I have been a “worship leader” in some form or another for 20 years. And with that, I have a few confessions to make:
- I remember “Lord I Lift Your Name on High” when it was new, and I thought it was going to change everything (it did). I now literally get nauseated when I hear it.
- There’s always that guy on the front row who just stares at you…like you’re a carnival attraction. So you don’t make eye contact. You pretend not to see him, and instead focus on the girl on the second row who’s hands are raised. But you can still see him. Staring.
- Wait, wasn’t I supposed to be focusing on God instead of people in the crowd? Scratch that last point.
- I have nearly knocked a tooth out on the microphone by trying to “get into” the worship moment by moving around while singing. Ow. Fortunately, I never cussed when that happened (that would’ve been…unfortunate).
- I can’t watch other worship leaders lead without critiquing something about them – usually their clothing. (Guys, what IS with the scarves anyway? We all laugh, but none of us really knows the “why” behind that one).
- Nothing is more distracting than breaking a string. Sure, you try to power through it. “It’s about God, not this guitar,” you say to yourself. But what you’re really thinking is Satan jumped up onstage and broke the string himself…knocking your guitar just out of tune, so that you can focus on nothing else.
- I’m pretty sure the sound guys and I have nearly come to blows over the in-ear mix.
- Sometimes, it looks like I’m emotional onstage. My eyes are closed and tears are rolling down my cheeks. But what has REALLY happened is that I got so hot under the lights, that sweat poured into my eye sockets. Like battery acid. I’m singing “was blind but now I see” but thinking “No, dear God, I really am blind!!”
- I have shouted out the cheesiest phrases to try to get people riled up for worship: “Is everyone ready today?” (awkward silence). “Oh, you can do better than that!” (less awkward silence). “So let’s stand and sing.”
The last one is the one I worry about the most. I wonder how many of us as worship leaders (past or present) have felt less like a worship leader and more like that pirate at the opening of Spongebob: “Are you ready kids?” “Aye, aye, Captain!” “I can’t HEEEEAAAR you!” “AYE, AYE, CAPTAIN!”
Are we freakin’ cartoon openers? Or worse, are we…cheerleaders? “Good morning, everyone! Rah-Rah Jesus! Gimme a J!” Only instead of pom-poms, we carry guitars or wireless mics.
Though the above is a bit of a caricature (but not far removed from the truth…hang on), it does reveal what is wrong with what “worship” has become.
I think much of what we call “worship leading” isn’t leading worship at all. Instead, we need to call it what it is: It’s leading people in singing, with the intent of pointing people’s hearts and minds towards God. It is a time of ascribing worth to God. And that is a good thing. Singing songs of praise was always a part of Israel’s worship, and – as Christians – it reflects the work the Holy Spirit is doing in our hearts:
Be filled with the Holy Spirit, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts. (Ephesians 5:18-19)
Somehow, during that time of singing, pointing people to God through song CAN result in an experience where people feel the Holy Spirit move (I think that can happen however we focus our minds/attention on God, singing or not). If you’ve ever led a crowd in worship where it just seems that the music and the Holy Spirit “click,” I don’t need to describe it here. It’s powerful. It’s crave-able.
But it is also… shallow. It is incomplete. Worse, Even at its best moments – those times where we just “can’t get enough God” – what we call “worship” may actually be something that is not just incomplete, but something that creates an incorrect picture – or posture – of what it means to truly worship.
1. Worship is More than Singing.
Scripture does support singing, but it also makes it clear that WORSHIP is so much more.
And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. (Romans 12:1)
Worship is not merely singing. It’s a sacrificial act of laying down our time, our energy, our money, and even our very lives in the service to God and to other people. While singing may be a valid way of ascribing worth to God, serving is living that mindset out. It is responding to God with more than words. THAT is how we worship.
2. Singing Can Be a Turn-Off to the Very People We Are Trying to Reach
Yes, if you’ve had a great experience singing at church or a Passion conference or just sitting around a campfire with a bunch of Christians, this one is hard to swallow – but it’s truth: Most people do NOT like singing.
Think about it: Where else do people actually sing together in a group under the direction of someone from a stage? I can’t think of one that doesn’t involve something weird or some sort of illegal substance. Sure, people may sing in the car or in the shower. But asking people – especially people who haven’t been in church – to stand (awkard step #1) and sing out loud (awkward step #2) all while standing next to people they don’t know (awkward step #3) is asking people to do something that is fundamentally weird. It quite possibly makes people very uncomfortable, and we – as those who would lead people in worship – need to acknowledge this rather than ram it down people’s throats.
Sure, worship is important. Singing is important (already covered it above). But too often we just throw people into it – never having taught them (discipled them) as to the importance of why and how to do it.
Worse – if someone is walking into your church carrying a load of problems, the LAST thing they may need to experience is someone telling them to celebrate or worship a God who may feel very distant to them at that moment. Even Scripture backs this up:
Singing cheerful songs to a person with a heavy heart is like taking someone’s coat in cold weather or pouring vinegar in a wound. (Proverbs 25:20).
Honestly, I had never seen that proverb before this week, and it really challenged everything I’ve ever thought about being an onstage “cheerleader” for Jesus. We need to be frank about when the “sacred cow that is the worship experience” may actually be hurting the very people we are trying to reach.
3. The Worship Experience is Often Self-Serving
I have heard more than one Christian over the years say this of singing worship songs in a corporate environment: “I just can’t get enough God!”
While their intentions may be genuine, I think what most people appreciate is the experience. We like how it “recharges” us. We like how it makes us feel. We like getting caught up in the moment. After all, our attention is turned on God.
Or so we think.
Because if our attention is turned on God, then eventually something about God ought to be rubbing off on us – which would turn our attention to the people God cares about. But often we just crave more of the experience. And that, sadly, is not worship; it is idolatry. We worship the worship, and that is not worship at all.
God had to challenge Israel about their “worship”:
When you come to worship me,
who asked you to parade through my courts with all your ceremony?
Stop bringing me your meaningless gifts;
the incense of your offerings disgusts me!
As for your celebrations of the new moon and the Sabbath
and your special days for fasting—
they are all sinful and false.
I want no more of your pious meetings.
I hate your new moon celebrations and your annual festivals.
They are a burden to me. I cannot stand them!
When you lift up your hands in prayer, I will not look.
Though you offer many prayers, I will not listen,
for your hands are covered with the blood of innocent victims.
Wash yourselves and be clean!
Get your sins out of my sight.
Give up your evil ways.
Learn to do good.
Help the oppressed.
Defend the cause of orphans.
Fight for the rights of widows. (Isaiah 1:12-17)
It’s possible to get so caught up in the emotions and the posture of worship, that we neglect what true worship is: It is serving others, not our hunger for an experience.
We need to quit being cheerleaders. After all, what do cheerleaders do? They stand on the sidelines – next to where people are playing the game – and they’re trying to get the crowd to cheer for their team. Ironically, neither the crowd nor the cheerleaders are actually in the game.
Instead, we need to be worship coaches (and you don’t need to sing or lead with a guitar to do this). We need to be moving our crowds from being spectators to being players in the game. We need to be leading others by being servants ourselves and inviting people to serve with us.
Imagine what could happen if we actually got people into the game…