Because I straddle the worlds of traditional and modern worship in my job, I’m often hearing, answering, deflecting, and/or resonating with grievances and concerns lodged by worship lovers on both ends of the spectrum. And because I’m trying to urge a congregation to seek unity amidst diversity for the sake of our common Gospel mission, I often find myself defending the merits of one side to the other.
However, there should still be room for critical evaluation. Many frequently lodge the complaint that modern worship is too much of a “rock show.” I resonate with their concerns, even if I’m personally fine with apparent “rock show” worship because I understand the heart, style, and expression behind it (I plan on getting tickets to the mother of all rock-show-worship-tours, Hillsong United). But because much ink and HTML have been spilt on this topic, I’m not interested in rehashing old arguments. I am interested in making one simple observation, though, which may be a unique insight worth contributing to the ongoing dialogue.
Having just come off the heels of Reformation Sunday, I am struck again by the worship reforms of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and company. While there were many differences between the reformers, they all, to some degree or another, brought the congregation into greater participation in the liturgy as compared to the medieval Catholic mass to which they were reacting. They all wanted to see the congregation move from being passive bystanders to engaged worshipers. The Roman rite of the sixteenth century was priest-centric, to an extreme. Aside from personal prayers with rosaries, the laity sat in seats, not as participants but as onlookers; they watched the “performance” of the priests as their choirs sang, as they uttered short homilies, and as they blessed, consecrated, and partook of the sacrament. (Yes, it is true that by the sixteenth century, the widespread [perhaps not total] reality was that the average Christian was NOT taking the Lord’s Supper except on Easter…they were watching priests do it.) It appears, then, upon inspection of their rewritten liturgies, that the passivity of the congregation was one of the chief problems on the minds of the reformers. Calvin, Luther, and Zwingli saw the dull, lifeless faces…the obvious lack of the envigorating presence of God in the life of His people in the context of worship.
Fast-forward to the present, and transport yourself to an average larger American evangelical church, where “rock show” worship is at its best. Look out on the faces of the people. What do you see?
My fear is that in some cases we’re seeing a disengaged crowd, watching the “show” up front…entertained, not engaged. My fear is that in some cases we’re seeing exactly what the reformers saw 400+ years ago. Could it be that modern worship has led us to the same net effect as medieval Catholic worship?
Now I’ve read many a great blog post about how worship leaders in a more aggressively modern worship environment (stage, lights, haze, etc.) need to work harder helping people remember that it is not a performance. And I applaud that effort. I’ve come to the point of realizing that it is the leader’s heart that often makes all the difference. We’ve got a sixth sense about leaders who are obviously there to elevate themselves versus those there to elevate Christ, and there’s often a tangible difference in the room when it’s the latter (that difference is often marked by greater congregational involvement and engagement).
Still, I think this odd historical juxtaposition between modern worship passivity and medieval Catholic passivity should serve as a caution to us modern worship leaders. Leading worship is a pastoral duty. Worship is a ministry. We need to shepherd God’s people as we plan and lead worship. I think Luther and Calvin would be rolling over in their graves if they ever saw the passivity they worked so hard to combat creep back into the Church. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.