This article is part of the ongoing series Worship in Full Spectrum: finding truths within the paradoxes of the Church's worship and its worship music.
"I have frequently noticed that Jesus doesn't want me to lay up provisions; He nourishes me at each moment with a totally new food; I find it within me without my knowing how it is there. I believe it is Jesus Himself hidden in the depths of my poor little heart: He is giving me the grace of acting within me, making me think of all He desires me to do at the present moment."
—St Therese of Lisieux, Story of a Soul
A couple of months ago I was engaged in a great discussion with a good friend of mine where we attempted to figure out what exactly is the state of "contemporary worship music" in our churches. He comes out of the “Reformed” tradition but currently goes to a non-denominational congregation that focuses on exegetical preaching as well as a mixture of “contemporary” and “traditional” music in worship. Myself, I am an Evangelical Anglican music pastor who places a high value on liturgy and sacrament, all while also attempting a similar balance of music in worship. My friend (who plays guitar in his congregation's worship band) has some serious doubts about the musical and lyrical validity of many of the new songs being spit out of the worship music industrial complex and he also is seriously put off by the Big Show we have made our times of worship into. He does not see the lights, the noisiness, and the spectacle as edifying.
Whenever I find myself embroiled in a conversation like this I immediately get defensive of "contemporary worship music", not because I think the Big Show is a good thing (no, I share all the same concerns and criticisms as my friend) but instead because I believe "contemporary worship" has strayed from its roots.
Whatever pure thing it once was has been co-opted by record execs with dollar signs in their eyes. In these moments of dialogue I always begin to tell a story:
"That's not how things were in the church where I grew up. The mega-churches have taken the spontaneous and energetic song of Pentecostal churches and put it in a box. They took something genuine and turned it into a performance and a formula. In the church I grew up in everybody sang. Really, people would sing their hearts out. There would be people dancing, people waving banners, people on their knees pouring their hearts out to God. I know, I know, nowadays people just stand there looking dead in the strobe-light darkness holding their coffee, but when I was a kid every Sunday it felt like anything could happen. We came to church expecting God to move in a new way."
My friend and I both sense something is not right with modern worship music and on instinct we both attempt to come up with a solution. His natural tendency is to point to the intellectual hymns of old, those 4-6 verse strophic poems of theological depth and poetic beauty. My instinct is to look back to a time when people passionately sang to God with all their might and to when it was possible for God to break in a do a mighty work among us. What we are both doing is striving to get back to is a Golden Age of Church worship and music. We are longing for the Good Old Days, a purer simpler time when "things were done right." We look back with bittersweet longing in the hopes of restoring True Worship back into the Church.
I know conditions and styles have changed in the Church's music. But I also know that I have changed. I grew up in the Assemblies of God, but now as an Anglican I have morphed into some kind of mutant hybrid who has assimilated the DNA of every church background of influence into a cohesive whole. I am an Evangelical Anglo-Catholic who still wants to worship like a Pentecostal. I am a card carrying Ancient-Future, Convergence Worship proponent who wants both the gifts of the Spirit and liturgy and sacrament. I want to worship by submitting to and immersing myself in the ancient prayers and structures of the Church while also leaving plenty of room for God to move among us in the present. And yet, even though there is no way I could ever go back to the simpler "liturgy" of my childhood church I still long for the Good Old Days.
If I am being completely honest I feel the worship in my current congregation (of which I am one of the chief architects!) is too stolid, too controlled. The people often seem dead to me as I try to lead them in song (and I love every single one of them!). Something seems lacking to me. A lack of expectation for God to move in their hearts and in our midst. A lack of passion and uninhibited emotion. "Where is the hunger?!" I think. "How can I get these people back to the kinds of moments I had when I was young? Back to those life changing moments in God's transforming presence?"
Growing up there were dozens of times over a span of years (let's say 1987-2003) that I can remember being part of a "worship service" where God moved powerfully. Out of those dozens of times, there were a few of handfuls of experiences where the entire Sunday morning worship was blown open. There was no plan. There was no orchestration or manufacturing of overly-hyped emotion. It just happened—spontaneously and communally. The songs kept going on and on. People prophesied and spoke in tongues and interpreted those tongues. People sang in the spirit, singing freely the song in their hearts. People sang in their "prayer language." Some women would skillfully dance in the aisles as an offering to the Lord. Some of these moments were loud, like at Faith Church (formerly Christian Centre) in Washington, IL or Bethel Church in Dagenum, England but some of these moments were quiet and tender, filled with many moments of expectant waiting, such as at one particular Illinois annual youth conference I attended in Springfield, IL or at Lifehouse Church (formerly Zion) in Chesterfield, England. These were moments where time seemed to pause and we all simply dwelled in the presence of God, sometimes with prayerful listening and sometimes with exuberant celebration.
These moments were not coerced, they simply...happened. For some reason we were open, God's presence was thick, and our worship went to a new place. These were moments of sweetness, healing, and transformation. Lives were changed in those times and people drew close to God as the name of Jesus was lifted up. Sins were confessed, prophecies received, and words of knowledge spoken. We were refreshed in spirit, mind, and body.
