A Worship Leader Questions Modern Worship

A Worship Leader Questions Modern Worship August 4, 2014

I’ve led worship in a number of evangelical contexts for the better part of 24 years. It’s a responsiblity that I’ve loved because of my love of music and those occasional moments of corporate transcendence.

But there are some aspects that have troubled me over the years.

1. “Worship” feels like a misnomer

This one feels like a no-brainer, right? Worship is more than singing songs. As Paul tells the church at Rome,  worship is about presenting ourselves to God as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1). It’s the difference between having devotions and being devoted.

Is there a danger in referring to church singing as “worship?” Maybe not . . . but as a writer who toils under the conviction that words matter, I have to wonder.

Like I said, I love music. Singing is a significant way for me to express myself to God. But not everyone feels the same way. If singing songs didn’t do a lot for me and I usually heard the word “worship” within the context of church music, I wonder how It would color my view of worship. It didn’t seem like a good idea to marry such an important concept to one activity, especially one that’s so preferential.

I mean, if I found out that heaven meant standing around singing Chris Tomlin songs for eternity, I’d dread it.

Shouldn’t corporate worship have so many facets and expressions that there’s something there that resonates with everyone? When we do this one act and almost exclusively and call it worship, are we inoculating people against true worship?

2. It can be scripted and manipulative

My longest worship leading tenure was in a Foursquare church where I led for over 10 years. Being a more charismatic church, there was an expectation that worship would be an exciting event. I was constantly looking to help facilitate a more emotional experience.

I don’t necessarily look down on that—at times, I really enjoy it. The thing is that, eventually, I could create it.

Once you know what the types of songs your congregation loves, the things they respond to, and how to lead them from one place to the next, it becomes a sort of science.

I could map out the ideal worship service with its smoldering intensity and rising crescendo, and with great precision tell you what would occur where—down to the exact moment when John would speak out loudly in tongues (and then interpret himself) or Mary would stand up to dance. (Someday, I’ll write about that . . .)

Again, there’s nothing ultimately bad about discerning the rhythms and preferences of the people you lead. But there’s a point where you begin to wonder if we’d really notice if the Holy Spirit was present—or not.

Music is a powerful tool and rhythm, harmony, and melody have been used by many cultures and religious groups to work people into frenzies or initiate a meditative consciousness. We need to recognize the emotional impact music has on people—apart from its lyrical content, and how easily it can be manipulated.

It’s weird. When someone comes to me after a service to tell me how powerful a worship service was, it’s usually an emotional response to the music—and sadly, It’ll often be the response I planned when I chose to put specific songs together.

3. We don’t value honesty

One of my pastors had come out of the seventies-era Jesus-people movement—kind of the Christian Haight-Ashbury. This was a formative and powerful time in his life and an important part of that was the upbeat, feel-good music that accompanied it.

I was always more of a melancholic, and tend to be moved by songs that were a little more introspective. The pastor and I would meet every Monday morning, and he’d often express his frustration about my navel-gazing worship style. He wanted it to be upbeat and joyful . . . all the time.

If we look at the Psalms as a book of Old Testament hymns, we’ll quickly notice that at least 40% of those hymns are laments. Obviously, the Psalms are so much more than that . . . but they are often expressions of worship. And these expressions have moments of extreme despondency and frustration—sometimes they communicate horrible, horrible sentiments.

This tells me that God values expression that is honest (even when it’s ugly). In fact, I don’t think we can be truly worshipful unless we’re also recklessly transparent. But so much of our modern worship has one (often phony) tone. It creates this cognitive dissonance that tells us we need to stuff our true feelings and manufacture sunshine-happy-rainbow ones.

Some other worship questions

There are other aspects that I find occasionally struggle with:

  • Shallow or theologically spurious lyrics
  • Performance that can be a spectator sport
  • The tendency to be its own rote liturgy (one song, greeting, three songs, offering, message, song, and we’ll see you next week folks)

As an worship leader, I feel we have often elevated music over many other important corporate activities. There are many biblical injunctions to sing to the Lord and I love that we do, but why do so many evangelical churches offer communion so irregularly? I know churches that struggle to do it even once a quarter.

How often do we take the time to corporately pray for each other? There are many ways to facilitate prayer into our services. Why do all of these other explicit commands take a back seat to singing songs in church?

Don’t get me wrong. I get a lot out of both leading and engaging in music as worship. These issues represent some of the questions I’ve wondered about for the many years that I’ve done it.

So tell me what you think. Am I out to lunch? Could (should) we be doing this differently? Leave me a comment and let me know what you think.

