“I could sing unending songs…” croons the worship leader, and all you can think is: ‘Please…don’t.’ You may not have arrived believing in eternal conscious torment, but the last ten minutes of earnest cheerfulness and cliché would make Brian McLaren phone Mark Driscoll and apologise. You know you should be meditating on the Word, but all you can think of is: ‘How long, O Lord?’ You start sympathising with atheists, muttering: ‘How could a loving God…’
Some of my favourite people over the years have been worship leaders. I know that sounds like the classic bigot line. Some of my best friends are Tories. But it’s true. Worship leaders do a tough, thankless job that takes hours of preparation and no matter how they do it, someone’s going to moan. But let’s not pretend there aren’t moments, from the biggest mega-worship arena to the smallest local cell, when they really ought to take the first part of Psalm 46:10 seriously and (I can’t stress this enough) literally.
1. Worship isn’t singing. It’s our entire lives.
Boom. You just blew my mind. In about 1995. This probably sounded profound once. But are there really any Christians left in evangelical churches who do not understand the principle that just worshipping with our lips alone is meaningless? At best, this is preaching, quite literally, to the choir. More importantly, in any meaningful sense, it’s nonsense. When the list of qualifications for potential worship leaders no longer includes ‘can sing and/or play an instrument’, worship won’t be about music. Until then, you’re conflating worship with being a Christian, which smacks of mission-creep.
2. Worship has only one audience: God.
Bravo! You just silenced all criticism of anything done up front involving tambourine and lyre in one explosion of righteousness. Dissent on everything from song choice and instrumentation to quality and style, all seem rather petty next to such an eternal perspective, don’t they? A few questions, though:
- If it’s about God, not you, why must we all move three rows forward from the seats we wanted to occupy to the seats we do not, just ‘so you don’t feel so lonely up here’?
- If we should not care about the style of music, can we please switch to all-heavy-metal worship services? After all, it’s not about our personal tastes…
Abstract worship is purely about God. Leading actual musical worship in the real world is about helping people reach that abstract ideal. If it’s music people like, it’s easier for them to sing. If it’s easier for them to sing, there’s a little more chance of them focusing on God. Help them sing. Don’t call them unspiritual for liking to sing some songs more than others.
3. These are rejoicing songs, but some of you don’t look very joyful!
Dear Jollity Police. Cease and desist. My grandmother died today. I just had a fight with my wife. I suffer from depression. I’m angry at God. The mini-sermon disguised as a pre-worship prayer has irritated me. Whatever the reason, I just don’t feel cheerful. Why do you insist I plaster a fake smile over my gob and clap inanely? I’m not stopping anybody else. I envy them. But I don’t feel like smiling. I don’t feel like doing a children’s dance. Surely there’s more than enough pretence and hiding of our true natures in church without this? Must we add to the feeling of weird unreality that makes outsiders think we’re mental? And if you quote the Bible at me once more as an inducement to smile, I am going to smack you upside the head with Ecclesiastes 3:4 and 7:3, John 11:35 and the entire book of Lamentations. Got it, Chuckles?
Leading worship is hard. But being led is no picnic either. Can we agree to talk to each other like intelligent adults?