confessions of a “worship” leader

For years I have been involved in playing music to help lead Christians in worship.

Music leader, song leader, worship leader; call it whatever you want. Without wanting to sound in any way conceited (I assure you, about this I am not), I earned a fair amount of praise and encouragement from people who claimed my leading helped them in some way.

In my late teenage years (I have now just turned 26) so-called “worship” and music was central to my faith journey. My identity was largely derived from my music leading, and there was a lot of pressure to conform to the image of other well-known worship leaders. I truly believed that my calling, that my purpose, was to be found in leading people in worship by way of music.

I sang a lot of songs. A lot of words. But eventually something dawned on me – all that music, all that so-called “worship,” wasn’t necessarily changing me or anyone else I was leading.

Don’t get me wrong, I think music is powerful, and worship is central to Christian faith. Sometimes the two intersect well.

Sometimes they do not.

I realised about six years ago, and have been on a long and often painful journey since, that the songs are not enough. In fact they are not even close to enough. When the songs are sung as an end in themselves, as I was largely doing, we completely miss the point.

A conversation on Sunday with an old friend about a passage in Isaiah refreshed this sense of incompleteness and relative unimportance of singing songs. The passage was Isaiah 58 [1], which in brief terms details God’s calling Israel to account for her hypocrisy in claiming to be righteous by fasting, while at the same time allowing injustice to run rampant and refusing to meet the needs of the poor.

Now of course this passage is not talking about contemporary “worship”. There is however a connection between the two, since fasting was, like modern worship music, a kind of “devotional” act of humility before God. They may not be exactly the same, but they do not need to be. The question is, what kind of devotion, what kind of worship, does God accept?

You see, when the songs we sing, indeed the songs I was singing, are disconnected from the more important acts God requires from us, they become meaningless.

In fact, they are more than meaningless; they are indicative of hypocrisy.

In Isaiah 58 God calls Israel to exercise true fasting – to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, to break every yoke, to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into your house, to cover the naked (58:6-7). Israel was meant to be a light to the world (42:6; 49:6), being a society of justice and mercy. If they would become that society then they would, according to Isaiah, be the light they were always intended to be (58:8). True worship is apparently not so much about fasting (or singing) but rather about being the people of love and justice God seeks.

To sing songs to God can be beautiful, and I encourage it. It can be a life-changing and Christ-conforming experience.

However many communities have developed a culture of shallowness around “worship”, where playing songs on a stage has become the meat and potatoes, and where many young people are caught in a cycle of imitating the latest church, leader or album whilst foregoing the more important aspects of worship outlined by Isaiah. This is, quite simply, a horrific perversion of the worship of the God of all creation, and no amount of constipated looks by misled worship leaders, no matter how sincere, can make it otherwise. [2]

I have come to believe that any kind of worship that is not accompanied by actively engaging God’s heart, hands and feet for the lowliest in society is ignored by God. It is passages like Isaiah 58, and Amos 5:21-24, that have led me to this conclusion. The question is, will we take these sections of Scripture as seriously as we do other, more encouraging portions?

I realise this could all sound very arrogant and self-righteous, and some would say I am inaccurately or unfairly portraying the current state of things. But I do not believe that I am either arrogant or unfair when I say this, since I have been there; I’ve been in the middle of it, and I’ve embodied it. I know it first hand, and I have shared in the perversion. By God’s grace though I have come out the other side, learning to serve God in the poor and hurting; I hope to help others do the same.

A question that has been thrown my way when I have previously expressed such thoughts is what my alternative might be regarding our forms of worship. It is expected that those like me who criticise the current state of music in many Evangelical churches should come up with an alternative. I myself fell for this assumption for a long time, that I needed to re-imagine worship, especially music.

While I think there is a place for this, and indeed I try to come up with new ways of experiencing God and worshipping him, the truth is that I do not have to. The current mediums are not necessarily bad, for certainly they help people to worship God, whether it be Charles Wesley or Hillsong. What needs to change is not the mediums, but the priorities – singing songs without worshipping in the way prescribed by Isaiah in terms of love and justice for the needy is meaningless. No, worse, it is perverse and detested by God.