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  • chris

    As a product of the Churches Of Christ, I’m VERY familiar with the navel-gazing worship your pastor referred to. But truthfully, I love our acapella tradition and the singing in our congregations. I don’t find anything wrong with those congregations that do have elaborate, instrumental presentations – I just know that I find myself attending a concert instead of singing along. So thank you for elaborating on the different ways in which we can worship.

  • Jennifer

    I attended church camp this weekend and there I was blessed by the musical talent of a woman who sounded like a concert pianist. I sat there with my jaw on the floor and couldn’t stop thinking about how infinite God is and how His incredible omnipotence can be revealed in such things.

    My children were introduced to a new sight when we started at our current church. A woman, alone in a “performance”, (interpretive) dances in flowing white dress. The Holy Spirit visibly visits each time – it is evident in the way that the congregation responds. My kids, however, were like, “what is she doing?!” “that’s weird”.
    These two things have made me think, why is worship stuffed into a box? It was refreshing to read this after my experience this weekend. I do not have suggestions to throw out there, only a fist pump and a resounding “Amen”, because I feel it too.

  • Sometimes I struggle with this too. In college I helped lead disciplenow weekends most weekends, and the same thing would happen every weekend. I think the longer you are in leadership the more you see how easy it is to manufacture experiences for the group you are leading… not that the motive is bad or intentionally manipulative. I agree that it just sort of becomes a science, and then you struggle with the sincerity of it. So, I think I can identify. I think you are right on with the idea that worship should have multiple facets and expressions. I think it would be helpful if we did this more consistently, so that people learn that there isn’t just a few ways to encounter God.

  • You hit the nail on the head, Leslie. I’m not necessarily against the fact that, as leaders, we learn to craft meaningful experiences.

    I think we just need to be very vigilant against using this ability to cut the Spirit out of our gatherings.

    Thanks for the comment!

  • The problem I personally have had with worship experiences is the emotional nature in general; I hate to base my belief in God and trust in him on emotional experiences. If God’s existence is objectively true, I don’t want to only accept or appreciate that knowledge when I feel like he’s close. I don’t want my Sunday experience of God to be different to the rest of the week. I want my church experience to train me for the week, and sometimes removing the emotion handed to me on a platter is just what I need to know that God is there no matter what I feel. Not to mention I can’t always emotionally engage with that kind of worship on a weekly basis, especially when the emotion being evoked is in direct contrast to what I feel in my life at that point; like you say, it creates that phoniness.

    This is why I personally love liturgy so much: it is objective and constant and 100% not dependent on me or my feelings. I attend an episcopal church, so part of the liturgy each week is corporate prayer (people with good news/anniversaries/birthdays are invited to the front to share. People with bad news or difficulties can be added to a list of names to be read out during prayer in the service.) and the Eucharist each week, which to me is the most important part of attending church.

  • Good words! Thanks Annie.

  • Being a Catholic, I’m a little out of my depth when reading about Protestant “worship” experiences. Our church services are pretty standardized, and while we all sing along with hymns, we don’t really have the emotional impact I’ve read about in other Christian services (and nobody ever gets up and speaks in tongues, unless you count singing a verse in Latin). The Liturgy of the Eucharist is usually the main focus of each Sunday service and I find going through that ritual with the Body and Blood of Christ does invigorate and center me for the rest of the week.

  • Trust me: Speaking in tongues is not normal protestant behavior—or one that I condone in corporate worship settings.

  • I totally agree about being more melancholic/introspective in my worship style. While I feel a time and a place for upbeat songs, singing them all the time makes me feel like my faith must have come with a factory defect. Thank you for recognizing lament as a form of worship–and legitimizing the breadth of worship experiences.

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  • AnneB

    Those questions bothered me, too. I was raised Wesleyan Holiness. We moved to a place that didn’t provide that denomination, so we went to a community protestant Bible Church. Fairly recently, I began to search for answers to questions like yours, and also to some of the perennial infant baptism/or not type questions. Long story short, I became Catholic, and agree with what Annie said above. I still attend the protestant church with my family, because the Mass schedule is such that I can do both. I appreciate that the protestants really do have a love for Jesus, and I like the music; but when it comes to “worship” the Catholic church seems right to me. Scott Hahn’s book about the parallel between the book of Revelation and the Mass has reinforced my thinking.

