In my opening paragraph, I suggest that a renewed vision of worship could empower the Church to naturally, and frequently, produce the kinds of remarkable human beings that indelibly impact our world. I’m clearly not talking about worship as a musical set, as sacramental actions, or as a gathered worship service.
I may not even be talking about our next level up of worship understanding, “worship as a lifestyle.” Something bigger, more grand, more breathtaking is begging to be brought to the surface.
Worship Baptizes Vocation & Mission
I am convinced that a proper lifting of a word like worship, of a melody like worship, will empower the Church for mission in a way that baptizes every Christian’s vocation (calling) – every innovative, philanthropic, relational, or economic initiative that flows from a living faith – as a fitting act of worship.
The opposite, by extension, is also true. A slight, or significant misunderstanding of what it means to “worship” will damage us. In fact, it already has. The Church has been sabotaged from being a womb for the kinds of people who embody faith elegantly in the sacred spaces of science, family, media, education, business, the arts and more.
In many cases, our problematic visions of worship have often made the Church a tomb, rather than a womb, for grand dreams and human greatness. As Dallas Willard says, “We have pushed God up into His heavens…” and disjointed our worship from its most appropriate forum of activity – the world.
What Does A Narrow Vision Of Worship Do To Us?
A narrow understanding of worship, locked up inside sacred spaces, leaves Christians both disoriented and dysfunctional – believing our limited vision is packed with grandeur when it is actually becoming as small as our church services. We are moved by it, and that always matters – but we are rarely, enthusiastically, and deeply propelled out by it.
Now, I am not saying the Church is dysfunctional. I tire of the whining that thinks God’s idea of creating an incarnational community was a bad one – because human beings blow it so often. I love the Church – it is built for speed. I am also one of the greatest advocates of worship leadership, and the service forms that galvanize us and form us, that you may ever meet.
But, I do contend that a significant portion of the 21st century Church’s disconnection from one another, affection for religious replacements for faith, abhorrence by intellectual society, disaffection for human participation in divine mission, inability to model greatness in cultural arenas, and relative impotence in permeating the world with the way of Love as embodied in Jesus, can be traced back to a starved and unhelpful view of worship.
Our worship vision is isolating us, and keeping us busy in insular worship activities that are not breathing hot with cultural subversion. Yes, we are subverting the culture’s values when we worship. Indeed, that is the profundity of what happens every Sunday in a local church.
But still, deeply damaging ideas and language about worship remain.
Can Worship Live Outside Of A Conference Or Service?
Worship is too big, too compelling, too timeless of an idea to allow it to remain veiled by the commercial and industrial noise in the world of contemporary Christianity. We have overused, and often carelessly applied, what is perhaps one of the most important words to ever grace human lips.
To reclaim a grand vision of worship’s scope and breadth, a vision that actually lives and breathes outside of the four walls of a worship conference, will demand a herculean psychological shift in the contemporary Christian mind. Entire movements, denominations, and industries will have to re-tool, and re-orient. We’ll have to stop talking about worship services, and start talking about worship living.
We have made the accompaniment of worship as loud as the melody of worship. Like a child banging on a piano, the result may be endearing, but to declare it to be akin to a Bach masterpiece, or to make it the plumb line for all other music, would do violence to our best musical endeavors.
Similarly, we have declared our worship white noise to be musical, and have defined the melody of worship according to our beautiful, but limited, contemporary experience. We have a problem, and it’s time for change.
The Problem: We Have Equated Worship With Music And Services
Now we’re going in. Let’s clearly identify the problem.
We have equated worship with music and services.
In the last 50 years or so, the contemporary Church has had a powerful revelation, a gift from God, that is contemporary worship music. In the 1960s, the hymn-oriented faith world was confronted with a way of singing to God that opened the door to myriad encounters with the Spirit’s manifest presence. People all over the world began to see songs as a “place we go” to meet with God – not just as pleasant words and melodies affirming truth. I love this part.
My history, your history, church history, and even world history will never be the same because of the new song (Psalm 40:3) God fanned into flame in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. That new song, expressed in thousands of worship anthems, came pouring out of the Body of Christ and precipitated a great renewal of devotion in the Church, entire industries perpetuating the Gospel through music in the world, and the social engagement of the Church we are seeing blossom afresh in society today.
This outpouring became a vehicle through which Christ began renewing the emotional life of a generation jammed-up by Modernism. Fires of faith, sparked in younger generations, were spread by winds of worship music that touched us all too deeply for words. An industry grew up around these irresistible experiences enrobed in music. Thousands of new songs were added to the rich, historic body of worship work in just a few decades. We have all been deeply, profoundly, moved by the music of worship. We are all the better for it, and will be for generations; we must never go back.
