A BRIEF HISTORY OF CORPORATE WORSHIP
From ancient times there has been an unlearned internal impulsion toward the worship of a deity. This desire to reach out to and exalt something above oneself transcends culture, language and geography. The history of the worship of the God of the Bible, the Holy One of Israel, shows that, in many respects, not much has changed over the millennia since humanity’s first fathers communed with the Almighty in the Garden of Eden.
Very early in human history musical instruments were developed (Genesis 4:21). And while Bonar, as the Church of Christ denomination would agree, believes the invention of musical instruments and the development of music theory to be the evil work of the children of Cain in an attempt to shut out the influence of the Deity, it would seem that the Almighty God has maintained a quite different attitude in this regard. Exodus 15 gives us the aftermath of the great deliverance worked by God for the Hebrews in liberating them from Egypt physically by the parting of the Red Sea. The response of the Prophetess Miriam was to take up a tambourine and sing while encouraging all the women of the Hebrews to do likewise.
The development of such worship (with song and instrumentation) continued on with the jubilant return of the Ark of the Covenant among the people of God under King David. The victorious procession is engulfed in the sound of worshipers, namely Levites, playing musical instruments and singing before the Lord (see 1 Chronicles 15). Such a pattern of worship continued on into the first temple period when, in 2 Chronicles 7, King Solomon appointed 4,000 Levites and priests as musicians to worship before the Lord in that manner. The 149th and 150th Psalms give further indication of the Lord’s desired worship: wholehearted and joyous production of melody and harmony from the human voice and the instruments of music man had fashioned. God in flesh, the Lord Jesus Christ, engaged in such an act of worship only hours before the crucifixion while partaking of the Passover (see Matthew 26:30).
In making a few logical parallels in Biblical history, it becomes clear that the positions of musician and singer were established by godly individuals from a pure motive and an earnest desire to worship and adore the Lord their God. Bring this same historical pattern of worship forward to the present day and we see it manifested in the forms of worship leaders (song leaders as they were once called) and worship teams. These ministries, inasmuch as their purpose is to minister unto the Lord by means of their music-craft, are as needed and important today as they have ever been. Because of this, it is incumbent upon us to establish a few points of direction and advice so that this needful member of the Body of Christ maintains a healthy and harmonious union with the will of the Head.
1) A WORSHIP TEAM WHICH DOESN’T WORSHIP ISN’T A WORSHIP TEAM
There is very little more confusing in the process of a worship service than looking at a platform full of people who are obviously completely disengaged from what is taking place or, generally speaking, looking board. If holding a microphone paralyzes an individual’s ability to demonstratively worship God, there’s a problem. This is not to suggest that singers and musicians must put on hyper-emotional performances but that, in the very least, they should be mindful that they are not just singing and playing; they are supposed to be worshiping.
Raise your hands. Involve yourself in the moving of the Spirit. Yield yourself to weeping, shouting, dancing and rejoicing. In short, if you’re a worshiper – worship! Furthermore, in the moments between songs when exhortation and encouragement are taking place or when a service leader, minister or Pastor is speaking, don’t stare blankly into space. Pay attention. Your job as a worshiper and your duty as a Christian don’t end when the last note is played. Heartfelt worship will cover a multitude of wrong notes, off-key singing, voice cracks and missed lyrics. It’s not about perfection; it’s about worshiping He who is perfect and who desires worship from the heart of frail humanity.
2) DON’T PRACTICE MUSICAL SNOBBERY
It goes without saying that the worshipers of the Old Testament were skilled in their craft and, therefore, most certainly must have practiced once or twice. With that said, it is not to be assumed that the product of their practice was a level of musicality to which none of the rest of the congregation of Israel could attain. We have the book of Psalms as a wonderful example of the combination of complexity and simplicity used in the worship of God in ancient times. The complexity which did exist was thematic, not lyrical. In other words, the Psalmists would touch upon themes which reached to the most profound depths of spirituality and the interaction of humanity and Deity. Yet, the manifestation of these complex themes is found to be songs written in such a way that even a child could sing them worshipfully.
