Worship At A Crossroads: Congregationalism Versus Performancism

1The worship wars are over.

The worship wars were a battle between organs and guitars. Choirs and praise bands. Robes and blue jeans. Hymnal versus projector. Traditional versus contemporary. Old versus new.

They were mainly about style. The genre of the music, the instrumentation, the attire of the pastors, the vehicle for musical notation (or lack thereof), the authorship date of the songs.

And now, by and large, those wars have subsided and a delicate peace has settled in. Churches either went full throttle in one direction, and left any detractors in the smoke (and those detractors found a different church), or they went the “blended” route and offer multiple service styles in multiple venues in order to appease the factions and prevent them from killing each other. A small amount of churches survived the worship wars with their worship ethos in tact. Good for them.

Now we are at a worship crossroads.

This conversation isn’t so much about style. It transcends style.

This is about substance. It’s more about the “And so?” and less about the “And how?” It’s more about the heart of the leaders and less about the preferences of the worshippers.

This is about a fundamental distinction between two models of worship leading (irrespective of the style of music). The first model views the congregation’s engagement as integral. The second model views the congregation’s engagement as incidental. The first model I call “congregationalism” and the second model I call “performancism”.

Congregationalism: a model of worship leading that views the engagement of the congregation as integral to the success of a worship service.

Performancism: a model of worship leading that views the engagement of the congregation as incidental to the success of a worship service.

Engagement: the congregation’s active participation, in unity and with comprehension, throughout the majority of a worship service.

Gone are the days when the argument could be made that organs equaled bored congregations and guitars equaled revival. That argument has been destroyed over the last two decades as the embrace of “contemporary” expressions oftentimes resulted in drastically diminished congregational engagement in worship.

And vice versa, gone are the days when the argument could be made that contemporary worship meant death and destruction and drivel, and traditional worship meant the preservation of all things beautiful and holy. That argument has been destroyed as we witness not only the maturity of so many contemporary expressions, but also the withering decline of churches and denominations whose traditional liturgy and instrumentation have been unable to mask its internal rot.

It’s possible to have the most traditional of traditional churches, with organs and choirs and smells and bells and hymnals and robes and kneelers, and have a congregation whole-heartedly engaged in worship of Jesus Christ. And in this stylistic vein, it’s also possible to have congregations who sit in their seats and watch the professionals do their completely inaccessible thing which, while impressive, does not call forth any response from the congregation other than, perhaps, an “ah that was nice”.

And conversely, it’s possible to have the most contemporary of contemporary churches (so contemporary they don’t even use the traditional word “contemporary” anymore), with guitars, drums, screens, top-notch equipment, lights, loops, effects, video, and coffee bars, and have a congregation drawn in to see and savor the glory of Jesus Christ, singing their hearts out. And with this same style repeated down to the very last v-neck shirt, you can have congregations who are literally left in the dark, watching a performance, being sung at, and resigning themselves to a passive role as a passive observer of something that’s designed to look and sound dynamic.

I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve had a conversation with someone, usually a total non-musician, who has lived in the middle of this tension at their church (or former church) for a long period of time. They can’t put their finger on what’s so difficult for them about the worship leading model at their church, and when I begin to explain my theory to them, their eyes begin to light up as I appear to be verbalizing what they’ve experienced internally. Their stylistic preferences are all over the map – but in their heart – they’re weary and leery of performancism.

Style isn’t the issue anymore. It’s substance now. The “how” (i.e. what instrumentation will we use) has given way to the “so” (i.e. what is the end result of what we’re doing?)

The worship leading model of congregationalism says the “so” is: so that people will be engaged (actively).

The worship leading model of performancism says the “so” is: so that people will have an experience (passively).

Congregationalism is specific when it comes to the desired goal during the music: the congregation singing along with one another. Facilitating their singing is the worship leader’s number one priority.

Performancism is vague: the congregation is there to experience the experience, and if they happen to be able to sing along, then that’s great. But if they can’t sing along, then at least they had an experience.

This is the crossroads where we find ourselves.

It’s not about style anymore, though issues of style certainly flare up in many places with a good deal of noise. This conversation transcends style and begs a simple question: is the congregation’s engagement in worship integral or incidental?

The answer to that simple question will determine a church’s trajectory for the next several decades, and perhaps longer. I pray that a fresh commitment to congregational worship will sweep across the worldwide church, overturning performancism, and drawing the Bride of Christ into increasing unity in the years to come.

Lord I Need You… Really I Do

1This morning I led two songs of worship at our staff meeting. About 40 of us gathered in a circle, and after we read Psalm 135 responsively, I launched into “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”. The staff here loves to sing, and the song went well, with a few repeats thrown in here and there as it felt appropriate. That song ended and I transitioned into “Lord, I Need You”.

Everything was going fine. Good lyrics, good keys, the people were singing, I was relaxed, and there weren’t any issues.

