I am deeply grateful for Ed Stetzer, and the profound wisdom and insight embodied in his articles posted by Christianity Today, “A Letter To My Worship Leaders” Part 1 and Part 2. Every worship leader should read them, own them, and keep them in front of them. I have trumpeted similar calls in everything I have ever written or said as a trainer of worship leaders/pastor for 25 years. However, there are just two areas within the letters, one macro and one micro, that unsettle me. They unsettle me not because they are explicitly wrong – they unsettle me because they represent two classic Evangelical approaches to corporate worship that are “in the water,” and are now conventional thinking on the topic. I would like to respectfully challenge them, as one who is within this tribe.
Again, I encourage every worship leader to read Ed’s well-written articles. Thank you for them, Ed. But, as with all reading, we should not take in ideas uncritically like baby chicks, swallowing everything that is delivered to us from an authoritative source (I always suggest my readers thoughtfully and critically approach my writing as well). I resonate deeply with most of the Letter. But I want to challenge two of the unspoken values I see characterizing much of Evangelicalism’s approach to worship.
Note: As always, I’ll go beyond the scope of the Letter to ride my hobby horses when necessary (readers of my blog are used to my “launch-pad” approach to blogging!).
The following playfully-worded ideas that are “in the water,” I believe, may be contributing to the hindering of the church growing into a fullness of internal experience in worship, and its natural intended overflow – external impact in mission.
1. The Worship Jukebox In The Key Of Accessibility (macro)
I’ve called worship leaders to lead “accessibly” for 25 years, and will continue to do so. Ed articulates this call beautifully. However, I will never again suggest that the highest mandate for every church service is 1) constant corporate participation in the worship set (we can learn much from our liturgical family – we stopped doing other participatory acts regularly, so we subconsciously demand the worship set fulfill our craving for participation) and 2) that a 95% accessibility rate be achieved in all things artistic in the church.
Compelling performance and artfulness must ride in tension with accessibility as overarching worship values. Why? We create beige, middle-of-the-road church communities that unwittingly resist the highly (or uniquely) gifted, cater to a mid-range of artfulness and (I’m sorry) intellect, and diminish the church’s capacity to be a womb for the greatest works of art (and science, and education, etc.) of our time.
People need to experience great works of art that elude them for a moment, inspiring oratory that demands sipping rather than guzzling (thank you, C.S. Lewis), and compelling performances that lead them in worship in a way that a corporate song may never be able to. Yes, I want my community to be led, and I will lead them accessibly. But no, it is not to be idealized. We must hold the tension.
I believe that the church must become a seed-bed for the inaccessible-yet-vital, enabling us to be a gateway to Hope for more than just those who “get” everything we do. Gathering crowds is not always the “win” for the church (Ed would agree, I am sure, so this is a wider statement). It never has been.
There are many gateways to be made for today’s wide variety of wanderers, and for today’s wide variety of disciples. Today’s movies don’t always aim for “accessibility,” but they do change us and narrate our story even in their most inaccessible, complex moments. (I.e. We need more Michelangelo’s, Bach’s, and Herbert’s to emerge from the contemporary Christian project.)
Worship, in all its facets, can and must do the same – and our sense of cultural mandate must influence our decisions about everything from design, to architecture, to the ways we talk about worship and the different forms it can– and must – take. (And yes – choosing singable keys matters.)
2. The Cerebral Singer In The Key Of Moving On (micro)
Ed’s letter talks a bit about minimizing repetition, and his preference for “more words” to be used to communicate robust theology. I want to address this idea (a bit beyond just addressing Ed’s comments) to combine two areas of my thinking related to “moving on” in a worship set and minimizing repetition.
First, I’m a huge fan of minimizing repetition when I sense it is appropriate. Second, I am also a worship leader who loves engaging hymns/songs robust with rich theology and words that communicate it as often as possible. Complex and non-repetitive songs, and simple and repetitive songs, are both tools in my worship leading toolkit.
When it is subtly suggested that “moving on to another song” (in the interest of depth and participation) or bringing in “more words” (for the same reasons) is to be preferred over long repetition of simple, important phrases (‘exhale’), I hit a snag from my experience.
I know how to move on in a set. Lingering on a chorus can be indulgent, especially if we’ve “lost” the congregation. I also use songs with denser lyrics, and I write them. They often don’t bear repeating. My life’s work has been built on helping worship leaders think accessibly, yet also artfully and theologically. I love complexity and density, but I have also come to love simplicity with profundity – and repetition that goes beyond our ‘normal’ experience.
Our generation needs repetition and space. Back in the day, Lectio Divina provided a meditative space in which a passage of Scripture, and a word or phrase, is continually repeated until it becomes a part of the person – until the Word enters them, and they enter the Word. Today, some of our most accessible, “hands-free” choruses (phrases) bear repeating longer than many evangelical communities can naturally bear. Our more cerebral approaches to worship (in some traditions) and limited attention spans send the alert, “Problem” when a chorus is repeated too many times (I will concede that some worship leaders do this ineffectively and insensitively; that can be a problem).
There is a problem, yes; but I suggest it’s not always on the part of the worship leader, or due to the repetition of a chorus. The problem lies in our inability to linger, to enter, to make into prayer what is being sung by our lips. What if repetition is our healing, and our distaste for the medicine must be transcended until we see the end result? The ancients understood this, and repeated phrases until they made a home within them.
Worship has been the bridge through which God has provided significant emotional healing for a generation – and much of that, in my experience, has come through the extended repetition of simple words or phrases until we get past our intellect and enter into communal and personal prayer.
Repetition, and much of it, can be a very, very good thing. It can push us past our intellectual and emotional boundaries, and open us up to the Spirit’s work. Today’s worship expressions, especially the repetitive moments, can provide a modern day silence, a lectio moment if you will, for a psychologically barraged generation. Extended repetition in worship can help us power down the iPhone of the heart, creating a space for God to work in us the deep renewal and healing we all so desperately need.
Again, thank you Ed for your articles. Your gift to the church of our day remains remarkable.
Question: What did you love about Ed’s article(s), and how have they helped you? How do you apply accessibility and repetition in your own congregation?
Resource: In in Worship White Noise I further challenge our current vision of worship in local churches, Christian colleges and universities, Christian radio, songwriting, and the wider Christian community.
Bio: Dan Wilt, M.Min. is the creator of the Essentials In Worship Video Training Course for worship leaders and teams, and is the Founder of WorshipTraining.com, a media-training network of over 31K worship leaders and musicians. He serves as a worship leader in Franklin, TN, and has taught in Worship & Arts programs for schools like St. Stephen’s University and Indiana Wesleyan. Dan is a songwriter, hymn writer, and author, and has served as a conference speaker globally. Dan works with his church family at Vineyard USA and Vineyard Worship in various support roles, and he, his wife Anita, and 3 young adult children live in Thompson’s Station, TN. His ancient-future worship leadership blog offers weekly tools and team encouragements at DanWilt.com.