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Friday, August 07, 2015

Too Hot to Handle: Nonsense that Remains Nonsense

In which two or more of our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

“Worship leader” is a synonym for “lead vocalist”?
Tom: C.S. Lewis has a line I love. He says, “Nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God”. It applies nicely to lots of things.

I felt a little like that reading the Moody Publishers piece you sent me this week, Immanuel Can. The author of “Worship Leaders: We Are Not Rock Stars”, Stephen Miller, has written a short promotional piece entitled “Worship Leaders are Theologians”, in which he uses one extra-scriptural term to define another. My head is spinning trying to sort out all the modern church-speak.

How far away are we getting from the New Testament here, IC?

Immanuel Can: In a sense, not far … but in another sense, we’re a million miles away. So it’s hard to say.

Defining Theologians

Tom: I’ll let you explain the “not far” part. Stephen Miller says a theologian is someone:
“… whose life mission is to know God’s nature, character, will, and ways with the highest level of expertise possible — and to worship Him for these.”
Here he’s defining the word “theologian” in a very personal way. His definition is simply not what most people think of when they think of a theologian. I work with one, and he’s not even a Christian. He’s a former seminarian who, over four years, systematically studied the concept of God and of the nature of religious ideas. It was a purely intellectual search and it led him nowhere in particular. When most people say “theologian”, I think that’s what they mean.

I’m not sure the church needs more theologians in that sense.

Specialists and Warrior-Shepherds

IC: No, Miller’s more on track than that. A “theologian” should simply be a person who is seeking the knowledge of God. If someone wants to worship, he or she should do so on the basis of sound theology — that is, by knowing God as he is, not as we imagine him to be, or as we feel we want him to be, or as academics prefer to analyze him to be. But the term has unfortunately come to refer mostly to some kind of specialist in religious studies. And frankly, we need none of those, unless they are also of the first type.

Tom: Miller goes on to add:
“A theologian is a warrior-shepherd who knows God’s truth, instructs in God’s truth, and fights for God’s truth in the church.”
Now that’s all well and good, but I don’t think most people hear the word “theologian” and jump to the idea of “warrior-shepherd”. It seems to me Mr. Miller is packing a whole lot more into an easily misunderstood, extra-biblical term than a dictionary definition would warrant.

But let’s concede him that point. You have more experience with worship leaders than I do. Why don’t you explain the concept for the uninitiated.

Musicians, Theologians, Jacks of All Trades

IC: Oh, man. It’s a complete oxymoron, really … or a misnomer … or both. The phrase today is mostly used as a synonym for “song leader”. It’s some guy who sort of emcees the major formal services of the church or — especially — presides over the arranged music. The first 30 minutes of the Sunday service, in which there are songs, a prayer or two, announcements (and a few other things like maybe a skit, video or missions report) is called “the worship time”. To do all that stuff is called “the worship service”. After all that comes the message, which may or may not be called part of the “worship”.

Tom: There also seem to be a significant number of evangelicals like Misty Tolle who say that “worship leaders are musicians”. So presumably the guy fronting the band is the “worship leader”. So here we have an extra-biblical role (worship leader) explained with an extra-biblical term (theologian). It does not seem to me like anything the apostle Paul would have recognized.

Should that matter to us?

Losing the Concept of Worship

IC: Well, at some point we’ve got to ask this: who are these people, and why do we give them the roles they have? Sure, musicians are legit, and song-leading is legit. But the idea of a “worship leader” must be some sort of illegitimate borrowing by analogy from Old Testament temple practices, because there’s zero, zip and nada to warrant any such position in the New Testament. But more importantly — much more importantly — we’ve got to ask how it is that we lost the whole concept of “worship” and reduced it to nothing more than our routine Sunday meeting preliminaries.

Tom: This is exactly what has happened, and I point to an example from (rather ironically) worshipleader.com (yes, such a site does exist, I fear). In this article, “10 Worship Guidelines from the Early Church”, Dr. Lee Martin McDonald leaves us with the impression that “worship” is a term so generic it can be applied to almost any corporate activity including teaching, praise and music in which God is addressed or from which he might be expected to receive glory. Even a ten minute glance at the website demonstrates that there are Christians who believe instrumental stage performance in a church is both a calling and a spiritual gift and, yes, even worship.

Half-Truths, Half Wrong

IC: That’s because of the belief that “anything can be worship, if it’s done in a worshipful way”, or “all of life is supposed to be an act of worship”. Now that’s a very pious saying, and you’ll hear it quoted very often. It sounds so very devout, sincere and noble. Who could object to the idea of being more reverent, or of giving God more of our lives?

Unfortunately, it’s really just a half-truth: and like all half-truths, is half wrong.

