Breaking Out of the Worship Formula
By cole nesmith
January 18, 2011
Growing up in a small Baptist church helped me learn something at an early age: Our gatherings as the Church tend toward formula. There are lots of reasons for it. It’s easier. It’s comfortable. It’s predictable. It fits inside of our “boxes.” It’s replicable. It allows us to attempt to recapture meaningful moments of the past.
But—like in all relationships—our encounters with God are meant to be progressive, not repetitive. That’s why I think I was so excited about the movement of a fresh approach to worship that was coming out of people like Martin Smith and Matt Redman in England in the early '90s and things like the Passion Movement here in the U.S. It wasn’t simply a stylistic change. It was something fresh in the expectation of the movement of God.
But now, 15 years and thousands of songs later, there seems to be a new homogeny throughout our churches and our worship gatherings. We’ve gotten to the point where we have made what was fresh into a formula once again.
A familiar formula
Tell me if this sounds familiar for a worship song as played by the band at your church:
Come down for verse one
Hit it hard for the chorus
Keep it going hard up til the bridge
Drop out for the bridge
Build back into a loud bridge section
Come down for an ending chorus
Vamp low on the end (with some occasional builds)
This type of song formula takes people dynamically up for two minutes, down for one minute, back up, back down. It’s a constant roller coaster for the duration of the set.
There’s nothing wrong with this song structure, but it might point to a greater issue: Perhaps we’re relying on musical dynamics to elicit an emotional response more than we are pleading for the Holy Spirit to engage us in the spiritual realm.
Obviously, the solution to what seems to be our new habitual formula is not another formula. But we should be aware of how songs really do affect us emotionally and how we can engage with God in different ways through a range of dynamics. It might help to think through what we think of as a time of “worship.” Are there times of celebration with the Lord as well as times of rest? Do we dwell on the joy of celebration and the peace of rest, or are those moments fleeting?
Who is worship for?
Ultimately, worship leaders are there to help foster moments where individuals can connect with God. And our goal as worshipers is to use that time to connect with God.
Sometimes, I think we get into the mindset that the worship is for the band—that we are present to allow the band to do what it wants or to help us hit an emotional high. There’s a time for high notes and guitar prowess, but it’s a matter of the chicken and the egg. Because those moments aren't all the time. It’s a continual balance of asking, “What is this moment calling for, and what will take us deeper?”
Music seems to be this strange thing that serves as a bridge between the natural and the supernatural. Because of that, our conversations about how to do what we do best involves both the earthly and the spiritual. It means not getting stale in what we think of as “worship.” But it also means fighting the temptation to judge whether or not the worship was “good” by criteria like, “They sang well” or, “That band was awesome.”
But the most important thing about worship is that it allows us to engage with God. It matters a lot less if everyone hits the right note, or if the band hits the right solo at exactly the right time or even if the particular song is the one you want to sing. What matters is if worship is providing you a space to connect with God—it’s not a formula or a series of easy answers. It’s letting God work through each of us to connect with Him both as individuals and as the Church.