  • Quite a few years ago (as usual, more than I want to admit to myself – the 90’s were last week, right?) we were fans of a local band called Eden Burning (made it to the US occasionally too I think). Apart from the songs and some great nights out, one thing that stuck with me was from their news sheet. They lamented the “poverty of imagery” in most evangelical churches. They took some flak for using a rich array of images as part of their art, a picture of a smiling sun, for example (well, who put the sun and stars up there? they asked). Why should the devil have all the good images?
    Maybe there’s a fear of becoming too Anglo-Catholic if that’s the right phrase? Which reminds me too of Philip Ilott, an Anglican priest who tried to be a good evangelical, but eventually had to admit that his faith just couldn’t adequately express itself within our confines. Among the “bells and smells” and decoration of his “high church” worship, the Holy Spirit did extraordinary things. Lots of other flavours of Christian faith came along, not having much of a clue what was happening in the service, except that they met God in it and He met them. You can read more of his story in a book called “A Smile on the Face of God”.
    Our pastor is a naturally visual communicator, it was his profession before Bible college in fact. When our church building was burgled, at a prayer meeting he used the smashed in doors as tables on which to serve communion (the thief comes to steal and destroy… I lay down my life). I told him afterwards it was the first time I had ever really experienced joy during communion.
    Sadly he felt not enough people were ‘getting’ these ventures into creativity and they are few and far between now, if not quite gone I hope.
    Next week our kids will be at a gathering of many thousands of young Christians in the UK, Soul Survivor. I will miss it, especially the opportunity for some beautiful, exuberant, let-yourself-go worship. But I’m reassured that the leaders make it known that this is not the full gamut of worship – in fact in those gatherings I have seen outbreaks of both mourning and laughter in the Spirit. I’m suspicious, even a bit saddened, by the pressure some of my musician friends feel to make worship super exciting all the time.

  • I think there’s a good balance to find when playing music itself. If it’s too bombastic and concert-like, it’s nothing but performance, but if you deliberately squelch art into a crayon-drawing of musical art, then you’re denying God’s artistry and the moving, spiritual power of music. I generally lean more towards the concert side if I have to pick between the two just because in my own personal experience, I can still connect with God despite the setting, but with off-key chords and lousy drumming, I’m distracted left and right. In my experience: too much emphasis on the music can be a distraction, but too little IS a distraction.

  • I appreciate your comment. But I don’t see the issue about quality music vs. bad music (although if it was, I would totally agree with you). The issue is the exclusivity of music as worship in a lot of churches.

  • Jayson,
    Great thoughts. These are some of the same things I’ve struggled with as a worship leader. It can be difficult leading with variety when leaders and congregations seem to expect hype and show constantly. Even if it it’s only a perceived expectation it can lead to weariness and burnout.
    Additionally, I have also found it hard to cultivate honesty when it seems to be almost taboo or at the least shocking in the corporate context. But if we are relentless in pursuing this it can be a rewarding and lead to a much greater spirit of worship that goes beyond just the corporate singing.
    Thanks for sharing these things!

  • Hey Jayson, if I were to write a blog about this topic, I would have come up with a very similar list I think to you. I have also led God’s people in songs for quite some time, before college, during college and now after. I often ask myself why our services are the same every week? there is quite literally the same amount of time spent singing as there is hearing God’s word preached. Something that I have been thinking about recently that builds off of this list you have is this…. where is the fellowship on Sunday mornings!?!?!
    Most churches I have been to there is plenty of time to talk to people before and after the service, and ‘catch up’ with people and their lives very briefly, but since when did that become fellowship? within 2 hours, you have driven to church, sang, listened, talked and are already back home ready to stuff our faces with lunch! Any longer then that and we feel we have been shorted in some way, that the service was too long and it took away from the rest of our day. Where is the fellowship on Sunday mornings? Why is it just Sunday MORNINGS? I read about the Early church in Acts, and the amazing fellowship they had together every day. They had “all things in common.” To be honest, I crave this and have very seldom found such fellowship in our churches today! And we certainly can’t make things better with an hour long service every Sunday.
    As a disclaimer, I may be just rambling on and it might not make sense what I am trying to say, however, I feel a large disconnect with what we do in our “worship” services to what I see believers doing in the Bible. Where is the fellowship with our brothers and sisters? Our fellow believers, the brothers and sisters who have also realized that we can’t do it without Jesus, the people who will be with you for eternity worshipping and praising God’s name, being in his presence forever, where is our fellowship with those people? Why is there such a huge space in between all of our lives, that we can only spend 2 hours or less together praising God on a Sunday? Why are we not praying for each other, crying with each other, and why do we have to look and be perfect on Sunday mornings? There is lots of time throughout the week that churches are taking advantage of with small groups and bible studies, but Sunday mornings is an amazing opportunity where everyone is together, and I feel like we are starting to waste that opportunity.
    There I go rambling again, but I think that this question totally resonates with what you write Jayson.

