Are people today looking for a more authentic, biblical worship experience, void of the trappings of a high-production environment with lights, fog, loud music, worship leader subcultures and more?
What is happening at Asbury and other college campuses may be urging us back to a better way.
In the last weeks, as I have seen God moving around our nation, I keep reflecting back to what is becoming standard practice in so many of our churches today-–a high-production environment that in many cases is leading our congregations to become spectators rather than active participants in a journey of transformational worship. Stick with me as I explain.
I often receive emails from blog readers around our country commenting on worship practices in their churches–both positive and negative. I received this one yesterday, and it seemed timely in light of my heightened awareness of the disconnect between many worship “productions” and true corporate worship. This one echoes the sentiments of many comments I receive–from both young and old, so I thought it was time to respond publicly in light of the times we are in and the desire to be prepared for revival in our churches
Worship practices grow from the underlying basic understanding of what worship is and the role of the worship leader. When those foundations are not correct, the resulting worship practices are likewise unhealthy.
This is the email I received this week (author’s name withheld)
For the last four weeks, my wife and I have been attending a church that is new to us. We are prayerfully looking for a church in which to invest our lives. After four weeks of attendance, I am thinking we will be looking for another church. Here is what we are experiencing:
- Haze machines
- Programmable lights that blind the audience when they shift from shining really cool patterns on the ground to blasting light up into the ceiling.
- Singing songs we can’t follow, most of which we’ve never heard. The melody is unmemorable. Very few in the audience seem to know the songs either; indeed as we looked around during one of the songs, we did not see one person singing–not one.
- Some of the songs are so high I cannot sing them. I wish the leaders would consider the average singer!
- We arrived just as the music started one week and had to stand in the back for a while to let our eyes adjust to the darkness before looking for a seat. You could hardly see the people in the congregation.
- Today I came so close to walking out during the second song because it was creating pain in my ears. Driving home, my wife indicated that the excessive loudness was starting to cause some serious anxiety. Having earplugs available in the lobby is a sure sign there might be a problem.
- This Sunday, they must have failed to do a sound check because it took them well into the second verse of the first song before they had the vocals even close to being mixed. You literally couldn’t hear the backup singer at all and the lead vocal was indistinguishable because the instruments were so loud.
- We know lots of people our age who feel the same way as do their kids. I know several kids in their early 20’s who only go to this church for the great sermons; they cringe at the music.
- Why does just about every praise and worship song go up an octave and double in volume halfway through, then die back down at the end?
- Why do so many of the worship leaders wear ball caps when practically no one in the congregation is doing so.
We had a friend attend with us one week that is a professional audio tech for major concert artists. His biggest takeaway, besides the fact that the mix was not good, was that even if people in the congregation were singing (which very few were) there was no way you could hear them. That’s part of corporate worship–singing with the saints around you, ushering in the presence of the Holy Spirit, letting your heart be moved to tears, being broken.
So now we’re trying to figure out what to do–keep going to this church and arrive just as the sermon begins because their preliminary “worship experience” does absolutely nothing towards bringing us closer to the throne, or possibly trying another church and listen to this church’s sermon podcast later in the week.
It’s interesting that one of the consistent comments about the recent revival at Asbury is that surprisingly there were no fog machines, no fancy lights, no thumping bass and crashing cymbals and no worship leaders with baseball caps on backwards and big holes in their jeans. It was just simple worship . . . and the Holy Spirit showed up big time.
They weren’t “feeling” the music, they were experiencing the Divine.
I love Bob Kauflin’s definition of a worship leader:
A faithful worship leader magnifies the greatness of God in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit by skillfully combining God’s Word with music, thereby motivating the gathered church to proclaim the gospel, to cherish God’s presence, and to live for God’s glory.
I believe in excellence in every way in worship. We should utilize technologies to assist our ministries where they can help us. Backing tracks (STEMS), in-ear monitors, lighting, and awesome audio and video equipment can all assist us in leading our congregations in worship that is life-changing as we help them to “proclaim the gospel, cherish God’s presence and to live for God’s glory.’ However, we can also abuse these tools in a way that distracts from helping our people worship.
