Sharing a bowl of buttery popcorn, the Beauty Queen (my wife) and I joined about 32 million other Americans for the season finale of American Idol. Admittedly, I was cheering for Bo, the southern rocker, but couldn’t really be disappointed when country-sweetheart Carrie walked away with the big prize. Ultimately, having risen above a multitude of contenders, both Bo and Carrie were the crème de la crème.

From my vantage point as a couch potato, I appreciated all the fine talent and terrific production, but as a worship leader, the show gave me a thin-slice study in current pop culture. I caught three big cultural clues about how our worship might better connect with the hearts of the people around us.

First, authenticity counts. America combed through 100,000 singers to find two genuine articles. Technically, there were better singers along the way, but these last two were clearly more than vocalists; Bo and Carrie were believable representatives of their genre. We could picture Carrie Underwood touring with Rascal Flatts. We believed Bo Bice could front Lynyrd Skynyrd. One insightful moment came in the heat of the competition’s final song; Carrie’s voice broke and she began to cry. While some called it an awful performance, it was awfully honest, too. The American people are drawn to authenticity. They gave Carrie the gold.

Judge Randy says, “Keep it real,” and worship leaders – of all people – should take note. If we’re preoccupied with our licks or our mix instead of the glory of God, Jesus will know instantly, and everyone else will eventually figure it out, too. The people in our congregations are counting on the Lead Worshiper to connect with God in “spirit and in truth.” (Jn. 4:24)

Second (and related), character counts. Heartland values weighed heavily in this contest. In the end, all the big-city nuance and pseudo-hugs melted away; the play-off came down to a fascinating pair: A small town Oklahoma college girl and an Alabama boy who entered the contest on a bet with his mom. Both Bo and Carrie spoke with down-home charm; they revealed themselves as gracious, humble people. They honored their parents and they spoke well of each other. When their performances were judged harshly, they readily acknowledged that their critics had made a good point. When their hometowns honored them, they choked out words of quiet gratitude. People admire – and long for – this kind of character.

Talent can usher a worship leader into positions of great influence before his or her “heartland” has caught up. To our shame, Bo and Carrie were more gracious than many of our ranks. We are not called to be reclusive, self-obsessed artists, but faithful shepherds who gently lead God’s beloved sheep to the Living Waters (Ez. 34).

Third, quality counts. Listeners have become sophisticated and can identify a hack rather quickly. This season at Idol, a nation phoned in a half-billion votes on their area of expertise: what they liked, and what they didn’t like. For decades, our culture has freely sampled the fine delicacies of a musical smorgasbord, and this has resulted in some discerning taste buds.

These folks undoubtedly have some reasonable expectations as they enter our auditoriums. We undoubtedly have some limitations as we strike up the all-volunteer praise band. Most of all, the Spirit of God undoubtedly has some intentions for the encounter that transcends both.

Worship leaders need to champion the message that worship is not a spectator sport; a congregation is not an audience. We can underscore this by picking songs that maximize congregational involvement and minimize a spectator mentality. Musicians and singers should be discipled to release their “gig” on Sunday for the higher call of humbly supporting the praises of God’s people.

It’s important to add here that biblical convictions about the nature of worship won’t excuse a lack of preparation. We can remind the congregation that they are the choir, but this will not fix our bad notes, tighten our sloppy rhythms or upgrade our crummy sound systems. Making God’s praises glorious (Ps. 66:2) requires a bit of elbow grease, and He is eminently worthy of this.

Saints, the real Finale is coming.

On that day, every knee will bow to the true and living God, and every spotlight will be upon Him alone. There will be no contenders because every idol – American and otherwise – will fall.

As worship leaders, we have the astonishing task of preparing our hearts and our people in anticipation of that day. May God find our worship authentic, our characters transformed, and may we offer up a quality of praise that directs our congregations to gaze upon the face of God Himself.

Phil Christensen is worship pastor at Cedar Hills Evangelical Free Church (CHEF) in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He is married to Mitzi, the Beauty Queen, and is father of four great kids. Phil has served as a worship development missionary in the Pacific Northwest and is co-author of two books for Kregal Publishing. You can reach him via email at philc@chefc.com.