By Jennifer Johnson
Randy Gill is the worship and creative arts minister at Otter Creek Church, a noninstrumental church of Christ in Nashville, Tennessee. He is also a songwriter and arranger for the ZOE Group.
He talked with us about worship as spiritual formation, why exuberant worship experiences aren’t enough, and how the use of instruments makes worship planning more difficult.
Let’s start by talking about some big-picture values for corporate worship before diving into the specifics of different artistic forms. You’ve said that worship is not about emotional catharsis or having an “experience”; it’s actually about spiritual formation.
There is so much value in being together and sharing each other’s burdens and joys. So for me, first and foremost, our gatherings are about the participatory, communal experience, where you are trying to invite as many people as possible into worship.
Given the diversity in most congregations, you really have to think beyond the personal preferences of the pastors and consider who is there, who has been there in the past, and whom you want to be there—whom you’re trying to reach. That means you have to offer an experience that’s as accessible as possible without making it totally disconnected and random.
In his book Rhythms of Grace, Mike Cosper talks about providing people with a worship language. If, as a worship leader or a pastor, you can provide people with the vocabulary to express their faith, then you’ve done something important for their spiritual formation.
When I was a kid, I remember going to a family lunch after church. The phone rang, and when I picked it up I answered, “Oh dear heavenly father.” I did this because I’d just heard it. It was in my head. So when you choose songs, or readings, or the wording of a prayer, you’re putting that language into other people’s heads, and you don’t want to waste that opportunity.
Cosper talks about a worship minister who was asked why he chose a particular song for a service, and the minister said, “Because you’re going to need that song when a loved one dies.” It was worship as formation, as preparation for the future.
This also means worship is most meaningful when it’s cumulative. You can’t have a one-time experience and plant something deep in a person; you need the discipline of singing these beautiful songs and hearing these readings and diving deep into Scripture week after week.
So before we even start thinking about incorporating creativity into our planning, just doing the basics with intentionality is crucial.
If people are really honest with me, they’ll ask, “What do you do all day?” Even my father once said, “How hard can it be to pick out a few songs?”
Right now we’re doing a sermon series about the church and the sacraments. So if there’s a sermon on baptism, for instance, from a worship planning standpoint I am thinking about what baptism means. What are some songs that would be appropriate to communicate that theology? What are some especially meaningful readings? Are there video clips? What kind of things would work?
I think worship planning is almost like being a detective, where you are out there looking for all these elements you can put together with a sense of flow.
Those worship experiences often include joy and praise and celebration, but how do we create space for introspection, confession, perhaps even lament or grief?
Well, some people do expect an encouraging pep rally atmosphere in a worship gathering. But on any given Sunday morning, many people in every church family have had a terrible week, a terrible month, or a terrible year, and their lives are in shambles. For them to come in and hear what they perceive as shallow happy tunes—it just doesn’t reach them at all. It also deprives people who’ve had a great week of the opportunity to identify with and encourage people who are struggling.
I remember I had just led a really rousing service with all these upbeat, “happy clappy” songs, and a friend came up afterwards and said, “Randy, there are times after a service like this when I just want to hit you in the face! Sometimes I don’t feel like shouting ‘hallelujah.’ When do we get to cry out to God?”
As many as half of the psalms are laments, but other resources that communicate sorrow or pain are really sparse. There aren’t many songs written about those parts of our spiritual walk. And sometimes the temptation is, “Let’s have a time of lament but make sure it ends happy.” There are moments in the Psalms when the lament comes around at the end to “still I will praise you.” But others don’t end that way. Sometimes there just isn’t a resolution—just like life. We need moments of worship that express that reality.
So I definitely feel we need to have opportunities for lament, they need to be authentic, and we need to recognize that, wherever we happen to be, whether we are happy or sad, there are others in the same church family who are in a totally different place. If we give them an opportunity to express that, all of us benefit.
So with this as the foundation, how do we move toward using more forms of artistic expression in worship? You work in a noninstrumental context that added an instrumental service this fall, but of course there are many options for meaningful worship besides music.
I think a lot of it is being open to the idea that God has uniquely gifted people, and some of those gifts aren’t ones we’d typically think of using in a worship service. In our a cappella tribe, we would have these conversations about how there are people in the church who are musically gifted but have no chance to use their gifts, and the counterargument was, “What if a person is really gifted as a cook or as a seamstress? Shouldn’t we give those people the opportunity to use those gifts in worship?” They expected the answer to be obvious: “Well no, that would be ridiculous.”
But my take on it is that if there is a way for them to use that gift to show how God is working in their lives and it might connect with someone else, then yes, let’s explore it. I’ve seen it done with sculpture, with painting, with dance. For me the question is, first, whether it’s going to point us to God, and second, what are the limits of your imagination? I am convinced almost anything can be turned into a meaningful worship experience if enough thought and discernment goes into it.
A woman in our church makes homemade bread for the Good Friday Communion service every year. That use of her talents definitely adds to the worship experience.
I remember once we were thinking about services being multisensory. For one service, we asked several people to get to the building a couple hours early to bake bread. So when people arrived, there was this wonderful smell of fresh bread that just hung in the auditorium the entire morning as we talked about the bread of life. When the service was over, everybody was invited to eat some of the bread.
As you’ve mentioned, your work is primarily with a cappella congregations, but you added an instrumental service at Otter Creek in the fall. How has that journey affected the way you think about these issues?
The irony of a cappella worship is that basically all styles tend to sound alike. Using instruments definitely changes that, so it has to be considered when it comes to building an experience. Also, in a cappella worship each song is usually less than three minutes long because you don’t have instrumental breaks, you don’t have intros, and you typically don’t repeat the chorus as many times.
So one of the things I’m noticing is that in our a cappella services we might have 10 or 12 songs, each of which might be around two minutes long. When you add instruments, the songs are four to six minutes long, so there is less music, which means you have to be even more careful about which songs you choose. I’m finding it’s harder to make space for some of those spoken pieces or other elements.
That’s a very good insight. Most of us who grew up in the instrumental tradition haven’t considered that the choice to use instruments actually means we’re going to have to work harder. It’s one thing to say, “The church should use more artistic forms.” It’s another thing to say, “Well, I still have only 70 minutes.”
It depends on how much weight you put on the music. One of my fears about our new instrumental service is a lot of people who have experienced instrumental worship have begun to equate worship with the songs and in particular with the way they feel because of the songs. Maybe they have gone to a Hillsong United concert or a Passion conference and found themselves standing or on their knees with their arms in the air feeling transported, and their expectation is that now they can feel that way every Sunday.
The problem is, if you equate that sort of ecstatic feeling with worship, inevitably you’ll end up disappointed because you can’t replicate that every week. And eventually it’s the law of diminishing returns; what was really thrilling to you in September is sort of old hat to you by February.
Being in pursuit of the ever-elusive emotional high is unsatisfying, and helping people get beyond that kind of attitude toward worship is really important to me. That’s why the idea of worship being formative and cumulative is so meaningful.
Jennifer Johnson is a freelance editor and writer living outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.