My Response: Jamie Brown’s “Are We Headed For A Crash? Reflections On The Current State Of Evangelical Worship”

It’s a blog post that has been showing up a lot on Facebook recently, in worship leader groups of which I am a part. It’s well-written, honest, from a guy who is clearly the real deal, and it’s worth a read before you read my response below. I love 90% of it, and deeply appreciate the effort behind it. But, if I’m honest – I’m surprised by many Christian leader’s blanket endorsement of the post. There is a theological direction within the post – shared by many of us who are pastoral leaders – that I believe can be, left to itself, theologically disoriented, historically dismissive, and creationally diminishing. Here are my thoughts.

screenshot of Jamie Brown’s post page

In summary, Jamie Brown (a blogger and Associate Director of Worship and Music at an Anglican community called The Falls Church in Falls Church, Virginia), shared his experience at a recent the National Worship Leader Conference, hosted by Worship Leader Magazine. My friend David Santistevan and many others are now also interacting on the topic of Jamie’s post.

While Jamie’s experience at the NWLC was positive, eclectic, and helpful on some levels, he lifted out a common thread:

“It’s the theme of performancism. The worship leader as the performer. The congregation as the audience. The sanctuary as the concert hall.”

His raw, passionate plea? For today’s modern worship leaders to “identify and kill performancism while we can.”

He is worried about what worship leaders are “doing to themselves and their congregations,” and his remedial rant seems to have stirred a large batch of comments:

“Sing songs people know (or can learn easily). Sing them in congregational keys. Sing and celebrate the power, glory, and salvation of God. Serve your congregation. Saturate them with the word of God. Get your face off the big screen (here’s why). Use your original songs in extreme moderation (heres’s why). Err on the side of including as many people as possible in what’s going on. Keep the lights up. Stop talking so much. Don’t let loops/lights/visuals become your outlet for creativity at the expense of the centrality of the gospel. Point to Jesus. Don’t draw attention to yourself. Don’t sing songs with bad lyrics or weak theology. Tailor your worship leading, and the songs you pick, to include the largest cross-section of your congregation that you can. Lead pastorally.”

I’ll let you read the rest here. And you should. I love Jamie’s pastoral heart and insights.

But hidden in his great, pastoral thinking is a small problem. It’s a “creational” problem, and it’s a problem that is killing the church as much as any weak theological song.

My Response To Jamie Brown’s “Are We Headed For A Crash: Reflections On The Current State Of Evangelical Worship

While I can be verbose, as many of you know, my response is fairly straightforward. I’ll summarize it in bullet points below after one sentence that sums up my position.

We can be creational, innovative, and express greatness (musically, technologically, oratorically) without forsaking community, intimacy, and Body life. Accessibility is not the only value in worship that should be elevated by a creational, artful, proclaiming Church. Our Story is much, much bigger than that.

  1. Jamie is generally correct, but his heightened accessibility conclusion is problematic. I’ve written about accessibility a thousand times, and have taught it for 20+ years, but it can be elevated to a place of toxicity when our desire is to express Kingdom greatness. More below.
  2. I’ve had the exact same experience, and conclusion, at least 26 times in the last 5 years. I’ve been in the middle of this battle for 20+ years.
  3. I love the pastoral heart of his post, but wish “performancism” was not the term he chose.
  4. I’d note that many have seen and spoken into the “performance-centered” trajectory of the contemporary worship scene, and have been identifying and fighting for change in this for 20+ years. In other words, this is not a “new” problem, but rather a fresh and timely discussion.
  5. Performance is not a problem. It’s application is (Jamie identifies this in his post, specifically at events). A malformed worship worldview (or desire set, a la James K.A. Smith) is a problem. Performance (and its accompanying drama) can be good, especially when it rises from the soil of community. Our current lack of skill on local levels is often shrouded in our elevated language of “community.” (Hence the current Christian movies we must both appreciate and tolerate.)
  6. Creative leaders have been performing in the church, in and for their communities, for millennia. We have to be careful what we say and what we mean or we write off everything from Handel’s Messiah, to Michelangelo’s Dome, to the inspiring presentations of great choirs and orators  – and anything that is not “corporate and accessible” in nature.
  7. Our problem is that we have shrunk worship to the size of our services and musical expressions, and that has made our vision of worship very, very small. I unpack that here.

