“Clear the stage and set the sound and lights ablaze, if that’s the measure you must take to crush the idols… clear the stage and make some space for the One who deserves it.” Jimmy Needham
My heart behind this blog is not to offend or criticise, but to bring some challenge against a prevailing culture and style of contemporary worship that many churches, locally; nationally and globally, regardless of size, ethnicity or theology are adopting. It’s becoming more and more clear to me that this is a subject that we must talk about and so I wish to do so with sensitivity and respect towards those who disagree.
I grew up in a Charismatic Evangelical church, which for many years has been a part of a larger family of churches, born out of a move of the Holy Spirit in the 1980s. Because of that, many churches like ours experienced a fresh passion for God’s word and a deep hunger for the Spirit’s work to be present and active in all areas of church life, especially in gathered worship times. 35 years on, I am still in that church (though the congregation has grown and changed over time), and I now have the privilege of being the Worship Pastor and being on the eldership team. Having grown up in the church, I recognise that many of the charismatic norms that seem second nature to myself and others with similar church upbringing, for one reason or another, are not necessarily norms for all Christians, and so perhaps this blog is a good opportunity to explain the ‘whys’ behind what we believe. In the 30+ years of being in the church, like many, I have witnessed worship life through the lens of someone in the congregation and through the lens of someone involved in the worship team and seen how the church relates to God and to each other in times of worship. Over that time, there have been numerous different people involved in the worship team, numerous different songs we have sung and a degree of change in the sound of the music we play and sing- I am thankful to say that through the diligence of good leaders and by the grace of God, the thing that has remained consistent, is a strong heart of worship to God; in Spirit and in truth and I pray that this will continue to grow.
When listening to worship music from around the globe today, you don’t need to look very far to see that the same kind of changes that we have experienced have happened, and continue to happen in many churches. Christian music continues to be vibrant, diverse, and “contemporary” and depending on what you listen to, there is a lot of good quality, God- focused, bible based, contemporary music available for any church to enjoy. My prayer is that all of the churches that sing those songs do so from a place of reverent and joyful praise. In this blog I’m going to be looking at 2 components of “modern worship”, discussing the importance of the fundamental practices that are good and should stay, and also nuances of the not so fundamental practices which may need thinking about a little more, or perhaps need tearing off like a wax strip on a hairy man’s back. Those 2 components are ‘contemporary worship’ and the ‘charismatic worship’.
Contemporary Worship- When I talk about ‘contemporary worship’ I am more often than not, referring to the production side of gathered worship times- this includes things such as stages, lights, sound systems, worship bands.
There are many things that I love and enjoy about gathered worship; the sense of unity and togetherness as God’s people sing in unison, the sound of instruments being skilfully played to help us express our praise and gratitude to our Lord, the joy of knowing that we, the people of the Lord, can stand in the presence of the Lord, to bring glory to The Lord. There is nothing else like it in this world.
There are many aspects to contemporary worship production that are incredibly helpful, if not, necessary for many churches (especially larger ones) to function. Sound systems ensure that the whole church can hear contributions, sermons and music that otherwise would be lost over distance. Lights enable people in the church to see properly, screens help the church and visitors to know the right words to sing and be able to engage with video content, and a stage gives a congregation the ability to visualise the body language of those contributing. The production side of church worship is not in itself good or bad, however, it can be used in ways that benefit or hinder worship. Before I look at the negatives of ‘contemporary production’, I think it’s important to say that worship is ultimately a heart issue, and it would be unfair to make presumptions about the motives and the hearts of people I have never met, so this is an analysis on ‘production’, not people who are genuinely giving all their adoration and focus to God. All that said, here are several nagging questions in my head, which I’d like to explore-
Why is it that this contemporary format and structure of church set up (which we are no stranger to) has a big tendency to encourage the church’s focus to be more directed at what happens on the stage than what God might be doing in the rest of the room through the whole church body?
Does having a physically pronounced point of focus where humans are centre stage, distract our attention from God?
How did we end up with Christian worship celebrities?
I believe that there is a general answer to these questions which I will expand on in a moment- In a genuine attempt to become practical, accessible, contemporary and visitor friendly; churches have built a platform for praise, and put the wrong person on it- The desire for inclusion and cultural accessibility has inadvertently taken on consumerism, the desire for excellence before the Lord has become a temptation to be “like that other church”, a love for God through song has led to a love for the songs we sing about him, and the musical instruments we use for weapons of praise are turning into the tools of pop idols. The terrifying thing is, it’s an attractive model that is being replicated, and sought after across most Western church cultures. Building platforms for people, in a day in which identity and self-significance are huge stumbling blocks tells me that it is only a matter of time, if not already, before either the worship bands unintentionally begin to think of themselves more highly than they ought to, or the congregation puts their love for the bands and the music, above God. Platforms are for God, not us.
