(Editor’s note: As news and online editor for the Companion, I don’t tend to respond to other writers on our site. But a recent column by worship minister Jelani Greenidge got me thinking more deeply about the important issue of worship music. Here I offer a different perspective on this conversation.)
I have a confession to make. At times in my life I have arrived late to worship services because I wanted to skip the music. In his recent column “Shake Up Your Church Life with One Weird Trick,” Jelani Greenidge diagnosed one reason for such behavior: church attendees “tend to view worship music as the optional prelude to the ‘main event’ of the sermon.”
But my tardiness, as well as that of many others, I believe, is not for the reason that he and many worship leaders often lament. In contrast to what Greenidge writes, I don’t agree that the fundamental problem is that we are “rarely fully present for music in general” because music is so often in the background of our daily lives.
Rather, I believe that music is too much in the foreground of Sunday morning.
There was a time when I had to be at services. For many years it was because I was the pastor and worship planner. I’ve played guitar on worship teams in charismatic churches where people danced in the aisles—as well as in congregations where some members viewed guitars in church as an insidious intrusion of the outside world.
Still, I have come to view the music portion as “optional prelude” in some settings because that is what the church has made it. Our leaders often inadvertently contribute to this misperception. Not infrequently, I have heard the person up front say, “Let us sing as we prepare ourselves for the sermon.”
I arrive late because the music is often the same week after week. There’s a good chance that I’ll hear/sing most of the same songs I did last week and will again in the coming weeks. Recently over a two-year period, between denominational events and visits to different churches, I heard “Our God Is Greater” at least 20 times.
On two consecutive Sundays, I attended different churches and heard the exact same playlist, with all the songs taken from the current Top 20 CCLI songs. We wouldn’t listen to our pastors preach the same sermon every week—why do we accept such repetition in our music?
I also go late because somewhere along the way, many churches decided that all singing should be done while standing for 20 minutes at a time—or more. After ten minutes, I’m not thinking about the music; I just want to sit down. I could sit down, but then all I see are legs and the backsides of the people in front of me. Once someone looked down at me and asked if I felt OK.
But rather than simply providing an alternate diagnosis as to what has led to the “optional prelude,” I offer the following suggestions.
1. Re-integrate music with the rest of the service. It’s great to sing at the beginning—even multiple pieces of full-ahead rock, hip hop, gospel, country, or whatever, if you like—but we can also worship through music that invites reflection, that gives permission to use our whole bodies in worship, and which can include sitting and kneeling and different forms of prayer throughout the service.
I know there are logistical issues, such as what do you do with your entire worship team if you more fully integrate music into the rest of the service rather than consigning it to the beginning or the end. I recognize that it’s disruptive when the team has to move back and forth from the positions up front. But varying the styles of music or instrumentation can offer flexibility. Ultimately this can result in more creativity and possibly even more singing, not less.
2. Ditch the Top-20 playlist. Ditch it so that as we worship we are connected to the broader church through musical diversity not uniformity. Ditch it so that we are connected to the historical church that has been worshiping for some 2,000 years and has many expressions to offer us, even if we adapt them to our current settings. Ditch the play list because the gospel is surprising. We shouldn’t walk into worship wondering which Chris Tomlin song we’ll sing that day.
3. Finally, never say, “Let us sing as we prepare ourselves for the sermon.” Such exhortations devalue the music, which is every bit as important for communicating and experiencing the gospel as is “the main event.” A simple invitation to worship is all we need.
I hesitated to write this column because I have tremendous respect for the people who pour themselves week after week into the often thankless and nearly impossible task of planning services that will resonate with everyone. Every worship leader I know has a heart to serve God with excellence and to help congregations do the same. In the end, I decided to write because I hope this will further discussion about worship in a way that Jelani suggested in the magazine’s September issue on a different topic – with the heat turned down.