When I say the word “worship,” what pops in your head? You might hear an organ playing a familiar tune or remember your mother clutching her hymn book, harmonizing to “Come, Thou Fount.” Alternatively, you may envision a full band on a stage, with colourful lights and a bass so heavy you can feel it vibrate your entire body. Though these two versions of worship have their striking differences, they seek to do the same thing – help us to enter a space of vulnerability with God and experience a true connection with him.
Sometimes, however, this good intention is lost and we begin to focus more on the excellence of the music than on the excellence of Jesus. We need to sound perfect. The guitars cannot be out of tune. The singers have to hit every run. The lighting has to match the emotions of the song. If there is even one thing out of place, we focus on that one thing and distract our hearts. There is beauty in doing worship well, but it must be a genuine excellence.
Talent or thanks?
“The gift of worship becomes tainted,” says Sam Stanley, a fellow worship leader and ministry assistant for Christian Life Assembly, a church in B.C. “Rather than an expression of thanks, it turns into a performance of talent.” Our goal in worship should be to lead in such a way that we do not fixate on the quality of performance – whether good or bad – but instead to worship God as he intended. When we hide behind sentiments of “we have to bring excellence to God,” God has actually been forgotten and replaced with perfection or self-glorification. It has become more about music worship, instead of worship music.
It is important to have songs everyone can relate to, as they help us to reflect on ourselves and the way we are living. Songs about human emotion help us to wrestle or meditate on the word of God in unique ways, but too many of these songs in a worship set can make it feel self-centered. Worship is not about us, it’s about praising and glorifying God for who he is and what he has done: As the Westminster Confession says, “the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by his own revealed will.”
The global pandemic has forced congregational worship to evolve. In some places the challenges have brought on a new kind of flourishing, but for many churches the shutdowns have precipitated weaker church connections. In a controversial op-ed, Anglican pastor and author Tish Harrison Warren argues that, once lockdowns are over, churches should drop their online services: “Online church, while it was necessary for a season, diminishes worship and us as people. We seek to worship wholly – with heart, soul, mind and strength – and embodiment is an irreducible part of that wholeness” (New York Times, Jan. 31, 2022).
Worship is a crucial element in our lives. There may be moments when people interpret being involved with worship as giving them some sort of elevated status over others. In those cases, and when music has become the priority and worship secondary, we must go back to the beginning. We must remember why we worship, and who it is about. As my fellow worship leader Stanley says, “we have to fight against the temptations to make it about sounding perfect, make it about ourselves, or being a performance void of truth.” In our worship, whether on stage or in the back row, every word, chord, and moment of pause is all about God, and nothing else.
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