But this era did not last forever, at least in the congregations I attended. Eventually two disturbing and frustrating trends started to occur both within my church and others like it, representing opposite reactions to our “traditional” Pentecostal worship:
1.) Continual, unending calls for “revival."
2.) Or, we adapted into a safer, more formulaic way of worshipping.
To the first trend, on revival:
We were pleaded with. We were yelled at. Spittle flew at us from the pulpit. We were being revved up like a muscle car ready for a street race. We were expected to burn spiritual rubber. Revival must come and it must come now: "We need God to bring revival!" "You need a revival in your heart!" "Revival! Revival! Revival!")
Growing up I had no real idea what was meant by “revival,” although I knew the basic expectations were that masses of people would either be convicted of their sin or be converted to Christ. I later realized calls for revival was a harkening back to the Great Awakening, to the influence of Charles Finney and Oral Roberts, to the Welsh and English revivals, to the initial Pentecostal revivals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and to more recent revivals such as those in Pensacola, Florida.
What made me begin to feel uncomfortable was how forced the revival talk became. All the yelling turned me off to worship and it smacked of works-righteousness, as if we would only pray hard enough we could bring down God and change our world. This assault of revival talk created a different atmosphere altogether from those times when we were open and God moved as he willed. In my subconscious I knew all the yelling was a desperate grasping for control, a need for power over people, and I knew it would not bear any lasting fruit.
To the second trend, on the movement towards "seeker-sensitive" church models:
It took a while, but the influence of the Church Growth Movement made it to my local Pentecostal church. Growing self-conscious of our zealous Holy-Roller ways we started to tone down our embarrassing craziness. We became "seeker-sensitive", not wanting to make anyone uncomfortable. People were not coming to church as much anymore and we had to provide them with a more “comfortable” antidote. Soon song leaders began timing the length of the music set and choreographing the smiles and the hand raising of their back-up singers. They began adding lights, even more lights, and then choreographing those lights. We darkened and then all but blacked out our sanctuaries. We turned up the volume so no one would feel self-conscious about anyone hearing them sing. "The worship set" had become a homogenized, whitewashed, safe (albeit loud) product.
No matter how I looked at it though, when these changes occurred it felt like “my” worship had been stolen from me. I had become a victim.
Since this post-“Golden Age” time I feel like I have been wandering through a worship music wilderness. I feverishly walk and walk through a vast unfamiliar landscape hoping against hope to see something I recognize, something that feels like home. This sense of hopeless wandering leads to the whole reason I am writing, which can be summed up by a well-worn cliche: By focusing only on what God did in the past, I am in great danger of missing what God can do and is doing in the present.
It is futile to chase the ghosts of worship past, to re-enact a worship moment, or to think the anointing of God is dependent on an "anointed" song, or, even worse, my memory of a song. Nostalgia and sentimentality in worship are dangerous. If we hold too strongly to a memory, too strongly to "the way things should be," too strongly to our favorite songs we will dismantle all that God is attempting to do among us now. Nothing has the potential to inhibit our worship more than a memory we have allowed to become an immovable idol. To be sure, the past should always inform the present, as we are most certainly the products of our accumulative pasts, but the past should never inhibit us from learning, growing, and changing in the present.
Currently in my life I have two incredibly influential "pasts" I am always striving to re-live: the spontaneous Spirit-filled Pentecostal time of my youth, and the rich incarnational liturgical heritage of my young adulthood. I am forever bouncing back and forth in my mind thinking "we're not doing worship right" because we are either not Pentecostal enough or not intentionally liturgical enough. It is a tough place for me to be. My friend, carries the “past” of the great "Reformed" hymn singing tradition, a past I cling to as well, as I am now a huge proponent of the hymns resurgence movement. And thus the list grows long of all the potential "ghosts of worship past" I am trying to live up to.
Speaking of that, my next article, which will appear later this week, will take a more in-depth look at the specific musical "good old days" we are often attempting to get back to, but this current article is meant to stand as a warning, to you and to me: No matter how powerful, healing, transcendent, transforming, educational, or correct your past was, do not turn it into a false god. Whether it is the tradition and structures of the church that formed you or the intimately personal memories of your times with God, the key is to be in a place of openness today. The Word of Life is forever speaking over his people, proclaiming "All things are new".
I write as a worship and music leader who steps into the tensions of my own past every week as I lead my congregation in song. And as I lead them, I know I am stepping into their own tensions as well of how our worship and music should be. These are formerly Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Assemblies of God, Vineyard, Apostolic Christian, Presbyterian, Baptist, Non-denominational, and Episcopalian people. My prayer for us all is that we may sing a joyous song together, no matter what that song happens to be, that we may be a people caught up in the presence of God, shaped by our past, but deciding to see God move in the present.
Next article: Worship Music's Good Old Days: Featuring Vineyard Music, Delirious?, Revival Generation, and Darrell Evans.
Other Articles in the Worship in Full Spectrum Series
Worship in Full Spectrum: An Introduction
Hymnals = Vinyl: The Case For and Against Hymnals in Worship
Confession: I Am An Irrelevant Worship Pastor
Worship Music Should Be Radically Contemporary
The Multiverse of a Worship Song: Matt Redman's "This Beating Heart"
Why I've Never Sung Matt Redman's "10,000 Reasons" At My Church