Let’s talk about worship some more.
Yesterday, we began with Bill Blankschaen’s article, Why I’m Still Struggling to Sing in Your Church. I shared my own thoughts regarding his concerns. Today, I’d like to write briefly about Jamie Brown’s article from 2014, Are We Headed for a Crash? Reflections on the Current State of Evangelical Worship. If you haven’t read my post from yesterday, I’d encourage you to go back and begin there.
The title asks a pointed question, and the article gives a pointed answer. Brown seems to think that unless we can navigate the tumultuous waters of modern worship, we are headed for a crash. But I keep asking myself what that means. What does a crash look like? Are we talking about the mode of worship, specifically, or the church (or the Church) crashing? What is really at stake here?
Brown’s article is in common with the third point of Blankschaen’s article: Performance.
Pause for a moment. To my knowledge, these two men did not write their articles in tandem. Blankschaen wrote about this in 2012, then rewrote about it in 2016; Brown wrote about it in 2014, and from the look of his blog, has written a trove on this and relating issues. Each holds a position of ministry, both in church and online. Each comes to this dialogue with a unique perspective. The fact that they independently key in on a word as strong as “performance” says something to me. It says that this is a matter worthy of our time and consideration, even if we disagree with one another.
the theme of performancism. The worship leader as the performer. The congregation as the audience. The sanctuary as the concert hall.
This is a terrifying quote. If you’ve read Brown’s article (which I strongly urge–please do not take my word on his convictions), you know that this isn’t just a word he pulled out for his blog one day after feeling overshadowed or undermined by the newest, most impressive musician at his church. This came to him at a conference. Brown had gathered with other worship leaders and church musicians for a worship conference and–while not speaking critically of the group that held the conference, which I appreciate–he came away with a sense that the thematic change in modern worship towards performance was going to be detrimental to the Church if left unchecked.
I do want to acknowledge something totally aside from the issue, and yet it really brings more weight to Brown’s perspective. In discussing Blankschaen’s article yesterday, I tried to impress upon you my feeling that musical style, genre, instrumentation–these things were not the focal point, they were not the matter of objection. I mention it today because Brown brings it to light, and it illustrates two key ideas. In discussing the conference, Brown talks about the variety of music and style and presentation.
It’s good for worship leaders to experience this kind of wide-exposure from time to time
This is such an important point. First, because every musician is strengthened and challenged by experiencing how others do music. Second, because every church body is made up of individuals who will respond to different musical approaches, and as Brown points out later, it is important to draw as many people into corporate worship as possible.
The reason I want you to think about this, though, is because of how Brown perceived each of the differing styles and traditions as having the performance theme in common. That is astounding…and astoundingly frightful. What this means is that a worship leader cannot simply change the song list, change the ensemble, change the volume, the key, or the tempo. He cannot exchange hymns for choruses, or choruses for hymns. The matter is not particularly one of substance, it seems, but of where we focus.
How can I say that, when yesterday I seemed to agree with Blankschaen that much of our worship has been dumbed down? Simple. A dumbed down lyric deals more with the immediate, in my experience–how I’m feeling, how I’m longing, how I’m seeking; an intellectual lyric tends to be more doctrinally about the Godhead. Don’t mistake me–there is an importance and a place for worshipful expression of emotion. It is right that we should allow God to effect us emotionally! But consider this: No emotion is common to every person in a gathered body. No matter how common our experience, we feel uniquely. Truths about who God is, on the other hand, are things that we share. When we speak them and sing them corporately, the body gathered is strengthened and empowered to continue the work of Christ. Again, that is not to say that emotion does not belong in worship–it certainly does. But our professions (which is what we are doing when we sing together–we are professing in song) should rather be formed by the truths we agree upon than by the emotions of the person who penned a lyric.
My words may be a strong stance, and many worship leaders may disagree with me–I accept that and welcome the dialogue. But I suspect that if we pushed the matter, Brown would agree, at least in part. As he closes the article, he gives us a paragraph of ways to keep our focus where it should be–on Christ–and to hopefully curtail some of this performance that’s swallowing our Body. One of his suggestions is:
Don’t sing songs with bad lyrics or weak theology.
If performancism can be thwarted–even in part–by strong theology in our lyrics, then we can deduce a connection between songs devoid of theology (ie: dumbed down) and the focus turning away from God. I know, I know. Again, this is not a popular idea, and many will disagree with me here; but if performancism is as big a problem as Brown expresses, ought we not to look seriously at what is turning the eyes of the Body away from our Savior and onto a musician?
