Confessions of a Former Worship Leader
By joel wentz
December 3, 2010
Growing up as the oldest son of a pastor, as well as a trained musician, the use of music as an expression of worship has been an integral piece of my church experience. I can vividly remember, as an eager fifth-grader, my excitement and anticipation over the opportunity to play bass guitar in a worship band for the first time. From that point on, as I became competent on instruments such as guitar and piano, my life would become dominated by musical, corporate worship. Whether it was at summer youth camps, university chapel services, informal gatherings around a campfire or meetings at newly planted churches, I happily assumed the title of “worship leader.”
For many years I felt no need to carefully examine how I approached corporate worship in the church. After all, I loved playing music, I seemed to be an effective leader and I was happily giving my talents back to God. However, I eventually realized it was not that simple.
As a freshman at a Christian university, I spent the majority of that first year “church shopping.” I quickly became enamored with one of the church communities near my university campus; its seeker-sensitive approach, flashy light shows and blaring music created an exciting change of pace for a straight-laced pastor’s kid. The worship leader this particular morning nailed the Christian rock-star image: good looks, styled hair, faded jeans and an expensive acoustic guitar. About halfway through the second song, I noticed an unused microphone, which was set-up at approximately his waist level. “What purpose could that serve?” I wondered in a quick moment of curiosity, and then I quickly raised my hands and lost myself in the tunes. The sound was mixed wonderfully, the vocals were outstanding and the set of music was carefully constructed to serve as a powerful crescendo to the last song: “Hungry” by Kathryn Scott. As the leader belted out the final refrain—I’m falling on my knees, offering all of me—he acted on his words and literally fell to his knees. It was at this point that the aforementioned unused microphone came into play. It was preemptively placed at the perfect height and angle so the leader would be able to sing while on his knees without stopping his guitar-playing.
I would never want to judge or doubt the intentions of the leaders of this particular church community, but I could not help but feel like I was being manipulated to react in a specific way to this emotional moment, which had clearly been planned ahead of time. I then wondered: “Have I ever been that person? Have I ever made others feel this way?” before feelings of guilt and regret overwhelmed me.
This moment would prove to be a turning point in my experience in the church. It became clear to me that we value intense emotional experiences in the Western church, perhaps too much. Further introspection caused me to look to biblical examples of worship.The passage of Nehemiah 8 provides an interesting example of corporate worship outside our modern context. Essentially, the people of Israel gathered in one massive crowd to hear Ezra read aloud the Law, which had been previously passed down to Moses. The text indicates that this reading took approximately half a day (from early morning until noon); and this was the beginning of the seventh month, a time of high celebration in ancient Israel. Written texts were also extremely rare at this time period, and it is quite possible this was the first time many of the members of the crowd ever heard the words of the Law.
Though standing in a crowded town square for half a day to listen to a priest read a book of law may sound boring to most of us (it certainly does to me!), the Bible tells us that the people responded in a strong emotional manner. Many shouted praises to God, some threw themselves face-first to the ground, and still others wept. The overarching sentiment seemed to be one of sadness and grieving, possibly because these people were hearing the Law for the first time (or maybe the first time in a while) and felt extremely convicted, as they fully realized they were not living up to its guidelines.
This is where it gets interesting. As a former worship leader, and occasional speaker, I tend to feel as though I’ve done something right when the congregation is at this point, when people are feeling confronted by emotions. However, both Ezra and Nehemiah responded, “Don’t weep and carry on ... go home and prepare a feast, holiday food and drink; and share it with those who don’t have anything: This day is holy to God. Don’t feel bad. The joy of God is your strength!” (excerpts from Nehemiah 8: 9-10, The Message). At a moment in which a captive audience was experiencing a heavy, emotional response to Holy Scriptures, Ezra could have easily utilized these emotions to hammer the message home. In fact, to some of us this may seem like a wasted opportunity. I would not have batted an eye if Ezra instead responded with: “Do you finally see our brokenness? Can you see how we have failed to live up to our covenant with the God who brought us out of exile? Repent! Change your ways!”
In any case, it is clear that in this moment Ezra placed a higher priority on what actions could be performed as outward expressions of worship, as opposed to what actions would have resulted from the emotions that were felt. The upcoming eighth day of the seventh month was reserved for a solemn time of reflection, a day of atonement, but the first seven days were to be used for joyous celebration. Ezra would have clearly known this, and he expected the people of Israel to act accordingly, even though their emotions on this particular day may not have cooperated.
I have a significant fear that, in the American church, we have gone in a different direction entirely and elevated the importance of emotions to a point at which it is difficult to see the purpose of other, less emotional expressions of worship. Genuine worship is possible (in fact, I would argue it is required) whether or not an emotional reaction has taken place. The image of a worship leader dramatically kneeling in front of a previously positioned microphone will be forever seared into my memory as an example of an over-the-top effort to elicit an emotional response. It was in this moment that I saw, for the first time in my life, the dangers of placing undue focus on the purely emotional aspect of corporate worship.
When held in check, emotions can certainly be a positive element of musical worship. However, my prayer is that we can re-learn how to constantly acknowledge the holiness and otherness of God in a humble and sacrificial way, whether we feel like it or not.
Joel Wentz is an aspiring writer and musician. He is currently on staff at the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine, and enjoys a good cup of tea and listening to vinyl records.