The Cross(roads) of Contemporary Worship

Christian contemporary worship is at a crossroads. Not many see it. Fewer still will want to! But it remains that for those of us, myself included, who embrace a contemporary expression of our sincere heartfelt praise and worship – we are starring into the eyes of a sweet seduction.

‘Ssssseduction’ (sic) is a very simple concept. It is that which charms and woos you away from something or someone and into the arms of another. It looks attractive enough and, in most instances, genuine enough to be the real thing or the better substitute, but all too often it is the viper that comes back to bite you!

We must understand that this is not a criticism of modern musical arrangements or musical expression to engage a younger generation. Neither is it a judgement of musical styles. This is a spiritual assessment of the state of contemporary worship.

Where are we? Where are we headed?

It would behove us then to consider what worship of God is all about. I once taught a class of seminary students and posed this question: Why do we worship God? Other than the standard, scriptural based responses describing the fathers of the faith instructions to praise and worship the Living God – no one had even considered why it was required!

God lacks nothing. God cannot be more glorified or more exulted. So our praise and our worship in no way causes God to “glow brighter” or “grow mightier” as if in some way our praise and worship is the fuel that fires up the Almighty God. God does receive our worship, but God certainly does not need it! So why then do we gather for congregational worship? Even if we worship in private quiet times – what is it that worship does?

I spent some time with the Lord pondering this question and in a moment of spiritual clarity I realised that praise, and even more so, worship affects my soul and my spirit more than any other spiritual dynamic or reason to worship!

Let’s face it – the Father is either pleased or displeased with worship. Either the Father accepts it or rejects it. And His sovereign decision in either case is based on His divine inspection of the heart (not the mouth or talent) that is offering the worship!

Could it then be true that God instituted worship so that man could have greater understanding of the manifold facets of God? Isn’t it your own experience that whether you are caught up in congregational worship or humbly worshipping whilst washing dishes that your soul feels uplifted and your spirit feels inspired? Could it be true that in my worship I glean greater understanding of who God is? I believe it is!

Worship not only transforms my soul, but my very notions of God evolve and transform as I worship!

One of the hallmarks of congregational worship is that it creates a unity of heart. When we are all singing aloud in one voice in worship of the Lord God, we are united by the vocalisation of our expression. Today however, in many churches or on so-called “christian stages”, the focal point of our worship becomes the “tight” music band and its charismatic (not to be mistaken for anointed) worship leader. Suddenly, congregations no longer become unitised in their vocal expression but are simply passengers being swept along by the vocal styling’s of the worship artist.

I am not opposing professionalism in music ministry. In truth, setting a high standard is a service of excellence and all worship teams should aspire to ministering with excellence.

I’m not sure if you’ve paused to consider that ministering with excellence is a far cry from performing excellently! 

Production Excellence?

The hallmark of contemporary worship in many churches today is no longer the congregational engagement in extolling the Lord, but the ambience created by a performance orientated showcasing of individual talent! Add to the talented music team, the smoke machine, lighting rigs and high definition mega plasma screens and we have a spectacle nothing short of a concert performance! The congregation is left behind to focus on the entertaining show as the music team delight themselves in their execution of a well-rehearsed playlist!

There is a corollary to this line of thinking too! If the use of props and gimmicks are said to merely provide for an enhanced experience in mega churches – then are small town parishes without the big budgets for the music ministry at a disadvantage? With their very minimalist music team (usually the Pastor’s wife on the 20-year-old organ and a sister in the congregation with a tambourine) does the Presence of the Living God not permeate these congregations too? Or is God only found in the mega?

Please understand that I embrace modern worship. I enjoy contemporary songs over hymns. There is nothing wrong with hymns mind you! On occasion I have been known to break out into a song from the days of Noah’s Ark leaving the worship team wide-eyed in disbelief and frantically searching for the right key!

I listen to, and have a large iTunes library of praise and worship music. I’m personal friends with some of the most famous and influential names in christian music today. Hey I even sing their songs in our church! So I’m no stranger to “modern worship.” But as a minister who leads worship on occasion, I am very conscious of the issue between pursuing His Presence and producing an artificial atmosphere through performance!

A worship experience is, and must be, so much more than seamless transitions, slick intros and fancy graphics!