We have received a gift in the contemporary worship experience.
What Is The Problem With Equating Worship & Music?
I have friends who know my love for a wide range of music, and specifically, the music of worship. They are on all sides of the worship “noise” of our day, asking me the above question for their own unique reasons.
Keeners want me to affirm that there is no problem – and their smart phones are full of Christian music. I often get blank stares when I start talking about the white noise.
Rebels want me to affirm that there is only a problem – their smart phones are full of non-Christian music. I often get only my first few sentences heard when I start talking about the white noise. They take over.
Freezers want to stand still and simply not ask questions about that with which they are both familiar and content. I often get silence ¬- a deer-in-the-headlights silence, a knowing-but-uncaring silence, or a powerless silence from this group.
Still others, however, intuitively know there is a problem equating worship with music, and yet are committed to being a part of a solution that doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. They want to see a vision of worship rise in the Body of Christ that includes, but transcends, the music that feeds it. They understand that different kinds of music have different roles to play, both within the church proper and outside of it.
Their smart phones are typically filled with a blend of both music from Christians and music from non-Christians. They don’t buy that the big idea of worship is solely contained in a worship song or service, nor do they affirm those who have eschewed all traditional worship forms to live a willy-nilly, unfocused, untethered-to-community “individualized worship life.”
I like to call these folks Strong Hearts in the revitalization of our worship vision. StrongHearts recognize that there is always a gift, a problem, and a solution when it comes to things that are precious to God. They want to mutually affirm the cosmic nature of worship, secure the vitality of worship’s widest meaning, celebrate the powerful encounters connected with contemporary worship music, reclaim the importance of formational historic worship expressions, and contribute to the contemporary Church being reoriented to a worship vision that powers on both inside and outside of church walls.
Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, these wild-eyed visionaries are running to the problem – not away. They are worship leaders, pastors, and artists, but also media designers, business innovators, movie animators, educators, justice advocates, philanthropists, first grade teachers, chefs, mothers, internet game creators, television producers, IT professionals, mechanics, floral designers, writers, receptionists, politicians and more – and they view worship as an infinitely bigger story than most of us were ever told.
172,000,000 Frequencies Later
Here is their challenge, my challenge, and your challenge as the 21st century Church: We have equated worship with music, and to a greater extent, with the gatherings that contain sacred expressions like music.
It’s not right – and it’s not a worship idea that is true to the whole expanse of Scripture.
That is the problem – but we will minimize it unless we recognize the horrific ramifications this primary view of worship has had on the Church’s mission in the world being realized.
Let’s do one more thing that may help to not only convince us that the white noise is really out there, but that we desperately need course correction in the way 21st century Christians think and talk about worship.
Do a Google search on the term “worship,” and you will get 172,000,000 results at the time of this writing. Some of these will be related to Christian worship, but many will not. Worship is a word the whole world uses. Search “worship music,” and you’ll get approximately 63,900,000 results – considerably less than the first term.
In the contemporary worship revelation related to music, the term “worship” as a noun, verb, and adjective has been applied to virtually every concept imaginable – elevating every conference, band, album, artist, service, and song to the same volume. Does that sound familiar?
Just as taking a picture with a celebrity and sharing it online makes one feel important, so too bolting the term “worship” to everything that matters to us elevates the importance of the term to which its connected. At least, it used to before the white noise level got too high.
I’ll simply list a few of the phrases found on the internet using the precious word “worship” as an adjective:
Worship music. Worship service. Worship experience. Worship time. Worship event. Worship seminar. Worship conference. Worship retreat. Worship workshop. Worship ministry. Worship education. Worship program. Worship training. Worship school. Worship setting. Worship team. Worship band. Worship rehearsal. Worship choir. Worship planning. Worship overseer. Worship artist. Worship label. Worship recording. Worship album. Worship CD. Worship song. Worship collection. Worship leader. Worship set. Worship and praise. Worship musician. Worship technician. Worship coordinator. Worship professor. Worship degree. Worship diploma. Worship certificate. Worship history. Worship values. Worship leadership. Worship devotional. Worship mentoring. Worship community. Worship developer. Worship department. Worship pastor. Worship book. Worship magazine. Worship radio. Worship station. Worship festival. Worship artist. Worship lifestyle. Worship white noise.
