*Originally posted in 2015 and updated.*

This month was the first time in over 10 years that I put together a conventional (evangelical) worship service. It’s what I grew up with. It’s what I know. In every way I’m an expert in this tired method of service. In my ministry I’ve now gone in a completely different direction, not cancelling worship, but the expressions. I did this for a few reasons:

  • Contemporary worship doesn’t reflect the magnitude of different ways people express spirituality;
  • Worship does little to build/enhance the ongoing mission of the church;
  • Worship is primarily individualistic in nature;
  • Production and quality of music is so high that good worship is attributed to excellence in production;
  • New worship songs match consumer trends, but few, if any, innovate musically. (This makes sense given most Christian music does its best to mimic mainstream.)
  • Congregations need a full band to copy the most popular worship music;
  • And lastly, when I visit contemporary churches, very few people actually sing the songs coming from the stage. They stand and watch with blank stares (seriously, try looking around next Sunday). I want to know what can be done to increase participation.

Unfortunately, as quality of production increases something lags: depth of formation. Formation of character and formation of community. Most worship (which is synonymous with music nowadays) is stuck in a “praise” mode that struggles to broach past “God is my boyfriend and I’m so happy” sentiment. I asked some worship leaders why lyrics are empty and some claimed you can’t expect lyrical depth or congregations will have trouble singing choruses. That would explain all of the clichés. Somebody else said nobody wants to sing sad songs…a scary thought to think that the church isn’t a safe place to be sad….

Congregational worship is supposed to be more than a crowd singing with a band. It should be worship dominated by the voices of the people celebrating what God is doing in their midst. Instead we have the voices of a few musicians, plus one preacher, drowning out by empty verses and guitar solos (nothing wrong with guitar solos by the way.) Which begs the question:

Is Evangelical “Worship” Shallow and Dead?

Contemporary worship music in the West lacks substance. It’s either rote tradition (liturgy), or the same tired songs from the same three bands. (By the way, I think Hillsong and Bethel, et al., are great for their context, but we have a problem when EVERYONE uses their songs exclusively EVERY week.) Nothing is wrong with either approach. But it quickly becomes a boring enterprise developed solely for the insiders. Although not the focus of this post, contemporary Christian worship fails in living out the mission of the church. I suppose it’s all fine if the point of church service is only for the insider (I’d argue this), but what we have barely appeals to the remaining faithful. When will we innovate and try new things?

We strive for performance over authenticity and wind up manufacturing our weekly gathering times into mini-concert attempts or boring repetitions rather than attempting to curate meaningful connections to confession, prayer, scripture, and relationships. We can’t because nobody’s been trained beyond managing that 5 songs, announcements, and 40 minute sermon. No wonder people have been leaving in droves over decades.

Why modern worship is empty

1. ‘Worship’ is not just about music.

We all say, “worship” to refer exclusively to music but it’s not accurate. Churches should try to think outside of the box, and if they’re really interested in ‘worship’, incorporate elements that are not musical. If the creative people run worship programs, let them use their creativity to make something outside of 5 song sets. And no, merely putting a painter at the front with an easel doesn’t count as creative. And no, having a skit twice a year is definitely not the answer.

2. Lyrics are hyper-individualized.

Evangelicalism as a whole condones the privatization of the Christian faith. Emphasizing the “personal relationship with God” trickles down to a worship filled with the constant droning of, “what God does for me, myself, and I”. This point is particularly important to understand. The individualized Gospel is a reductionist Gospel. When the chief goal of a good faith/Christianity is primarily about your personal salvation and road to holiness, you not only come from a privileged worldview, but your faith is incomplete. When the only songs you sing are about how good God is to YOU then you might have a privileged faith.

There’s nothing wrong with individualized songs. The problem is the vast majority of songs are transactional takes of what God does for us. Just listen to the songs you sing.

What would be a “whole” view of the Gospel. Well, firstly, knowing that your faith/salvation is tied to the–well–whole. The restoration of all things. Which means it’s not about you being saved, but how you in relationship with the things around you are saved together.

Ironically, secular music provides examples of alternatives. For example, Serena Ryder’s, “Together we are one” is a song that reflects a ‘we’ and community orientation that we sorely lack in church music culture.

Or how about the deeply theological song by jazz artist Gregory Porter?

Sure, it’s easy to cherry-pick, but when secular music (can we just call it music?) provides a greater sense of depth of the plight of the world, evangelical worship has lost its way.

Our pursuit should include more collective reverence about the church joining the sending God in the world. Instead, we blind the Christian experience with how me, myself, and I is placated by a benevolent God.

3. We need more songs on lament.

Christian music sounds like Katy Perry songs and they’re about as deep too. The game seems to be about making congregants happy. Yet the Psalms are full of laments and woe, but it’s difficult to sing a church song in a minor key about loss and despair, and without a suitable resolution. It’s also hard for people of privilege to sing about the lack thereof.

