About twenty years ago, along with the revival God was giving us, there came a refreshing, creative surge of new forms of worship. Until that time, worship seemed to fall into two camps--wild or dead. Both were impersonal.
That surge touched my parched being in two ways, almost simultaneously. One was the rediscovered art of singing the Scripture. I played the records of those first Scripture songs time and time again, often simply lying down between the speakers of my rudimentary stereo to let my being absorb the words and music. It was an acre of heaven.
The second touch of the surge was a wave of new worship that accompanied the revival. I was still "back East," as Californians would say, when records of entirely new songs passed from the hands of Dempster Evans to mine.
My cultural rigidities were shaken enough to crack open and let joy explode at the hearing of "Maranatha Music" from Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa. A new river had to be penned in on my map.
Refreshingly, worship was no longer a three-song-and-offering preliminary for a sermon. Now, it was an entity of its own--a joyful companion to the receiving of the Word.
Gentleness marked this new wave of worship along with naturalness and intimacy. Although this worship springing from the hearts of the Jesus Movement was intense, gentleness kept it from having any frightening forms. The knowledge that nothing would be done to embarrass you or single you out in an audience offered a delightful new freedom of worship. The neophyte and the sophisticate were equally at home.
Songs that could be easily remembered and sung brought the Choirs down from their lofts and made music the property of everyone. Now it was "natural" to sing and play these new songs repeatedly all day on our new technological tape-wonders. No clever methods were needed to urge the overflow of our hearts past our vocal cords. Though we were gladly together, we were still locked into privacy with God as we sang personally to him of our love. We learned to linger with God. The lingering continues.
Power flowed from this rediscovery of worship, power in excess. Just as a river will form dangerous whirlpools at the edges, so the power of worship has swirled in some problems around the edges. I wish to address those problems in hopes that we can keep the channel of praise flowing.
The first problem that demands attention is one that is typical of any powerful expression of God that spawns a movement--in time we begin to focus on the movement rather than on God. The "Faith" movement became one that exhibited faith in faith. Now I detect in what might be called a "worship" movement a tendency to worship worship. When I hear sermons and read writings that go to great lengths to show me what worship has done in the pas t and how powerful worship was in Scripture, then I realize that the focus has become on worship rather than on the God of worship and a certain amount of worship by formula has developed.
A typical result of the "worship of worship" is energy spent developing new and creative forms of worship because worship is so powerful rather than focusing on God himself and exploring the release of all our attention toward him. The distinction may be subtle sometimes, but it is there.
Sometimes, the fact that God told Israel to send Judah (Judah means "praise") into battle first causes us to think that this was some generic statement about "praise" in all its forms. Those who hold to this theory as the primary means of battling Satan forget the fact that it was also Judah (Judas) who betrayed Jesus.
Sewing Up the Veil
A second problem has been born from the womb of an inaccurate view of all that Jesus came to do. Frequently, I meet the teaching that in order to worship properly, we must adopt a "Davidic" form. This system seems to include copying worship methods that can be seen or deduced from the life of David and in the Psalms as well as approaching God and worship in progressive stages as if moving through the rooms or places of the Temple until finally you emotionally or spiritually reach the Holy of Holies.
The Davidic forms are rousingly presented and seem to include dance, banner, song and shout as well as other forms I have not observed. The "Temple" approach seems to be (primarily by choice of song) progressive intimacy with God until finally, in our most intimate moment with him, we can go behind the veil into the place of the Mercy Seat.
Although I agree with the goal of those who insist on "Davidic" or "Temple" forms and would not question their love of God and worship of Him, it still seems to me that with their forms they are attempting to resew the veil that was torn open when Jesus was crucified. By paying the ultimate and final sacrifice, Jesus made it possible for us to "come boldly before the throne of grace (Mercy Seat) and find grace to help in time of need." (Hebrews 4:16) Indeed, the Glory of God left the Holy of Holies when the veil was ripped, as Jesus indicated when he said their house was left "desolate." When I am worshiping with those who feel we must march through the Temple, I feel a little sadness for them, because, while they think they are still in the outer court, I and they are actually instantly in the Holy of Holies.
