The evangelical church is at a worship crossroads.
A generation of older, baby-boomer, not-so-hipster worship leaders are in the last decade or two of their full-time ministry. And a new generation of younger, generation X, youthfully vigorous worship leaders have taken (or are about to take) the wheel. They are determining the trajectory of worship in music all around the world and will be at the helm for the next 20 to 30 years.
As a card-carrying member of this generation, I say that we have some very important decisions to make. Can this trend toward performancism be reversed? Can we spend “our turn” stewarding our ministries in such a way that orients the worship of the church more strongly toward the glory of God in Jesus Christ and away from the performance of the people on stage?
It’s important to know the wrong turns that have led much of the evangelical worship world to where it is today: embracing a trend of performancism in worship.
Wrong turn #1: Away from substance
The message really does matter. The means matter, but when the means become the message, or obscure the message, and when this is OK with us, we have lost our bearings. Sadly, too many in the evangelical worship world have lost their bearings, and the style is predominant while the substance is subordinate. Our message is the gospel. The good news of Jesus Christ. The only hope for the world.
In our different contexts, we can and should use any musical means we can to exalt him. But it must always be about exalting him. Is the message crystal clear? Let’s not settle for obscurity. We must ensure that Jesus (the substance) is always front and center, and the music (the style) is always pointing to, magnifying, proclaiming, exalting and celebrating him. We can’t turn away from this.
Wrong turn #2: Away from congregational singing
One of the most stunning descriptions of worship in heaven comes in Revelation 5:11-13 when John says that he “looked, and … heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!’ And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!‘”
Not only is the substance of the worship in heaven crystal clear, but the sound of countless voices worshipping “him who sits on the throne and … the Lamb” together is crystal clear as well. How about in our churches?
Worship leaders: We are tragically losing our priority for congregational singing, under the guise of offering people an “experience.” What people need to experience during corporate worship is the corporate praising of Jesus. There is no greater experience to offer people than to stand among others who are lifting their hearts and voices in praise. As wonderful as good effects, art, lighting, arrangements, videos, buildings, liturgy and pipe organs are, they pale in comparison to the sound of human voices lifted together in worship of God. A worship leader who doesn’t cultivate a singing congregation over time isn’t fulfilling the number-one most important part of his job.
If we continue to settle for offering people worship “experiences” and settling for lackluster or even nonexistent singing, we are setting evangelical worship on a sure course toward a crash into a wall of flashy, unsatisfying performances. We must lead with an invitational, pastoral heart to draw others in to singing praise with all of heaven. The best kind of “congregational experience” is congregational singing.