Reflection #43 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 43 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 #43: I wonder how often highly programmed contemporary worship grossly fails to account for the spiritual emptiness of many of the congregants on any given Sunday morning.

While in this current state of limbo re: regular church attendance–while my wife and I have been on a three-plus-year hiatus from parking in the same space and sitting in the same pew/chair in the same church Sunday after Sunday; i.e., while not having to go to church to receive a paycheck–I have regularly been surprised how often I have come to corporate worship in a state of spiritual depletion.  Yesterday was one such occasion.

Twenty-nineteen was a rough year for a number of reasons.  There were numerous blessings, of course, as there always are, but I found myself too frequently walking by sight and not by faith, too regularly viewing my glass as 10% empty as opposed to 90% full.  It’s humbling to be in worship education and to think periodically, “I still believe all this, but I sure don’t feel it at the moment.”  I’ve done this long enough to be comfortable acting-as-if when I need to, and I think there is great merit, to be sure, in pressing on in the midst of doubt and questioning–exercising spiritual muscles, through pain, believing there will be benefits on the back end someday.  (There always are . . . eventually.)

Yesterday started out like so many days before.  We walked in (late) and made our way to the balcony, so our tardiness wouldn’t be too noticeable and to afford a sense of anonymity.  The worship leader, Tim Caffee, 832910_3956x3956_500a former student, had just finished (I found out later) leading one of the congregation’s favorite “Go, God” up-tempo numbers and, just as we walked in, felt led of the Holy Spirit to shift gears midstream into a (mostly) unscripted time of reflection.  With a simple acoustic guitar providing a I-IV vamp underneath, he began speaking Truth to the congregation.  Charismatics would have received them as prophetic words; Reformed believers would have called them exhortations.  Call them what you want; they were exactly what I needed yesterday morning–and they certainly felt inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Speaking occasionally in the third person and occasionally on behalf of the Almighty in the first person (while clearly making evident which was which), Tim welcomed those gathered into the fullness of the blessings of belonging to Christ . . . in a loving relationship.  One phrase he uttered, “Jesus gently wants to wash away your cynicism today,” felt as if it had been given just for me.

I fear for the vast majority of my 30 years in local-church worship leadership I routinely grossly underestimated the level of spiritual depletion in a percentage of the congregants on any given Sunday.  How often did I attempt to whip my stoic Scandinavian brothers and sisters into a frenzy in order to help them feel excited about Jesus?  How often did I use music to manipulate in order to achieve what I thought was what those under my leadership needed?  How often did I, frankly, treat congregational singing as a tool to numb people’s pain–like one might use drugs, alcohol, or cheap sex–quickly and momentarily satisfying a felt need without taking the opportunity to get at root problems?  Not wittingly, of course, but while encouraging worshipers to “celebrate Jesus,” “[run] out of that grave,” and/or “bow in humble adoration and there proclaim, ‘My God, how great Thou art'” (this isn’t just a contemporary worship issue), how often did I merely serve up a shot of spiritual cortisone when some kind of ministerial out-patient surgery would have been more appropriate?

I hear the concerns.  Megachurch worship leaders: “We can’t do that kind of thing because I have a fixed time for my set.”  Reformed worship leaders: “What if we enter into one of those unscripted moments and someone in the congregation attributes some indigestion-inspired ‘word of knowledge’ to the Holy Spirit and spends five minutes ‘blessing’ us with that revelation?”  Southern Baptist worship leaders: “There’s no room for planned spontaneity in Fanny Crosby or Bill Gaither.”  Yeah, I get it.

I also get that our job is to lead worship, not just play music.  So much of what I see in contemporary worship (and, believe me, I saw the same thing in the traditional worship of my youth) would suggest to an outsider that the worship leaders believe the congregation members have also been thinking about this set for the past three to six weeks.  Have also been praying over the song selection.  Have also been working on the transitional comments.  Have also been–out there in the “Sacred Grounds”/”Holy Joe”/”Cup of Life” atrium–spending the 15 minutes prior to the service preparing their hearts for worship.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Worship leaders, may you in 2020 see our Lord refresh you as you endeavor to speak relationship to your flock, to sense their level of spiritual depletion on any given Sunday, and to respond (even by calling a PCO-busting audible on occasion) with boldness as the Holy Spirit leads.

The Lord be with you!

About Warren Anderson

Emmaus Road Worshipers is written by Dr. Warren Anderson, Director of the Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts at Judson University (Elgin, Ill.), where he also directs the Judson University Choir. A Judson alumnus, he has served his alma mater in a number of capacities over the past 30+ years, especially the chapel ministry, which he led for 22 years. From 1982-2016, Dr. Anderson served six different churches--American Baptist (X2), Converge, Evangelical Free Church of America, Roman Catholic, and United Methodist--as a "weekend warrior" worship musician/pastor. He is a former member of the editorial board of Worship Leader magazine. The views expressed in this blog are not necessarily the views of Judson University.
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