29 November, 2022

Authentic Worship in the Modern Era

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by | 1 March, 2022 | 4 comments

By Corbin Marshall

I stand on a stage professionally illuminated by theatrical lighting. Several expertly trained camera operators aim high-definition cameras in my direction. My likeness and voice are amplified throughout a large auditorium as well as broadcast across multiple online platforms. I’m holding a guitar. A wireless in-ear pack is fastened to my belt and I’m wearing headphones. A click track provides a constant tempo to our band. At any point, a producer can discretely inform me whether our teaching pastor has made it back from our other church campus.

I chose this set list of songs several weeks in advance. I selected these musicians nearly a month ago. I know each of their musical strengths and weaknesses. I know exactly how many seconds I have to speak during an instrumental break in a song, and I’ve prepared the words I want to say to my church to help lead them into worship.

This is a typical Sunday morning for me.

For the better part of 12 years, all those pieces of technology and gear, and the nuances associated with them, have been part of my career. And whether I like it or not, they’ve subsequently become part of my calling.

I know the question you may be asking (because I’ve asked it myself for many years): Is this all just a show?

My answer? Possibly.

How Do We Gauge Authenticity in Worship?

Context is critical to gauging authenticity in worship. More importantly, I believe the only ones who can gauge your authenticity are yourself and the object of your worship. If it comes from anyone beyond those two parties, it’s simply hearsay, speculation, or judgment.

For this reason, I want to make something clear: The point of this article is not to point my finger at others but to encourage you to audit the motive of your own heart.

That said, it would be irresponsible to pretend that major culture-influencer churches, worship artists, and songwriters don’t play a role. On the contrary, I believe the evolution of the “industry” of worship has gripped generations of new church leaders so completely that it has become the object of affection for many of us. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a retrospective look at the American church, circa March 2020.

(Disclaimer: I share the following only to provide context that I think is critical in unpacking my personal convictions on the matter. Your lived experience may be different than mine.)

A mysterious virus had arrived. The world would be pausing for a few days—two weeks, tops.

The overwhelming rally cry of the historically resilient global church was that we would be back—stronger than ever—after a two-week hiatus. I was so proud of the collective movement of the church. We all set aside our differences and mobilized!

For a moment.

It took only a handful of days before the online narrative shifted from positive and hopeful expectations to cynical and despairing manifestos.

Frankly, this about-face broke my heart. As a worship pastor in a local church, I consider it one of my primary responsibilities to teach a lifestyle of worship to my community. But as soon as the physical gathering and the production and the comfort of our “experience” wasn’t an option, it was almost as if many Christians no longer had anything to worship. I spent many months analyzing this phenomenon and I keep coming to the same conclusion: We have been teaching people to worship our gatherings rather than our God.

How Can We Move Toward More Genuine Worship?

I was as guilty as anyone when it came to worshipping the experience, but it took me a while to realize I was the problem. I began a process of self-auditing for which I’m now extremely grateful. Here are a few things my audit revealed:

The way I was made to feel during a church service was ultimately the prime metric I used to judge the effectiveness of a song, sermon, or moment. We discovered formulaic processes that could emotionally manipulate a group of people to feel exactly the way we wanted them to feel, and we would select our set lists based on these revelations. My intentions had been pure. I was tasked with leading worship, and the most powerful feelings I had experienced in my past became my target for others.

I hope you read that last paragraph and thought, Wow, that sounds very disingenuous and dangerous, because that’s exactly how I felt about it in hindsight, too. But rather than look back in regret, I’ve chosen to take a more proactive approach.

Several years ago, the minivan I had purchased from my grandparents finally rusted into oblivion. While searching for a new car, I found a great deal on a car with a manual transmission. With unwarranted confidence in my ability to learn quickly, I bought the car and headed into Louisville’s busy rush-hour traffic. After many embarrassing moments wrangling the clutch and waving at cars to pass me, I finally made it home. Over the next few weeks, I gained confidence in my abilities and grew quite proud of myself. That’s when a passenger noticed I was leaving the car in gear and keeping the clutch engaged at stops rather than shifting into neutral. As soon as I learned my mistake, I changed the way I drove and have extended the life of my clutch by (I hope) many years.

Now, pardon me if this seems like stereotypical pastoral overreach, but this is like where I now stand on my worship leadership. I may have been reaching the destination, but I may have also been doing some damage along the way. Now that I know better, I’m determined to lead better. I’m determined to worship better.

Is Your Worship Authentic?

So, what does this all mean? Is it possible to worship authentically in the modern era without burning it all down and starting over? Do we just keep doing the same thing until Matt Redman releases the 50th anniversary edition of “The Heart of Worship” and we come back to our senses?

I have good news. All you have to do is worship. It really is that easy. When you wake up in the morning, thank God for what he has done and will do. When you see injustice in the world, lament like Jesus lamented. When you sit down to a planning meeting, ask the Holy Spirit to reveal himself through the decisions that will be made. Live a life of worship. Let it overflow to your platform, wherever and whatever your platform may be.

