On Leading in Worship

I do a lot of thinking on this topic, so please excuse the assortment of thoughts. Worship is an interesting thing in today's culture.

It has changed so much in so many American churches that it hardly resembles anything close to the traditions of old. Many churches continue to use a traditional style, but even this "traditional" style has been changed so much that those who have now spent their entire lives without this style (and it is now entirely possible to have worshipped your entire life and avoid this) are immediately turned off by the liturgies practiced in many congregations.

Many churches around the world were early in this adoption of new forms of worship and many of the American churches followed suit by more or less copying everything that was being deemed as "successful" around the globe. In short, if a church was doing something innovative, new, refreshing, etc...and more people were flocking to their services, something must be going right...and we should enact some of the same principles in our weekly services. It seemed like a fail safe plan.

Churches like WillowCreek in Chicago were instrumental in forming this new "contemporary" worship style by incorporating new energetic music, dramatizations, new orders of worship, and hosting summits and workshops to discuss effective methods of leading others in these times of worship. These services required a bit of production to pull off in a way that would be seen as acceptable and therefore required a bit of training. For a small fee, WillowCreek was happy to provide such training.

I strongly believe that the beginning of this lied in the music development. This is where I begin today.

For years, the Protestant churches have compiled songs written (over hundreds of years) for their churches to use in worship services. They compiled these in the best know compilation technology of their time, books. We often refer to them as hymnals. Hymnals are great. They provide the texts of songs, melody lines, and even four part harmonies in most cases to the songs that churches might use on a weekly basis. What did this do for the church? It made it that much easier to do two things: it allowed a mediocre pianist or organist to accompany the congregational singing. Secondly, it allowed a mediocre choir or choir director to put together music that didn't...suck. This is huge. It made the singing of songs accessible to so many in so many churches. It was such a good idea that the UM church followed up by releasing more of an ecumenical offering called The Faith We Sing . The hymnal seemed to be a good thing, churches were getting their monies out of them, but new songs were on the horizon. TFWS made sense.

Enter modern worship. Guitars instead of organs. Keyboards instead of pianos. Drums and clapping instead of... Praise teams instead of choirs. Sound systems instead of... Worship leaders instead of choir directors.

The songs, at first, were easy. Three or four chords, four or eight lines, five hours long (I stole this from Jason Byassee's sermon a few weeks back). The guitars were by far easier to play than organs. The songs had somewhat simpler melodies and texts so they were easier to sing and comprehend. And they were fun, so more people thought it was nice and enjoyed it. Church was opened up to many more. It made it , more accessible, if you will.

The Leadership was key. Interaction with the congregation was essential. "Selling" a song became a used term. Leadership was key.

In doing this, we opened the door to many who thought that worshipping God was boring. We opened the door to those who had felt outcast from the liturgical forms of worship prior. We made worship feel more like a rock concert instead of an orchestral concert where people in today's culture felt like they were part of the action, rather than just an observer. After all, if you go to worship God, don't you desire to feel like you are part of what is going on?

The leadership could make you feel like you were a part of something great and that there were songs that could help you express that. And they were about to teach one to you. In feeling like you were a part of something great, you felt acceptance. Churches grew. MegaChurches didn't feel that mega because those leading in the music could make it feel so welcoming.

For those who opened their minds to it, it was awesome.

But the music was accessible. Accessibility means a couple of things: it can be had by more than ever before, and it is much easier to cheapen and destroy.

Because it WAS so easy to lead, more people who weren't necessarily gifted in leading began leading.

And all the things that made it so great, came crashing down.

The songs weren't as great because all of a sudden anyone could write one. The thought put into writing was lost. Phrases were reused. Chord progressions were overused. It became very easy to become very sick of a certain song (Lord, I Lift Your Name on High)

The interaction between the leadership and the congregation was lost because people who weren't naturally gifted at leading others in worship were doing so and felt awkward. With the advent of the iPod and recordings, people began to copy what other worship leaders (namely those who wrote the songs) said to THEIR congregations on THAT morning rather than what was relevant to the current congregation this morning.

The leadership in worship was lost.

Sure, there were those who lead the songs. But there is a huge difference between a "song leader" and "worship leader". Arguably, there became a huge difference between a "worship leader" and a "leader of worship".

Want proof? I can't tell you how many times I have heard this phrase leave a person's mouth(one that is a strong supporter of contemporary worship): "I'd rather go to a great traditional worship service than a bad contemporary service."

A couple friends of Allison's and mine went with us (or us with them) to an acapella concert last week. It was fun. They did a nice job. But, the one criticism that we came away with is that (because of lack stage presence and assuredly...planning) they often made the audience feel awkward when it came to things such a transitions between songs, etc.

How many times have you been in a contemporary, or for that matter traditional service, and felt awkward because those leading...didn't know what they were doing? Sure, being uncomfortable in worship can be a good thing. If it is used for stretching, not because you don't have your stuff together.

Contemporary worship, because of its ease of accessibility, has allowed for more people to lead worship than should.

Perhaps we have forgotten that leading worship requires a few essential things in order to be productive to a faith journey. Talent in the gifts that God has blessed you with, and a calling so that you know that THIS is why God has placed you here.

As I struggle with my "calling" in the best role that I could play here on earth, I often question whether I am hesitant to enter the contemporary worship music scene as a leader because of the incredible amount of people who are pursuing that because they thought it would be fun. It's a hard world to enter and I often question whether I am suited for it.

However, with a little trust in what God is doing in the world and in the church, I am continually reminded of the gifts and talents that God has placed on my life and how those might be used to further worship in congregations everywhere.

Worship via music is essential, and I think that it is a huge opportunity for the church to grow. Surely, this is what I am supposed to be doing.

I just hope that I am right.

Thanks for reading.