It’s been a long time since I taught on corporate worship. I will have the opportunity to do it at least twice this year. As I revisited the topic I found this article making its rounds on Facebook: “Are We Headed For A Crash? Reflections On The Current State of Evangelical Worship” Posted on May 19, 2014 by Jamie Brown, on Worthily Magnify. In the article, Brown sounds a warning:
Yet throughout the conference (National Worship Leader Conference, hosted by Worship Leader Magazine in the U.S.) at different sessions, with different worship leaders, from different circles, using different approaches, and leading with different bands, I picked up on a common theme. It’s been growing over the last few decades. And to be honest, it’s a troubling theme. And if this current generation of worship leaders doesn’t change this theme, then corporate worship in evangelicalism really is headed for a major crash.
It’s the theme of performancism. The worship leader as the performer. The congregation as the audience. The sanctuary as the concert hall.
I find myself quickly agreeing with this warning.
I have always been struck by the fact that the early church had no church buildings. They met in the homes of members. Here is Paul giving the Colossian believers some instructions on worship.
Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:15–17 NIV)
Paul writes to the church as a whole. Worship is a communal responsibility. Even then singing was a key part of expressing our formal worship to the Lord. Songs were to be directed to God the Father through the Son. God is the audience for Christian worship. And as we sing to the Lord we also teach and admonish each other. In a time when no one had their own personal Bible, singing out the truths of the faith was a key way that people learned about the faith. Worship songs must be based on sound doctrine. Interestingly, no worship leader is mentioned, which is not to say that those who were more gifted did not help guide the singing of the house church. The emphasis, however, was on the fact that singing to the Lord was everybody’s responsibility. The church community was no audience.
Today, we have come a long way from house churches. Most of the churches I know meet in buildings set apart for church activities. And depending on their budget, these churches will set up good sound systems, and often use state-of-the-art music instruments. And our corporate worship has also evolved. The congregation sits in a worship hall, and the worship is often led by a worship team, consisting of one or more worship leaders and musicians as talented, and hopefully, as mature spiritually as the church can put up.
With corporate worship set up as it is today, it is easy to see how it can run into the danger of the “performancism” that Brown talks about. I don’t see us returning to the house church approach anytime soon, but Brown gives good simple advice to help worship leaders return worship to worship that is more biblically sound.
Sing songs people know (or can learn easily). Sing them in congregational keys. Sing and celebrate the power, glory, and salvation of God. Serve your congregation. Saturate them with the word of God. Get your face off the big screen. Use your original songs in extreme moderation. Err on the side of including as many people as possible in what’s going on. Keep the lights up. Stop talking so much. Don’t let loops/lights/visuals become your outlet for creativity at the expense of the centrality of the gospel. Point to Jesus. Don’t draw attention to yourself. Don’t sing songs with bad lyrics or weak theology. Tailor your worship leading, and the songs you pick, to include the largest cross-section of your congregation that you can. Lead pastorally.
The above paragraph should be required reading for all worship leaders. But worship leaders and the church they serve must understand why we need to do the things Brown suggests.
As a preacher and a teacher I know the seduction of being a platform person. Preacher and worship leader alike run the danger of pride. We can begin to think too highly of ourselves. The focus must be on Jesus always and Jesus alone. And large groups can lead to passivity. People in a large group can easily see themselves as an audience, not fully valued participants in worship. After all, they may think, the really important people are up there, on the stage. I am “just” a regular worshipper. No such thing. The Lord values the worship offered up by all His people.
This has been said before. It remains true. In our public worship, God is the audience. We are all “performers”. The test of our worship is not “did I enjoy the worship” but “was God pleased with the worship we offered unto Him”. As I teach on public worship this year I am sure I will refer to this article often. Not sure how it will be received. Don’t care. It’s a word in season.