10 a.m. on Sunday morning. In a small, steepled church, people sing a few old hymns backed by an organ, listen to a sermon, share in Communion and have bad coffee as they laugh and catch up in the church basement afterward.
A few blocks away, in a rehabbed industrial warehouse, a clock on a screen counts down the seconds to the start of the service. Before and after the sermon, a 10-person band led by a young, flannel shirt-wearing, ambient electric guitar-playing worship leader plays highly produced music from an elevated stage accompanied by full lights and a colorful media presentation.
Depending on your perspective, either of these scenarios might make you uncomfortable. Both evoke certain stereotypes based on your personal church context. Everyone would like to think the “worship wars” are a thing of the past, and most can agree people are probably worshiping in both of these contexts. But even so, everyone has their own distinct ideas of what worship is and—even more clearly—what worship isn’t.
Even for Christians who engage in sung worship each Sunday, many have nagging questions about the entire thing. What is “authentic” worship, and what does worship have to do with singing? Can individuals get there on their own, or do they need to be in community to “really” worship? How have modern trends like worship concerts aided worship—how have they hindered it?
To find out, we went to the source—asking some of the world’s foremost leaders in modern worship music. Their experiences differ: Some are in full-time local ministry, and others get paid to write and perform original music. But all of the leaders, in their own way and context, have dedicated their lives to trying to help God’s people worship Him. They presented us with thoughtful opinions, across styles and spectrums.
What Happens When We Sing?
Singing is one of the most elemental ways Christians respond to God in worship and tell the Gospel story. Song has always been a central worship practice for the people of God: The Israelites celebrated in song after crossing the Red Sea, and Paul talks about hymns, psalms and spiritual songs in Ephesians 5. Today, people meet God through organ-led hymns, electric guitar-driven choruses, evensong services, banjo folk songs, gospel choir improvisation and countless other traditions.
“I think there is some mystery in song,” says Steve Smith, associate director of worship arts at Harvest Bible Chapel in Naperville, Ill. “It’s historical, it’s biblical, it’s bigger than us. We’re joining together with the voices of generations of believers in this practice of singing to God.”
Singing opens the worshiper up to God, Smith says. “There is something about song that expresses the inner heart of the singer that just saying the words can’t express. It allows communication from our souls.”
Hillsong Church creative director and worship leader Joel Houston agrees that music stirs something deep in worshipers: “[Singing] helps us push past our brain. When you’re singing a song, your soul is open, your heart is open, but you’re also not thinking too much about it.”
But worship isn’t merely an emotional response. It’s profoundly holistic. “When you are a part of a body of people singing to some[one] greater than them,” says Lisa Gungor, who—with her husband, Michael—is part of the band Gungor, “it’s hard to not be engaged with your whole person.”
Preferences and Division
While music has power to unify, preconceptions about what worship “should be” can easily divide. Isaac Wardell of Bifrost Arts, a collective of musicians exploring the power of sung worship, calls it a great irony. “There’s something very dark and unfortunate about the fact that music, which is this thing that has the capability of uniting people across language, cultural and generational barriers, can end up doing the exact opposite thing for people sitting next to each other in the pews. We don’t have a vocabulary for seeing worship as something that’s here to connect us and not a way to define ourselves.”
It’s when people refuse to budge from “our kind of worship” that division happens. These unwavering preferences—the willingness to split over things that aren’t essential—aren’t just an issue in the Church today. Paul addressed the same thing in his letter to the Corinthians.
The Church there had split into factions. Some said they were of Paul, some of Peter, some of Jesus. Paul reminded them—and Christians today—that being part of the Church means being part of a family, and that means sacrificing and compromising for the sake of unity (1 Corinthians 1:10).
“How much of it is me, me, me, and how much of it is we, we, we?” Wardell asks.
Worship leader and songwriter Vicky Beeching puts it like this: “Everyone has to lay down their preferences when we gather, finding the common denominator.”
Tangibly, that common thread is the response of the Church to Christ. “Even with all of the different styles and cultures of worship today, the heart of worship music is the unified voice of the congregation,” Smith says. “All the other aspects of worship are there to support the singing of the church.”
Distractions in Worship
Focusing on singing to Jesus as the “common denominator” is often hindered by the trappings surrounding worship. The emphasis on highly produced, band-led worship—which comes from a sincere desire to make worship as “good” as it can be—can drown out the response of the congregation. “While our music production values may be getting better,” Wardell observes, “congregational voices seem to be fading into the background.”
To bring the communal voice back into its rightful place, Steve Smith’s church tried something outside the box. “We ‘fired’ the band last week because we want the voice of our congregation to be a joyous expression of singing. It’s so vital to hear one another.”
If slick worship production can become a distraction, then so can the worship leader. Have churches adopted a “band leader as celebrity” mindset? “We need big personalities to sell worship records,” Wardell laments.
