I’m on the worship struggle bus.
My family has been visiting churches all over north GA and Chattanooga, TN since the beginning of 2015. At first we weren’t really looking for anything, just trying to stay connected. And yet, as the year progressed, I realized an odd thing: I wasn’t worshiping at church. I remained deeply connected to God and the sense of call on my life, but when it came to corporate worship, I was drawing dead. Granted, I was burned out. Granted, I’ve always struggled with turning off my inner critic during any church program. But I really wanted to worship at church, and couldn’t.
At least part of that struggle was the weight of trying to figure out where we wanted to be in the long term. In the past few months, I’ve found some peace as I felt myself slide into a posture of pure observation – not judging critically, not hashing out my own likes or dislikes, just watching. And in that place, I noticed something that shouldn’t have surprised me.
Flaws are what makes worship possible.
Think about this. Say 10% percent of your congregation is “qualified” in some way to lead worship – good singers, strong reading voices, pray well in public, whatever. Where does that leave the remaining 90% of the congregation? Inspired to follow, or intimidated into silence and non-participation?
There’s an old illustration about the framework of worship that I think is still making the rounds, probably because it still hasn’t been fully observed in practice. The presenter of said illustration usually begins by identifying three roles in worship – a prompter, an actor, and an audience. The short version is that people generally believe that the prompter is God, the actors are the worship leaders, and the audience is the congregation. But – Christian Trick©! – the audience is God, the actor is supposed to be the congregation, and the worship leaders are meant to merely be the prompters. Mostly this knowledge has resulted in cutting-edge churches fiddling with trying to find another name for worship leaders – facilitators, prompters, lead worshipers, even. The gulf remains, though. The congregation shows up to worship, and the leaders say, “Here, let me do that.” How long would you follow any pursuit where those who could do it better stepped in every time you tried?
Right about here is where the internets like to start shouting about God deserving our best. Absolutely true. In probably a majority of services, though, I can almost hear God saying, “Fantastic. Now let me hear something from the rest of you.” How, then? I have no idea. And the church, historically, isn’t particularly known for being imaginative when it comes to change. Change happens glacially, making the way we do it now feel like it’s probably been that way forever. But it hasn’t. Forget all the lights and screens and sound for a moment – even the way songs are presented in worship has radically changed. When was the last time you learned a song in a worship service? I don’t mean eventually picking it up after hearing it every three or four weeks for a year – when was the last time you remember the content of a song explained in worship and then the melody demonstrated and repeated for the benefit of the participation of all?
“Never” may be too strong, but I bet it’s been a while. Hymns were once an intentional conveyance for theology, and learning to sing them helped instill that theology within the local body. They were even written to be sung by all voices – hymns provide four part harmony so that everyone can sing. How often do you have to sit out a contemporary song because the worship leader sings in a different key than you? I bet that happened last week.
I’ve kicked over a big can of worms and could easily head off in a hundred directions, so I’ll move abruptly back to the point I was after:
If we’re not intentional about accommodating and even occasionally featuring imperfection in worship, our services stand between worshipers and God, rather than bringing the two together. If you’re a worship leader, be aware that while your gifts have placed you in a leadership position, they’ve also placed you in the minority position in the room. How do you move from there to join everyone else, and ultimately bring them closer to God?
Again, I’m not saying we should go open-mic on Sunday mornings for worship leaders. In our travels this year we’ve seen some of the most heartwarming imperfection you can imagine in worship services. What I’ve started watching for in the last few weeks, however, is how churches engage the imperfect. Because that’s how most of us come to God.