerges that will lead us into the future, it’s time to break free from this cover band model. 

Here’s why it matters and how to get out of it in your leadership. The church today is full of cover bands—people (pastors, worship leaders, etc.) trying to be someone else. It’s time to break free from that model of leadership. CLICK TO TWEET

Cover Bands Are Always Worth A Fraction of the Original  

Cover bands are a dime a dozen. You could see a Nirvana cover band that sounds exactly like (or better than) Nirvana. And you’d pay $30 for the ticket. 

Nirvana themselves? Obviously, that’s not possible anymore, but to have actually seen a Nirvana show. Come on….

Nirvana was an original

Cover bands rarely make a mistake playing live, but Nirvana freewheeled it. Sometimes (often), Nirvana got the notes wrong playing live, as you can see from this 1992 performance in Reading, England. The guitar is off, and the vocals go flat sometimes, but it’s absolutely epic because it’s Nirvana. 

A cover band might sound exactly like the record—they might be more perfect than the band itself. But it still only has a fraction of the value of the original.  

And as much as an artist like this might claim she looks and sounds ‘exactly’ like Taylor Swift, people aren’t obsessing over where to get $1,000 tickets for a knock-off Era’s Tour, nor screaming their lungs out with 70,000 other Swifties over it. 

There’s only one Taylor. There was only one Nirvana. A cover band might sound exactly like the record—it might even be more ‘perfect’ than the band itself. But it still only has a fraction of the value of the original. CLICK TO TWEET

How We Got Here: A Brief History of Church Leadership

The early church had some orthodoxies (that’s in large measure what the Epistles are about), but I imagine you would have seen the authentic community, love, and service of others playing out somewhat differently in Ephesus than it did in Thessalonica or Corinth. 

Fast forward a millennium and a half, and after the Protestant Reformation, you saw different tribes develop based on how people saw things and expressed themselves. Lutheranism had a uniformity within it that was recognizable from church to church and country to country. 

Similarly, Calvinist churches developed a four-fold order of service and had a ‘similarity’ to them wherever they sprung up—in Geneva, Amsterdam, or Edinburgh. Anabaptists and Methodists developed their practices and customs. 

So, while there was diversity among denominations, accents aside, a Presbyterian Church in England and a Presbyterian Church in America weren’t that different. But Presbyterians had enough distinctions from Methodists, Lutherans, and Anabaptists to make each its own experience. 

This pattern prevailed until the late 20th century. 

But with the rise of mass communication and social media, things suddenly changed.

As people traveled to conferences and read more books about how to do church, we started to learn from each other. Some growing churches bucked the traditions of their denominations as they learned from mega-churches that had broken the mold to experience explosive growth.

The cover band model of church was born. 

In the mid-2000s, social media gave us instant, daily access to anyone we chose to follow at zero cost.

Thanks to social media, the cover band model exploded, with more and more churches copying the best (and sometimes not so best) practices of preachers, worship leaders, set designers, and others to transform their ministries. Thanks to social media, the cover band model exploded, with more and more churches copying the best (and sometimes not so best) practices of preachers, worship leaders, set designers, and others to transform their ministries. CLICK TO TWEET

Often, the cover band approach to ministry ‘worked.’ A new cluster of growing churches innovated and imitated their way to reaching more people than ever.  

It worked… until we all started looking the same, which is where we are now. 

Most of us sense a shift in these church trends, which is awesome, and perhaps the seeds of revival have been planted (or are being planted). But surely the path to the future is not for us to keep imitating each other ad nauseam. 

The road to innovation and the path of imitation are distinct and rarely intersect.The road to innovation and the path of imitation are distinct and rarely intersect. CLICK TO TWEET

A New Church Leadership Model: Learning Vs Imitating

So what do you do? 

We live in an era of constant comparison, thanks to social media. The ability to use technology to both copy and innovate grows every year.  

The switch is simple: move from imitating leaders you admire to learning from them. 

You should learn everything you can from leaders you admire, but you need to stop imitating them. Imitation is a cheap cover.

That sounds easy, but it comes with a haunting side-effect. You should learn everything you can from leaders you admire, but you need to stop imitating them. Imitation is a cheap cover. CLICK TO TWEET

And Now… The Inevitable Disappointment You’ll Have to Deal With 

The challenge of switching from imitation to learning is daunting. Why? 

You need to become more comfortable with yourself.

Imitation is a form of hiding—a way of not having to risk as much because you’re not truly showing up as yourself. 

And for most leaders, being vulnerable enough to show up with your gifting and not a pale imitation of someone else is a terrifying proposition. Imitation is a form of hiding—a way of not having to risk as much because you’re not truly showing up as yourself. CLICK TO TWEET

This has been a personal journey for me, too. 

Although imitation has always been a temptation for me, it took on a new level when I started speaking on the conference circuit.

I was surprised to find myself on the same stage as some of the leaders I’ve long admired from afar, giving keynotes to thousands of leaders. 

As I started sharing green rooms with people I had admired from afar for years, I struggled with what I had to offer. 

Why did I get invited? 
What do they see in me?
How am I going to follow these giants? 
How can I measure up? 

These thoughts preoccupied me. 

After I followed Patrick Lencioni on stage, I thought, “Why can’t I be as creative and funny?”

I remember being up after Bob Goff and thinking, “Well, I don’t host world leaders to talk about peace, nor have I started schools for girls in Afghanistan. What do I have to offer?”

I found myself wishing I was as funny as Jon Acuff, as motivational as Craig Groeschel, as passionate as Christine Caine, as spontaneous as Albert Tate, as clear as Andy Stanley, or as TikTok-ready as Sadie Robertson Huff. 

I was always disappointed because, in my mind, I was none of those things. 

Instead, I was simply the guy with the bullet points. Usually, my sessions were teaching sessions on some trends, insights on how burnout and human potential work, on change management, or on what keeps leaders in the game in the long run. My talks always featured lots of bullet points, much like the callouts in this post. 

I saw my bullet points as ‘lesser than’ every other speaker. 

Then, one day, it dawned on me. “Wait, maybe they invited me because I’m the bullet point guy.”

It turns out that that seems to be the case.

So now, when I follow one of my heroes onto a stage in a room full of leaders, I tell myself, “Just be the bullet point guy. That’s why you’re here.”

I share that to help you overcome the inevitable disappointment you might feel when you lean into your unique gifting and voice.

You may not be as funny, persuasive, charismatic, or gripping as [fill-in-the-name-here], but God designed you exactly how he wanted you to be. 

So when you speak, sing or do whatever you’re called to do, be the original, not the cover band, 

The future church needs your unique gift as a church leader, not just another cover band. The future church needs your unique gift as a church leader, not just another cover band. CLICK TO TWEET

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