Ali Gilkeson of Irish band Rend Collective Experiment agrees: “[The touring worship trend] has a tendency of promoting a celebrity culture that’s at odds with the value of humility. When a concert has integrity, it has the potential to encourage the Church. But when it’s all about selling records and T-shirts, it’s worthless. We attend church to gather together to honor God with singing, not to be entertained by rock stars.”
Lisa Gungor, who has just returned from a touring stint with her husband and band, describes the stage as potentially poisonous. “Being elevated above everyone else can give the sense that you are quite important and that people are actually worshiping you rather than God,” she says. “This is something humanity has always struggled with; we have a knack for fashioning idols.”
Michael Gungor agrees, pointing out the danger of pride for any worship leader. “[Worship] often becomes less about God and more about the songwriter. I think those of us on the stage need to actively fight that in our churches.” It also means Christians in the congregation need to fight the desire to create idols out of the people on stage.
How do worship leaders keep worship vertical? What is their appropriate role? “One of my favorite metaphors is John the Baptist,” Beeching says. “[He] is not the focus, but he’s leading people to the focus. I see myself as a connector: taking somebody’s hand and taking God’s hand and connecting them. Once you lead people to Jesus, you then fade away.”
Houston, who has traveled around the world with Hillsong United, admits, “I’ve always found it a really uncomfortable place to be, but I’ve learned to work in the framework to help people connect to God in a way that’s true.” Houston emphasizes that leading worship—in a church or in an arena—is “not about how good is the music, how exciting is the stage or how great is our presentation of worship. It’s actually about people’s hearts being opened up to the Spirit of God through His Word that is preached.”
The reality that people can worship without the production level and star power of a touring worship concert is good news for the majority of churches who don’t have resident professional worship leaders. Wardell insists there’s no need for churches to feel the pressure of imitating the concert industry experience. “There aren’t really a whole lot of things you need to worship,” he says.
Traveling around the country hosting hymn-sings in homes and churches, Wardell says he saw this firsthand. He believes people connected with those nights because they were doing something the Church has been doing for hundreds of years but hasn’t been doing for the last 25 years: singing together.
Worship Changes Us
The heart of worship is the relational communion with God and His people. Singing together helps Christians engage in that reality. “Singing songs of worship is a great way for people to open up, remove themselves from whatever distractions they have to encounter the Spirit of God,” Houston says. And when people’s hearts are opened to that interaction with Jesus, their lives begin to be transformed to look more like Jesus (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Beeching explains it like this: “People are making themselves available to what God wants to do in them. They’re worshiping Him by saying, ‘You’re in control.’ Worship is about surrendering and letting God change us.”
“Singing changes us if we actually buy into what we are singing,” Lisa Gungor says. “It’s hard to truly worship and not be changed. When we are connected with our Maker, we are pulled outside of our self; we begin to live for something more. Love is the reaction to [encountering God in worship].”
Becoming people who love like God is not something that can happen in a single worship experience. Worship concerts can be great times of connection with God, but it is the worship of the local church over time that really shapes Christians into the Body of Christ that can then go out into the world to love others and ultimately bring them into a worship relationship with God.
Smith thinks the biggest difference between a concert and a service is that in a concert, “you don’t know each other and you don’t ever see each other again. There’s no lasting pattern where we see our congregation changing over the course of years.”
Houston agrees that it’s the presence of relationship that makes worship in the local church so beautiful and transformational. “They’re two different worlds,” he says of the concert and the local church setting. “When you’re at home, you’ve got your family, your friends and the people you do life with.”
It’s this long-term formation through worship that only the local church can accomplish. “We overestimate what we can really do in 75 minutes, but we completely underestimate what we do over the course of five years or 10 years or 20 years of people’s lives,” Wardell says. “If all we’re ever doing is every single week trying to give them a new experience, trying to make them cry or trying to give them goosebumps, it turns into us not feeding our people very well.”
It’s a lesson not only for worship leaders, but also for the singing congregation: molding hearts and minds into God-honoring instruments takes time. And that emotional experiences elicited by worship can be fleeting.
Christians need to be wary if the emotional high becomes an end in itself. Glorifying God is about praising Him through the warm, fuzzy feelings and the stark, mundane moments of worship. When the high becomes the norm, that’s not true worship—that’s manipulation. It’s why Christians are called to worship even when they don’t feel like it. In the moment, it can seem inauthentic—like going through the motions. But if worshipers open their hearts to the Spirit, this dynamic exchange—over time—can and will change them.
A find-the-next-hip-thing style of worship misses the main point of a loving interaction between Jesus and His bride. When the Body confuses the sanctuary with the stage, it’s the relationships that are missed. Wardell notes that worship is not a concert hall or a lecture hall. Instead, he says it is a banquet hall—like at a wedding—where we all come to participate in the festivities (Revelation 19:7-8).
“We’re pointed to God sitting on His throne,” Beeching says. “We won’t need well-written songs; it will just be a response from our hearts, proclaiming, ‘Holy, holy, holy.’ We’ll see God at the center. There will be flashes of lightning and peals of thunder, but they won’t be coming from projection software. It will just be us gazing on the beauty of God. This is a picture of what the Church should aspire to.”