The Bible contains many different stories yet we tend to only sing about a handful of them because they make us feel good (ever sing an entire song about the poor?). When ALL the songs we sing resolve to freedom, winning, victory, happy, etc. it’s not a truthful depiction of life. I wrote more about this here.

4. Worship music is driven by industry.

If the “Left Behind” series was driven by the publisher (Tyndale had an idea and shopped it cause they knew it would make $$$), then Christian music as a whole is driven by similar consumer demand. It’s all about economics. Just look at Hillsong. They claim charity status so they don’t pay a dime of tax on all of their income. It is an incredible marketing adventure to not only sell music for money, but to get millions of people to sing your songs every week. Couple the allure of sales with the natural drive of talented musicians to perform on stage and the result is a tenuous at best balance between performance/industry and “worship”. Or look at Vineyard Music. They dominated the charts in the 90-00s and dropped like a stone as they started to add more depth and vulnerability. Consumers Christians want to be happy and leaders want an opiate for the masses. Hillsong and Bethel filled the void and laughed all the way to the bank. They won’t be making the same mistake as Vineyard anytime soon.

5. Worship has little theological depth.

We can decry the “tired” liturgical traditions, but at least the hymns have theological depth. Interrogate the lyrics of your favorite tunes. Maybe they’re just easy to play and that’s why we sing them?


Ideas to Re-Imagine Worship and Pathways to Deeper

It’s easy to pick on such an easy target. How about some ideas on going deeper with our worship? Here are only a handful of ideas, and ones that you’ll have to think about and apply unique to your situation. If you have some of your own please leave a comment.

1. Consider more than one method of Sunday corporate worship.

We’re exclusively devoted to music and it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m not advocating dropping music entirely (although that’s probably a good option). But maybe you want to have a ‘no music Sunday’. Or even easier, try to incorporate some other routines in your gatherings. Maybe put out a number of prayer books in the pews for people to write in? Think about ways you can increase participation while decreasing consumption (putting on a skit or having 1 or 2 artists is passive for the rest.)

Stay tuned on my blog as I share more of the insight from my church plant, Cypher Church. We’ve only once done the 5 songs, 1 sermon format. We meet monthly, and have switched our expression nearly every time. So I have some ideas how this can work and what it looks like.

2. Invest in localized liturgy.

Evangelicals may frown on the word ‘liturgy’ but the fact is they have it: 5 songs, announcements, 2 songs, sermon. That’s evangelical liturgy. What I’m suggesting is the revitalization of localized liturgical practices and storytelling. We have completely lost connection to our own church communities. Instead, we sing songs produced in Sydney or California and hope the individual can find her own meaning.

What if instead we wrote our own songs about what’s happening in the neighborhood? It’s harder, and less glamours, but singing songs about the local landmarks and stories are highly connective. What if we even incorporated prayers that involved the local landscape and people? We do that already by specifically praying for needs, but let’s also connect ourselves into the immediate world outside of the four church walls as well.

3. Restore ancient tunes.

There are ancient hymns, old liturgies, chants, spirituals you name it. Discover something uniquely suited to your own community from the distant past. Reinvigorate old tunes with new accompaniment or melodies.

4. ‘Redeem secular music’.

I hesitate to use ‘secular’ because music is music to me. However, in my search for deeper lyrics and congregational singing, I’ve found the greatest success in old country and blues. People may be delighted belting out old Johnny cash chorus’. There are so many old spirituals that are dying to be revived. This may cross the cultural boundaries (white churches singing black spirituals in new ways) but the essence in many of these lost songs is true. The content and stories behind them are also very deep.

5. Increase spirit sensitivity, reduce evocative experience.

This is a difficult one because it can’t be taught. Many of us have noticed the ‘feelings’ of good music. We get worked up over repetitious choruses, feel our hearts swell at the key change, and are moved during the a capella. Manipulating emotions using music should be used sparingly. In an age of busy, it would be worthwhile for churches to demonstrate quiet.

However, there is substance increasing our sensitivity to the prompting of the Holy Spirit whom leads towards discovery and ministry. It’s certainly a developed skill, but one that shouldn’t be practiced through the guise of manipulation.

6. Reduce the stage.

The draw for musicians to be on stage is a real one. Personally I have trouble singing in the crowd. Put me on stage and it’s a whole different and deeper level. The issue, however, is the function of the stage that elevates worship to performance. Many of the best resourced church bands put on a show. They obviously play fantastic music, but one has to wonder if people are connecting with the delightful personalities on stage, or with the Creator?

7. Release creatives.

Big churches have the dubious distinction of calling musicians “worship” or “creative arts” pastors. They’re just musicians with the odd skit thrown in. But if it’s true that the most creative out -of-box thinkers are in the “worship department” then why don’t we let them be creative? Release innovators to try new things in worship gatherings. You may be surprised what comes out, it will surely challenge common perceptions, but in your testing something new and beautiful will come out unique to your church.