If you walk into almost any evangelical church and inquire about “worship,” you can expect to be directed to someone who leads music. “No, no,” you might say, “I’m looking for the people responsible for planning corporate worship at this church.” But it’s a lost cause.
In most churches, the battle is already over: music equals worship; worship equals music. The capacity to differentiate between the two is functionally non-existent. The “worship leader” is the person who leads the group of musicians we call the “worship team.” When these people are on the stage we’re worshiping; when they’re not we’re doing something else. Simple, right?
You may hear comments like, “After the worship, we’ll hear the sermon.” But if the sermon only begins after worship has left the building, we may as well head home before it starts.
This odd hegemony of music—not as one aspect of worship, but as worship itself—is a fairly recent construct. I believe it is a destructive trend in the modern church. What gave the music the right to demand so much?
Concert or community?
Mine is not your grandfather’s diatribe against the dangers of “rock and/or roll.” I’m a big fan of the genre. As a musician and songwriter I write, play and sing rock music. But it has some handicaps when, as a style, it is applied to Christian worship.
It can drown out the most important element: the human voices of the congregation. Rock music is inextricably intertwined with concert culture. It calls for big sound, bright lights and lots of juice to run it all. Anything less will be seen as a pale and inadequate.
Rock music isn’t primarily a participatory activity. The crowd might sing along at a concert, but they paid good money to see a performance. Give people a concert atmosphere, and concert behavior is what you’ll get.
I’m not proposing we abandon the notion of a designated song leader altogether. But the purpose of a leader is to lead, and I would suggest that if you are a song leader and very few people in your congregation are singing when you lead, something is not as it should be.
So what is worship, then? One definition is “a response to the revelation of the Lord consisting of both adoration and proclamation of the greatness of God and his mighty works and of serving him by living out his character in gracious service to others.” Can that include music? Absolutely, but it is so much more. So how can we recover a fullness of meaning? Let me make some suggestions.
What can be done?
1. Put music in its place
Music is not an inferior element of worship, but it is only one aspect of it. In many churches, the verbal proclamation of the gospel as a determining factor in the quality of corporate worship is secondary to the quality of the music. Every musician should strive for excellence, but when musical genre trumps truthful proclamation, we have an idolatry problem on our hands.
2. Win the battle for terminology
Whenever someone calls a musician or song leader the “worship leader,” suggest a better term. Whenever someone says something that narrows the scope of worship to music, draw their attention to that fact. This may be seen as nitpicking, but it does have an effect on how people conceptualize worship.
3. Redefine the “worship experience”
In modern terms, most people are convinced that they have not “really worshipped” or experienced intimacy with God if there hasn’t been an accompanying emotional high. Of course an emotional high can be part of a worship experience, but to suggest that this is normative or that you’ve failed at worshipping if you haven’t experienced it is ludicrous.
Every time we respond to the revelation of God through word or deed, through adoration or proclamation, through singing or by an act of charity, we are engaging in worship. If you are a leader in your church, it is worth pointing out that every believer is a worship leader.
Surely this recovery is an effort worth causing some discomfort in our churches.