IN SPIRIT AND IN TRUTH
However, my greatest argument against adherence to such a system or to any system comes from the words of Jesus to the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus informed her that "A time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem....True worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks." (John 4:21,23) At this point, Jesus was laying aside all formulas and places as a prerequisite for true worship. The temple is now our hearts. Worship is anywhere and any time and in whatever form focuses my adoration on God. Any attempt to return to a form associated with the temple or to any form as a prerequisite is a violation of these words of Jesus.
Neither worshiping worship by the intensity of our attention to worship itself or dependence on some form as a necessity are insurmountable problems, but they are problems, nonetheless. Unfortunately, worshiping worship or developing formulas produce deviations in worship leaders that must be brought back on course and develop a guilt and anxiety among worshipers from which they must be freed. That course-correction and freedom are needs strong enough to cause me to write so opinionated an article as this.
THE WORSHIP LEADER MYSTIQUE
Since worship has grown beyond the "mere preliminary" label in a service and now stands on its own, the task of being a worship leader also takes on new meaning. At one time in my experience, the worship leader was most valued for his ability to exhort, cajole and, hopefully, involve the congregation in energetic singing and other forms of worship expression. Since worship has taken on renewed interest there is less need for external pushing. Now, the leader's own musical skills and the example of worship become the desired traits. Also, the worship leader takes on a much more important role, because, now, worship typically lasts longer.
However, the new longer role of the leader creates a certain territoriality that has brought division in more than one church I know. Whenever the worship leader begins to feel that the worship service belongs to him and that his worship understanding surpasses that of the pastor, trouble has arisen that will usually mean the exit of the worship leader.
Sometimes, worship leaders feel that they are more in touch with what the Holy Spirit is doing than the pastor is. Often they resent turning the service over to the pastor because they feel that worship is going so well that to stop it for some other part of the schedule would be to quench the Spirit. That is an erroneous assumption that comes from a misunderstanding of what he is actually supposed to do.
An effective worship leader realizes that he is an extended hand of the pastor and that the pastor is actually the worship leader. The worship leader must never assume that he is more in touch with the action of the Holy Spirit than the pastor is. God has placed the pastor in responsibility and the worship leader must never subvert that position. The worship leader must never feel that worship is incomplete if the pastor signals a time to end. To oppose the pastor's discernment is an arrogance that can only destroy the worship leader's effectiveness.
Occasionally, I see worship leaders who feel they are in charge of the theology of the church and attempt to bring in their own set of teachings through their worship. Sometimes they succeed in supplanting church theology because they are popular and effective. When they do this, they have sacrificed their servanthood and sewn the seeds of division.
The best leader will try to become invisible as quickly as possible. He realizes that his best servanthood is to be merely a bridge to focus the attention of the people on God and will try to be as unnoticed as any bridge would be. Leadership does not mean an opportunity to show off skills or knowledge, only an opportunity to show the face of God.
I once watched a leader stop a congregation twice during a song, because he felt we weren't singing it right. It was a painful time as we bent to his wishes. We finally sang it right, according to him, but he had destroyed the worship moment.
An invisible worship leader will avoid beginning worship with a song people can't sing or try to teach a song at the very start. To do this makes people aware of their own inadequacy and resentful of the skill of the leader. I deeply enjoy having someone pull me quickly into adoration of God with a song readily known and singable and then let learning of a new song be the result of my desire to further worship rather than the need of the leader to teach me a new song.
An invisible leader sees his skills in an humble manner. In worship, I believe music skills are for equipping, not for exhibition. Consequently, the leader should practice his musical abilities in order for him to feel so comfortable with his own skills that he doesn't have to pay them any attention--he can focus his attention on God and the congregation. Also, his skills, as he improves them, will become so congruous with the worship that it blends with the people rather than interrupts them.
The invisible leader assumes that people came to worship and does not tell them that they should or need to convince them that they can. He beckons and does not shove. He invites, not threatens.
When I see a good worship leader I notice a difficult-to-define trait about him that I call "presence." This trait is noticeable in that he is fully "there" and given to God and the people and yet not lost in his own thoughts and agenda. Presence has several parts to it. One, is "resonance." Resonance is the ability to flow with the culture in which you are leading worship. Such a leader would instinctively know not to do a clapping song in a "high church" situation nor sing a funeral dirge at a child's dedication.