One small problem. I forgot that “Lord, I Need You” is in 4/4, not 3/4. We sang a few lines of it in the wrong time signature and everything felt off. Really off. I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing wrong. So, I stopped. I said something like “so, I think I just forgot how this song goes…” Someone helpfully pointed out that I “left out an extra beat”. We laughed about it, we started over, and everything was fine. I felt silly, a bit embarrassed, and honestly, I felt humbled.

I had put together a fine 2-song set for an early morning staff meeting. I was doing a good job. But then I made a silly rookie mistake. And ironically, it was on a song titled “Lord, I Need You”.

So, two lessons:

1. Mistakes happen. Sometimes you can cover them up. But sometimes you can’t, so own up to them, laugh about them, and move on.

2. God has a sense of humor. I will never sing “Lord, I Need You” the same way. Now I’ll really mean those words!

Be careful out there, worship leaders. God is waiting just around the corner to teach you new lessons and keep you humble.

29 Commitments

1This past weekend I took a short trip to Syria.

Syria, Virginia, that is.

Our choir takes their yearly retreat at a little mountain lodge there, and I joined them for about a day and a half of rehearsals, fellowship, country food, and some time with this friendly black bear who graced the stair-rail with his welcoming smile.

Since I’m still new in my role here at Truro, I took some time on Saturday morning to share my story with the choir, how God led my family and me to Truro, and my 29 commitments as the “Director of Worship and Arts”. Here’s what I shared I’m committed to:

1. The centrality of Jesus

May Jesus be high and lifted up and central in all that we do.

2. Musical excellence

Whether it’s a sacred hymn, a contemporary song, or a Bach cantata, let it be done with excellence and skill.

3. Musical vibrancy
We will pursue what theologians call “oomph”.

4. Musical variety

Let’s never become musically myopic.

5. Lyrical integrity
What we sing matters.

6. Theological clarity
What we sing needs to be clear.

7. The authority and primacy of scripture.

Music isn’t the sword of the Spirit. Scripture is.

8. The presence and power of the Holy Spirit

May God keep us from being so confident in our own abilities that we forget our utter dependence on him.

9. The Anglican liturgy
It’s beautiful, it’s helpful, and it’s biblical.

10. The hymns of the faith
We won’t sing a token hymn or two just so we can say we sang a hymn. We will incorporate hymns as a staple of our corporate worship.

11. Classical music
I’m not a classically trained musician, but I love it and am committed to making sure it’s always expressed here with excellence.

12. Contemporary music
We will continue to branch out and mature in our vibrant incorporation of contemporary music.

13. This choir
I love choirs. I want to see this choir continue to grow and thrive.

14. Raising up new worship leaders
We have to do this!

15. Incorporating more musicians and singers
I dream of a crowded platform on Sunday mornings, full of singers and musicians passionate for God’s glory.

16. Good sound
We will take all the steps we can to make sure the mix/volume/sound on Sunday mornings is as good as it can possibly be.

17. Effective utilization of technology
If we’re going to utilize technology on Sunday mornings (which I think we should), we should do it with excellence.

18. Congregational singing
If the congregation isn’t robustly joining in, something is wrong.

19. Humility

God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (Proverbs 3:34).

20. Light-heartedness
We will have fun together, poke fun at one another, and I’ll model this by poking fun at myself first.

21. Professionalism
We’ll be prepared. We’ll be rehearsed. We won’t be throwing things together two minutes before a service starts.

22. Leaning forward

I’d rather us err on the side of leaning into what new things God is doing, as opposed to staying where it’s safe and comfortable. I’d rather go on a trip somewhere than spin my wheels in the same spot.

23. Spontaneity
I always want to be attentive during our services to what God is saying, and if he’s saying we should adjust anything we planned.

24. Planning

Healthy spontaneity can’t exist when there isn’t intentional and prayerful planning. God will oftentimes (!) tell us in advance what he’d like for us to do.

25. Modeling/encouraging biblical expressiveness

Biblical worship is expressive worship. Let’s model this from up-front.

26. Open communication

My door is open, my phone is on, and my inbox receives emails. If you have any questions, frustrations, suggestions, critiques, and maybe even compliments, I’d love to hear them from you directly.

27. Punctuality
We’ll start and end our rehearsals on time. We’ll try to do the same with our services!

28. Tory
 (my pastor)
I’m committed to Tory. He is a friend. He is a good man. He is a good pastor. I support what he’s done and what’s he doing in his leadership of Truro. I want to support him however I can.

29. My family
My family comes first! And so does yours. Always prioritize your family.

Here is how I summed this up for our choir:

I am committed to making this work. Yes, I will make some mistakes. And I will frustrate you! But you now know my motives. There’s nothing hidden here. I’m not coming in with a plan to turn everything on its head and bring in disco balls and smoke machines (well, maybe disco balls). I long to see Jesus exalted and the congregation engaged. This is what drives me. These are my main priorities. 

