I am really pleased to be joining the writing team for the thoughtworks blog. For my first contribution, I’d like to post the bulk of a letter I wrote to my worship community of artists, musicians, dancers and the like, just shortly after I came on staff at the Cambridge Vineyard Church two years ago. I believe it paints a broad picture of the values and underpinnings that gird up our contemporary practice of corporate-art-as-worship. While there is some emphasis on worship leading, I believe there is grist for the mill here for all worshipers to ponder. I welcome your feedback and comments.
Let us start as servants. Of course, all believers are servants of God and one another; this is an essential part of following Christ. In the area of worship leadership (and everyone who has a place of prominence during a worship service is a kind of worship leader), we are servants to the Body. We serve God by serving His bride. God is not more concerned with what’s happening on stage than what’s happening in the congregation. If fact, in the eyes of the Lord, the entire congregation IS the band. See 1 Peter 2:4-9.
We are a special kind of priesthood. A worship leader can take many cues from the priests of the Old Testament, however Jesus changed things for us, significant things. As a result of what happened on the cross, we don’t approach the Father through somebody else in a priestly sense, but rather, together we approach the One Great High Priest, Jesus. Why is this important? Because musicians, dancers and worship artisans of all kinds primarily serve the Body by creating common expressions that unify her in worship. Our standards, styles, and language are in place to serve the people who have gathered to worship God. Our songs and worship leaders are not priests for us, they simply unify the priests of the Kingdom. I’m convinced we get this wrong sometimes.
Excellence and Style
That we are called to serve others helps us understand why some musicians are asked to be public musicians and others are not. Does a beginner musician worship less than an excellent one by sloppily banging out a tune on a guitar? Of course not, but an unskilled musician wouldn’t serve the body as well (generally, though I’ve seen at least a couple of powerful exceptions).
Does the Holy Spirit prefer one style of music over another? I can almost hear Him doubling over, laughing at the idea. Let us be clear -- there is not a preferred style, level of excellence or use of language that will “conjure” the presence of God. Such a notion is odious. YET all of those elements come together in service to the Bride of Christ in this place and time and culture. We give considerations to these things because we want to honour HER so she (including “we”) can exalt Him. Who, when preparing a meal for an honoured guest doesn’t first check and see what their preferred tastes are? Consider these things as you lead publicly. Let them be your guideposts.
A note regarding “performance” issues. The notion that worshippers “perform” before an audience of One is an eloquent and powerful idea. It frees us from the fear of others, from performance mentalities, from pandering, which is good. But I challenge it as a primary motive of the worship artisan. If you are a public musician, dancer or performing artist of the church in any capacity, you have been selected to display your creativity to inspire, usher, beckon and welcome the Body into a time of worship. When we understand this, it corrects the relationship between us, our art, the Lord and to the people we are serving. Glory seeking and false humility issues leave quietly out the back door.
God is an artist. In fact, He is THE Artist. All of creation reinforces the reality that God didn’t just “get the job done” when He created everything. He infused every work of creation with beauty, awe, and wonder. He created it to continually confound us. Modern science truly is a marvel. Even the most basic laws that govern the universe (such as gravity and light) have far more to them than initially meets the eye. The smoothest of glass contains a plethora of textures, while a thing of purest green contains a multitude of shades and hues. Dig deep enough, and we encounter inherent mystery in just about everything in the cosmos. Together these things create mystery and beauty and beg us to pursue Him. They all remind us that clearly there is a God and we are not Him.
If worship were simply about conveying facts about God, we could all gather in straight rows, reading with monotone voices truthful statements about Him, and be done with it. That would “get the job done”. Thank God He made things as He did! Genesis 1:27 pronounces on us the great honour that belongs to humanity: We are made in His image. He is creative. He has made us to be creative. Colossians 3:23-24, though in a different context, still speaks to us: “Put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord…” In other words, make it beautiful! Creative! Reflective of wonder! Challenging! Simple! Complex! There’s no “get’r done” mentality going on here. Consider how artistry and servanthood go hand-in-hand. Artistry confounds us. It creates wonder in us. It inspires us. It helps to remind us that God is not contained by our ideas and understandings. It celebrates Him in ways that numbers and letters alone are insufficient to convey.