In writing fiction, you often hear that you cannot be afraid to “kill your darlings.” The idea is that you may really like a character, or a chapter, or a scene, or a sentence–but if it needs to go to advance the story, then you cut it. Or you edit it. Or you rewrite the whole thing, eliminating it. You deal with it. If you leave it where it doesn’t belong, it undermines the strength of the story.
It’s the same in worship. We cannot be afraid to kill our darlings. I remember a song I used to sing at my AoG church almost twenty years ago now. It was a hymn, actually–but we had fun with it. I absolutely loved it. And I was heartbroken about fifteen years ago when I realized the doctrine was something to which I could absolutely not attest! There was this awkward phase where I didn’t want to give it up, even though I knew I couldn’t sing it with a clear conscience.
We have to be willing to let go of anything that detracts or distracts in worship. We have to be willing to let go of anything that encourages performancism.
if this current generation of worship leaders doesn’t change this theme, then corporate worship in evangelicalism really is headed for a major crash.
I stumble back to my opening remarks. This scares me, because I don’t know what it means. I doubt, quite honestly, that Brown could tell us what it means, either. It is not easy to see where this ends, or what the lasting effects of it will be. What we can see, thankfully, is that it doesn’t need to end this way. We have a choice.
Brown offers several practical suggestions on how to just refocus our worship. If you are in a position of leadership in your church body–and particularly if you are a worship leader–I would encourage you to prayer over his list. Maybe all of the ideas aren’t appropriate or applicable to your church. Maybe there is one thing you can do to ensure the focus of your worship is squarely fixed on Jesus. Maybe there is something you can do that isn’t on his list. Maybe the first step is being willing to acknowledge that we are sinners, all, who–left to our own desires–will ten times out of ten choose the glory of man over the glory of God. Maybe it’s time to “kill our darlings” in modern worship.
You’re reading the heart-cry of a normal guy who’s worried about what worship leaders are doing to themselves and their congregations. People are tuning out and giving up and just watching.
Let’s ask ourselves two questions.
What are worship leaders doing to themselves?
What are worship leaders doing to their congregations?
The second question is, I think, the easier of the two. As expressed by both Brown and Blankschaen, congregants are tuning out. When a worship becomes a performance, not only are individuals uninvolved, they are leaving. I’ve heard so many people say, “if you don’t like the way your church does worship, leave! Find another church!” There is enormous danger in this mindset. I cannot tell you how many people I’ve known who’ve left a church because they didn’t like the worship and have never found their way to another body. And honestly, our first reaction to not liking something should never be to walk away from it–especially within the Body of Christ.
If you are reading this and you attend a church where the performance theme is trending, I would urge you to begin praying. Pray, pray, pray. Ask God for wisdom and for courage and for a tender love for your congregation. Talk with your pastor, humbly expressing your concerns and giving specific examples of what is shifting the focus of worship from God to performance (ie: the light show is distracting to the point that I don’t remember what words we were singing). Ask your pastor how you can be a part of a solution that doesn’t trample or crush anyone’s spirit. Acknowledge the hard work and service of your worship leader/team. But in all of this, seek a solution that is best for your congregation–don’t default to “leaving.” Leaving a church should almost always be a last resort. Because let’s be real with one another–if it isn’t worship, it’s the Bible study groups; if it isn’t the Bible study groups, it’s the lack of welcome to newcomers; if it isn’t the lack of welcome to newcomers, it’s the Sunday School program; if it’s not the Sunday School program, it’s the community service; if it’s not the community service, it’s…ad nauseum. Don’t allow yourself to believe that any other church is without obstacles. Some may be more serious than others, and it’s important to be connected to a strong and healthy congregation, but no church is perfect. Not one.
The question of what worship leaders are doing to themselves is more difficult. I have been out of worship leading for awhile now, and I honestly have no desire to return to it–and I don’t think the performance issue was quite as bad when I left as it has been in the last few years. Even at that point, it was tremendous burnout just to lead. Add the performance factor, and you have the potential to really crumble the spirit of an individual. There’s also an immense danger in becoming “too big”–too big for correction, too big for repentance, too big for weeping, too big to allow anyone else to lead worship, too big to admit that it’s become a performance. This is so important, because if it destroys one person in the Body, it will–in the end–destroy everyone. And if we, as a Body, are willing to allow one person to be destroyed for the sake of a good show…then shame on us. We deserve the resultant crash.
Do we really want to go down this road?
That’s the question, isn’t it?
Are we willing to be changed? Are we willing to admit that maybe we don’t always know the best way to do worship? Are we willing to stop all the fuss for two seconds and just ask God to shift our focus and work to keep it locked there? Are we willing to let go of our worship darlings? Are we willing to put the needs of the Body before the ego of a few?
Or is the performance so good that it’s worth whatever may come?