This is post number 25 in a series of random reflections I have been amassing over the past couple of years since retiring from steady, local-church, “weekend warrior” worship ministry. These ruminations are in no particular order, and they vary in significance. I welcome discussion on any of them.
Reflection #25: Perhaps the reason so many worship leaders in contemporary American evangelical churches function mostly as song leaders or old-school music directors is that churches greatly underestimate the potential for corporate worship to change lives.
Sure, encounters with the audible voice of God can change lives. Ditto many near-death experiences. History is replete with examples of lives that changed courses radically via powerful sermons. And many evangelicals these days would even testify to the notion that lives can be rearranged profoundly at the Table. But does our congregational singing have the power to transform lives?
Based on the corporate song in contemporary worship services, most honest Christians would have to respond, “Probably not.” Our worship sets, almost exclusively at the onset of the service, play many important roles. They signal to the coffee-drinkers in the fellowship area that church is starting. They set a peppy tone that provides, in some respects, a balm for the stress with which so many of us enter the worship space. They warm up the crowd before the main event, the sermon–in the same way an up-and-coming or old-and-fading band warms up the headliner at a rock concert. But, from all appearances, no one really expects the congregational singing to do much more than this.
For the next few weeks, I’m going to reference one of my favorite worship theologians, John Witvliet, whose work has appeared in this space before. His chapter, “The Cumulative Power of Transformation in Public Worship,” in Worship That Changes Lives: Multidisciplinary and Congregational Perspectives on Spiritual Transformation (Alexis Abernethy, ed.) should be must-reading for worship leaders called to more than alarm-clock or cheerleader status on Sunday mornings. Witvliet writes of three sets of competencies that show up in corporate worship. The first he entitles “Gesture and Bodily Competencies.”
Some years ago I attended a worship conference that featured quite different types of services, with music led by organ and choir, jazz combos, and praise bands. Regardless of style, what struck me . . . was the powerful way in which worshipers’ bodies acted out well-rehearsed habits. One service began with the processional hymn “Lift High the Cross.” The organist announced the hymn with a dramatic trumpet stop. I could not help but notice the person in front of me, clearly habituated to this type of service, who within a second of the organ’s first note stood straight up, grasped his hymnal with two hands, and extended his arms to hold the hymnal in a rather regal position as if he were joining the choir’s well-rehearsed symmetrical procession. It was a body position of reverence, solemnity, and awe. Another service began with Michael W. Smith’s “Agnus Dei.” A worship leader with a guitar began by playing the introductory chords; the drummer added a subtle pulsing rhythm on the cymbal. I couldn’t help but notice the person alongside me, clearly habituated to this type of service, who within a second of the first guitar chord lifted her hands gently upward, looked up longingly, and closed her eyes in prayer. It was a body position of intimacy, engagement, and awe. Both gestures were immediate. Both had been ingrained through prior worship experiences. Both communicated to me a powerful sense of affect. Both, it might be argued, not only reflected but also shaped the worshiper’s emotional life.
Witvliet’s second set he calls “Visual and Musical Competencies.” For the purpose of this blog, I’m going to reference only the latter.
What more soul-shaping force can we imagine than the songs we sing? Even when we are tired or depressed, old songs well up within us and dance on our plaintive, whistling lips. When we are old and can remember little else, we are still likely to recall the songs learned in our childhood. Music has the uncanny ability to burrow its way into our spiritual bones.
I have written before of music’s power to get into my father’s soul in the midst of dementia that robbed him of pretty much everything else in life. Might we consider how that power can be unleashed in corporate worship?
Witvliet relates his final set of competencies to language acquisition.
As with every other cultural experience, participation in communal worship gives us a language to say things that we would not have come up with on our own. We know that a breathtaking sunset evokes a response, but it is the church that teaches us to say, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” We cannot sleep after watching yet another dismal news story about hunger, and it is the church that teaches us to say, “Lord, have mercy.” The church gives us practice in saying things that form in us new capacities for relating to God and to each other–much like parents teachng their toddlers to say “thank you” are hoping not just to help the children to be polite, but also to form in the child the capacity for gratitude.
Worship leaders, the Lord be with you in your role as facilitators of spiritual transformation!
Coming next week (Lord willing): More on spiritual transformation via worship.