On the Other Side of Worship

This post is a pensive reflection on my past experience as a worship leader. If you are someone whose pathway to God is through worship music,  I hope you don’t read these words as criticism, it is certainly not intended that way. If anything, I am contemplating my own journey and my life has given me a diverse bag of experiences to draw from. So if you don’t mind a gentle prod, read on!

I have had many vocations; factory worker, song-writer, lab assistant for a cosmetics company, helicopter pilot, session musician, horse stable hand, recording engineer, business owner, creative team leader, essence creator, corporate manger at an aid organisation etc…. but the most thought provoking occupation has been as a worship leader.

As the phenomenon of the mega church becomes the established norm, the more possible it has become to hire accomplished musicians and technicians. I don’t think that is a bad thing but as professional musicians choose their vocation in the church, the more the church naturally gets exposed to the world of commerce in the music industry.

I now wonder if that has had a detrimental impact on the innocence and purity of the simple worship ceremony. It wasn’t that long ago that people couldn’t make a living from royalties on songs and CD sales in Christian music. Hymn writers rarely had the platform of copyright to leverage off. If musicians got involved in the early church, it wasn’t clouded with the idea of success and technology that catapulted an individuals reach.

Never in worship history has there been so much focus on individuals with the aid of media screens, CD’s, DVD’s, T-Shirts etc…Even though the heart of the worship leader might be to get people to focus on God, the reality is when the spectacle is so big and impressive, it is difficult to not get carried in the concert energy and mistake the atmosphere for something more than it is.

The alignment with the pop world in anthemic tunes and memorable hooks has produced a twinge of apprehension in my soul and I am reminded of my own contribution to the worship culture over the years. Singing anthems with thousands of people week after week can blur the lines between a worship service with a vertical focus and an inspiring collection of songs that makes you feel good, much like any concert would.

The predictability of a worship service has not escaped the congregation’s attention. Most people in evangelical churches warm to the pulse of two energetic songs followed by two or three ballads with deep emotive tones. Over the years many of us have reduced the act of worship primarily to a music focus and that has encouraged a culture of critique as though worship is something to be assessed and consumed.

It is jarring to me when some assume everyone’s pathway to God is through worship music. Everyone loves music but that doesn’t mean it is an individuals pathway to spirituality. If I were honest, I would say standing in a worship service rarely connects me to God, in fact, I can find it distracting. My pathway to spirituality is primarily in nature. When I have the chance to sit and admire our amazing earth, I feel closer to God. Others may feel closer to God through helping someone in need; others may find God when they use their intellect – there are many pathways.

I struggle a little when a worship leader suggests that engaging in worship via a music medium is vital to someones spiritual growth. I have been witness to some worship leaders inadvertently mustering a wildly diverse group of people into a spiritual corral prodded by light touches of shame during the course of a service – I have probably done that myself without even realising. Most people comply and sing along but for a whole bunch of people the experience doesn’t draw them closer to God. In fact, if the person doesn’t know that there are different pathways to God, they can be left feeling as though there is something wrong with them because they are not as emotionally engaged as the person standing alongside them.

I often wonder if the last 30 years of worship music has skewed our perspective. People tend to forget that what we experience in a modern service is only a recent chapter, it hasn’t been around that long and it certainly comes with a lot of baggage.

People who turn up to church need more than a prescriptive experience, lights and cameras. Many are broken, misunderstood, troubled, managing disease or processing messed up relationships. That requires a community to be more practical, engaged, affirming, encouraging and importantly…. a preparedness to be up close to someones life – maybe that is what worship is? Maybe it has less to do with music and technology which broadcasts from a stage and more about face to face which broadcasts through your eyes?

5 thoughts on “On the Other Side of Worship

  1. Wow, there's a lot here…but I hear where you're coming from.

    I have a simple question that always assists me in assessing this kinda thing (especially as it relates to own motives): Who is being glorified right now?

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  2. Having also been involved in worship music in the church in the past (not as a workship leader, but as a musician), I can totally relate to what you have shared. I could write on this topic for a while, but will surmise my thoughts. I have always found music has been the single most effective way to connect to God. Worship in church has therefore played a significant part. However, I find myself finding it harder and harder to connect with what I am seeing from the platform in regards to music, to the extent I often catch myself 'watching' rather than 'participating'. Today I see churches so desperately wanting to be relevant and connecting to today's youth or society as a whole, that they are turning more and more to 'lights, camera, action'. I also find that songs written have sometimes become (very subtly) 'me focussed' in the words used, or even worse, theologically not correct. I have often wondered, if we took all of this away and simply worshipped with an acoustic guitar or piano, could we do it with the same passion and intensity? I would argue that for some,(particularly with the younger generation) the answer would be no. Like you said at the start of your blog, you are not wanting to criticise, rather reflect on your experiences. This is my heart in writing this too. This is my current struggle and experience! MB

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  3. From the beginning of my faith until now it has been the worshipping in the church that makes me feel like, God and me are like that…imagine my fingers crossed. I can totally lose myself in the atmosphere when I hear, read and sing those words of worship and it does not matter to me who is around, it's just God and me. Sometimes I find it hard to say the words I feel, when I worship but when I am able to read them and as I sing them out loud, they become mine and I feel like a little child that is embraced by her loving father and I know that I am not going through life alone. So, you guys might not feel like you are worshipping at that time but you certainly help me to connect with my father at that time and I am sure I am not the only one. So thank you. Blessed by your worship

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  4. Hey Guys,
    There are some great reflections here. I started to respond only to realise I probably need to write another entry to fill in some gaps. So give me a few days.

    Jirina, please know that my experience is quite different to Helena's. We are wired different. I have had moments during a service where I connect to God in a significant way, but it was rare. My immediate pathway is through nature. Every time I give myself space to rest and admire nature my heart fills with hope. Probably the same experience you have every time you come to a worship service.

    Anyway…I will address a couple of gaps that need filling particularly around the pragmatic component to the role as a worship leader.

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