We are not enemies. We are friends. We are partners. We must never become enemies. God help us. God help me. That will not happen. The best is yet to come. So let’s give it a go.

Is Music a Tool or a Gift? Or Both?

1Last week in my post “Jesus Is The Feast” I made the point that discussions and arguments about music (especially in the church) go awry when we’re under the impression that music is the feast. It’s not. Jesus is the feast and music is a wonderful tool to help people encounter him, savor him, and feast on him.

I had a few questions along the lines of: “But isn’t music is gift? Isn’t saying ‘Music is a tool’ downplaying the fact that it’s a gift from God?” My response was that music is both a tool and a gift. It doesn’t have to be either/or.

Bob Kauflin has been hugely instrumental in helping me (and many others) think through the role of music. I asked him this question: is music a tool or a gift? He responded:

Is music a gift or a tool? Why do we have to make a choice? It’s like food. Is it a gift or a tool? It’s both. It’s easy to see food as a gift when you think of the variety of tastes, textures, and smells God has caused it to be associated with. Filet Mignon, chocolate, corn on the cob, and sweet red apples are gifts! But we eat to survive and to maintain our strength. Mothers can use food as way of blessing their families. In those senses food is a tool that serves a functional purpose. It’s unhelpful and unnecessary to say that food is either a gift or a tool. Likewise, music is gift we can delight in, enjoy, and thank God for whether we’re enjoying pop, classical, jazz, or bluegrass. But it becomes tool when we use it to enable the word of Christ to dwell in us richly, to teach and admonish one another, and to express gratefulness in our hearts to God (Colossians 3:16).

The point of all of this is that music, in its proper place, is a wonderful tool God has given us for his glory, for the proclamation of the gospel, and for the edification of the church. It’s also a wonderful gift of common grace that the whole world can enjoy and delight in. But music is not an end unto itself. It is a means to an end. And the end is the praise of the glorious grace of God in Christ. When we forget this, and the means becomes the end, we are like a dog chasing its tail in a futile search for fulfillment.

Music will not ultimately fulfill anyone or save anyone. Only Jesus will. Music can (and should) preach that message loud and strong. This is the good news of the gospel that can (and should) unite Christians all over the musical preference spectrum.

Jesus Is The Feast

1There’s a line of thinking from those who prefer traditional forms of worship/music that goes something like this:

Contemporary worship is like dessert. It’s sweet, appealing, and easy, but not long-lasting. It might bring people in, but it won’t keep them nourished. It might bring immediate satisfaction, but it isn’t healthy. Traditional worship and more classical forms of music are more like a feast. It’s like the difference between plasticware and fine china. Traditional hymns and classical instrumentation require a more refined, mature, and discerning pallet. We can’t have the sounds of the world in our church services. We must move people beyond the dessert and into the feast. Only then will our congregations experience the “real thing”.

On the flip side, there’s a line of thinking from those who prefer contemporary forms of worship/music that goes something like this:

Traditional worship is all religion, all ritual, and all routine. Classical forms of music are irrelevant to most people in our culture, and the traditional hymns don’t engage people’s hearts like contemporary songs do. No one can relate to choirs, organs, hymns, or hymnals. If you want to help people really worship – not just with their minds but with their hearts – you’ll use the more accessible contemporary songs. And if you want to draw in the younger generation, you’ll use the kinds of music they’re used to hearing. Contemporary music feeds people and meets people where they are. Traditional worship starves people and leaves them cold.

I’ve heard both of these arguments for almost my entire life. My guess is that most of you have too, and you’ve probably made one (or both) of these arguments at one point or another. The problem, of course, is that they’re both ridiculously off-base.

Why? Because Jesus is the feast.

Few issues generate as much passion and division as the topic of music in the church. And for generations, scores of well-meaning and godly people have come down on all sides of the “is music neutral” or “is music non-neutral” argument. I tried to tackle some of this several years ago in my most “Handiwork and Jesus” but for now I want to make one simple point and give one simple reminder:

Jesus is the feast. And music is a tool. 

Music is not the feast. Our choirs, organs, harpsichords, festivals, liturgy, and soloists are not the feast. Our bands, screens, effects, lights, state-of-the-art worshiptoriums, and worship leaders are not the feast. When they are, and when we make them to be, then of course we can exalt or put-down the lesser-feast that we see down the road (or down the church hallway at the alternate service).

The Church must never forget that Jesus is the feast. Music (traditional or contemporary or hipster or whatever) is just a tool. A passing tool. A tool that will inevitably look like bell-bottoms to some future generation. But Jesus never fades, changes, or disappoints. Jesus always satisfies. May our churches embrace a confident, wide-range, biblical, and whole-hearted embrace of all sorts of styles of music as we seek to exalt and point to the One who calls us to feast on him.