By Ken Read
One Sunday we were singing the very sincere song “The Heart of Worship” by Matt Redman. We had multiple well-rehearsed instrumentalists, scripted singers, and lyrics projected on a screen with high-tech backgrounds, all to say that worship isn’t about music. The irony of it all made me wonder: Are we seeing the end of the worship fad?
For the past decade or more, worship, defined as the congregational music time, has enjoyed a heyday. But I sense that the popularity of worship, as we know it, is crashing to a halt. Evidence all around tells me “The Sunday Morning Show” is going the same way as the hula hoop, the wet head, the dry look, pet rocks, discos, and chin beards. We are growing tired of it all, and can’t quite say why.
How We Got Here
The worship fad began in the 1980s, as the boomer generation was coming of age and setting a new direction for the church. Culturally relevant pop music had been used for evangelism by the previous generation. The new generation discovered the freedom of singing choruses about the attributes of God, without tacking a guilt-inducing invitation to accept Christ on the end.
There are signs that the next generation will not be as interested in either evangelism (as we had known it) or worship (as we now know it). A new generation will soon be seeking a new agenda.
Ironically, this trend is happening just as many of our churches are awakening to musical worship. Of course, worship is at the heart of the gospel, and so it will always have a central role in Christianity. But musical tastes are changing, the emphasis is shifting, the paradigm is turning on its head, and we will soon find a new vocabulary and new practices to go with the changes.
What’s Wrong with “Worship”?
If there is a fatal flaw of the current “fad” of musical worship, it is this: every meeting seems to require a 12-minute singing time, in which the worship leader “leads us into the throne room,” and then we move on, ready or not. Worship leaders who have been following this model, both young and old, are beginning to burn out under the pressure of creating a spiritual experience week after week.
Experiential-based faith, shored up by emotion-based worship, is destined to fall. I mean, how many times can you sing to an invisible being the words, “I see you, I long to touch you, I feel you near to me,” and not have it start to sound hollow after a while? The songs used to make (or help) us feel close to God. But an indisputable supernatural encounter never actually happened. So those songs have begun to ring shallow for many.
Our house of cards was bound to fall, wasn’t it? The whole musical package has become a Christian cliché for some, and can make worship leaders feel disingenuous as they lead people to sing in the building, but not to do the work or show the unity.
Even seemingly successful worship leaders feel the pressure to do what is musically acceptable for the majority, or “cool” for the young. The really popular “worship musicians” take concerts on the road and record CDs, reach celebrity status, and sell T-shirts as they personally autograph CDs. Sooner or later, this commercialization of a very narrow definition of worship is bound to come crashing down.
Some local worship leaders have seen the handwriting on the wall (perhaps it’s projected by the computer?) and have fended off the inexorable boredom or disillusionment through novelty and creativity. They may have bought themselves another five years before the crash, but I expect that all worship that is chiefly dependent on the performing arts is destined eventually to grow tiresome in the near future.
Of course, I am not heralding the end of worship per se, but the end of “The Sunday Morning Show.” That is the bad news. Is there any good news?
So, What’s Next?
The death of one fad means the birth of something else. So, what’s next? The emerging community of faith is providing us with some images of what people are longing for and the direction that assemblies are going. Let’s take a look at some of the concepts and practices that are capturing the hearts of those who are leaving behind “The Sunday Show”:
• Community. Churches longing for true community are rediscovering a more radical embodiment of Acts 2:42-47. Small groups are just the beginning. House churches come a bit closer. Committing to one another as family better catches the spirit of community. In true community, the concept of public worship as we know it almost seems irrelevant. After all, family reunions don’t usually hire musicians and motivational speakers in order to make their gathering worthwhile; the relationships are enough of a draw year after year to bring the faithful together.
• Prayer. Many are longing to stop singing about talking to God, and to start just talking to him. Sometimes “The Sunday Morning Show” eschews silence and fills every gap with a smoothly choreographed palette of sounds and sights. Increasingly it comes up empty for the person who came hoping for some extended time to focus on God. Our carefully prepared programs sometimes are the opposite of what people most long for, which is space for contemplation and meditation, not more information.
• Interactive expression. More than music, many emerging churches worship through other expressions, setting up interactive stations that use touch (using model clay or water), smell (through incense and apple pie), sight (by means of icons and construction paper), writing (journaling and writing encouragement notes), and dance (with banners and instruments), to name a few. The common thread is that people choose when and how and what they say to the Creator, rather than following the dictated script of the worship team. The Creator is worshiped through acts of human creativity.
• Acts of service. Servant evangelism is another form of worship. Rather than singing about doing things or saying that we are dancing upon injustice, many people long to leave the building and do simple deeds of service in the name of Jesus. Even token acts of kindness are truly worship, as people pray with their hands, not just their words.
• Liturgy. Lately, I am noticing many students using prayer beads (Anglican or Catholic), carrying The Book of Common Prayer, and attending masses. There is an undeniable depth in the carefully written words of liturgy that causes our cliché-filled spontaneous prayers to seem trite. The weight behind something ancient and historical has more appeal to many than being blown about by the latest trend. Somehow, our chatty self-focus (“Good morning! We want to give you some material that tells you about us”) seems to ignore the transcendence of God and cheapens his mystery.
• Scripture. There is renewed interest in lengthy, passionate readings without commentary, allowing the truths of Scripture to soak in during the silence after a reading. The cry of many is, “Stop talking about the Book; let’s let it speak for itself!” We honor the spirituality of people and we trust the power of the Holy Spirit when we allow the Bible to speak. Ironically, many outreach-oriented churches are changing to incorporate less Scripture, in order to give their time to engaging stories and explanatory comments.
A New Approach
I’m not talking about creating another program, or another way of approaching “The Sunday Morning Show.” Rather, this is an entirely different ministry philosophy, an ancient/future approach to life in Jesus. It’s not about the meeting, but about The Presence. Jesus is the heart of worship, and we will never grow tired of him.
Ken Read is professor of music and worship at Cincinnati (Ohio) Christian University.