Performance type gimmicks – whilst very professional – are irrelevant to spiritual worship! We live in and cultivate an environment today – both within the Church and outside its walls – of endless noise. It seems that we abhor silence. We have a need and/or desire to fill any period of stillness with some form of vocalisation or musical underscore!

I am of the mind that the biggest issue that faces contemporary worship today is how we distinguish ourselves from the secular. Firstly, we are not in competition with the secular artist whose primary aim is to gain popularity, recognition and record album sales.

Someone – whether Believer or non – who enters a church must be able to immediately note the difference (not merely lyrically) between the production environment of the secular and the Spirit-filled atmosphere of worship that is created by congregational unity and not by the smoke machines and fancy sound-to-light rigs!

What we end up with, is encouraging Believers to think they are worshiping in Spirit and in Truth when in fact they are adopting a secular standard and attending a weekly talent show and sing-a-long.

Secondly, if the focus is on the worship leader and the worship band who believe that their task is to display praise and worship, and in doing so must adopt certain stage personality behaviourism’s and idiosyncrasies, then we risk our congregational worship becoming nothing more, than a church gazing to the stage to enjoy the show and grow increasingly non participative!

Where does the fault lie?

But let’s not throw everything at the feet of an aspirant worship leader whose sights may be set on writing the next big gospel song and in all sincerity, just doing the best job they can to fulfil their calling! I have often encountered church leaders who pressurise their music ministry to adopt the latest “trends” in contemporary worship and to reproduce the sound of ministries such as Bethel or Hillsongs United in order to attract a certain demographic to the church services.

There is a strategy in use today in which people poll the neighbourhood to see what sort of proclivity people enjoy and then build a “church” that meets those dispositions.

But the problem with this sort of technique being applied in contemporary worship is that we are intentionally inventing a new form of religious expression that is based on marketing techniques and expressed in contemporary entertainment genres. It is inherently narcissistic in a way; because it is worship the way we want it, in ways that please us.

In embracing this sort of worship, we inevitably ask the question, “How would the congregation like to be entertained or engaged today?” or “What songs would create the best effect or showcase our skills?” In this instance, the congregation has usurped the role of audience, a role that properly belongs to God! In effect, the congregation is worshiping itself, and its music ministry, and is dangerously close to producing an artificial (at best) and superficial (at worst) worship experience!

I’m not condemning the use of “prop effects” or lighting, modernistic worship lyrics, or musical arrangements. I quite enjoy it, but then, I am very conscious of being guarded against being caught out by what is artificial. That alone would tell you that this journal entry is not intended as an indictment of, or tirade against those who, like me, do enjoy the “modern touch”. But I am raising the issue of authentic versus staged.

The Big Q?

Is there a place for the ambience created by modulating the lighting conditions or using various techniques employed at concert level performances, in the church?  I believe it must come back to the fruit. Are the people of God (who are more important than the worship team) being touched by the Presence of God? Or are their souls being titillated by an environment produced – in many cases with the sincerest of intentions – by a desire for performance and a need (generational perhaps) to be entertained?

It doesn’t take smoke effects and expensive lighting rigs to bring transformation. It takes pursuing His Presence beyond the desire to sate our need to be entertained. And we, the congregation, are as much at fault as any!

I believe that a worship encounter should be about the resultant transformation process in someone’s life.

The Small A!

All said – I’ve been around long enough to experience corporate worship at its highest prophetic level. Yes for me it has to come back to this. I can only share my insights from my “measure of rule” which is the prophetic.

I don’t have an issue if the lights are on or off! Whether we are worshiping in a darkened sound-to-light rigged auditorium or a stained-glass, piped-organ cathedral makes little difference to the Holy Spirit.

My answer to this dilemma has always been the same: Where the Spirit of the Lord is present – there is liberty! So it doesn’t really matter about the bells and whistles, tricks and gimmicks. What matters is – the very presence of the Spirit of the Lord!

So we are at liberty to set our program. Create our ambience. Decorate our hall. Colour coordinate our choir. Smoke the stage. Display the fancy graphics (why is anyone watching that anyway?). But let us not confuse these liberties we are permitted with the actual Presence of the Spirit. They cannot enhance His Presence nor can they set the stage for His arrival!

The acid test of all of this is:- What would happen if we stripped away all of the frills and effects?

Something to ponder on.