As worship leaders/planners, we need to identify and eliminate as many distractions as possible so that we can create an environment that helps people to connect with God. Further, we, as worship leaders, must see ourselves as prompters, or guides, that are helping the people to participate in offering their worship and praise. We should never envision ourselves as performers and the congregation as an audience–we should help the people experience God without calling attention to ourselves.
Let’s unpack that a bit as I respond to that email.
Lights and Fog
Just as awe-inspiring architecture in old church buildings can set a great environment for worshipping God, lighting (and the use of fog) can help create a sacred space when used with care and moderation–especially in architecturally-plain worship spaces. So we need to determine what is helpful in setting an environment for people to worship and what causes distractions, such as calling attention to the cool lighting effects or perhaps even annoying light in the eyes. As worship leaders, we need to be wise in utilizing these gifts in a way that enhances, not distracts from worship.
In my extensive surveying of and working with churches, I find two of the most significant ways worship leaders are turning their congregations into spectators–just watching and listening to the performance on stage–is singing songs people do not know and singing in keys that the average singer cannot attain. I often refer to songs as a vital part of our worship vocabulary — they help us express our worship of God. As long as we are singing songs we know, we are able to worship without the hindrance of learning new melodies and rhythms. When we place a new song in our times of corporate worship, we can interrupt the flow of worship. When new songs are first introduced, the people have to take their eyes off the Lord and concentrate on the task of learning the new tune. For people to be participative in worship, they must sing songs they know. However, new songs are vital to worship and biblically mandated–we just have to be wise in how to introduce and reinforce new songs through repetition (more here).
Also, if we want people to move from spectators to the biblical model of physical involvement in worship, we must sing songs in keys that are attainable to the average singer (more here).
CRITICAL UNDERSTANDING: Our responsibility is to enable the congregation to sing their praises, not to showcase our great platform voices by pitching songs in our power ranges. A worship leader’s calling is to help the people sing with all their being, even at the sacrifice of some things we, as musicians, would prefer. Worship is not about impressing the congregation with our extraordinary vocal skills; rather, as worship leaders, our task is to enable others to worship.
As the writer pointed out, many songs today have octave jumps that provide a great sense of declaration and power when that occurs, however, it often leaves the average singer behind, unable to follow the platform singers and giving up on participating, just to move into a spectator mode. If a song has a range beyond the ability of the average singer, we should either adapt the song or negate using it in worship. There are plenty of great songs that can be substituted for that one.
The writer also mentioned melodies that are not memorable. Worship leaders should choose excellent songs that have melodies that live on once the person leaves the time of corporate worship. Unfortunately, we often push songs on the congregation that cannot be remembered a few minutes after completing the song. We should strive to provide a diet of the best lyrics and melodies for our people.
As worship leaders, not Christian music artists, we must do all we can to help our people sing the songs with all their might.
LEVEL OF SOUND AND ROOM LIGHTING
This comes up often–music is too loud in worship. It physically hurts the ears. There are definitely times that we want to raise the roof with a great sound of voices and instruments. There are times we want to let a cappella voices fill the space. There are levels everywhere in between we want to utilize to express our worship. However, when the band and singers get too loud, we once again encourage a performance environment rather than participatory worship. Music that is too loud also negates the biblical imperative that worship should be vertical (congregation to God) and horizontal (congregant to congregant) in nature:
Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 5:19–20).
This passage brings up an important point that is vastly overlooked today. Gathered worship has a horizontal and a vertical element. Not only is our worship directed to God as we offer Him our praise and worship, giving thanks for all He has done. It also requires us to “speak to one another” in declaring His worth, testifying of His goodness, etc. Gathered worship has a communal aspect that differentiates it from personal worship. In addition, I have found that experiencing the people around me in worship can encourage me to worship more wholeheartedly. It is moving to come to worship and see a family present that just lost a loved one, and see them worshipping with all their might; it really encourages those around them. Seeing a grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter standing side by side, boldly singing songs to the Lord together motivates others to worship wholeheartedly. The communal aspect of corporate worship cannot be understated. It is vital to our lives to have that interaction in worship.