Please worship leader, I implore you, put down the guitar and follow Jesus in his kingdom mission of setting free the oppressed and sharing your bread. You will see worship from a completely different perspective, and things will never be the same.

Then take up the guitar again and sing about what God has done.

MCA


[1] 1“Cry aloud; do not hold back;
lift up your voice like a trumpet;
declare to my people their transgression,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
2 Yet they seek me daily
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that did righteousness
and did not forsake the judgment of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments;
they delight to draw near to God.
3 ‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
and oppress all your workers.
4Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to hit with a wicked fist.
Fasting like yours this day
will not make your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is such the fast that I choose,
a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
and a day acceptable to the LORD?
 6“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
8 Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
9Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
10 if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.
11And the LORD will guide you continually
and satisfy your desire in scorched places
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters do not fail.
12 And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to dwell in.
[2] In saying this I believe God will accept their worship out of grace, since they are indeed sincere, though misled, often having been innocently caught up in the contemporary worship “scene” to which I have alluded.
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Posted on August 3, 2011, in Church/Ecclesiology, Culture & Art, Mission, Old Testament and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. Hi Matt. I find this very refreshing. Isaiah said….why do you fast and do injustice…lift angry hands, rip of your workers…ignore the poor and those in need… get your social justice issues right and then I will hear your prayers and honour your fasting.. my paraphrase

    Perhaps too much of our modern songs are about me, give me, give me, give me…

    My other concern is that I do not believe our church structures represent nor help true Christianity to flourish..Instead of equipping and releasing the saints to do the work of the ministry within the home, community, work etc……its all about the building and the programs. Come to church, get involved in this program…come twice a day on Sunday…make sure you don’t miss the mid week cell group and then you come to the leaders meeting…OH and make sure you give 10% so that we can build bigger building.

    Yet…the Malachi tithe was the social justice tithe. It was the 3rd yearly tithe that was supposed to go into the storehouse to feed the widows, the orphans, the homeless and the refugee.

    Jesus says something to the religious leaders…you prevent my people from worshipping God, through not allowing them to look after their parents…instead you call that money “Korban” and insist it is given to God… it really does seem that Jesus says true worship means to look after family and society.

  2. Hey Matt

    Another great article:
    I have been thinking about some of these points lately after reading Hebrews 13:16 from the message (I know this may not be the most accurate version). It says “God takes particular pleasure in acts of worship- a different kind of “sacrifice”- that take place in the kitchen and workplace and on the streets.”

    My challenge has been what are my acts of worship

  3. Great piece Matt.

    I grew up in a church and worked my way up from singing in a choir to leading worship in my late teens, by which time I was doing a lot of other stuff for the church too: leading youth groups, doing some early exploration into pastorship, etc etc.

    Then instead of just parroting back whatever I was told about the Bible, I actually sat down and read it myself. And at the same time started discovering some of the grave issues of injustice that exist in my world today: sweatshops, trafficking, inequality. The general failure to love our brothers and sisters. For me, the cognitive dissonance between leading worship in a church where people didn’t much want to know about social justice issues and verses like Amos 5:21-24 was too much… a God who didn’t care about justice wasn’t a God at all.

    So I left the church and became an atheist.

    And it took me a while, but thankfully some friends introduced me to a community where they embraced a holistic vision of Christ and our responsibility in the world, which is for me the only place that faith actually makes any sense.

    I still struggle with mainstream ‘worship’, though, mostly because in neutering God, the music coming from Hillsong et al completely fails to say anything at all…

  4. Craig – truer words have perhaps never been spoken that your statement about church structures. I couldn’t agree more about the relinquishing of the vocation of equipping and releasing the saints.

    Daz – Looking forward to catching up for a decent length to share about this stuff.

