Wednesday, November 4, 2015


Like many large American protestant churches, the church I presently attend has what would be labelled a contemporary style of worship. We have the obligatory praise band with a worship leader who is an excellent singer and musician. During most songs, the congregation stands, and there is freedom to move around, and even dance, if one is so disposed at the moment.  The lead pastor (no one dare say the words "senior pastor" or "head of staff" into today's ultra-egalitarian cultural regimen) delivers excellent and edifying sermons in these services, and the church is a serving church that supports and is involved in many wonderful missions. So this is a very, very good evangelical church!

But... as I was standing in worship recently, singing one of the current popular praise songs, I became aware that most of the men were not singing.  In fact, most of them were fairly stationary as they politely stood, and here and there some were raising their hands. Of course, a few were much more expressive, but almost all of them were not singing! In fact, many of the women, even though they tended to be more expressive in moving around, also were not singing.  Even I, a veteran pastor who has developed and presided over many worship services (traditional, contemporary, and "blended"), only sang certain songs, forgoing many of the ones with more involved cadences.

Now what I was observing is a phenomenon that many have noted who study and comment on the current trends in American worship: that men (and many women as well) tend to not sing in a typical contemporary service where a praise band leads while people read the words of songs as they are projected onto a large screen.  Many worship services today are dominated by musicians who more than lead people in worship, they essentially worship on their behalf. Worship in many cases has become the "work of the professionals" rather than the "work of the people," as is the meaning of the Latin word "liturgia" and its English derivative, "liturgy." As I reflected on this (yes, I did this during the service, even during the sermon) it occurred to me how similar these dynamics are to the old medieval Mass prior to the time of the Reformation.

In the medieval Mass, the congregants did not participate very much in what was happening. As the priest "celebrated" (which usually meant repeating the words in a rote manner), he alone drank from the Cup during the Eucharist.  The people were permitted to receive only the Bread. However, even this was avoided by most medieval worshippers because they were so fearful of handling it improperly. They thought only a trained and specially consecrated priest could do it correctly and worthily. (Just prior to the Reformation, many people took the Bread only once a year out of fear of mishandling the Sacrament.) Even singing was reserved for special choirs or trained musicians, causing congregational singing to disappear entirely from medieval worship until John Hus reintroduced it (with guitar, by the way) at Bethlehem Chapel (in Prague in the first decade of the 1400's). Clearly, worship was primarily the province of the special and the specialised.  Mere ordinary people simply were expected to observe the performance with subservience, awe, and respect.

It appears that in contemporary worship much of the medieval divide between the congregation and worship leaders has re-emerged.  Just as the priest and other specially authorized liturgists were the only ones "celebrating" while everyone else just watched, so today the congregation is gathered as a compliant audience for the performers who sing and make melody.  I have many times heard ministers associated with contemporary worship styles use the word "stage" or "platform" for the front (or center in some cases) area of the sanctuary.  Even the word "sanctuary" has been replaced in many churches with the term "auditorium."  Now, I enjoy a good contemporary service as much as anyone, and most of the churches I have served as pastor have "contemporized" their worship styles, but perhaps this approach carries with it an inherent danger of discouraging people from feeling like they are truly a part of what is happening in worship.

This makes me wonder if one of the reasons that traditional worship is so fiercely held onto by some congregations is not just because of a fear of change (although that is the reason many times), but because people feel more involved when congregational singing is centered in the congregation itself rather than a select group of musicians.  When the words are clear, the melodies are simple, and there is theological substance, then worship truly can be "the work of the people."  In most contemporary services there is a growing trend to sing two or three of the old hymns.  Even with some alterations or additions to the words, people old and young generally will sing these without hesitation and with deep emotional investment (even when the person is otherwise unfamiliar with the hymn).  They are worshipping from within, sharing a spiritual moment with those around them, and participating with the worship leaders rather than just being led by them.  There is a real sense that together we are in the presence of God!

Now, I'm not suggesting that all praise bands be "dis-banded" (sorry, I couldn't resist the cheap pun) and that we fill worship with just tired old hymns accompanied only by poorly played organs just because they are better known or easier to sing.  But I am saying that it is important that music be used to enable people to be participants and doers of worship rather than extraneous appendages.  Contemporary music can be just as effective in evoking personal involvement and investment as any old time Gospel song if the worship leaders are consciously committed to being servants of God and the people. Expertise and excellence in all the aspects of worship are good when used to enhance the experience of worship, but are quite deadening when trying to impress everyone.   Leaders of worship in any style need to be conscious of leading people into an encounter with the living God.  

Well, next Sunday I will be back at the fine, faithful church that inspired this friendly rant about contemporary music. Again I'll be taking my place as an easily distracted worshipper with the fallible yet forgiven people of God.  I know the music will be good.  I will enjoy singing both the old and the new, and hopefully I can allow the Spirit to keep my mind focused on more meaningful topics, such as the love, grace, and truth of Jesus the Christ.  And this time, maybe I actually will listen to the sermon.