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 , 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. 
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.
 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.
 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.
Posted on August 3, 2011, in Church/Ecclesiology, Culture & Art, Mission, Old Testament and tagged Church/Ecclesiology, Hillsong, Isaiah 58, Justice, Music, Songs, Worship, Worship Leader. Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.