Worship leaders love to discuss congregational engagement. And for good reason – one of our most sacred responsibilities is to lead people into an experience where they’re able to encounter the real and living God.
I’ve noticed in recent years, however, that this conversation often comes with a remarkably similar set of talking points. It’s generally assumed that (1) if the congregation can’t hear themselves, (2) if they’re unable to sing along, and (3) if the accompanying experience is too flashy or professional, then the resulting experience isn’t (or can’t be) worship.
I have a few additional questions I’d like to offer the discourse.
Why do we elevate the importance of hearing one another sing?
In my search of the scriptures, I find a tremendous amount of importance placed on gathering, the singing of songs together, encouraging one another, and a variety of other non-negotiable worship experiences. But there’s no mention of maintaining the ability to hear one another. Obviously, audio systems and microphones didn’t exist before quite recently, but I find it curious that we’ve been so quick to adopt a fundamental belief about worship that isn’t rooted in the Bible. Amplifying technology is (admittedly) often poorly used and the advent of the audio system has introduced an uncomfortable factor for many churchgoers, but so did drums a few decades ago.
Should every person really be able to sing every song?
While I have no quantifiable research or evidence, I suspect that the “singability” factor has become a much larger question in the paradigm of modern worship. Historically, it was never expected that everyone always sing. Obviously, this is a different era and we have an overabundance of new cultural considerations that we’ve never had before. One of those considerations, however, should also be the fact that we no longer live in a singing culture.
Decades ago, families would gather around their televisions to sing along with variety shows that displayed lyrics at the bottom of the screen with an accompanying bouncy ball that guided you along. Today, the variety show is extinct and (in American culture) so are experiences where people sing together regularly. Outside of the seventh-inning stretch and church, it’s extraordinarily uncommon to be in a place where group singing occurs.
Group singing ANYwhere has now become unusual. On any given weekend when people walk through the doors of our churches, this is their framework. People’s lack of singing isn’t always a reflection on their spiritual condition. It’s, perhaps, more a reflection on how we teach about worship.
It’s also important to remember that there are seekers in our midst. At the church where I’m privileged to lead, ex-gang members sit next to businessmen and ex-strippers sit next to soccer moms. And they all invite their friends. I’m extraordinarily sensitive to the fact that at any given worship service, one of those people who isn’t singing may be in church for the first time in their life, taking it all in, and investigating Jesus. I’m okay if they don’t sing.
I am in NO way suggesting that we should abandon the idea of corporate singing. It must be preserved as scripture mandates. And we should, of course, give our best efforts to choosing songs that will help our churches engage with God in worship. However, placing a hyper-focus on “singability” will always prove challenging, given the fact that evaluating songs in this light is innately subjective and extraordinarily difficult to quantify.
Is there really an equation that factors in an acceptable level of “professionalism,” skill, or technical enhancement and equals worship?
I’m often befuddled by the assertion that a worship leader, instrumentalist, or experience can be too good or too polished. It is my long and dearly held belief that God deserves nothing less than the best we have to offer. Excellence should be sought regularly and unashamedly.
There was a time in history when great, magnificent, breathtaking, and awe-inspiring art was created in the Church. This can and should happen again but it will look different than it ever has. We now live in a digital age and art is viewed more broadly. The pallet of an artist can now be a light board. Their paint is the fixture. And their canvas is the stage. We squelch the ability for those artists to create when we teach them that there’s no place for moving lights in a church. The analogy could go on.
If we expect new generations to engage with the Church, we shouldn’t sabotage ourselves by thinking that they desire a sub-par experience. They don’t. They attend concerts that they love and think the Church is irrelevant with its dated music and methods. Authenticity in all things is paramount, but an authentic experience is not incumbent upon a flawed one. We should strive to be real in every moment of every worship service. AND we should strive to do the best we can with what we’ve been given. I can think of no better definition for excellence.
At the end of the day, I want my church to be engaged in worship as desperately as every other arts ministry leader. While there are no easy answers or solutions, I appreciate the way that the conversation has helped me refine my ongoing philosophies about worship.