The last time that we gathered together, we began a discussion of unhelpful trends in contemporary worship and how we might address them. I urged those of us who lead contemporary worship to help their congregations cherish the musical and theological heritage of the church while they introduce them to new expressions of the faith that we all hold dear. I also encouraged leaders to focus on God and resist the temptation to make worship all about whatever it is that contemporary culture says we need.
In this blog post, I want to turn our attention to a third unfortunate trend in contemporary worship. Then I want to help us think through what addressing these trends will mean for our own workloads and the demands that we place on our congregants. In the process, I hope that this two-part discussion will help you be a better worship leader and a more sensitive shepherd of those you lead.
Encourage Congregational Participation
One of the really important things that emerged from our previous discussion of this topic is that we want people to focus on God precisely because it is God who can meet their emotional and spiritual needs. Obviously, that means helping people see that God loves them and that God has acted lovingly towards them by sending Christ to die on the cross. But it also means helping them understand that this good news, and not the counterfeit “good news” proclaimed by the world through its pop music and self-help talk shows, is what they actually need.
If, however, we are going to bring people into a real encounter with God—the kind of encounter that has the power to “change what we see and what we seek” (in the words of Merideth Andrews’ “Spirit of the Living God”)— then we must create a worship environment where the congregation participates meaningfully in the worship service. Some churches have so sanitized and professionalized their worship as to make it impossible for any normal human to have a role, and, in so doing, such churches have subtly communicated to the congregation that they are not worthy to participate in the worship of God.
That is not how we should construct our worship services. The issue here is not the desire to offer God our best. Whether we pay our musicians or use volunteers, whether we use an elaborate light show with smoke machines and video boards or create a much more intimate atmosphere, we can still offer the congregation opportunities to join those who lead in worship.
One way that we do this is by playing our music at a volume that allows people to hear their neighbors—and themselves—sing. It may seem obvious to some, but we need to remind ourselves that we are not producing a rock concert. We do not need to blare the music so loudly that people cannot hear themselves think. Rather, the music needs to be a prompt and a guide for each person’s own expression of praise and pain.
As long as I live, I will never forget the worship at Camp Siloam in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. I attended the camp as an adolescent, and I took kids there as a youth minister in college. The worship center at the camp is beautiful. The musicians that the camp employed were good, and they led us in music that really spoke to us. But what I remember most is the singing of the campers. Each year, more than 1,000 of us filled that auditorium with earnest and honest praise. There wasn’t a piece of sheet music anywhere in that place (except maybe on the stage), but it was nothing to hear six-part harmony spontaneously burst forth from the young men and women who were there. It was the first time that worship moved me to tears.
Another way to encourage congregational participation in worship is to incorporate more than music into the weekly worship services. There are many good reasons for doing this, but one of the most important is that it allows people with non-musical gifts to use those gifts in support of the congregation’s worship. The diet of worship expressions can be as varied as the gifts and talents that are available in a given congregation. Obviously, prayer and Bible reading should be part of every service, but interpretive dance, the visual arts (including painting, sculpture, wood-working, etc.), dramatic presentations, videography, and other media can be used to involve gifted people in worship.
A third way that we can encourage congregational participation in worship is to keep in mind the importance of story when we select those who lead the congregation’s worship activities. What do I mean? Simply this. We will enhance the worship experience of our congregants when we choose people to lead them who they know—and people whose stories clearly reflect that grand story of God’s saving, transforming, and healing agenda. When a child adopted by a family in our church sings about no longer being an orphan, when a recovering addict prays for those who are lost in sin, when a young widow–still grieving for the husband she lost too soon—reads a passage of Scripture about the hope that is available in Christ, a doorway is opened up by which those in the audience can enter into that person’s story. Congregants can experience the heartbreak and the hope that is the Christian story, and they can be confronted by their own need for God’s saving, transforming, and healing work.
Work and Time
Implementing worship practices that are both innovative and deeply rooted, that are focused on God without ignoring the needs of people, and that involve the congregation in meaningful ways will require worship leaders to engage in no small amount of hard work. Worship leaders and other staff members will have to learn not only their craft but also their congregation. They will have to develop theological depth and pastoral sensitivity as well as musical excellence.
Moreover, doing these things on a consistent basis will require congregations to invest a significant amount of time in the act of worship. It will not do to simply give the worship ministry the leftovers after the pastor has taken all the time that he or she wants. Nor will it do to put the worship team and pastor on a schedule that is dictated by the desires of church members for other things. The kind of worship we are talking about in this essay takes time, and it will sometimes take more time than any of us really want to give.
Nevertheless, I am convinced that it is worth the time and the work that we put into it. We cannot save anyone from anything. We cannot fix what is wrong with ourselves, much less what is wrong with the world. But we can lead people to the One who is infinitely more capable than we are—the One who rescues lost sheep, who straightens out warped minds, and who heals broken hearts. Worship is one of the primary ways we do that, and so we owe it to ourselves and to the people we lead to do it in a way that really helps people encounter God.