If you make this conscious decision to reframe your worship, it doesn’t matter how much technology or how many dollars are invested in your gatherings. And I can tell you from personal experience, you will find new wine in those weary, old wineskins.

Here are a few major points of application I’ve set for myself:

• Stop trying to recreate the products of major worship artists and churches. Instead, start seeking the actual purpose of worship.

• Stop relying on the next great leadership book or album to inspire you. Instead, start identifying the uniqueness of your church and find inspiration in that community.

• Stop allowing yourself to go into autopilot. Instead, start approaching worship with intentionality.

• And finally, stop being a Martha (prioritizing the work); instead, be a Mary (prioritizing being in the presence of Jesus). [See Luke 10:38-42.]

Now that I’ve crossed into my thirties . . . and have witnessed a new generation create a culture I’m officially too old to understand . . . and hit the wall of “this social network was made for people younger than me” . . . I feel like I have, at last, enough lived experience to provide a final bit of wisdom. Here it is: God cares about you, he understands you, and he knows much more than you do. When we reduce our spirituality into formulas, we completely disregard the purpose of our creation. When we reduce our worship into songs or gatherings, we end up abusing the bride of Christ.

This analogy of marriage and its relation to Jesus and the church helps us understand worship itself. If we treated our spouses the way we treated our worship, all our relationships would have fallen apart by now. But therein lies the true beauty of it all—God is still present. He’s still wild about us. Even when we try to boil him down to the irreducible minimum, he is still patiently moving, healing, loving, and providing.

So, let’s end where we began . . .

Is authentic worship possible? Of course, it is.

Is inauthenticity dangerous? Of course, it is.

Are you being authentic when you worship?

You will have to answer that question for yourself.

Corbin Marshall serves as worship pastor, songwriter, and producer in Louisville, Kentucky. He has served at Northeast Christian Church since 2013.

Christian Standard

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4 Comments

  1. Jeff Peterman

    Wow!! That’s what worship should be? Reading this, I now realize my own underlying motive. It wasn’t true worship, instead a kind of selfish reason to sing and be recognized. This is a real wake up call. Thanks Corbin for breaking it down so purely. I’m forever grateful to have read this!!

  2. Mike Oliver

    With respect to the question, “Is this all just a show?” here’s a perspective that I offered our worship ministry team at Vibrant :

    In one of the Facebook groups focused on use of guitars in support of worship, a member raised the subject of concerns about whether we’ve become preoccupied with “the show” (i.e., use of technology in worship: audio, lighting, video, etc.). Although this most recent post is the “ump-teenth” time this subject has been raised in that particular Facebook group, I deeply appreciate that it remains a recurring question that we should all regularly ask ourselves both collectively and individually.

    In response to this member’s query, I offered the following thoughts to this community of worship guitarists. . .
    ________________________

    Use of the term “the show” triggered a realization. . . . By its very definition, “worship” is “a show.” Whether we examine this subject in either the Old or New Testaments, the act of worship is a “demonstration or expression of reverence and adoration” — a “show” (a definition available in any dictionary).

    I wholly agree that the means we utilize to demonstrate/declare God’s power, presence, work, and worth is not an “end unto itself.” The point at which we confuse the “means with the end” renders our worship worthless (“These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught” (Isaiah 29:13; Matthew 15:8; Mark 7:6) — just one of many passages we could consider in reviewing what God regards as acceptable and unacceptable worship). However, when the orientation of our hearts desires nothing more than focusing people’s attention on Jesus Christ (“If I be lifted up, I will draw all men to me. . . .” [John 12]), today’s use of technology isn’t all that different than the old “stained glass” and pipe organ churches of yesteryears or the ornate features of the tabernacle and the temple that God had Moses and Solomon respectively build.
    __________________________

    I’ll simply add to this for the benefit of our worship leadership community at Vibrant. . . . While everyone likes to receive compliments, I don’t play for personal acknowledgement. I don’t have any illusions of grandeur about “being discovered” — (LOL!). The only reason I play is because I want people to “see Jesus” and emerge from a time of corporate worship knowing with certainty that God is still on His throne. “Everything else is just details” to the realization of that end (if I may borrow from an old Mastercard advertisement). . .

  3. Holly Miller

    Love this so much! Authentic worship is an every-moment experience with The Lover of our Souls; not just a few songs at a church service. It is not a formula or a program or a production. It is my heart attitude glorifying God in everything I do. Change my heart O God, is my continuing prayer.

  4. jim e montgomery

    Well, when it comes to ‘worship’; it’s a ‘Free Dead Cow’!: citation – Gary Larson I.e., ‘Everyone gets to make their own denotation’! In your ‘grandpa’s day’, there was another useful denotation going ’round: ‘Worship is Man’s Response to God’. Still works! We fancied that, it worked; you touched on it; too little going on in ‘your day’. A Bob Cherry in your congregation’s history? If so: In your ‘grandpa’s day’, ‘Vicki Eckler Cherry and I grew up in the same Youth Group. Carry on … good to begin to see The Light and point others to It!

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