  • alison

    Jason, thank you for sharing your thoughts. It is comforting to know that we share common struggles. It is refreshing that you love music, yet you get that worship is so much greater. It is also so reassuring to see that other “worship leaders” are concerned about being truthful and meeting the real spiritual needs of their assembly. I have also been struggling with striking the best balance between the happy-clappy (extroverted) and what I refer to as contemplative (introverted) songs.
    We are currently changing things up a bit in our church service structure (which is great!) and it has revealed just how different the needs and expectations can be within a given congregation. Some people really need more prayer. Some need high energy songs to give them courage. Others need songs that help them connect with God emotionally.
    The best strategy I have is to avoid falling into one way of doing things. I know some people find comfort in knowing what is coming next, but it is also a great way to help people to go through the motions without engaging their hearts and minds.

  • Tim

    I have been leading worship at my church for about 18 months. I just now honed the song selection and flow to a predictable set that gets results. Your blog title took me back – it was scary timely for me – because I am still thirsty for meaningfulness in my worship even if the people I serve seem happy with my role.

  • Sorry, forgot to nail down the tangent. Yeah, I agreed with your point that worship is not exclusively Christian. I was just threading on something you’d said about music being the focus.

  • Jayson, I share each one of your concerns over “worship” as it is called. Taking it further, I even have concerns over the existence of a “worship leader” at all (in the way many churches use it). In Paul’s exhortation of the Corinthian church on the idea of gifts, he says the outcome is that each member brings his own psalm. (1 Cor 14:26)

    Also, I would place less of an emphasis on “worshipping God” and more on the edification of others in the gathering. (1 Cor 14:26, again)

    One of your concerns that resonates with me is the worship as performance/spectator sport. I have been in churches that have essentially a rock band, and even though the lyrics are on a video screen, the singer “vocalizes” to such a degree that the people cannot sing along. This I believe effectively cuts off the congregation from both God and man. Just my 2c adjusted for inflation. 😉

  • mieke

    I don’t think you are out to lunch. I agree with all you points. I love exuberant songs/worship! Have been greatly touched during times of loud, enthusiastic singing. However I also love solemn (shut the instruments off) worship. It all is part of life. We go through deep trials and can we then still worship like Job did. I feel that if we worship in a way that we could replicate if we were imprisoned in an Iranian prison cell, we are on target.

  • Rob

    I’m of the minority that music doesn’t do much for me. I grew up in the 70s when the music time was called the song service at least in my church and there wasn’t nearly as much emphasis on it then. Now it seems a lot of volunteer hours are poured into this time, as it has become a (or the) priority area in many churches. Yet it feels to me like some people are looking for entertainment. As an example a friend was just recently complaining about how fast we were singing certain songs, saying it was driving her crazy and she had to leave the sanctuary, she couldn’t be led into worship in preparation for the sermon while I thought everything was fine. Maybe because I have no musical ability and limited interest I don’t get it but I’d like to go back to calling our singing time the song service and take the emphasis off it.

  • David Knight

    Music in the church I go to is at once central and yet it is not the primary focus. Rather, the word of God is the focus, as revealed in the readings from the Bible, prayers, thought-provoking sermons,congregational hymn singing, and singing by the choir. Only the organ: no electronic keyboard, guitars or drums! The Book of Common Prayer is our guide, with age-old language that rings true to this day. The choir director is skilled at choosing music for the superb choir that meshes with and underscores the readings for the day. Music is drawn from several centuries, so the congregation is challenged to think and reflect in often challenging ways. Some years ago when I was an instrumentalist in a Roman Catholic church for Easter services the organist and choir director introduced me to the choir by saying, “He can sing. He’s an Anglican!” .

  • Justin Foster

    I think these are some very valid points. I am also a worship pianist and it definitely can be very programmatic. I think it’s very problematic that our services resemble funeral programs.

    I think part of the problem is that we plan too much. It’s great to have order, but at the cost of the Spirit operating as He will? When do we allow people to express their spiritual gifts or is that only for the “ordained” elite?

    When i read 1 Corinthians, i see a church full of spiritual gifts and so puffed up by spiritual entertainment that they neglected mortality. Nevertheless, there was apparently a venue in which they could all participate in the fellowship. Do we think this invalid now?

    I’ve seen many people with extraordinary spiritual gifting go to waste because they’re waiting to be called or appointed by man. This can’t be what the Lord the Spirit intended.

    Nevertheless, beyond these things we have to reevaluate our motive for worship and fellowship. Is God our new big screen, and have we forgotten our true identity as the body and bride of Christ?

