I once heard a comedian say that cranberries had made their way into everything: cran-apple, cran-grape, cran-Sprite, cranberries in cereals, in desserts, and so on. It was one of those observational jokes that makes you go, "Oh, yeah! You're right!" Well, I have observed a trend in my local Christian bookstore, on my local Christian radio, and all over the internet. The word "worship" has snuck in everywhere. Now, I don't mean worship as in devotion or sacrifice - I'm talking about worship music. For the last few years worship music has been all the rage. Christian bands who are known more for their poppy, fun, kind of lyrics, or bands that are known for their hard-rock sound, suddenly came out with "worship albums." I mean, we kind of have to scratch our heads and say, "Isn't it ALL suppose to be worship?" But, I understand what they mean - they are cutting through the artistry in order to simply praise His name. Or are they?
My husband and I recently came across a church want-ad for a worship leader. Amongst the typical qualifications such as skill, teachability, leadership, and an excellent spirit, was one line that stood out. It said, "We are looking for a worship leader who can take our church from 300 members to 1,000 members." Wow. No pressure there, kid. Just know before we hire you that we expect you to grow our church because of your musical prowess. It all rests on your talent.
Ummmm....What do we do with that? Now, before all you worship leaders and Hillsong United enthusiast throw a music stand at me, hear me out. I AM a worship leader. I come from a line of worship leaders. I am passionate about seeing a team of instrumentalists and vocalists marry their heart for spontaneity with their heart for structure. I am passionate about seeing worship teams thriving with excellence and faithfulness in their talents. I am also passionate about worship teams being both culturally relevant while remaining theologically sound. I am a strange mixture of someone who loves choral music as well as liturgy as well as Chris Tomlin, Jesus Culture, and even the Gaithers! Simply put, I love seeing the name of Jesus exalted, no matter the style or culture, from a group of musicians who are excellently pursuing His presence, while excellently perfecting their craft.
So, then, what I am about to say may sound strange to some.
I understand that the majority of people today attend churches based upon their preference of music. I get it. I really do! I will never forget my first Sunday at a church my husband and I served at. The worship team began to sing and I had to pick my mouth up off of the floor, because every single song they sang was 25 to 30 year old Hosanna music. This continued week after week! Another church we served at was singing songs I sang in Children's Church for their main service! Imagine singing, "Joy is the flag flown high on the castle of my heart," during your next Sunday service and you'll understand what I was dealing with. Was it my preference? Not at all. Were they culturally relevant? In some ways, yes, because it was what many in the congregation preferred. I think worship leaders need to know both the culture of the church they are in, as well as the society at large. But, back to my original point. I understand that people choose churches often based on the worship team. It's an important quality to me and my family, too.
However, I have had the awesome privilege of serving in churches that sang kids songs in the main sanctuary. I have had the awesome privilege of being the worship leader at a church that adamantly required hymns sung at every service. I didn't realize this honor for a number of years, I'll confess. But somewhere in the midst of it, I found out that worship has very little to do with talent, music, or personal preference. I have gone through the fire of humility, seeing what I prefer...even what I believe GOD prefers...be sacrificed in order that the people may grow.
This is probably why it bothers me to see "worship" being sold as a brand. It bothers me that we put such an emphasis on young worship leaders to grow our churches. Now, remember, the majority of the music on my i-phone IS worship, so don't get angry - just hear me out. I have a list of reasons why this trend is so troublesome. For one, it is statistically proven that the church is biblically illiterate. We do not know the word of God! We are great at quoting the song lyrics of the latest worship hits, but very few of us can tell you if the words we sing are even found in the bible. In working as a youth pastors wife for over a decade, I know firsthand that students in our churches don't know Matthew from Revelation, let alone qualities such as perseverance, discipline, and intercession. Many churches have removed Sunday Schools altogether, offering no discipleship whatsoever. Other churches have small groups, but very few that offer deep, exegetical study of the scriptures. In the majority of our pulpits, topical sermons are preached, self-focused, feel good messages are given, and very rarely does the minister take the people past the "elementary principles of Christ" and into the "meat" of scripture (Hebrews 5:12-6:3). The bible doesn't say that people are destroyed for lack of moving music, it says that God's people are destroyed from a lack of knowledge (Hosea 4:6). And true knowledge comes as we encounter the Word as Truth.