So, does that mean contemporary (stage led) worship is unbiblical? Well, that depends. Let’s look at some possible solutions to these questions stated above. Firstly, early church worship gatherings do not appear to be about a select few contributing from a stage, but the whole church body having the opportunity to exercise the spiritual gifts God has given for the building up and edification of the church. (1 Cor 12: 4-12.) Creating an atmosphere and environment where the wider church body can contribute and encourage is of high importance. When platforms and stages become high and distanced, in a way that detaches worship bands from the rest of the congregation, it can send a message that says “the stage and therefore contributions are not for you”. It is also a barrier to people who don’t like to be the centre of attention, but who do equally have spiritual gifts to share. Where platforms are high and distinguished there are some big gaps that need bridging for biblical body ministry to function properly. Secondly, sound and visual are important and needed for most larger situations, but they are primarily functional and should not distract our attention from the worship of God. If the lights directed at the stage pronounce those on it in such a way that makes worship feel like a performance, then perhaps we need to think about and consider how the lighting is balanced within the room, whether on purpose or not, what impression are we setting? If the sound system is at a volume that means the church cannot hear each other singing over the band, maybe volume is something that needs to be considered to break down a front-led worship emphasis. Worship team musicians and singers are there to help point the people of God to the truth of who He is, to make space for the Spirit to move in an uninhibited way. They are not to be the centre of attention and focus of worship times, which is probably a contributing factor to the rise of Christian worship celebrities. Sadly, I think that in many cases, church worship has become, and is becoming, more about the latter. Worshippers becoming more centre stage than the only One who deserves the worship is an irony that can’t be ignored, and it’s down to Church leadership and Worship Pastors to make culture changes that ensure the worship of the Church remains biblical and God centred.
Let’s move onto “Charismatic worship”. Worship that welcomes the church body to use the gifts of the Spirit. Here are some Scriptures to start us off;
1 Corinthians 12: 7-12
Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. 8 To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.
1 Corinthians 12: 27-31
Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 28 And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31 Now eagerly desire the greater gifts.
1 Corinthians 14: 26
When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.
Joel 2:28 & Acts 2:17
17 “‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
18 Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
Acts 2: 3-6
3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken.
I am aware that there are alternative theological views on the subject of spiritual gifts and their use in the Church today, however this is an opportunity to state reasons for their use. I believe that these verses among others stand out as foundational in the way we understand and practice church worship. I am a firm believer that the full use of Spiritual gifts in church worship is biblical and a necessary ingredient alongside holistic biblical teaching and gospel mission, in order to see the Church spiritually strengthened and also numerical grown. The way in which Paul speaks and teaches the churches concerning the use of spiritual gifts doesn’t describe something that is to be temporary. The narrative doesn’t describe something that will be present for merely the lifetime of a select few, but something that he wants the growing church to get hold of as necessary for congregational worship, that is, until Jesus returns (1 Cor 13:8.) I would strongly argue that if a church’s worship is not ‘charismatic’, in the same way that if a church is not missional or bible focused then it is not fully in line with the New Testament teachings for church life. By this I mean, in a gathered church setting, if the gifts of the Spirit are not consistently used by the church body/congregation, for the edification and building up of the church, it’s like a plant without access to nutrients- it will be stunted.
I previously mentioned that there is an increasing emphasis on churches being accessible for non-believers, which usually comes from a motive of creating a space where people don’t freak out about the ‘spiritual stuff’. But accessibility should never come at the expense of authenticity. I also understand that some churches go big on theology but shy away from the use of spiritual gifts in worship. When I think about this, I am drawn again to the words of Jesus- John 4:23-24 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks.God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” Worship therefore should not only be heartfelt and genuine, but also in communion with the Holy Spirit. We serve a God who wants to be hands-on with growing his church, and who is up close and personal with his bride. So, as much as good theology is a necessary part of church life, intellectualism should never squeeze out intimacy with our Father God.
So who in the church should we expect to receive and share these amazing gifts? Surely, we would expect it to be someone in authority and leadership, or maybe experienced and mature Christians? While there is an extent to which mature believers will have used, honed and grown in spiritual gifting over many years, it is also true that the Holy Spirit comes to all who believe, and therefore access to the gifts of the Spirit are given when someone chooses to follow Jesus. They are therefore available to all believers to receive and use (Romans 12:6-8.) So when a church is gathered, we should expect to hear from God’s people from every age, background, culture. There should be a fullness of spiritual expression within our meetings. So, should we be desiring contemporary or charismatic worship? I believe there needs to be a shift in our pursuit of the charismatic, a pursuit that is happy to lay down some of the niceties of production. There needs to be an intentional thirst and hunger for the things God has in store for every church, and a moving away from performance style worship. When considering our gathered worship, whether it’s 5-6 people in a lounge or 500-600 hundred in an auditorium, we must get our priorities in place. Does our contemporary production in anyway hinder what God is wanting to do through His Church? Are there some things we need to put down, and other things of greater value that need picking up? For every church there will be different degrees to which those questions need answering, but hopefully for every church there should be a united decision for going after the things of God over the things of the world.