Jean-Jacques von Allmen was a Swiss Reformed theologian whose works on worship and liturgy were introduced to the world now almost a half a century ago. His Worship: Its Theology and Practice is still one of the most important worship books in my library (though it is now sadly hard to find), mostly because it feels like his keen observations and articulations have more bearing now even than when it was written back in the mid-1960s. This quote about choirs is a classic example:
We must be very suspicious with regard to what might be called the vicarious representative of the congregational liturgy, namely the choir. The growth of this institution took place from the fifth century, both because the liturgy of the congregation was becoming ever more complex, and also because the faithful became increasingly reluctant to commit themselves to liturgical life. We must basically agree with H. Asmussen when he writes: “A choir as the substitute for the congregation is quite unacceptable’; and that not only because it can upset the normal course of the service, and certainly not because it prevents the community from admitting the mediocre quality of its singing…but chiefly because it facilitates the congregation’s surrender of its liturgical functions. If, then, we wish to have a choir, it should be given a precise duty; not that of supplanting the faithful in their characteristic ministry, but of educating them in the fulfillment of this ministry.*
Now, perhaps this doesn’t ring for you, but substitute “worship band” anywhere you see the word “choir.” Aside from the historical observation which doesn’t fit (worship bands didn’t begin in the fifth century), there’s a pretty powerful observation packed in here.
Passionate About Active Participation
You and I live in a cultural age where the faithful are “increasingly reluctant to commit themselves to liturgical life,” where worship is ever in danger of becoming a commodity of branded consumer goods. The warning von Allmen gives here is that what we do “up there on stage,” whether we’re a choir or a worship band, can contribute to and encourage the passivity toward which many folks are already inclined to lean. “I just want to soak in the great music.” “Man, she has a great voice!” “Wow, that was a ripping electric solo!”
As worship leaders, we must tune ourselves to become hyper-sensitive to anything that discourages the active participation of the people of God in the songs, prayers, and actions of the worship service, and sometimes the performancism of it all–whether lit-stage, rock-band-led or organ-and-choir-led–can be a major deterrent. Von Allmen exposes what’s at stake. To put it directly, we put ourselves in the place of Jesus, the only mediator between God and humanity (1 Tim 2:5). That’s what von Allmen was getting at when he said that those up front can unknowingly become the “vicarious representative” of worship for the people.
Vicarious Substitutionary Worship
I was at a worship concert a few years ago with a friend who remarked that the leader up front was singing in such a beautiful and un-follow-able manner that all my friend felt encouraged to do was to sit back and enjoy the leader’s worship of God. “Why do I need to worship? He’s worshiping for me, and he’s looking like he’s having quite a moment!” My friend was saying that sarcastically, but fairly, to point out precisely what von Allmen here is illuminating. Sometimes we, as leaders, can get so caught up in either our own special “worship moment” or in the glory of the music or service-structure that we fail to realize that we’ve left on a train that no one else is on. Sometimes, the worship band can either be so amazing or so loud (and I honestly believe, from experience, that these thresholds are context-specific and case-sensitive) that they become, in effect, the only ones worshiping in the room. The rest (the silent majority…the congregation) become passive receptors and spectators.
The irony, especially for modern evangelicals, is that in these moments we end up looking more like medieval Roman Catholics than Protestants. Suddenly, we’re dialed back a half a millennium where Christians were trained that their sacrifice of praise was to sit and observe priests doing their priest-thing up front, elevating the host and chanting their indecipherable “hocus pocus.” Worship, then, was largely watching the priest “worship for me,” and we may be at a similar impasse now as we “observe” our worship bands do the doxological heavy-lifting.
Being Question-Askers and Culture-Shifters
Of course, there’s plenty of blame to go around well beyond the control of the worship leader–cultural influences, individuals’ sentiments, idolatries, and constitutions–but nevertheless worship leaders can and should ask the question of whether what we’re doing up front is helping or hindering the cause of active participation of the congregation. Are our songs singable? Is the melody clear? Is our music descriptive and framing of the text? Do our prayers, readings, and transitions serve to encourage the “we-ness” of the moment, or are they merely our personal emoting to God before the people?
Each week, look out on the faces of the gathered faithful. Open your eyes a bit more often. What do you see? Of course, it will never be perfect. You will always have with you the yawners, the disinterested, and the downright “harrumphers.” But, if you stick it out long enough with a local church, you’ve got the opportunity to observe and affect meta-trends and trajectories. You have the opportunity to influence not just strategies but culture. And over time, if you’re sensitive, intentional, pastoral, and persistent, you will see more participators per capita than a year ago. What kind of worship culture will you influence?