We’ve refined it, packaged it, branded it, marketed it and made an industry out of it. But is God buying our modern worship?
If music can’t change the world, then it certainly can change the atmosphere. A profoundly powerful medium, it has been for generations a vital force for churches engaging with the culture at large. Yet music also plays a central role in the gathered church’s expression of worship. Paul instructed the early congregations to “sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (Col. 3:16, NIV), and to “sing and make music in your heart to the Lord” (Eph. 5:19, NIV).
Given music’s inherent power regarding the human makeup and its scriptural significance in church liturgy, it stands to reason that for most of us worship equals music. What church leader today hasn’t had this notion reinforced by a church culture that makes music a core element of its identity? If that’s true for us as pastors, it’s safe to assume the average American believer doesn’t stray far from that connection either. Worship and music are simply one and the same.
My personal journey within the church has taken me from standing with my Bachelor in Theology fresh in hand, heading off to plant my first community and barely seeing the relevance of music to “real” ministry (preaching was it, baby), to getting swept into the emergence of the worship recording industry (how did that happen?), publishing deals, royalty checks (who would’ve thought?) and the constant pressure to get on the circuit as a “worship artist.” In a mere 20-plus years, the musical expression of worship moved from the margins of the church (only wild charismatics did that stuff) to center stage across denominational lines, with entire staff departments given to its development and expression.
“Worship music,” as it’s become internationally known, not only has garnered recognition as a legitimate musical genre within Christian music, but also has spawned its own concert circuit filled with artists who perform, market and receive awards for songs labeled with a broad stroke as “worship.”
In the process, churches worldwide established a culture that currently expects nothing less than professional-sounding, creatively packaged, multisensory, Sunday morning stage productions. Whether intentional or not, we now produce worship in a can: something that can be contained and restricted, delivered to the masses of local consumers—er, churchgoers—and reproduced for any struggling pastor wanting to use it as a tool for growth.
My head and heart are left spinning. As a pastor and worship leader, I’ve been in the middle of this transition. I’ve seen the obvious blessing of heaven upon this aspect of the worshiping church. And yet I still wonder at some level: Have we (so quickly) lost our way?
From Monks to American Idols
To answer that question, it’s important to take a look back to see how we arrived at our current state of equating worship with chord charts, rehearsals, PowerPoint and chart ranking. Though volumes could be written on this topic to incorporate all the church history at play, here in a nutshell are the key contributing factors to this perspective:
• Treating worship as a commodity. John Wimber, one of my earliest mentors, used to say, “Worship is an end in itself.” In much of what I’ve observed while visiting churches worldwide over the last few years, this is seldom true. Worship—again, understood mainly as an expression of music—has become largely a means to another end. It’s the warm-up for the message, a feel-good moment in the liturgy. It’s to keep the youth in the church, save the lost, increase the offering and be culturally relevant. It’s to be not too loud yet not too soft, not too short yet not too long, accessible for the crowd and yet a reflection of musical excellence.
Could something be missing?
• A “me”-centric focus in lyrics and stylistic expression of worship. As music began to find its way (back) into the church’s vocabulary of worship in the early to mid-1980s, one aspect of its power and appeal was a real sense of personal connection with God. It was definitely a needed course correction for much of our liturgies that had become objective, distant and, dare we say, boring. The church found a fresh spiritual encounter through music, and this quickly became a major deciding factor for people in choosing which churches to attend. Instead of the pallet of lyric and theology broadening in the composing of songs for worship, much of the emphasis remained on personal intimacy. Combine this with the commoditization of worship and, well, the rest is history.
• Liturgy dominated by music. As the church veered into newfound territory, many people embraced the personalized approach to worship as the ultimate answer. Music reflecting this shift slowly began to dominate the liturgical landscape concurrently with a growing worship music industry. As concerts, festivals and conferences exposed people to worship way beyond their Sunday or house group experience, this pressured church leaders to get on board with this new phenomenon-cum-church growth tool. Things would never be the same.
• An escapist approach to worship. Inherent in this new wave of worship expression was the “worship fix.” The danger of a myopic perspective of music in worship is that it increasingly becomes about disengaging from life. Ultimately, this results in the emergence of a kind of neodualism (which is heresy)—music being the syringe and needle that takes us away. Worship is then seen as something to escape to instead of a way of life that engages with God and others—in our own circumstances and pain as well as those of the world. Dangerous?
• Faulty leadership-training models. Whether intended or not, worship conferences and training events quickly morphed into placing priority on leading, vocals, instrumentation, sound reinforcement, media enhancement ... with the obligatory session on “worship as a lifestyle.” (In reality, this simply taught you how to engage with worship music in your personal time, or while driving, or a capella in the shower and so on.)
Is God Listening?
So here we are. Certainly what we have now is infinitely better than the “hymn sandwich” (two songs, the announcements and another song), which was standard fare not long ago. We have come a long way in our liturgical expression, not only thawing out the frozen chosen, but attracting newcomers as well.
There are many reasons to wrestle with where our current emphasis on worship and our commoditization of it has taken us, but I believe the bottom-line question is this: Is God listening? We have become obsessed with whether the church is listening, or whether the lost are listening, or whether the youth are listening—and on and on it goes.
