Like Tim Jollie (“Crash and bash,” NZ Baptist, November) I visited another Baptist church earlier this year. It was one where in the past I had always found it fairly easy to concentrate on God as saviour and sovereign, and to participate with the congregation in its worship.
But this time it took all my willpower to stay in the service to the end. The musicians played and sang so loudly not only could I not hear others singing I couldn’t hear myself. So I stopped. Why go through the motions of singing when, musically and worshippingly speaking, I was alone? One of the reasons I go to church on Sundays is to focus on God actively with fellow Christians. It helps me to live more faithfully, having actively focused on God in unity with other believers.
On that Sunday the “band” destroyed the corporate experience of worship because it imposed its idea of performance on the congregation to such an extent that it wrecked the congregation’s desire to honour God in humble worship.
Part way through the second or third song I looked at the people around me. Some were not singing and those who were looked bored as though they, too, were only lip-synching. The “band” was doing what any band wants to do – perform for others to (perhaps) enjoy. But worship leading isn’t a performance in the usual artistic sense of the word.
Leading worship should not seek to meet the standards of Parachute’s Saturday night or of the band at the local night spot. In worship, the leaders’ first task is to help the congregation focus on God and to declare (in song, when the congregation’s action is musical) the excellent acts and attributes of him who redeemed us. Leading worship is a good performance if it meets the purposes and standards of together concentrating on God.
I do not wish to condemn or to criticise musical art performed by Christians. Even the New Testament encourages people in the congregation to perform “musical numbers” in worship (Ephesians 5:19). Presumably, to do so well is acceptable to God. But that’s not the primary purpose of gathered worship.
In situations of congregational worship, where we have no right to put our desires and uninformed preferences ahead of the primary purposes of humble adoration and proclamation, the task of musical leadership is to inspire the congregation to joy, faithfulness, holiness and love. This will usually result in music that is very different from the music we can hear in bars, clubs and concerts where, clearly, the purpose is not worship focused on Christ Jesus.
Congregational worship is the active service of God’s gathered people, service offered for his pleasure. That’s biblical, and it’s what most of the evangelical Church usually did until about 20 years ago. That was when the congregation accepted that its priority was to proclaim the word and to hear it. Today it seems some Baptist church leaders want their congregations to see, hear and feel the message without letting them participate wholeheartedly in proclaiming it.
Why force people into uttering words they do not mean – not because the words are false, and not because they doubt them, but because the musical – and therefore the emotional – context is unfaithful to the purpose of the gathering?
Why do church and worship leaders, in a context meant to help people experience a godly integrity between what they hear and say and commit to, create a situation where the congregation, by its half-hearted singing, shows that it can’t proclaim with integrity?
That is one of the few ways in which the unity of the Church is clearly seen by the world and one of the ways that individual Christians are strengthened when they gather as “the people claimed by God” (1 Peter 2:9).
Creating the social, emotional and purposive congregational context to proclaim and to mature is an essential part of church leadership. Because music has a great deal to do with the congregation’s task when it is gathered together we ought to teach the “royal priesthood” to understand what its responsibilities are and how to perform them in ways that meet the priorities of worship.
And then help it happen.
• Vic Lipski attends Karori Baptist Church, where he occasionally leads worship and often plays guitar. He has learned most, as a musician, from Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Bruce Springsteen. Apart from technique, they have taught him the importance of the purpose of each song they’ve recorded.