When a worship team begins a complex song with hard-to-define melodies, modulating harmonies or lyrics which require superhuman, oral acrobatics the congregation goes from being included in the worship experience to a position little above that of an outside observer. While these songs have their place within public worship in the form of solos (or “specials” as they are often called), they are not conducive to participatory congregational worship. We do not need to create an environment where the only people who can participate are those who put hours into practicing the songs.
3) LET GOD’S PEOPLE SING – A PLEA FOR CONGREGATIONAL WORSHIP
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the human voice was often referred to, poetically, as the “Sacred Harp.” From this concept was derived a singing method of the same name. The purpose was to create a simplified system of writing and understanding music so that everyone in a congregation, young and old, could participate by lifting their voices strongly in worship. The effect created by this complete congregational participation was one of absolute unity in worship, solidarity of purpose and singleness of heart. Over time the congregational seating area of church sanctuaries has grown painfully quiet as the majority of worship sounds radiate from a central platform.
Corporate worship is a much more powerful experience when God’s people are able to worship, invited to worship and encouraged to worship. Constructive yet simple ways should be found to include the congregation in singing. While it is helpful to put lyrics on a screen or in a songbook where everyone can readily access them, do not assume that doing so is enough to enjoin congregational participation. Too often the individual in the pew feels like they are on the outside looking in and simply don’t know that their voice lifted in song is welcomed in the house of God. Lower the music from time to time, back away from the microphones and let God’s people sing.
4) SONG SETS ARE A BLESSING; SONG SETS ARE A CURSE
Returning again to the matter of practice, it should not be inferred that such is not necessary. But it should be noted that many overwhelmingly profound moves of God have occurred over the centuries in an environment of totally spontaneous worship. That notwithstanding, it has been common for just as long to prepare and practice a list of songs for a worship service hours or even days before a service begins. Today these are referred to as “song sets” – groups of songs with common themes or a common “flow.” Inasmuch as these previously prepared song sets provide a backbone of continuity they are a blessing.
Unfortunately, a song set can also become a curse when a worship team restricts itself to it. For example, if the Spirit of God is moving through a particular type of song, it is more appropriate to follow that flow even if the next song in the set would lead you in a different direction. Follow the move of the Spirit; not the song set. Yes, God can use the song set. No, the song set should not be allowed to dictate the direction of a service. Being led by the Spirit requires flexibility. If that means that only one or two members of the worship team remain on the platform singing while others move on – so be it. Furthermore, in the time of response after the preaching of the Word of God, do not bind yourself to the song which might have been previously selected for that time. Pay attention during the preaching. Listen to what God is saying through the Man of God and respond appropriately in your song selection.
5) THE WORSHIP TEAM SHOULD SUPPLEMENT, NOT SUPPLANT, THE PREACHING
The worship team and the preacher are not in competition with one another to see who can get the greater response. The ministry of God’s Word is the critical point in the time of Assembly. With that said, the worship team’s role can weigh heavily on the impact of the preaching. When the worship is Spirit-led, God-directed and divinely anointed, it helps to create an atmosphere where the heart of those present can receive the good Seed of the Word of God readily and joyfully. The flow of the Spirit through the act of public worship aids in the softening of hearts, tearing down emotional barriers and preparing an individual for further spiritual receptivity.
The worship team and the Man of God should endeavor to function harmoniously with the onus resting upon the worship team to follow the Spirit before and, especially, after the preaching of the Word. For this to take place, two things must occur. First of all, a prayerful approach to worship is prerequisite. Talent is good. Anointing is better. Finding the mind of God, the will of God, for a service is achieved not in hours of practice or pre-planning but in time invested in sincere prayer. Secondly, paying close attention to the preaching provides the foundation upon which a proper direction of worship during the response should be built.
What is more, it should never be forgotten that your job as a worshiper does not negate your need for the Word of God to be heard and applied in your own life. Don’t be distracted during preaching. You’ll have plenty of time to know what song to sing if you’ll pay attention, follow the Spirit and allow God to lead you. It should also be noted that constantly resorting to “Jesus Is My Boyfriend” type songs is not required in an altar service. Yes, Jesus loves the sinner but His desire is that they come to repentance. Sing a call to action. Songs that make the sinner feel comfortable in their present condition or encourage complacency and lack of action based upon a misplaced or easily misinterpreted emphasis on God’s love will do more harm than good.