    Pete – Thanks for your story mate. I’m always privileged to have you comment, and this is no exception. I think your story speaks powerfully about the hollowness of much “worship” out there, and many leaders would do well to turn their ear to your experience. I look forward to finally getting up your way after my wedding to catch up.


    Isn’t it always the case that the posts you think are minor, or will be unpopular, always seem to help people out the most. Hmm… shows what I know.

  5. Please be slow to judge anyone or their styles. It might be that the master uses different colors and strokes as he pleases. Let God have the final say. Where there is unity God commands a blessing.

    • Hi w,

      I assure you that I have spent over a decade coming to this conclusion – there is nothing hasty about it.

      I agree completely that the master uses different colours and strokes, particularly in regard to “styles”. I am, however, not talking about styles (as I said, use Wesley, Hillsong, or whatever else you like); I am talking about the priorities we hold in worship, and our willingness to do as God has asked. The way I see it there is nothing stylistic being commented on in Isaiah 58 or Amos 5, rather these prophets seem to think it is important to point out such hypocrisy.

      That is to say, there does not seem to be an allowance in the prophetic literature for worship to exist separate from justice as a matter of style – such worship is, according to the prophets, unacceptable to God.

      Sure, Psalm 133 stands (where there is unity God commands a blessing). But what does that mean? Does it mean no one can ever call the people of God back to faithfulness to what He had/has commanded? Isaiah didn’t seem to think so, nor Amos, nor Jesus for that matter.

      It seems that unity cannot simply be a timid sense of agreeing to disagree (especially in the face of injustice), nor of unifying around realities other than God and his kingdom. Does God command a blessing when people unite to do evil? In relation to what I have written, how can there be “life forevermore” (133:3) when unity comes at the cost of justice for the lowly?

      Thanks w for bringing up these issues.

      Peace,

      Matt

  6. Excellent post Matt, I could reiterate every word of Craig’s. Christianity today has the cart before the horse. The buildings before the people and the worship before the work. Does anyone recall Keith Green? – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=em5gL0Rw4Aw&feature=related
    This guy had a no holds barred, no compromise message that gave the lukewarm Christians both barrels straight in the face. His rational was:- “better they get both barrels from me and repent than get both barrels from Jesus and reap those consequences. Keith was condemned world wide as a radical and as being “judgemental”, “unloving” and “lacking in grace”. but the only thing he was guilty of was being “on fire” for God.

  7. As always Matt, some good thoughts of challenge. As a worship leader myself for over 25 years I agree that at many times I have felt underwhelmed by the corporate worship outcomes of transformation. It reminded me of an article I wrote in the 90’s (yes I am that old) entitled, “what happens when the music stops”, which talked about how worship (in any context, form or style) is more about what happens when the music stops. In other words, if our worship isn’t bringing transformation to our lives, shaping us to be more like the one we worship, (ie Jesus) then I believe there is something wrong. I love to worship Jesus through song in a corporate setting, and although it has missed the mark on many occasions, I have also seen it bring incredible life-change, freedom, healing and transformation to many, many lives … including my own.

    I personally don’t fully agree with your statement, (although I know what you’re getting at) ”I have come to believe that any kind of worship that is not accompanied by actively engaging God’s heart, hands and feet for the lowliest in society is ignored by God.” Because I believe it’s not just the lowliest in society that need us to be God’s heart, hands and feet … it’s all of our society … the weak, the strong, the poor, the oppressed, the bound, the marginalised, the rich, the influential etc.

    I would agree that if worship (or any kind of ‘spiritual’ acts … preaching, teaching, praying, prophesying, justice, etc) isn’t bringing change to the way we live, the way we spend, the way we serve, the way we love one another etc., then yes I would ask, is this worship that is pleasing to God.

    I still believe that worship (however that looks) should produce change and transformation in a person’s life and to a community of faith. A change that reflects the life, works, heart and posture of Jesus Christ. What happens when the music stops?