Too often, in many instances of “contemporary worship,” churches transform their times of gathered worship into personal worship for the congregation at best and spectatorship at worst by turning the lights down, so you don’t see anyone around you, and by having the sound so loud you cannot hear those in your area. Essentially it denies the existence of the corporate body journeying together in this act of worship when you cannot see nor hear your fellow worshippers. There have been times I have had congregations turn and face each other as they sing a song of testimony, declaring the worth of God to each other to help them recognize that we are in this together. We can exhort, encourage, comfort, and so much more in the gathered horizontal aspect of worship.
In churches like the one described in this letter, lights are so dim in the congregation that you are not aware of those throughout the room, and music is so loud you cannot hear yourself sing, let alone others around you. Following this plan leads to a true sense that the “audience” has come to a performance and thus they stand and do not participate, as the writer shared in his observation.
Worship Leader Attire
I really did not want to mention this, but when a puzzled 20-some year-old asked me why do worship leaders wear those ball caps on the platform, I decided it is definitely not an over-40 issue, but worship leader attire may be a distraction to many in the congregation. I believe worship leaders should look like the congregation. We should not be setting ourselves apart as an elite subculture that looks and dresses differently from our church. We should not be calling attention to ourselves. You probably have seen all the memes making fun of the caps, toboggans, skinny jeans, Chuck Taylors, etc. that are common among worship leaders; it is a common observance among our congregations. I merely ask the question, “Is there a reason why the worship team should appear as different from the others in the congregation?” What is our heart’s motivation in this? I don’t personally find this too distracting, but from the comments I get from so many of all ages, there is definitely an issue here.
LANDING THIS PLANE
At the beginning I stated:
Are people today looking for a more authentic, biblical worship experience, void of the trappings of a high-production environment with lights, fog, loud music, worship leader subcultures and more? What is happening at Asbury and other college campuses may be urging us back to a better way.
In the last weeks, as I have seen God moving around our nation, I keep going back to what is becoming standard practice in so many of our churches today–a high-production environment that is often leading our congregations to become spectators rather than active participants in a journey of transformational worship.
I think the writer of this letter said it well:
It’s interesting that one of the consistent comments about the recent revival at Asbury is that surprisingly there were no fog machines, no fancy lights, no thumping bass and crashing cymbals and no worship leaders with baseball caps on backwards and big holes in their jeans. It was just simple worship . . . and the Holy Spirit showed up big time. They weren’t “feeling” the music, they were experiencing the Divine.
Take a look at these quotes on social media:
The most special part has been to see these students, including my daughter, go deeper in their faith, and really understand who Jesus is at a deeper level. The focus has been on allowing them to authentically worship, authentically experience Jesus, and not need the fog machines, lights, lyrics and big business of it all; to really be able to focus, for an extended period of time, and just worship and learn the truth of what Jesus says about them.
Jennifer McChord is Vice President of Enrollment and Marketing at Asbury University
Have we as worship leaders become so caught up in all the tools and toys of the work to the point we are creating worshippers of the worship experience rather than worshippers of God?
Have we become so programmed that there is no room left for the Spirit to move?
Have we become so performance-driven that our people are no longer involved in participative, transformational worship?
I encourage you, rather than perhaps feeling insulted or defensive, to ask God to search your heart. Is the worship ministry you are leading truly engaging the people in biblical, participative worship that is changing lives?
Do you and your worship ministry need to get back to the heart of worship?
Perhaps go old school one week soon and get rid of the fog machines, programmed lights, etc. and see if you can just focus on leading people into a meeting with the God of this universe.
Several national media outlets have quoted this article recently. Take a look at their opinions.
- Has Sunday become a day for ‘concerts,’ not ‘worship’? by Terry Mattingly (syndicated “On Religion” article found on many websites)
- Question: “Why have many worshippers stopped singing in church”? by Richard Ostling, Patheos.com