We’ve stepped into a bit of tension here that is not easily resolved. We are servants to our community, but we’re also called to step out in artistry -- something that often doesn’t play to the “most” people. Worshipful art can occasionally challenge, while still serving. What’s the grid here? LOVE. We can’t go wrong with love: Love of God, love of the body of believers, and love of those outside the Church. Servanthood and artistry (by which I mean a combination of excellence and outside-the-box approaches) need to check and balance one another. A worshiping congregation that is never challenged to expand their God-box won’t be a truly worshiping community very long. Likewise, worship arts that constantly push the avant-garde will cease to be followed by very many at all. Love the tension folks, it’s not going away!
Worship is an end to itself
This is a biggie. When we come together for the purpose of worship, that is to be our primary focus. There can be no secondary motive in approaching the inner places of God’s dwelling. In other words, it’s an end, never a means. Worship can and should be pulled into every element of our lives, both corporately and personally. Before (and during!) a business meeting, before (and during!) a time of prayer, before (and during!) a time of serving the poor. The Israelites sent musicians ahead of them in times of battle. Let’s do the same, at least metaphorically. When we gather together for a corporate time of worship, this is why we are there: to describe God’s worth back to Him. Let’s not kid ourselves, this is actually why we exist after all. To worship for the sake of some other end, even a really good one, is to tread on thin ice. Though worship may indeed push back the kingdom of darkness, we worship to celebrate the God of the Kingdom of Heaven. Get the difference?
Worship as continual change
One thing I’ve been challenged with over the years is how “fluid” this part of church life is. It’s also something I love about leading worship. Many of our methods of corporate gathering have been with us for lots of generations, and the modern exercise of those disciplines remains relatively constant in substance and style across history – preaching, communion, prayer, etc. Worship expression, however, is quite different. If we could slide back through church history in increments of 20 years, I believe we would see, with great consistency, massive shifts in what corporate worship looks and sounds like, occasionally in substance but very regularly in style. Even within the life of an individual congregation, there are changing seasons of emphases. Celebration may be the order-of-the-day for a time, while another season may be one of lament, and yet another intimacy. As we’ve mentioned before, there isn’t a “right way” to worship in spirit and in truth. Jesus used pretty general language, didn’t He? God is unchanging, but the same cannot be said of the Church. As a result, in deference to the Body, we need to be willing to adjust to its needs. At the end of the day, our corporate praise happens when the hearts of the people are turned to Jesus. We don’t seek to find the style to end all styles, we seek to serve the body. We need to remain in-step with the culture of our community. Music and musical style are forms of language. We need, by and large, to communicate in languages that are understood. Polka-style worship? – Here and now– not so much.
We approach this familiar tension, the push and pull between serving the Body and exploring “new/new to us” or “unfamiliar” expressions that might just expand that God-box a little more. Once again, love must be our guide. It is part of the pastoral responsibility to help worship leaders navigate the balance between tried, true and safe creative expressions that are easy and familiar, while introducing new, edgy and challenging ones that remind us that God is bigger than we think He is.
To Be Continued
This is an ongoing conversation – learning to find our groove together as worshipers, celebrating where we’ve come from, and figuring out where we’re going. It’s okay that we won’t ever put a finishing seal on it.
I understand that much of the language in this letter speaks of music, our most familiar corporate expression of worship. It is my desire, however, to create space for as many forms of creative expression as we have imaginations for: film-making, dance, poetry. The visual array of arts all provide new ways of telling The Story. Let’s jump into the fray and see where we end up! The value of the creativity in our churches is probably beyond measure. Let’s unpack it and find what’s there.
I remember being riveted to the screen back in 2010 as 33 Chilean miners emerged from their cave after months trapped nearly a kilometre below the surface of the Earth. Every time another man stepped out from the rescue cage I was astounded by the notion of what had just taken place in their lives. They’d been rescued – reunited with the loves in their lives – the future was suddenly opened before them and they were, in a profound way, reborn from out of the darkness. In many ways, we encounter this in the faces of our congregation every time we lead a time of worship. People find their way out of the caverns into the light of the Son. It is a beautiful, edifying, worthwhile, and humbling privilege.