There’s a man at our church who remains in the lobby until worship is over. He says it’s too loud. I haven’t noticed. But then again, my iPod volume is always maxed out. Our worship is like many evangelical churches — we employ contemporary music in a “theatrical” setting (stage, lights, overhead projector, video, amplification, etc.) .
Which makes us the target of many critics of the Church.
It’s easy to criticize contemporary worship, and many do. Take D.H. Williams’ piece in Christianity Today where he described the worship service at a megachurch as “aimed at finding a theological and cultural lowest common denominator.” Or Jeremy Pierce’s pointed Rant About Worship Songs. One author simply asks Has Modern Worship become Corrupt? And then there’s the typical scolding: You are not a Rock Star, and other nuggets for worship leaders. The critiques of contemporary worship just seem to go on and on.
It’s one of those things that postmoderns and the religiously disaffected often site as reasons they leave the Church: worship is canned, phony, sentimental fluff. It’s little more than rock ballads with “Jesus” conveniently inserted, and those who lead it seem more concerned with performance than theological and spiritual depth.
So why is worship — specifically, musical worship, which is my focus here — a continued topic among friends and foes of the Church? Here’s a couple of reasons:
- Worship is basic to a healthy Christian life, often considered the scaffold for all other disciplines
- Every church “does worship” — it is elemental to the typical corporate sevice
- Worship is often the first experience one has of a church
- Music is constantly in flux; these ongoing cultural shifts force us to readjust or reinterpret our views on worship
- Worship music has become a massive industry, one of the best selling CCM genres
I’m sure there’s other reasons why worship is — and should be — an ongoing topic of discussion. Apart from these issues, though, the topic interests me because for about 15 years of my early church experience, I was a worship leader. Reluctantly thrust into the role at an early age, no one provided me a how-to manual. All I had was a used Yahama acoustic guitar and a desire to follow God. The rest I learned on the fly.
And it didn’t take me long to realize that I was under the microscope. The kind of songs I chose. The instrumental arrangements. My stage presence. The mix and volume of the music. Drums or no drums? Hymns or no hymns? Were people being engaged during worship? If not, why not? What should we do to engage people? What was manipulative or sappy? And could we worship corporately without alienating visitors, seekers, or non-believers? The questions just seemed to go on and on.
I wonder that contemporary worship has become an easy target for critics of the Church. On any given Sunday, these charges can be leveled against any worship service:
- The music is too loud
- The music is too soft
- The congregation is too stiff and reserved
- The congregation is too loose and disorderly
- The musicians are performing, not worshiping
- The musicians are cold, joyless, unemotional
- The music is unprofessional, amateur
- The music is too polished and scripted
- The worship is too short
- The worship is too long
- The music is too contemporary, too worldly
- The music is not contemporary or relevant
Believe me, I’ve heard them all. In a way, contemporary worship is in a no win situation. On the one hand are those pulling us back toward more traditional forms, on the other are those challenging us to expand the tent pegs of our understanding. And, in the middle, are those who just mimic what’s current. Some prefer the more liturgical, others the more informal; some prefer the more contemplative, others the more celebratory. No wonder contemporary worship has become a tug-o-war!
Needless to say, the inexperienced worship leader can be easily overwhelmed.
We all have an ideal of what worship should be. . . and maybe that’s the problem. The Bible does not provide a checklist — When you do these five things, you’re really worshiping. In fact, the biblical injunctions are not very explicit. There’s few external measurements for true worship. What does it involve? Singing, speaking, or silence? Contemplation, celebration, or service? The fact is, it can be all or none of the above.
Ultimately, if true worship is an exchange between an open heart and its Maker, then how a person worships is incidental. As shallow and unoriginal as I think most modern worship songs are, I cannot discount the possibility that people will genuinely worship with them. This is not a license for shallowness and un-originality, but an admission of how difficult it is to wrap our arms around the topic. The moment I say we need to be more Pentecostal in our praise, the traditionalists pummel me with their hymnals. If I suggest longer worship sessions, I am lectured about the importance of preaching the Word of God. If I choose a simpler, more “home-spun” presentation with amateur musicians, the “professionals” leave the church because of its unconcern for the arts.
I’m wondering how much of our criticism of modern worship is based on biblical precepts and how much is based on our own personal preferences? I’d love to see more enthusiasm and abandon in my fellow worshipers. But I’ve also attended rock, heavy metal and hardcore concerts (which makes me slightly less predisposed to pipe organs and choral robes). And I’m with other critics wanting to see less commercialism, more honesty and artistic excellence in our worship. However, the “career worship leader” might have a pure heart and Billy Bob’s un-tuned banjo could sound like a harp in God’s ears.
I taught at a church this weekend. Younger demographic, 20-30-somethings. They sang your typical Top 40 Praise. The volume was loud, too loud in my opinion, and the mix wasn’t that good. But the people really seemed to get into it. So who am I to judge?
Could it be that, when it comes to worship, Scripture intentionally leaves room for personal preferences, different cultural expressions and — more importantly — individual and/or corporate idiosyncrasies and immaturities? Perhaps we’d be better off if we worried more about entering into worship than who’s leading and how it’s being done.