A leader with resonance is as aware of the people and their needs as he is of his own music. Consequently, he can think of the need to reduce their anxiety about themselves and what is going on so that they can focus their attention on God. Indeed, the term "resonance" speaks of helping people be in communication with God. The good leader knows that his job is to become invisible. He is merely a bridge carrying the attention of the people to God and anything that interrupts that attention is a roadblock thrown in their way.
Another facet of "Presence" is "tongue control." The leader must suppress anything that would divert a God-ward look, including any tendency to focus on the leader because of his voice. Whenever the leader decides to do any talking, he should consider every word to be a flat tire. Comments, explanations, exhortations from the worship leader wrestle my attention away from God himself. Nothing is more disconcerting that to begin worship, fix my attention on God, and then have the worship leader stop and encourage me to worship or berate me for not having done it well enough. Exhortation from a leader to worship better merely focuses my attention on what I am doing, not on God himself.
One need not even say, "Let's sing this next song in worship to God." Of course we will! What is the purpose of the meeting, anyway? Or one need not say, "Sing this next song as a prayer." If it is a prayer, it will be self-evident and the words of exhortation only insult our intelligence.
Another part of "Presence" is "Anxiety-Reduction." They are alert to disruptions of worship beside mere talk. With some frequency, I find worship leaders demanding that I turn and stare at someone else as I sing a certain song such as "I Love You with the Love of the Lord." Nothing sends my anxiety level higher and wrenches my attention from God more than that. When I see this happen, I assume the leader has his own agenda and does not understand what problem he has created in the congregation.
Perhaps the most common disruption (which has both its pluses and minuses) is the practice of standing during the entire worship service. This is obviously easier for a young and muscular group. Many people who are unable to stand that long would feel themselves to be outside of the realm of acceptance. After the first fifteen minutes I begin to notice my feet and legs more than I am noticing the opportunity to worship. Also, because I have to stand for another hour to speak I don't want to tire too early.
Also counterproductive is excessive standing and sitting. It is not distracting to me to stand at a certain point in worship or when it truly seems appropriate, but when it is popcorn up and down I begin to wonder if the leader is nervous. Also, I find that "presence" lacking when a leader has us stand at a certain point and I never can figure out why he did; or to tell us all to stand and then say we can sit down or stand up depending on what we like.
If a leader chooses to have people stand, which is fine, he should be aware that there is also a need to tell them to sit down. "Presence" will be alert to the feelings of the congregation, not just to a preset agenda.
One item of congregational action that has all the elements of excellence but can still fall into the category of distraction is for the leader to ask that everyone hold the hands of the persons on either side. Here is the potential problem: Though there is a command to take the hand of the person next to you, there is not a comfortable opposite command. When we are told to stand up, there is a comfortable opposite--"you may be seated." Not so with holding hands. What would you say? "Unhand each other?" So, if a leader plans to have us hold hands, he must think ahead and be sure that there is a natural moment soon when we can free each other from our sweaty palms.
Another somewhat-hard-to-define but you-know-when-you-have-it trait is sensitivity. The sensitive worship leader is one who can freely set the example by his worship but stay constantly alert to the signals of the pastor and the reactions of the congregation.
Often I see worship leaders who have led a successful worship time begin to feel that they are "on a roll" and will push to maintain length and intensity of spirit as far as they can. I think they feel they are quenching the Spirit if they quit before the "roll" ends. The sensitive leader knows better. He knows that the important thing is that worship has truly occurred, not that it has gone on for a long time. The sensitive leader knows when worship has occurred and has no hidden agenda that demands that he do more than that.
At the same time, the sensitive leader is not a slave to the clock so that he thinks worship must last fifteen, thirty or sixty minutes.
A good worship leader will have a high sense of ethics in his relationship with the people so that he won't have a hidden agenda or try to "do" something to the people by manipulative methods. He will be careful not to be just a collector of ideas from other worship situations to "try" on the people. He will simply see himself as a servant who happens to have certain skills to lay at the feet of God and the people.
I suppose it can all be condensed to a proper understanding of the two greatest commandments that Jesus seemed to feel were only one: "You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. The second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." Matthew 22:37-40
If a leader can help me love God and people and can maintain an honest relationship with the people who follow, the high wave of our new worship should roll on for a long time.