Now, let’s hear its Internet use as a noun:
That was a great time of worship. Who is leading worship? What time does worship begin? That leader is so gifted at leading worship. Worship is my favorite part of the service. I wish our worship would be better. The worship at our church is more liturgical than yours. Worship in Islam begins with acknowledging that Allah is God. Let’s start our meeting with worship. Did you plan worship for this Sunday? We need someone to do worship for this women’s retreat. The new agers in town are having some crystal worship event. She worships money and fashion. Worship is the reason we are having this seminar. Worship was fun today. I like their style of worship better than that one. My workshop today is about worship. Would Jesus approve of our worship? Worship is what I want to do with the rest of my life. Worship needs a tune-up in our church. Worship white noise.
Finally, let’s see the word used as a verb:
Let’s Worship. We worship together at the same church. Worship God. I worship Jesus. Worship with all your heart. Let’s teach our youth to worship. Boy, that band can really worship. That leader worships when they lead. My brother really knows how to worship. When you worship do you raise your hands? They totally worship Lady Gaga. When Buddhists worship they are seeking enlightenment. How in the world does someone worship in a persecuting country? I remember the last time I worshipped at that church. Let’s gather to worship. I am so excited to see her lead worship! Early medicine men worshipped in caves high on peyote. Our congregation doesn’t really know how to worship. Worship white noise.
When Everything Is Highlighted, Nothing Is Highlighted
I use these above terms on a regular basis in my work as a worship educator, and I will continue to use them with nuance in my language and clear meanings in my mind. However, when everything is highlighted on a page, nothing is highlighted.
Our over-use of the word “worship” has begun to blend even these important ideas above into an indistinct buzz of noise. We subconsciously begin to lose our belief that any of these words deeply matter, including worship, and something insidious begins to happen. Under-Reacting To The Noise Let’s pause for a moment. Perhaps you think I’m over-reacting, and I would understand your concern if you did. I clearly care about worship, just as you do, and I’m writing a book about it because I can’t live with my own tension. Fair.
However, over 25 years, I have realized that I am not alone in my perception. In fact, I am far from alone.
Let me note, briefly and for the sake of the argument, my lifelong investment in the modern worship experience as a pastor and denominational leader, a worship leader, a songwriter and artist, a Christian radio host, a worship industry worship resource developer, a Christian university professor, and as a worshipper.
In each of these roles, I have watched narrow understandings of worship play themselves out again and again in real world situations. I have stood by Christians who are worshipping Jesus in incredibly authentic ways through their daily devotion to excellence, innovation, creativity, and leadership, and watched them be told by other Christians:
“That’s not worship. That’s a secular job. That’s less important than what happens in a church job.”
Worship has just been cut off at the knees and another Christian has been spiritually damaged.
Is everyone around here getting nauseated, or is it just me?
Ever notice how passionate young Christian men and women don’t typically receive suggestions from church leaders that they should become astrophysicists, third-grade teachers, or mayors? Ever notice how many of them are pushed to become youth pastors, pastors, church planters, and worship leaders? These are key roles, but I’m convinced that our theology has damaged us in this inability to call Christians to the depths of their role in God’s world.
Thousands of worship conversations later, I have come to believe that we have under-reacted for far too long. Our lingo, phrases, conferences, magazines, and sermons betray what we’ve really come to believe about worship – that it is mainly about the music and what happens when we gather.
True as it sounds, few things could be more incorrect.
It’s Time For Action
So, here we find ourselves. We need some new ways of talking about worship before we take another step forward as the contemporary Church. The buzz, the noise, is unavoidable. But we can extract the music from the noise with some fresh language, pointed challenges, and immediate action.
The information highway of the Internet has exacerbated the worship white noise all around us, and our lack of multiple, nuanced words for worship has heightened the confusion. The over-amplification of the accompaniment has made the melody blend in with all the other frequencies.
Allowing the worship white noise to continue can make pastors and worship leaders feel good about their jobs, and even attract people to our church services as we make them the be-all and end-all of Christian experience. In doing so, we betray the Church into creating a subculture that effectively removes itself from the playing fields of the rest of humankind – all in the name of the worship that should put them smack in the middle of it in the first place.
We are all in recovery, and we are all in some way culpable for the confusion. That page is slowly turning, thanks to many of my peers in local church, industry, educational, and creative settings, but it’s not turning fast enough.
The idea that worship is primarily about music and gathered settings is chaining the Church, and disillusioning thousands of my closest, most culturally involved, Christ-pursuing friends.
Action is demanded.
3 Things We Need To Move Forward
1. We need fresh language with which to talk about the melody and accompaniment of worship, and
2. We need some pointed challenges to our Seven Worship Culture Shapers that will help us to apply our reclaimed vision of worship immediately,
3. We need to die to old ways of talking about worship, and rise to a new way of talking about what is arguably one of the most important words to ever grace human lips.