Thinking Out Loud

February 23, 2012

An Open Letter to the Worship Team

Filed under: Church, music — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 6:20 am

Yes, you’ve heard some of this before, but with the weekend approaching, there are some things that can’t be said enough. It’s just so easy to fall into certain routines and patterns. Your best option is to read the whole article in context at it source, the blog of James K. A. Smith, philosophy professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI. (Now in his 8th year of blogging!)  But some of you won’t click so here’s the focal point of Smith’s open letter:

1. If we, the congregation, can’t hear ourselves, it’s not worship. Christian worship is not a concert. In a concert (a particular “form of performance”), we often expect to be overwhelmed by sound, particularly in certain styles of music. In a concert, we come to expect that weird sort of sensory deprivation that happens from sensory overload, when the pounding of the bass on our chest and the wash of music over the crowd leaves us with the rush of a certain aural vertigo. And there’s nothing wrong with concerts! It’s just that Christian worship is not a concert. Christian worship is a collective, communal, congregational practice — and the gathered sound and harmony of a congregation singing as one is integral to the practice of worship. It is a way of “performing” the reality that, in Christ, we are one body. But that requires that we actually be able to hear ourselves, and hear our sisters and brothers singing alongside us. When the amped sound of the praise band overwhelms congregational voices, we can’t hear ourselves sing — so we lose that communal aspect of the congregation and are encouraged to effectively become “private,” passive worshipers.
2. If we, the congregation, can’t sing along, it’s not worship. In other forms of musical performance, musicians and bands will want to improvise and “be creative,” offering new renditions and exhibiting their virtuosity with all sorts of different trills and pauses and improvisations on the received tune. Again, that can be a delightful aspect of a concert, but in Christian worship it just means that we, the congregation, can’t sing along. And so your virtuosity gives rise to our passivity; your creativity simply encourages our silence. And while you may be worshiping with your creativity, the same creativity actually shuts down congregational song.
3. If you, the praise band, are the center of attention, it’s not worship. I know it’s generally not your fault that we’ve put you at the front of the church. And I know you want to model worship for us to imitate. But because we’ve encouraged you to basically import forms of performance from the concert venue into the sanctuary, we might not realize that we’ve also unwittingly encouraged a sense that you are the center of attention. And when your performance becomes a display of your virtuosity — even with the best of intentions — it’s difficult to counter the temptation to make the praise band the focus of our attention. When the praise band goes into long riffs that you might intend as “offerings to God,” we the congregation become utterly passive, and because we’ve adopted habits of relating to music from the Grammys and the concert venue, we unwittingly make you the center of attention. I wonder if there might be some intentional reflection on placement (to the side? leading from behind?) and performance that might help us counter these habits we bring with us to worship.


  1. Excellent, timely, and essential exhortation.

    Comment by Michael Snow — February 23, 2012 @ 8:11 am

  2. Agree! The notion that those on the platform need amplification – those who speak, pray or sing – in any “room” smaller that a football stadium is ludicrous. The other points are also worthy to be mentioned.

    Couple this with the histrionics from some pulpits, the sermons obviously calculated to keep the salary coming and the like – not to mention ignorance of the scriptures – has driven us to stay home. We are old and have no desire to be tormented by those who love noise over substance, who say they love Yeshua in our last days on earth.

    How rare to find a pulpit which exposits scripture, rather than doing the topical thing. We are not interested in the pulpit’s opinions (topical) but “Hath the Lord said” – from a servant of the Lord.

    Comment by A. Sharpe — February 23, 2012 @ 12:50 pm

    • I think the focus of the piece was strictly about music, but I do frequently notice a kind of hair-trigger reaction to topical preaching from some quarters; however I have yet to have anyone prove to me what the inherent flaw is in examining what selected scriptures have to say about a given topic. Furthermore, I believe the whole Berean trait of “searching” the scriptures implies a back-and-forth search, otherwise the word “studying” would be employed as it is in II Timothy.

      Rather, I think the topical preaching genre has simply been labelled ‘Guilty by Association’ by people who link it to the seeker-sensitive approach to churches begin in the mid ’70s. But an examination of the preaching that’s out there will show some positively inspired topical sermons as well as some absolutely terrible exegetical sermons (and of course, vice versa).

      I also think sometimes our word choice betrays our subjective preferences; so to speak of a “pulpit which exposits scripture” makes it sound rather lofty, while “doing the topical thing” is intentionally setting the latter form of preaching in a pejorative voice. Truthfully, topical is the more difficult style. I’ve talked to preachers who are able to “wing it” with a single text, but must have done some advance research and study in order to locate related or parallel passages.

      The modern worship discussed in this post can be found in James MacDonald’s churches and he is a huge proponent of expository preaching. Andy Stanley is a very seeker-sensitve preacher with a rather loud and flashy worship band, but on closer examination, the majority of his sermons find him going through verse-by-verse. And the loud band does, on average, only two songs per service; the preaching is central.

      “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” by Jonathan Edwards is considered one of the most powerful and effective sermons ever preached, yet it uses texts selected from John, Luke, Eccl., Isa., Prov., Rev., and Rom.; and alludes to additional Bible references beyond the ones directly quoted.

      We covered this topic here before and may return to it soon. What concerns me more is the question of “deep” preaching versus “shallow” preaching; “rich” use of scripture versus “anemic” use of scripture; and whether or not the flock is being “fed” or left “hungry.”

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — February 23, 2012 @ 1:48 pm

      • I will be interested in that piece Paul. I have a lovely pastor with a beautiful heart for his congregation. He does sermon series based on topics…not anemic topics though, but things like how to study the Word and how to expand the borders of your world and seek out the lost. But I do miss the “old” exegetical and expository preaching I grew up with. My pastor dad could make the scriptures come alive in my heart like no one else ever has.

        Comment by Cynthia — February 23, 2012 @ 10:10 pm

      • I know expository is the “tried and true” workhorse of good preaching, but I think a good pastor should be able to do both, and do them well. We once traveled a great distance to hear a pastor whose 45-minute expository message contained no cross-references, no word-study, no illustrations and no quotations from reference works or supplementary authors. He was pleading with the audience to “get” the text, but hadn’t really provided any extra dimensions to his message to enhance their understanding of it.

        But I’ve also heard some great exegetical preaching; and both good and bad topical. I think the key lies in something entirely different mentioned in your comment: Making the scriptures come alive. A passion for the subject matter will overflow into the audience regardless of the form or outline being used.

        Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — February 23, 2012 @ 11:28 pm

  3. Our worship team errs in the #2 slot. Because I am not the leader, I am not in a position to do much about it. I like songs to be consistent and the intro’s and endings to be the same each time so people do not get caught out singing in all the wrong places. I cringe sometimes when I notice that 1/2 the people are not worshipping with us but simply listening.

    Comment by Cynthia — February 23, 2012 @ 10:05 pm

  4. To go with the accompanying picture:

    #4 If we, the congregation, can’t read the lyrics because your projectionist decided to use an artsy-fartsy font (instead of a legible one that people over 30 can read), it’s not worship.

    Comment by Brendt Wayne Waters — February 24, 2012 @ 1:20 am

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