  8. I personally don’t fully agree with your statement, (although I know what you’re getting at) ”I have come to believe that any kind of worship that is not accompanied by actively engaging God’s heart, hands and feet for the lowliest in society is ignored by God.” Because I believe it’s not just the lowliest in society that need us to be God’s heart, hands and feet … it’s all of our society … the weak, the strong, the poor, the oppressed, the bound, the marginalised, the rich, the influential etc.

    Brett,

    That’s all well and good, and sounds quite logical. But unfortunately it’s just not what Isaiah has to say on the matter; it actually cuts across his message in a way.

    The rich do need God, yes indeed! But in order to do what? To worship for their own benefit? To simply fix their own problems (this may be part of it)? Or to worship in order to become like God and thus do the work amongst the lowly that he thinks should accompany such worship?

    I think part of the problem is that we can declare platitudes about how worship should lead to change, but there is nothing said about what kind of change is required. The rich need God as much as anyone, but to allow the possibility of worship without them helping the poor is an idea completely contrary to the teachings of Jesus.

    To use one example – the story of the rich young man. Jesus’ response to the man’s question is ultimately not that he should show lil’ more devotion, nor that he should confess his need for God, but rather that he should redistribute his ill-gotten profits. The man’s insistence that he has kept the commandments, whether true or false, is not the point, since it is the (attempted) piety of the rich that Jesus directly attacks – maintaining wealth derived from unjust systems and keeping the commandments (read: worshipping) is apparently not possible (at least according to the conclusion of the story).

    If we imagine a Christian faith, and indeed forms of worship, where the rich are not obliged to share their wealth and help the poor, we stray well away from Jesus’ teachings in my judgement. Yes, the rich need God, but part of their need for God is to live according to his Way – simply, generously, which is good for their soul and for the poor. This is central to the kingdom of God!

    It seems to me from the Scriptures that there is no command to actively seek out the rich, though that does not make it a bad thing; it is simply to say that God apparently does not place the same priority on it as aiding the poor. Surely we should conclude that Christians are not given the right to make the choice to defer responsibility to the poor in favour of the rich.

    I suppose my understanding cuts across common evangelistic approaches to evangelism, which are logical but not necessarily derived from the Scriptural narrative.

    Matt

  9. I’ve thought the same thing for a long time. Also been thinking about it for some time. I’ve just moved to Brisbane and there seems to be some Toronto influence up here in the northern suburbs. It makes it hard to find people who are like minded, openminded and just want to help people. On the other hand when I was in Newcastle I was going to the most amazing church I have ever had the pleasure of being associated with. Hands in EVERYTHING to do with people who are down and out.

    To be honest, alot of churches follow in this thinking of church on a Sunday, music to worship, youth culture, jargonistic wording setup. It saddens me that Gods house is no longer built on that ideal agape love, but built on people of a certain mindset with a certain paycheck. Even when you go to areas like Mt Druitt (grew up there) the churces are mainly made up of people who are better off. They won’t look down thier nose on purpose, but they also won’t get thier reputations dirty by helping people who are on drugs, abused, alcoholocs, in jail, in gangs, from overseas, etc.

    I love music. I have played guitar since high school and would gladly play in church if I had the time to go to one (or found one around here that wasn’t full of nut jobs). But when push comes to shove, I have been told off by people “of faith” who think that I should go to church on a Sunday, telling me that I should be there a certain percent of the time to be in ministry. Well I refuse! Sorry to break your regulations, but Jesus didn’t say anywhere that I should be at 85% of services to sing music on a stage. I would rather be at the soup kitchen with the people who smell like a cows bottom, because they look at me like a person and not like another number on thier accounts.

  10. About 2 yrs ago our church had a massive shake up. In that process i became the worship leader!! Our church went from having a full band to just my husband playing the acoustic guitar and me!!! It was raw worship and you could hear everyone’s heart felt worship!!
    Since that time Gods grace has rebuilt us in his love and awesome things are happening in our little church!!
    Great post!!!

  11. Hey Matt any chance of putting that article in our next inspire news letter
    http://www.ozreach.org.au
    Kevin
    http://www.lifechurch.org.au

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