Don’t Call Me a Worship Leader. Seriously.
Our words do matter. And I have a concern with the way that we use a couple of particular words: I don’t want to be called a worship leader anymore.
In between working as worship arts director at a church and The City Harmonic becoming a full-time job for me, I ran a small marketing company. And if I learned anything at all in that time, it’s that our ideas, our habits and our words really do matter. I learned that a lot of effort and resources have been spent studying the mind—how we make decisions, what governs some of our instinctual actions, etc.
Studies have shown that our brains live in something like a state of constant rewiring. The term they use to describe this is ‘neuroplasticity’: older, unused pathways in our mind dissolve, and new ones, with repetition and focus, are formed. All the time.
What we think about and say actually changes the way that our brains physically function. How we use our words has a direct effect on our response to stimuli. Like the video suggests, a small change in wording can radically alter the appeal and perception of just about anything. Suffice it to say that language effects how we view the ideas we attempt to describe and helps us to form expectations of the world around us.
So what are we talking about when we use the phrase ‘worship leader’?
Now, I’m very grateful for the many resources—books, magazines and websites alike—that have emerged over the past 20 or 30 years, all of them aimed to equip churches in what’s commonly called the “worship renewal” movement or “contemporary worship.” But over time, we’ve also seen a gradual shift toward the practical ‘equipping’ of musicians based on demand for tools just like this.
And it seems to me that this and other factors have led to a very powerful word association—not just with music in general, but a particular style of music.
We Evangelicals have come to view the word ‘worship’ as referring to something like God-focused music. And music is inherently emotional. So it follows that our understanding of ‘worship’ could then be reduced to the personal expression of a God-centered, emotional experience.
This then shapes our expectations in a church setting.
We come to church with closed eyes (I often describe it as “a grouping of islands in a dark sea”) seeking these individual and transcendent emotional experiences.
This may, at least in part, explain why people increasingly feel as though they don’t need the corporate expression of church to worship God at all—they can pop in a CD and have emotional experiences like this at home or have personal ‘spiritual’ experiences wherever they like.
But it’s kind of like skipping leg day at the gym—the end result is that we end up looking unhealthy despite all the time we seem to spend ‘working out.’
This powerful word association of ‘worship’ and ‘music’ could also cause us to disassociate other important and traditional elements of Christian worship services (reading the word aloud, engaging in teaching within community, corporate prayer, serving, the creeds, the eucharist, fellowship) as not necessarily worshipful because they aren’t always personal, emotive expressions.
This doesn’t seem right to me at all.