The morphing of corporate worship

I am a product of what is euphemistically called the charismatic movement that swept through a number of Western countries in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s. Along with my first steps as a follower of Jesus came wind gusts of renewal, blowing through the branches of the Christian family tree. It was a great time to come to faith: a rediscovery of biblical teaching on the Holy Spirit’s contemporary activity in the life of every Christian, empowering and enabling them with spiritual gifts (charismata) for service. Ministry was a prerogative of all, not just the professional clergy. 

A number of bi-products emerged from the so-called charismatic movement. One notable change was a new model of corporate worship and an associated shift in the personnel leading services. Instead of the Minister directing everything that happened, from hymns to prayers to bible readings and sermon, a range of people began to participate. Commentators continue to debate the relative merits of contemporary worship liturgies in comparison to those of previous generations. We now sing fewer third-person theological statements and more first-person expressions of emotion, to God rather than about Him. While I don’t propose to jump into that debate here, there is an aspect of the contemporary worship style typical of many Australian Baptist Churches that I think is calling for a discussion. If you are reading this article as a corporate worship leader, this is an open letter to you. If you’re not a worship leader, you might consider putting this article in front of those who are.

Before going any further let me answer this question: why write about worship in a publication aimed at stimulating evangelism and missional thinking? The answer is simple. Full-orbed proclamation of the gospel includes introducing people to the household of faith, and the Sunday gatherings of believers for the past 2000 years remain (and likely will remain) the church’s primary shop-front. As a result, what we do when we gather together needs to make sense to both seasoned insiders and “seekers” after the Truth. Our ecclesiology needs to have a missiological edge. Certainly, mission must go beyond our Sunday gatherings, but it will never be divorced from it. Indeed, what we do on Sunday will help it or hinder it.

As noted, in the old days, the Minister of a local church did virtually everything. Everyone, including the Minister, expected that he or she was the one to bring sound theological reflection to each aspect in the order of a service. The contemporisation of worship brought a refreshing change to all of that. Out the window went predictability, stodgy formalism, the fourhymn- sandwich and stoic singing of theological propositions. In its place came opportunity for the expression of love and emotion, and the utilization of contemporary music genres. Organs gave way to keyboards, guitars, drums, mini orchestras, and multiple vocalists. Faces in the congregation lifted upwards to read words from a screen, rather than looking down into a book.

The rediscovery of spiritual gifts shifted the how and who of service leading. Power in service planning was handed to lay people with the musical ability to select songs and lead the singing. Again, it was a refreshing change. People were encouraged to use their gifts and a variety of faces (including women) were seen leading in the church. It was a pendulum swing that began, I believe, with a divine push. But like a lot of pendulum swings, has it gone too far? Has this era reached a point where it needs to be reviewed? In too many churches today, the liturgy runs the risk of becoming boring. There is a new form of predictability that is less than engaging, especially for men who find emotive singing an uncomfortable experience. There is also a (not so) subtle desire to uncritically emulate the liturgy of a high profile church in the Northern suburbs of Sydney as the new universal benchmark of contemporary orthodoxy.

Pastors still play a central part in preaching and teaching, but in many churches the rest of the service is entirely in the hands of a worship leader, who might have limited experience in theological reflection. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Being led in worship by those who are seasoned worshippers and who demonstrate intimacy with God can be fantastic – they are our modern day Levites – but the choreographing of contemporary service segments can sometimes seem disconnected, especially to those still exploring Christian faith. Songs chosen more for their musical meter and catchy tune rather than their theological depth may have a legitimate part to play, but in its more extreme expression, theologically grounded leadership and thoughtful engagement is pushed to the fringes of the corporate worship experience in favour of shallow sentiment and emotionalism.

The question of authority and accountability must also be examined. An ugly power struggle can emerge over who has the leadership mandate for the gathered church in worship. I know of a situation where the worship leader told his pastor that when he was leading a service he was accountable directly to the Holy Spirit, and therefore his actions or style ought not to be questioned. In another church the worship leader declared he was led by the Holy Spirit in leading worship and should the Lord “show up” (a questionable theological proposition given God’s omnipresence) preaching was dispensable. In another situation, a pastor and elders sought to address a worship leader’s performance and the subsequent formation of opposing camps of support almost split the church. These exaggerated examples don’t represent the many worship leaders who do an excellent job and are more than willing to be accountable. And a more pertinent question might be whether those with oversight responsibility in the church are offering the necessary direction and accountability? The fact is, every office of leadership is accountable and open to critique, and something as important as leading the church gathered for corporate worship is no exception.

There is a new trend emerging in corporate worship that is worth considering. It’s a move away from personality driven worship leading – where those leading speak a lot and introduce the songs that are sung. In its place congregational songs are left to speak for themselves and those leading do so with a degree of anonymity. Leadership is still very necessary and the careful choreography of a service requires time and effort, but the dominant personalities on the stage are less visible and different people take turns to deliver introductions or comments. Indeed, if the lyrics of a song require a lot of introduction, that might be an indication about their appropriateness for corporate worship.

When the worship leader is gifted in communication, worship can be enhanced by their words of reflection. When they are not gifted to speak (or to pray in public) it can be awful. A pastor friend of mine in a very large American church has an agreement with his worship team – he won’t sing if they won’t preach! Worship in his church is clearly led and prepared in concert with the Holy Spirit during the week, but on the day it is not easy to tell who is the actual leader of the team. Without the dominant personality of a leader, the focus of worship shifts to Jesus.

One final thought: A few years ago, in the church I pastored, we identified a small change that made a significant difference. For years worship leaders had been responsible for closing our services and many struggled to do it effectively. Leading congregational prayers is quite a unique task but done well, it can be a most powerful element of corporate worship. I’m reliably informed that pilots spend as much time learning how to land an aircraft as they do getting it up in the air. Similarly, how a service closes is as important as how it begins. We resolved that the conclusion of a service was actually an important pastoral leadership moment as the gathered church prepared to go back into the world to serve in the name of Jesus. In recognition of this important moment, we asked our pastor(s) to close our services as part of their spiritual parental responsibility. A benediction became a thoughtful prayer of commissioning for the mission tasks to which God has called us.

To pastors and those who exercise oversight of local churches, please don’t abdicate your responsibility for the shape and genre of our worship services. Leadership abdication is as much a sin as being overly dominant. You have a responsibility to be involved and to hold those who serve accountable for their performance. And to those who serve so well in leading the “body” in worship, be open and willing to listen. Receive feedback and advice well. Together we will bless the Lord and see the church become a safe place for worshipper and “seeker” alike to meet with the Lord.

Brian Winslade is married to Liz and they have three adult children. At the time of writing Brian served as National Director for the Baptist Union of Australia, combining the roles of National Director of Crossover, and CEO of Australian Baptist Ministries. Prac 10.