Having served as a worship leader in many varying capacities:
- Leading a traditional organ & piano service;
- Guiding a church through a complete transition from a traditional to a contemporary worship style;
- Leading worship in a small start-up church;
- Assisting with leading at a relatively large church with multiple services and teams;
- Leading at a small international church in India;
I have come to a conclusion:
We’re doing it wrong.
The experience of worship in American evangelical churches is not what I would call edifying to us or glorifying to God. Too often it falls into the same errors, because those errors are easy to make, given the Western fascination with celebrity and adulation of the flesh:
- Worship music is shallow and repetitive. Lyrics have no doctrinal content, and are merely cliches strung together. There are two fundamental errors in modern worship songwriting. The first is an over-reliance on cliché and commonplace, banal rhyme schemes and meters. (How many songs rely on tired, uninteresting lines like “saved my soul” rhyming with “made me whole”?) This is sheer laziness on the part of songwriters. The second problem is entirely the opposite: Too much cleverness or imagery or an unwise attempt at being “edgy” usually results in clumsy lyrics that are unsingable by congregants. Lyrics should not induce feelings of puzzlement. A bewildered worshiper is not actually worshiping; he or she simply drops out. (I would also mention another common problem, illustrated by the popular “Revelation Song” — a song I personally like, but which contains the line “to Him who sits on / Heaven’s mercy seat.” No one thought to inform the lyricist in this case that the “mercy seat” is not a “seat” at all; i.e., no one “sits” on it. I suspect this is merely careless songwriting. There are many similar examples. Lyrics should not undermine the congregation’s understanding of Scripture.)
- Worship music is shallow and repetitive. Music patterns are predictable and trite. The impulse to be “edgy” must not be so suppressed as to turn all worship music into bland, predictable cycle of clichés. (How many of today’s worship songs use vi-IV-I-V or its identical twin I-V-vi-IV?? On Paul Baloche’s 2012 record “The Same Love,” for example, it is hard to identify any song that does not use one of those two patterns!). Furthermore, many modern worship songs invite the congregation to sing along on a “whoa whoa whoa” anthemic chorus. Personally I find it impossible to worship when I am saying such things. Likewise, I find the practice (commonly found in Pentecostal churches) of turning a repeated chorus or melody line into a hypnotic trance-inducing mantra to be sub-Christian.
- The worshipers are not worshiping. They certainly cannot hear themselves singing; in fact, that consideration seems to be relatively unimportant. They are being treated instead to a free concert by professional musicians, or (in the case of smaller evangelical churches) overwhelmed by a sound system that smothers the corporate sense of the worship service. As a result, the congregation does not hear itself as the church singing to God; instead it hears music coming at them from a sound system. We have designed auditoriums and installed sound systems with the apparent goal of maximizing the sound from the “stage” (and how horrible it is that we call it a “stage,” with all the attendant baggage of that word), while minimizing the ability of the congregation to hear itself.
- The worshipers are not engaged. The only requirement ever given to the congregation is that they stand up. Many simply do the required minimum: They stand up, silently observe the worship going on around them, and sit down.
- Worship contains far too many elements of the concert scene (guitar solos, “special” numbers, etc.) that really have no positive effect on the worshiper and his or her attitude toward God during the service.
I suggest the following core principles for re-designing the worship service:
- Create an environment of reverence. Change the lighting from a “concert stage” scheme to a “fellowship hall” scheme — whether this is low lighting (like a candlelit “emergent” church approach) or bright, cheerful lighting, the idea should be to make everyone in the room equal: not a performer and an audience, not (God forbid) an idol and a coterie of fans, but a room full of worshipers with equal standing before God.
- Maximize participation by the congregation. We must re-think the song service so that the singing of the congregation is the central thing. They must be engaged and active, not observers, but the key participants. Eliminate solos. Eliminate “specials.” Eliminate instrumental interludes and any element that requires the congregation to do nothing but observe.
- The congregation must hear itself singing. There is no sound more worshipful than a group of believers singing a cappella, without amplification. We should so arrange our sound and music that the congregation can always hear itself and be absorbed into the corporate worship experience. This means making hard choices about the instruments to be used, the level of amplification needed, and the positioning of the speakers. I would advocate for a “surround” approach, as opposed to the “concert-venue” approach with the stage / audience disconnect. Bring the people into the worship circle by distributing the sound among them.
- Lyrics should stay close to Scripture, and have significant content and poetic value. Repetition should be avoided.
- Music should be distinctive. It must have something that sets it apart, a strong melodic leap, a single disruptive harmonic event (like the sudden, wondrous G# chord on the word “wondrous” in the chorus of Hillsongs’ “All of My Days,” or the unexpected modulation from F to D major in the hymn “Rejoice Ye Pure In Heart”), or a unique melody (think “For The Beauty of the Earth”).
There’s more to come on this subject, but I would love to design a worship space and experience that embodies these principles. Personally, my most significant moments in worship have typically come during “traditional” services when we would sing the final verse of a hymn a cappella – when one is in a room with a hundred other believers singing “My Jesus I Love Thee” or “It Is Well With My Soul” or “Holy Holy Holy,” it is more than a mere emotional thrill. It is the nectar of heaven.
Let’s do it right.