Is it Fair for Us to Evaluate Where People’s Hearts are at in Worship When We Can’t Really Know?

Zac HicksWorship and Pastoral Ministry2 Comments

Don’t Judge Me, Man!

I sometimes get push-back when I make evaluative claims about my local church’s worship–like I did in a recent post where I said: 15-20% are strongly engaged in worship, 55-60% are slightly engaged, and 15-20% are nearly completely disengaged.  People feel accused and judged, and some feel like they’ve been wrongly pegged or pigeonholed. It’s emotional, too, because people feel like their hearts are being judged based on external observation.  It’s understandable.

Because we live in a culture which is hyper-sensitive to discrimination, we feel fear heighten when we’re engaging in evaluation and analysis. When it comes to worship, it gets even more hairy, because we are dabbling in issues of the heart, which aren’t always apparent on the surface. It is a concern, though, when we create such a culture of fear of “judging” someone wrongly or unfairly that we paralyze our ability to evaluate for the purposes of knowing how best to lead.

Evaluation is Not Wrong

Worship leaders should be consistent evaluators.  Part of the pastoral nature of our job is to keep a pulse how what we’re doing is affecting people individually and impacting the church corporately.  Good leaders analyze and evaluate.  But is it fair to make generalizations when we don’t know what’s going on in people’s hearts?

One of my favorite radio talk-shows is Dennis Prager, a conservative Jewish thinker, speaker, and writer.  Though I certainly value the political discussion, I am most captivated by Prager’s ethical, sociological, and philosophical musings, because they are articulated concisely, poignantly, and winsomely, all from a largely Old Testament worldview (which is an important part of what forms my own ethical, sociological, and philosophical outlook). 

When Prager gets those angry calls telling him that generalizations he uses are prejudicial, biased, racist, sexist, or what have you, he’s quick to rehearse a very helpful diatribe that I think is important for worship leaders and pastors to hear. 

In a nutshell, Prager reminds his listener-ship that though generalizations are never fully accurate (that’s what makes them generalizations, because they’re generally, though not comprehensively true), they are nonetheless helpful and even necessary in order to both have meaningful dialogue and move forward in discussion and ideas.  Without generalizations, we lose the ability to discuss and evaluate things in big terms, broad concepts, and global scales.  Generalizations, as generalizations, don’t so much analyze any one person, but seek to evaluate from more broad impressions based on high-level data.  They are, by definition, generalized, not individualized.

Good Worship Leaders Think Evaluatively

In an age of fearing discrimination, some of us are hog-tied when it comes to making evaluative claims about our contexts and congregations.  On the one hand, it feels important to us to ask those information-gathering questions like:

  • How participatory is our worship service?
  • How engaged are people on a Sunday morning?
  • Does our liturgy connect with our context?
  • Are our people committed to what we’re doing on a Sunday morning?
  • What kind of idols are at play here?  

On the other hand we’re sometimes nervous about asking such questions because we feel we’re being discriminating, unfair, or, to use the more common language in Christian circles, “judgmental.”  We throw the “heart-card” out there, or sometimes people throw the “heart-card” at us.  It usually goes something like this:

How can you evaluate what’s really going on in my heart?  You don’t really know what’s going on in there, and I find it offensive that you think [X] about our congregation simply because of things you think you’ve seen on a Sunday morning. You’re not God.  You don’t know what’s in my heart.

There are elements of validity here, and they should stop the worship leader dead in his or her tracks if they’ve too pointedly singled out a particular person without much warrant except for observation.  However, sometimes such questions paralyze us from making good and appropriate generalizations based on observation.  Generalizations, by their very definition, include exceptions which defy the generalization (exceptions like, sometimes people with full-on dead-panned faces in worship really are fully engaged in worship).  However, a generalization, being true for most people, is helpful to make precisely so that we can be free to ask important questions and make strategic decisions. 

Evaluation is a Form of Biblical Wisdom

The truth of the matter is that we must engage in such evaluation.  It’s our pastoral duty.  Some of this duty is to pray and seek the Lord’s will as His Spirit speaks through His Word, and secondarily but importantly through others and through circumstances.  But the other part of this duty is the simple, biblical pursuit of wisdom. I’m convinced that evaluation and generalizations are some of the tools God has placed in wisdom’s chest for our benefit.  A good leader leads from the kind of wisdom which evaluates and makes generalizations so that he or she can make wise decisions.

So, my encouragement to worship leaders and pastors is to move forward in such wisdom, knowing that at times your sinful heart will wander off into unhealthy judgmentalism and even full-blown false accusation.  But don’t let the fact that every good endeavor of yours is mixed with sin chain you up from being a wise leader who evaluates, generalizes, and then prayerfully implements vision and plans of action for the sake of Christ’s Church.

2 Comments on “Is it Fair for Us to Evaluate Where People’s Hearts are at in Worship When We Can’t Really Know?”

  1. Zac, you offer some valid and wise (and, as always, well-written) observations about the nature of generalizations and the need for proper evaluation. However, in your ruminations on the nature of evaluation and generalizations, you got derailed from the starting point of your important question about whether we can judge people's hearts regarding what is happening in a worship service. That question remains to be addressed. At issue are (1) on what basis anyone else could know this and what type of generalized evaluations would even be appropriate in this case, (2) the criteria or metrics that would properly assess the matter, and (3) what type of influence and/or responsibility a worship leader has for that phenomenon. I think you would have a lot to offer on your original question.

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