6) “OLD” AND “NEW” ARE NOT SYNONYMS FOR “GOOD” AND “BAD”
It should always be remembered that what is “old and tired” to you might be exactly what God wants to use in the process of a worship service to touch the heart of an individual. Furthermore, we must not reject what is new based solely upon its freshness and unfamiliarity. The argument rages, especially in Pentecostal circles, in regard to old and new music. It is perhaps one of the more futile, distracting and spiritually disruptive issues in the church. When an individual sets themselves against a particular style or genre of music a note of discord is sown within the congregation. Young people sitting down to the “old standards” is just as detrimental and inappropriate as older people reacting in the same manner to new songs. Certainly there are forms of musical expression which really do not have a place in the House of God but what is included and excluded cannot be based solely upon personal preference.
Every old song was once new and every new song will, one day, be old. Embracing diversity in worship demonstrates the overarching will of God that all men, young and old, regardless of ethnic and cultural differences would worship Him together in the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Creating such a blend of standard and modern, familiar and new is healthy for all concerned. If a song is free from doctrinal error, why not sing it? Furthermore it should be noted that not all songs sung in the act of worship must be comprised of lyrics directed toward the Deity. Look at the Psalms and you’ll find a blend of singing to God and singing about God. Both are very much appropriate.
7) WORSHIP IS NOT PERFORMANCE ART
Regardless of how we might feel about ourselves and our abilities, the church is not our concert hall and the congregation is not our audience. It is not necessary for us to synchronize our gestures and coordinate our outfits. If an individual’s purpose for being part of a worship team is anything less than aiding their Brethren in the worship of God and joining together in that worship wholeheartedly, that individual is in the wrong position. Furthermore, achieving an emotional response from the congregation should not be a driving factor. That is what performers do. Worship leaders and a worship team are to lead other worshipers to a spiritual response and, though that response will often manifest as demonstrations of emotion, emotion alone is not the goal. Not only that, but worship is not a time set aside for an individual to demonstrate how gifted and talented they are. Again, this is performance; not worship.
The only entity who should be getting attention in worship is God. Our modern trend of exalting worship leaders must be most sickening in the eyes of God. We are not in competition or, at least, we shouldn’t be. Our object must be bringing glory and honor to the Lord Jesus Christ and Him alone. Anything else is performance. Anything less is unacceptable. Inasmuch as worship is not performance art it should not be expected to appear so either in sound or visible application. Some of the most anointed singers among us have, historically, not had voices one would expect to hear on the radio. Yet something amazing happens when they yield themselves to God’s Spirit and, under the mighty weight of anointing, allow themselves to be used of God. That is worth more than all the performance ability and stagecraft in the world.
ON A PERSONAL NOTE
When I came into the church as a young man of 14 I was able to pound out a few notes on a piano with all the skill and grace of a mule attempting to tap-dance. My voice had developed fairly well and I was encouraged by the Pastor’s wife to make use of what ability the Lord had given me. In the years that have followed I have been blessed of the Lord to become fairly proficient with multiple musical instruments while always insisting on returning full use of those gifts back to the God who gave them. What is more, I have been called upon innumerable times to lead God’s people in worship. This has taken place across various cultures, in various nations and in various languages.
What I have outlined above is not from the perspective of one who has never had to put these principles into practice nor of one who believes everyone else is “doing it wrong.” These points are the product of observation over almost two decades in God’s Kingdom from my perspectives as a Pastor, Evangelist and a worship leader as well as countless conversations within the Body of Christ. Music is intended to be a great blessing to the church. What a great shame it is when that blessing turns into an area of bitter disunity or unnecessary artistry. Balance, that great word which many lay claim to yet is so difficult to practice consistently, and commonsense are great guides in matters of worship. These alone, however, are not enough. In all things we must endeavor to be led by the Spirit and, in doing so, be called the sons of God in earnest worship of our Heavenly Father.