Twelve rows back and three songs into worship, I’m drowning again. The melody is in a key I can’t sing, dropped several notches to accommodate the husky voice of the female worship leader. That doesn’t matter much, though, since the roar of the sound system is so loud I can’t hear my own voice.
My will slips under the waves first. Why bother singing, when it makes absolutely no difference whether I participate or not? Nothing I do will influence—or even contribute to—what happens in corporate worship this morning. Whether I dance and sing at the top of my lungs, giving myself totally to the experience, or I withdraw in sullen silence to play Candy Crush on my iPhone, it’s all immaterial. The service will go on just the same without me. Worship is what happens on stage. The congregation gets to go along with what the worship team does, but we are mainly observers and passive participants. Our role is not to influence the direction of worship, or even to contribute to a shared congregational experience, but merely to follow what’s decided on stage and enforced from the sound board.
The rehearsal during the week didn’t require any worshippers, so neither does the service itself. The band is tight, the worship leader is “lost in the presence,” and everything up front is going swimmingly. I look around, and try to count the number of people in my section who are actually singing, or raising their hands, or doing something worshipful. In most churches I visit, it’s less than half. I’ve been in services where the worship team is rocking on while 85% of the people are just standing there. Is anybody in leadership paying attention? Oh, well—it will be over in 20 minutes.
It bugs me that I’m being so passive, but there is no avenue to give feedback or bring positive change. I’ve been a worshipper for decades, traveled the world in ministry, been a church overseer, coached and mentored hundreds of pastors. But when worship starts, my influence stops. I’ve never been in a church where the worship leaders asked the congregation what was helpful and what wasn’t, or what would help the people have a better worship experience. Apparently, the worship leaders already know everything they need to, and the perspective from the pews is not wanted. Better to leave it to the professionals.
Deflated, my emotions drift off with the tide, and I end up in my head. It’s hard to stay fully engaged when you aren’t needed. And since I can’t hear anyone around me, as soon as I close my eyes any sense of community, of worshipping together, disappears. It’s no different than listening to a worship CD through headphones… so why bother going to church?
My fallback strategy is to try to block everything out and have my own conversation with God. It is a beautiful thing to talk with your Maker in the presence of his people: to hold his hand, to hear his gentle voice, to crawl up in his lap.
I’ve read that the older you get, the more you value silence in worship, and in my own experience that is true. I wonder if my worship leader has ever stopped to consider how his age affects what he understands worship to be. Popular music is a young person’s game in our culture, and Christian worship follows in pop’s footsteps. We tend to sound like what’s on the radio (just ten years later). What is less recognized is that the themes of worship music tend to be the themes of people in their twenties and thirties. Ever heard a worship song about growing old with Jesus? Me neither. But there are tons of them about “I was a sinner and he saved me.” When you are my age (55), that is soooo 30 years ago. The melodies are always new, but the lyrics, the rhymes and the themes start to sound all the same.
I’ve been a worship leader and song writer, and I traveled with a band doing worship renewal back when hand-raising and contemporary worship were new things. And I’ve spoken and trained in churches all over the world, from Baptist to Pentecostal and everything else in between. So I have some fundamental beliefs I’ve developed over the years about what is and isn’t corporate worship.
The first is, corporate worship should be corporate. Meaning, we should share the experience together, as a body, where when one rejoices all rejoice and when one suffers all suffer. In other words, we ought to affect each other’s worship. The fact that you are standing next to me should make a difference in how I worship, and how I worship should affect you. My rule of thumb is, if I close my eyes and can’t tell the difference between being in a body and listening to a worship CD at home, that’s not corporate worship. If half the people can check out and the service goes on without a hitch, we are blowing it. If I can’t hear myself sing and I can’t hear the people around me, this is a concert, not corporate worship. Performers may be worshipping on stage, and we may be singing along, but the only ones affecting what happens are the band, and we aren’t part of it.
Second, New Testament worship is participatory. The best picture of New Testament worship is the Corinthians, of each one bringing something to share—a song, a hymn, a word, etc. Most contemporary worship services tend to be pretty stage-centric, with little expectation of the congregation bringing something to contribute. Stage-centric worship creates passivity. The New Testament model is of active worshippers.
A third value is that worship is what happens in the congregation, not what happens on stage. There is a weird philosophy I hear often that the job of the worship team is just to worship, and whether or not the congregation comes along is their choice. That seems to me to be an abdication of leadership by people who know how to worship but don’t know how to effectively lead others there. Biblical leadership is servanthood: it is equipping the saints for the work of ministry, not doing ministry while the saints watch. A successful worship leader will see a growing proportion of his or her congregation participating meaningfully in worship. He or she will build worshippers. That is the only metric that really matters. The goal is not to have great services (services pass away; worshippers do not), to be tight and professional, to build your musicianship, or even to raise up more worship leaders. That’s what happens on stage. A worship leader’s job is to serve the body by helping the congregation worship together.
Which brings me to a fourth value: your systems and technology should serve the congregation, not the worship team. Here’s a for instance. The drums are too loud, so the vocalists want the monitors turned up so they can stay on key, so the mains are run louder to stay ahead of the monitors, and that determines what the congregation hears. That’s backward. Start with the optimum sound level for the congregation—that’s your customer, that’s who you are serving! Once that is established, work backward using technology to help the team all play together.
Just as bad is choosing as your desired volume the maximum that won’t produce hearing loss. As long as we don’t max out the decibel meter, we are okay. But why? How is that choice enhancing the congregations’ worship? That is serving your technology instead of having the technology serve the congregation. (Volume is not a substitute for anointing.)
Here’s another example. I’ve often heard leaders justify about running the sound at high levels because young people aren’t comfortable with their singing voices, and when they can’t hear themselves they worship more freely. To me, that’s simply avoiding the problem. We’re using volume to cover up and perpetuate a weakness in the congregation’s worship life. Why not teach them to sing instead?
Years ago, my grandfather traveled around the country leading ‘singing schools’ that taught Mennonite Churches to sing in four part harmony. Eighty years later I went to a Mennonite College—and my lord, those kids sounded good! The best-attended chapels by far were the acapella hymn-sings. Tenors, altos, basses: every chapel was like being in the choir for a performance of the Messiah. Generations of Mennonites worshipped beautifully because a worship leader taught them how to sing.
We could do that today, if worship leaders start seeing themselves as pastors of the congregation's worship life (both in church and at home) instead of merely people who put on services.
That’s my biggest challenge to worship leaders: to pastor the congregation’s worship life. What would that look like if we really took equipping the saints to worship to heart? I’d love to see a church with a three year plan to train everyone as a worshipper, instead of just having a token worship Sunday once a year. What if worship leaders used a third of their staff time to coach people in their personal worship lives? If they gave free voice lessons to everyone in the congregation? What if we offered classes on how to worship in the car on the way to work, or worship on the treadmill, or taught the youth guitar or piano so they could play on their own? What if we actually counted how many people are worshipping on Sunday, and then asked people to find out why they were or weren’t participating?
My honest opinion is that most paid worship leaders are poor stewards of their roles, spending more time preparing services, playing with technology and practicing their instruments than they do preparing worshippers. The worship services you lead will pass away at the end of this age; the worshippers you build will worship the Father forever.
If you make one change out of this article, make it this: that you change your focus from the stage to the congregation. The measure of a worship leader’s success is not better services, but building worshippers.