When did it happen? It’s hard to say. As much as we’d like to blame the ‘90s for a lot of things, it started before that. We lost it somewhere—that reason, that remembrance, that zealous love for the Cross. But there are sparks of renewal.
I am the creative arts director at a church plant in Buffalo, New York, called Restoration. We recently made a conscious decision to change our definition of worship and some aspects of our gatherings, and the result has been a life-changing impact on everyone involved. First, you have to hear the story of where this spark began.
I’m a singer, a songwriter, and a bit of a music snob. I lived in Nashville for about six years before coming to Buffalo, which was just long enough to become a bit cynical. However, I fell in love with Nashville, and I learned a ton while I was there. When I moved to Buffalo to start Restoration with my friend Dan Trippie, I had an arsenal of worship songs and “experiences” prepared for the “sinners who need my help.” I was arrogant.
As I got to know the people that were coming to the church, I began to feel like any old songs, videos, and “experiences” weren’t going to help. Over the next several months, I tried to infuse specific prayer songs and videos during communion, and they seemed helpful. But our corporate worship time was beginning to feel like nothing more than a “good show.” Deep down, I was afraid people would leave if they didn’t like the worship sets, and you can’t have people leaving when you’re a young church plant.
I managed to suppress those thoughts because things were going so well, until one day when I was sitting in my office reorganizing my music folder. As I was thumbing through chord sheets, some particularly shallow lyrics caught my eye. I felt so fake. I asked myself if I included those songs in our worship sets simply because everyone knows them and everyone sings them. Where had the depth gone? As I read over more lyrics, it started to hit me. I felt God saying, “No more shallow things.” I knew it was a message for our entire church staff, not just me and the music, so after spending time in prayer, I had to talk with the other pastors.
The phrase, “No more shallow things,” sat with me for about a week. One night while sitting around a fire, I said to Dan, “I can’t do it anymore.” I told him I was sick of the shallow songs and the other worship elements we did “just because.” I told him I’d been in prayer, trying to make sure this wasn’t my own preference, and I was clearly hearing confirmation from God. I felt God saying that we’d been pursuing a certain feeling that would let us know we’d worshiped before we headed to lunch. Our songs, our videos, even our Web site—they were all man-centered. They failed to point people toward the Cross. I asked Dan if he thought it appropriate for me to go through and remove songs, backgrounds, and other media files that weren’t going to facilitate soul restoration in some way. In addition, I wanted to get rid of anything that left us looking at ourselves glumly rather than adoring Jesus. Dan said, “I’ve been feeling something similar for a while now. You have my blessing. Go for it.”
The practical side of this shift was very simple. I prayed for clarity in the direction of removing what Jesus didn’t want. That’s it. Here’s the kicker though—it’s not the same for every church body. Granted there are some songs and program elements that are completely empty and shallow and should be removed from every church’s repertoire. However, there might be an element that no longer makes sense for one body but might deeply change the people in a church down the street. In other words, one man’s “How He Loves” is another man’s “I Glory in Christ.” Don’t hear me saying I know the songs you need to do or that I know the elements you must use. I don’t know the type of Web site, software, or programming you should employ. However, do hear me saying there must be purpose in every single decision we make on behalf of the people God has entrusted to us. Otherwise, perhaps we ought to leave the ministry and go to work on tour with a really cool show.
Beyond just removing service elements, I no longer hastily assemble set lists or orders of service. Instead, I think through how everything we do fits into a progression toward the Cross, and I let people know about it upfront. I know it sounds detailed, but all it amounts to is a change in our everyday thought process. We simply ask if a given element (a song, a video, etc.) will facilitate soul restoration and somehow point people to the Cross. You can tweak that same question to fit with however you’ve articulated your vision statement. Remember, it’s easy to put together cool songs, a smooth-looking experience, a good-feeling message, and even get people to give money. The problem is that a service like that amounts to little more than a benefit concert.
I’ve been in leadership for 11 years, and I’m just now getting this. We as pastors and leaders are not given a light and easy task. We are to be zealous for the gospel of Christ and not sway because of public opinion. We are first accountable to God and his standards. Consider taking a long, hard look at the service elements that make up the DNA of your worship gatherings, and please ask yourself why you do each individual thing. If any of these elements don’t line up with the vision of your church, which is ultimately the gospel, then they may in fact be a hindrance. Sit down with your list, some other pastors, and make the changes that need to be made. Then, watch Christ change the lives of people through worship.