Another reason why this trend of exalting worship is disturbing is because it puts a lot of emphasis on experience. Now, once again, don't throw your music stand at me. I firmly, unequivocally believe that Christians are made to experience God. In fact, this is where that pendulum swing can so easily switch directions. On the one hand, we've made our church worship services so user friendly, that the Holy Spirit is hardly allowed to move. On the other, we have hyped-up, pandemonium that is so freaky and out of order, that if an unbeliever walked in among us, they would say we are mad (1 Cor.14:23)! I believe that the church meeting itself is meant for believers who gather together once a week to worship God in spirit and in truth. It's not mean for unbelievers, because it is the "assembling of ourselves together" (Hebrews 10:25). However, I believe that it is right to expect unbelievers and new believers to come into our services and expect both order and absolute freedom. Everyone who walks through the doors of a church should expect to experience God.
However, if we put the responsibility to "be moved" upon the worship leader, then we are removing personal responsibility from the equation; we remove our own God-given priesthood, the honor of going boldly before Him, and instead ask someone else to take us into His presence. Also, If we limit the moving of the Holy Spirit to the "worship set," then we are limiting his power to be encountered in the preaching/teaching of the word, in the giving of our tithes, in the sharing of a testimony. In addition, if we limit our services to being about having a 'good feeling,' then we are building events and not disciples. We are building people who will be blown about by their own changing emotions and experiences because they are not rooted and grounded in the word. We have, in fact, made church all about US and not about Him.
This trend of people choosing churches simply based on the skill level of the worship team reveals a trend that the bible says will be prevalent in the last days. 2 Timothy 3:1-4 says, "But know this, that in the last days irreconcilable times will come. For men will be lovers of themselves...lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power." If we simply come to church simply based on the talent of the musicians, we will find ourselves being lovers of pleasure in our worship services, instead of being believers who are concerned about growing in character, Christ-like attitudes, holiness, and the other things that are truly lasting. This passage in 2 Timothy says that people will have a form of godliness but will deny its power. Deny what's power? The power of godliness. The power of holiness. I use to think that this meant to deny the Holy Spirit's moving in signs, wonders, and miracles, but look at the context! People who are lovers of pleasure, lovers of themselves, will have a form of looking like God, but will lack the power of being like Him. Paul said the gospel IS the power of God (Rom. 1:16). And what is the gospel but the power of the Holy Spirit filling up a forgiven church in order that she can walk holy?
Church, I believe it is time to awaken to God's cry penned in Amos 5:21-24, "I hate, I despise your feast days, and I do not savor your sacred assemblies. Though you offer me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them, nor will I regard your fattened peace offerings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs, for I will not hear the melody of your stringed instruments. But let justice roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream." I believe it is time for us to understand that church isn't about a feeling or even an experience. Should we expect both? Yes, but they are byproducts of Him being near! It's all about Him! If we are so concerned about feeling good, is it possible that we could miss what God is feeling that day? What if he is weeping? What if he is warring? What if he is quietly whispering, "Someone just come."
It is time we personally and corporately reclaim the words of Amos in order that we can be a church that goes through fire and tribulation without faltering. It is time to live out the words that Matt Redman penned many years ago:
When the music fades and all is stripped away, and I simply come
Longing just to bring something that's of worth that will bless Your heart
I'll bring You more than a song, for a song in itself is not what You have required
You search much deeper within, through the way things appear,
You're looking into my heart.
I'm coming back to the heart of worship, and it's all about You, Jesus.
I'm sorry, Lord, for the thing I made it, when it's all about You, Jesus.