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Confessions of a Former Worship Leader

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.

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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. This article originally appeared on harmless-soccer.flywheelstaging.com.

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