One remedy to the malady of which Jamie Brown speaks is, indeed, to renew the pastoral heart in our worship leaders. Yes. Another is to dismantle much of what we see perpetuated by a revenue-generating worship music industry. Sure.

But eradicating performance, screens, and craftsmanship is not the remedy. In fact, as N.T. Wright said to me in his living room in Westminster Abbey, our craving for “informality” can be as deadening to our creationality and progress as disciples as the overstatement of worship stage drama Jamie is getting at in his blog.

We lack innovation in the church because we’re confused about what God is really after, from communities that follow him in the 21st century. That was what my post about Jon Foreman was getting at some weeks ago.

We can be creational, innovative, and express greatness (musically, technologically, oratorically) without forsaking community, intimacy, and Body life.

A Way Forward

Blogs are largely opinions, spoken at a time and place. So, here is mine.

  1. Our worship definition is jacked up, and is stifling Kingdom greatness. We need a new definition big enough to live in.
  2. The entire worship music industry, radio industry, and Christian college world feeds the problem, while also providing a weeding ground for songs and inspiring leaders. We have to fix a few things; we don’t want to lose Chris Tomlin, but we also need an industry that serves the church rather than the church serving it. Here is my straight-up reflection on 7 ways we can change that.
  3. Having lived with informality and communality sitting at center for much of my Christian life, I am convinced that great visuals, great music, and even performance can feed disciples in a way that the great art of the last two millennia has done. Greatness in art matters. Sloppiness in the name of loving community diminishes what Christian community is intended to be. See N.T. Wright’s Surprised By Hope for a broader call to action in the arts.
  4. I am also convinced that Jamie is correct; we are fixated on it in our conferences and current contemporary Christian presentations of worship. Why? Because going to a conference is not you being in community. Not really. The people with whom you live and die each week are your community.We come to those events to learn songs, be encouraged, be inspired, and maybe be equipped with some new tools. The problem is that people walk away with the model and try to reapply it in their church, without a strong worship philosophy guiding them. The Pastor often feeds that for church growth sake. And from experience, creating a sense of “community” in a conference setting is nigh on impossible. A song can come close to creating a sense of love for one another, but we all know we’re walking out at the end and coming home to people who know us. It changes the conference song, and creates more of a worship cubicle for us rather than a Body engaged on all levels in worship. Every church needs a worship philosophy, and a worship leader who incarnates it.
  5. Many of our modern worship “chants” or “simple songs” are creating a modern silence for us, a service that tools like lectio divina provided for us hundreds of years ago. A simple song can create an atmosphere of reflection, that can lead to an experience with God, in a way that rich theological phrasing cannot. We need both. And we need instrumental music. My goodness, our communities need beautiful instrumental music, without words telling them what to say to God (or what God is saying to them).
  6. I am also convinced the industrial-spirit of the modern worship industry has pushed many worship leaders away from leading to ultimately serve our communities (though we talk a good game), toward serving our communities to ultimately achieve something beyond our shared experience – a career in worship music writing or leadership. Ouch.

Back To Jamie’s Question

Thanks, Jamie, for provoking the question again, “Are we headed for a crash?”

My short answer is, “Yes, absolutely, but it will just be culmination of a slow motion crash that has been happening since an industry was tied to worship music. And the crash? What shatters will be good for us all. But I’d rather see our disconnection from community shatter than our achievements in remarkable beauty and greatness in all our art forms.”

I believe we can host rich community, pastoral leadership, and creative greatness in the same room.

Thanks, Jamie, for stimulating this conversation again.

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[ Most of these ideas above I explore in Worship White Noise: Tuning In The 7 Worship Culture Shapers In The Chaos Of The Contemporary Worship Movement. It’s there that I propose radical, concrete steps to change for worship leaders, pastors, songwriters/artists, the Christian Music Industry, the Christian Radio Industry, Christian colleges, and average worshippers.]