thoughts on public worship

Andrew, a young, new friend of mine told me recently that he was going to start something to help worship leaders of contemporary-type churches become more creative, effective, etc, etc. He asked me if I had any advice. Well,  even though this is something I don’t do any longer, I have had lots of thoughts about it and experience with it through the years.

Here’s one set of thoughts on this: I found when I help people to become better worship leaders, they are on an adventure that will take them into at least 3 interwoven layers…and the layers are usually entered in this order, even though it seems like it should be another order.

1. the technical…you learn stuff about how to technically play or sing or paint or dance or just the organization of worship. This is very important but it is just the first layer. If you do what you do poorly….you can’t proceed yet, because few people will see beyond your technical amateurism.

2. the creative…only after you feel very comfortable technically about what you do can you actually get creative with it. This would mean breaking out of the rules and patterns you’ve learned and starting to create your own…combining/fusing things together that no one else has done…discovering your own creative ideas to enhance worship, going beyond just copying what others have done.

3. the spiritual…i know this seems like it should be first, and it is in a small way…but only when you feel very comfortable with the technique of what you do, so that you can do it in your sleep, and you’ve reached the point of truly being creative (or making new worship creations) with what you do…only then can your worship leading allow maximum space for infusion with the spirit. And to me this is an entirely new level of creativity. it is NOT just getting sweetly syrupy or perhaps tearfully sad when you introduce a song…that is all BS. What I’m talking about is silent and not outwardly “showy” at all. It is not part of your act. In fact this is what transforms your “act” into real worship. This should happen in your real life, outside of the public worship…and then it will begin to come alongside of you into the worship….it has to do with the most important question for the worship leader (IMHO) which I will state in the next paragraph….

Here’s the question: After all you know about leading worship…and after all your experience at doing it…. DO YOU KNOW HOW TO LEAD YOURSELF INTO WORSHIP WHEN NO ONE ELSE IS AROUND??? That is THE question! About 25 years ago, I began asking myself that question, and it has changed my life.

Here’s what I experienced….I would sit down with God, all alone…and when I took away the songs and the guitar, and the stage, and the people, and the normal order of worship…….I really didn’t know what to do with God in order to get my own soul into true worship with him.

SO, I began to think through this and to get creative with it. One of the first things that I did, which helped a lot, was to take the order of songs and readings that I was going to lead…and to do it all (every verse, all out loud) just for myself and God…no stage, no lights, no people…and I entered into worship with God. If it could work for me all alone, it should work for others. I would actually make changes based on this because I would intensely “feel/experience” this worship, the flow of it, etc…and it became more than just a rational, intellectually developed list or flow of worship stuff.

The next phase for me was to realize that all the worship songs and readings that I was leading in worship were a bit like crutches…they got me where I wanted to go, but I was also capable of walking on my own, if I dared.  So as I began to come alone to the Lord, I explored personally other meaningful, fun, creative and interesting things to do that could lead me into worship and the “presence of the Lord”. I made list of them and repeated them frequently because they were “working for me”.

Later I realized that people noticed when I brought this personal deep presence w/ God into my “normal” public worship leading….it was less about performance, but somehow spiritual people knew I was in the practice of being with God outside of this “act” of public worship.

After some time of being comfortable with this, I would very carefully and selectively bring some of my private worship ideas into public worship….this has to be done with caution and thought given to many of things like logistics with people, comfort level with the new/different, etc.

This openness remains a source of rich creative ideas and has allowed me to flow into newer worship concepts such as alt.worship and non-linear formats.

Secondly, another VERY IMPORTANT consideration in public worship is to understand its various possible components: of which “praise” is only one, but it is the one that praise/worship churches spend 80% of their time on. Others parts of worship would include: thanksgiving, confession, lamentation, meditation, supplication, intercession, benediction and co-mission. So I think worship should be developed so it includes a mixed variety of these things…and not just one or two aspects.

I dream of seeing new songs, new art, new dance, new…etc that will help develop these elements of worship…How many songs do you know about confession? about making the world a better place? about helping the poor and oppreseed?  A healthy variety of these elements expands the canvas on which you can apply your creativity.

My favorite metaphor to use is “the meal”. Here in France, where they know how to eat like nowhere else (Itally is a close second IMO), a dinner is served as a long parade of courses…..appetizer, salad, soup, vegetables, main dish, cheese, dessert, coffee. They actually laugh at us for serving everything on one plate and calling that a meal….I can actually quote a friend for using the word “barbaric” when referring to this Anglo-Saxon practice.

So I would ask: Are we often guilty of always serving a hamburger, fries and a coke in worship….when we could be serving a multi-course meal? I think so.

If you agree, join me in exploring and experimenting with how to use music and the full range of the arts to serve a banquet of these courses in our worship (first in our private expression, then in corporate worship.) The cool thing about this metaphor is that every course in a meal, the salad for example, has an endless variety of recipes that can be applied to it….We are, after all, worshipers of an infinitely creative, loving, self-giving God. Wouldn’t it be only natural that our worship reflected such multi-faceted dimensions and such endless artistic variety?

UPDATE: I came across an excellent example…here’s a poem written by Mark Berry which touches on the worship element of co-missioning