Why Be Sly?

I really enjoy watching other churches’ worship services online. It might sound a little weird but it’s true. Sitting at my desk, I can visit churches all over the world, without having to pay for airfare or a hotel. It’s great. It bores my wife to tears, but I think it’s fascinating to see how other churches do things, how their worship leaders lead, what kind of songs they’re singing, how their services are structured, and how the congregations seem to respond.

I have to be careful not to be overly critical of the churches I watch online – since it’s easy to criticize when I’m watching a service on my computer screen – but I have to say that there are far more things I see that concern me than encourage me.

By far, the most common criticism I would have is that worship teams seem to be much more interested in performing songs and putting on a show than they are in leading people to exalt and magnify the greatness of God. I get the feeling I’m watching a Disney production – slick, overly rehearsed, and seamlessly choreographed. And I can’t quite understand why worship leaders and their vocalists stare into the congregation, scanning from left to right, with a smile on their face at all times, with an occasional head-nod or finger-point.

But that’s not my main point. One other common criticism I have is that churches, and specifically their worship leaders, seem either incapable or unwilling to make the truth of the gospel plain in the songs they sing. They’re sly about it. Under the guise of creativity, the clear message of the good news of Jesus Christ gets covered over by confusing lyrics, subtle references, and sparse objective biblical truth. Everything is foggy.

I’m reminded of a quote by Northrop Frye, a literary critic, who said in reference to the writings of Jacob Boehme, a 17th century German theologian: “…his books are like a picnic to which the author brings the words and the reader the meaning.”

The same could be said about the songs so many churches are singing. The time of singing is the picnic, the worship leader brings the words, and the congregation is asked to deduce the meaning on their own.

Why be sly? Why “beat around the gospel bush” as Bob Kauflin puts it. Why would we, as worship leaders, squander any opportunity to present people with the glorious truth of the Gospel? It doesn’t make any sense and it’s tragic.

A large church in Indiana opened their Easter service with the song “When the Morning Comes” by OK Go. Here are the lyrics to the first two verses:

You know you can’t keep lettin’ it get you down
And you can’t keep draggin’ that dead weight around.
If there ain’t all that much to lug around,
Better run like hell when you hit the ground.
When the morning comes.
When the morning comes.

You can’t stop these kids from dancin’.
Why would you want to?
Especially when you’re already gettin’ yours.
‘Cause if your mind don’t move and your knees don’t bend,
well don’t go blamin’ the kids again.
When the morning comes.
When the morning comes.

What does this have to do with Easter? What does this have to do with Jesus conquering death and being raised to life? I don’t get it. And my guess is that a lot of people that morning didn’t get it either. 

While this is one of the more egregious examples of a song that, rather than making Jesus plain, is murky and lightweight and confusing, it isn’t too far off from the kinds of songs other churches are singing.

They might have great melodies, be in the CCLI top 25, be really modern, have a great groove, or be a congregation-favorite. But is the message clear? And what is that message exactly?

Paul said in Romans 1:16: “…I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…”

If the power of God is found in the gospel of Jesus Christ, then let us not be ashamed in making that gospel clear every single Sunday, every single service, and every single song. Let’s not be sly or subtle about it. And try to stop scanning the room and nodding your head if you can help it.

7 thoughts on “Why Be Sly?”

  1. No idea why a church would pick “When the Morning Comes,” but OK Go sure has a cool video for that song:

  2. Thanks for the post on this topic. That OK GO song is a very…um, interesting choice.

    Could you explain more about what you mean when you said: “…stare into the congregation, scanning from left to right, with a smile on their face at all times, with an occasional head-nod or finger-point.”

    Are you just referring to leaders/singers who just stand and sing “to the crowd” with a fake smile, instead of worshiping?

  3. Hi Cyrus. Yes, I oftentimes see singers and worship leaders who are singing “to the crowd”. That’s what I was talking about. It’s good to open your eyes and actually look at the people you’re leading – but they’re not the ones you’re singing “to”.

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