All valid concerns. Yet the central issue may be lost: Is God listening? Isn’t that what makes worship worship anyway? Isn’t His involvement what defines the very thing we’re doing?
The not-so-minor prophet Amos, speaking on God’s behalf, offers some perspective from which we can answer these questions. Amos 5:23-24 says: “Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (NIV).
This word in Amos truly is chilling. Could it be that there is something beyond music that God is concerned about? Is there something that, if missing, changes the sweet sounds of worship into pure noise? Clearly the integrity of our worship music isn’t just about musical excellence, good lyrical content and cultural relevance. A worship that is disengaged from justice and righteousness is not really worship at all.
In fact, one gives life to the other. We aren’t called to be activists or community organizers, we are called to be worshipers of the Most High God. We are lovers of Jesus who know the spontaneous joy of touching the least as an act that actually touches Him. We aren’t just singers and artists, we are worshipers who know that the resonance of our sound and the power of our song come from a life engaged with the heart of God far beyond the walls of a church building or the motions of our liturgy.
A Different Song and Dance
The beauty of it all is that we engage with the needs and people all around us because we sing—not instead of the song. We move into relationship with the poor and marginalized as another expression of our worship, not simply to do our duty so we can get back to the music. We don’t sing to escape our pain or that of the world around us. No—one spirals into the other in an unbroken dance of devotion and worship.
Jesus laid the foundation for this in Matthew 22:37-40 when He merged the “first and great commandment” (to love God with all we have) with a “second [that] is like it” (to love our neighbor as ourselves). He didn’t pit one against the other, nor did He list them in order of importance.
The key phrase in Jesus’ teaching is: “And the second is like it” (v. 39, emphasis added). The word for like is homoios, which means you cannot tell the two apart. To see one is to see the other, like seeing identical twins. Jesus’ point was that to love God and to love one’s neighbor look exactly the same.
In light of Jesus’ radical redefinition of worship—which is as relevant today as ever—here are a few ideas that may help as you grapple with these thoughts and their implications on your church culture and the liturgy it expresses.
1. Take time to wrestle with your theology and philosophy of worship. Recognize the forces at play in how you shape your community’s expression of worship. You may be influenced more than you know by the industry and expectations of people. The clearer you are about your theology and its application in gathered community, the more confident you can be in helping shape a church worship culture that facilitates a healthy rhythm of worship encounter and worship engagement.
2. Allow room in times of liturgy and equipping for instruction and modeling of worship. I’m amazed at how little teaching about worship actually occurs in the Christian community. Most churches would never gather together in any kind of public setting without some expression of music as part of the worship, yet it is probably one of the least addressed topics in churches. If this is true of your community, find ways to explore together what is means to be a worshiping people.
3. Welcome the poor and marginalized into the experience of worship and intercession, and move from outreach into community. This is a huge topic that’s vital to consider as you process any necessary changes. In James 2:6, Jesus’ half-brother makes this stunning observation of church gatherings: “You have insulted the poor” (NIV). Too often this continues to be true in today’s churches. The poor have become unwelcome, seen as an inconvenience and an outreach, instead of welcomed into the center of the church’s expression.
To loose the poor as participants with us greatly impacts our long-term expressions of worship. Their welcome presence among us is a huge antidote to the toxic liturgy that we at times embrace. And as the Good Samaritan story teaches us, they are not a distraction from our worship, but at times are the very point!
4. Challenge yourself in worship. Things are more “caught than taught,” and this is especially true with worship. As a pastor, you must lead by example.
5. Be creative in weaving awareness of justice issues and the plight of the poor into the expression of your liturgy. There are countless ways to do this, from using innovative media to interjecting intercession into the “song service.” Don’t overreact by tossing out all songs involving intimacy or devotion. That would be tragic. The point is to usher into the corporate setting an awareness of elements beyond the church walls. By weaving this into your allotted time for worship, people can see it as integrated and not some separate program or church initiative. It is worship.
6. Lead your worship team into tangible engagement with the poor and the community at large. As important as preparing for Sunday is, it’s extremely beneficial to have your worship community involved together in things beyond the Sunday service. Along with teaching a broader understanding of what worship is, it also must be lived out and experienced together.
As your team touches worship together beyond the music, you’ll be amazed at the impact it has on the Sunday expression. This matters to God. And because it does, you’ll find your “sound” changing from noise to worship, which affects the entire corporate gathering.
7. View worship as a journey together rather than the music at your weekly meetings. Although this relates to working through a theology and philosophy of worship, it’s worth mentioning separately. A church that creates a culture of worship that moves beyond the music must embrace a sense of journey.
Sunday gatherings are just part of the ongoing rhythm of community life that extends into the community and the world. As pastors, it’s critical that we not only cultivate this awareness of a redefined worship, but that we work to establish a culture from which God hears nothing but a sweet, pleasing sound.
Best known for his worship songs, David Ruis has planted several churches over the years while helping with church leadership and leadership development. He and his family live in Los Angeles, where their deep passion is to see the church awakened to the theological and practical realities of the fusion of worship and justice.