The evangelical church is at a worship crossroads.
A generation of older, baby-boomer, not-so-hipster worship leaders are in the last decade or two of their full-time ministry. And a new generation of younger, Generation X, youthfully vigorous worship leaders have taken (or are about to take) the wheel. They are determining the trajectory of worship in music all around the world and will be at the helm for the next 20-30 years.
As a card-carrying member of this generation, I say that we have some very important decisions to make. Can this trend towards performancism be reversed? Can we spend “our turn” stewarding our ministries in such a way that orients the worship of the church more strongly towards the glory of God in Jesus Christ and away from the performance of the people on stage?
It’s important to know the wrong turns that have led much of the evangelical worship world to where it is today: embracing a trend of performancism in worship.
Wrong turn # 1: Away from substance
The message really does matter. The means matter, but when the means become the message, or obscure the message, and when this is OK with us, we have lost our bearings. Sadly, too many in the evangelical worship world have lost their bearings, and the style is predominant, while the substance is subordinate. Our message is the gospel. The good news of Jesus Christ. The only hope for the world.
In our different contexts, we can and should use any musical means we can to exalt him. But it must always be about exalting him. Is the message crystal clear? Let’s not settle for obscurity. We must ensure that Jesus (the substance) is always front and center, and the music (the style) is always pointing to, magnifying, proclaiming, exalting, and celebrating him. We can’t turn away from this.
Wrong turn # 2: Away from congregational singing
One of the most stunning descriptions of worship in heaven comes in Revelation 5:11-13 when John says that he “looked, and… heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!’ And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!‘”
Not only is the substance of the worship in heaven crystal clear, but the sound of countless voices worshipping “him who sits on the throne and… the Lamb” together is crystal clear as well. How about in our churches?
Worship leaders: we are tragically losing our priority for congregational singing, under the guise of offering people an “experience”. What people need to experience during corporate worship is the corporate praising of Jesus. There is no greater experience to offer people than to stand among others who are lifting their hearts and voices in praise. As wonderful as good effects, art, lighting, arrangements, videos, buildings, liturgy, and pipe organs are, they pale in comparison to the sound of human voices lifted together in worship of God. A worship leader who doesn’t cultivate a singing congregation over time isn’t fulfilling the number one most important part of his job.
If we continue to settle for offering people worship “experiences” and settling for lackluster or even non-existent singing, we are setting evangelical worship on a sure course towards a crash into a wall of flashy, unsatisfying performances. We must lead with a invitational, pastoral heart to draw others in to singing praise with all of heaven. The best kind of “congregational experience” is congregational singing.
Wrong turn # 3: Away from the gospel
I’ve sat through entire church services, listened to entire worship albums, and attended entire conference sessions where the gospel is assumed, not proclaimed, as if everyone in the room has heard the gospel before, has that box checked, and except for when it pops up in a popular song, we don’t really need to emphasize that whole gospel thing very much.
Practically, the gospel assumed is the gospel omitted. Worship leaders, we have a responsibility to our congregations to ensure the centrality of the gospel in our worship services.
It’s Jesus’ “streams of mercy, never ceasing” that “call for songs of loudest praise”. It’s Jesus alone who makes a way for us to “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:16). Christ-centered worship isn’t just a trendy new worship catchphrase. It’s our reality. And we can either choose to center our worship around the good news of Jesus Christ, or we can choose not to. Something will be at the center. What will that “something” be?
When the core is compromised, all the branches are compromised. The core must be the gospel. Must. Must. Must.
Wrong turn # 4: Towards the performers
When you’ve lost your substance, when no one is singing along, and when you’re not centered around the gospel, you gravitate towards hiring/elevating a performer as your worship leader, making him into a mini-celebrity, maybe putting his face on the big screen, and hoping he gets your congregation to worship. The performer/celebrity worship leader phenomenon is troubling and dysfunctional, but it’s a symptom of much deeper problems, and previous “wrong turns” that led to this place.
And this is what has now bubbled up to the surface. Performancism, which requires performers to perpetuate Sunday morning worship performances. But under the surface are deeper issues, and significant wrong turns. We need to commit to addressing the underlying issues, and then we’ll begin to see a change above the surface.
Lest any of what I’ve written be construed as exclusively relevant to contemporary churches with drums and guitars, let me say loud and clear that formal, high-church, liturgical churches with organs and choirs are just as prone to performancism. The performance of an organist, the offerings of a choir, the recitation of a liturgy, the sacred movements of the clergy and acolytes can all become the same kind of performance prevalent in the mega-church down the street. The choir directors, organists, accompanists, and worship leaders at those churches have just as much reason to step back and evaluate their ministries as the guy with a guitar at a church whose liturgy is pretty much “songs then sermon”.
This crossroads is before all of us, formal and informal, liturgical and non-liturgical, mega or small.
We can go down the road towards performancism and find ourselves with congregations who come to observe the actions of the select few on the platform, hearing words and seeing sights that have little lasting impact on their life, with worship leaders building their little worship kingdoms.
Or we can experience another reformation, and cultivate congregations eager to exalt Christ, engaged with God as they draw near to him together, with hearts fixed on him, all the while being served by musicians whose passion is to see the Church gathering and celebrating the good news of the gospel, encountering a living God through his living Word, in the power of his Holy Spirit.
I want to spend my years stewarding that worship reformation wherever I am. 30 years from now I want to hand off to the next generation a worship ministry with an unmistakable trajectory towards Jesus, for Jesus, through Jesus, about Jesus, and in Jesus.
How about you?