    Thanks for this Brother.
    God bless


  • Phil Smithson

    I heard something today which deeply alarms me – a major London church alleged to use sub-sonic effects and other tricks to manipulate the environment and worship experience of people attending their services. Is this just faking genuine encounters with God? Is it so different to being hoodwinked into a fake experience by a spiritualist?

  • Melissa Spackman

    I’m so glad I read this! I have thought these same things! For the last 5 years, I’ve gone to church in Canada to a little house church, & worship there is praying, anyone in the congregation choosing a hymn, everyone singing, & then…anything can happen. From people praying out loud, people crying out to The Lord, people going to the front to be prayed for, more singing, to prophecy given or tongue spoken, & interpreted by someone else. There’s no definitive time for worship, & sometimes there isn’t even a message given because different people have stood up, sharing something they felt God placed on their heart. I’ve seen chains broken & real people opening up to The Lord & being met. and I’ve never seen it happen anywhere else. I’m not saying God isn’t in other churches, because I think God will meet a hungry heart anywhere. But I can’t imagine being in what I call a cookie cutter church & crying out to Jesus in a middle of a service where a pastor is giving a sermon or a worship band is leading us in a song. It’s sad, but it’s true. And I do think that not everyone is happy go lucky when they walk into church each Sunday & that God loves the honest worshiper who crys out in pain to Him, as much as the happy dancing hallelujah worshiper, & that church should be a place that welcomes & accommodates both. Thank you for Sharing your thoughts. Now how do we convince the rest of the US churches of this truth 🙂

  • Someone pointed out to me one time that a lot of times in scripture worship is as simple as “they bowed and worshiped”. I love music and love to sing, and in fact I’ve been in a couple of worship bands. But lately it even bothers me to hear the term ” worship leader”. Now that I’ve read the concerns above, I know I’m kind of onto something. Very often I worry that people don’t really understand what worship is because they are so dependent on a show to supposedly focus on Him. I’ve even heard people claim that they only enjoy worship or they simply aren’t able to worship without their preferred songs/style. Maybe we should question whether we really understand what Christ has done for us if we can’t spontantleously worship in any matter regardless of setting, atmosphere, or context. Maybe we need to spend some time asking the Lord to make us understand His worth–to truly get it–that someone died so that we can live. And not just any someone, God Himself.

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  • Frank Hutton

    Thanks Jason – just discovered your site. It’s been very helpful already! Greetings and blessings to you from the UK.

  • Hello Jason. God gave me a message about 13 years ago about the “Power of musical anointing”. I even began writing a book about it called, “The Power of Musical Anointing.” In a paraphrase of God’s Word; As Saul called upon Jesse to bring young David into his presence with his instrument, Saul was being harassed by evil spirits and as David played his instrument, the anointing power of God upon David, his very talent, and upon the music that he was playing was enough to literally drive those evil spirits away. (Reference: 1 Samuel 16) and also (2 Kings 3:14) We often only think about “the time of music” as being “Worship” as you stated in your article. Well, let’s discuss and take a look at that “set-aside” time of praising and worshipping God during music, that happens traditionally before each and every sermon. Think about this. Music; which is made up of tones, melodies, harmonies, rhythms et., appeal to human emotion. Here’s what God taught me quite a few years back. Connecting with God during “a time of music” that we call praise and worship, is what breaks down and breaks past our human emotion. It’s human emotion that keeps God from truly working on our spirit. (CONDITIONS OF THE HUMAN HEART – Anger, bitterness, jealousy, wrath, malice, hatred, strife, envy, rage, etc.) Because God will never force Himself upon us, He uses music to break down and past our emotion, which is the barrier between us and Him, and He then can use the Holy Spirit to reach, heal, form, and transform our spirit. Furthermore, it is only through breaking past our emotions that our spirit is prepared to then receive the spoken Word of God through the sermon that He has given to his servant, the preacher, pastor, evangelist or missionary to convey to us. This sheds a light on the importance of the “time of praise & worship” that happens before each sermon and shows that it has so much more depth than just a tradition of worshipping God together. Yes, our worship to God should be daily, through our lifestyle. Our commitment of our daily lives IS our worship life to God if we are loving and growing closer to Him every day all day, (Similar to) but more than a human marriage. THAT and the thing we do before each sermon are two different things. Both, equally necessary. And as a worship leader for years myself, I’ll say that having an anointed man or woman that literally LEADS this time of praise & worship before the sermon, is definitely of God. I have so much more to share. God bless you.

  • When you have a “worship leader” who refuses to talk to you because you won’t submit to their bullying, you’ve got to wonder…

  • That sounds like a problem with a specific person.

  • Do you think it might be reflective of a deeper cultural problem where performance is valued more highly than relationships?