Tom: We’ve done a few posts on worship recently so I don’t want to flog a dead horse, but would it be fair to say that while any part of a surrendered life may be lived worshipfully, an act of worship is something offered consciously, sacrificially, humbly and consonant with the character of God? In other words, it’s a specific thing that happens at specific times by deliberate choice, not simply a mode of life.

IC: Yes. And the problem with treating “worship” as everything is that it also becomes nothing — that is, it is no particular activity to which we have to give any attention. On the contrary, it will happen more or less accidentally, whatever we are doing, we think. And we are completely wrong. What happens instead is that something else becomes what we think of as worship — in this case, the Sunday morning service, and particularly the singing bit. We hire “worship leaders” because we don’t have the faintest idea anymore what “worship” is. All we know, though, is that whatever it is, the “worship leader” will help us take care of it, so we needn’t trouble ourselves further. It’s his problem now.

Singing is Theology

Tom: Ah, here’s where I came in: if we insist that our “worship leader” be a “theologian”, are we likely to get any closer to the New Testament?

IC: In one sense, yes. What I do like about Miller’s approach is that for once he is pointing people to the fact that singing is theology. We do have moral responsibility to sing the truth, because when we sing we are teaching it and celebrating it. That’s biblical. However, that’s something every single Christian should know and practice, not a task to be handed off to some “spiritual specialist” while the rest of us just sing along cluelessly with whatever he decides.

Tom: Fair enough. My experience is that whether we’re talking about a traditional songleader or a newfangled “worship leader/theologian”, the tendency has been to sing whatever the congregation is perceived to enjoy. You’re suggesting that whoever ends up with the responsibility of choosing and preparing music in the church ought to see it as a stewardship from the Lord, choosing songs and hymns not on the basis of their popular appeal but for things like whether the lyrics are scriptural and glorify Christ, whether melodies are sympathetic to the words (and preferably singable), and so on.

IC: Oh, absolutely. Caveat, though: the music should be good, singable and enjoyable too — no problem there — and it can be as old or as modern as we like — I’m no music traditionalist. But it’s got to be theologically sound. If it’s not, then we just ought not to be singing that. And that does mean that whoever picks the songs must be a person of spiritual discernment. And so must we all.

Now, Tom, do you have a view of what we should do with the present situation?

Titles and Portfolios

Tom: I’d love to see us stop attempting to dignify every task in the local church with a title. “Theologian”. “Worship leader”. How about we just all be worshippers? Where does this obsession with hierarchy come from? Not the New Testament, I can assure you.

IC: No. I think it comes from at least two features of our society, namely 1) trust of specialists, and 2) love of comfort. A prejudice of our society is that there’s so much “stuff” going on that you need specialists to handle any particular challenge on your behalf; a second is that easy things are always better, and instant things are best. “Worship leader” is a title that plays to both prejudices. Is that fair?

Tom: I think so. And there’s nothing wrong with specialized expertise. In the church, if we have acquired a real knowledge of God, it’s incumbent on us to share it. If a church is going to have instruments to accompany the singing, why not use Christian musicians who are skilled rather than inept? The problem comes when we develop unbiblical hierarchies within the church on the basis of knowledge or skill. It’s a great thing to seek the knowledge of God, but if I start calling myself a theologian, I’ve lost the plot. It’s a great thing to worship, and a not-so-great thing to be designated the “leader of worship” if it means other people are going to stop doing it to watch me perform.

IC: Or worse … are going to start to believe that whatever I’m doing (or their response to what I’m doing) IS worship. That’s the danger of using theological terms loosely: we start to think that we know what they are, even when we don’t. And if “using the labels given in scripture as specifically as God intended” is what is meant by “theologian”, then that’s something every one of us should be. If it means “high priest of technical terms nobody else understands”, then that’s something nobody should be.

But what’s our first step on the road back from this situation, Tom?

The Road Back

Tom: Humility. Paul says, “I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned”. The church is a place where we need foot-washers, not men and women with titles.

IC: That seems to me problematic on today’s model. We have men we have asked to lead, or who we have hired to do particular jobs (elder and deacons, in the first case; and pastor, administrator, worship leader, ministry supervisor, etc. in the second), and essentially, they have to prove they are doing an important thing, publicly demonstrate their activeness in it, and — in the case of paid staff — justify their salary. For elders and deacons, that puts some pressure on them to show they’re doing the work, no? And for the salaried people, there is a lot of pressure to show us that they’re delivering “good value”. How does “humility” fit in with that?

Tom: Very good question, and another reminder of how far away we are from the New Testament in our church order. Humility does not “fit into” our current scenario. And yet humility is a critical principle that Christ taught his disciples and the apostles regularly reiterated, while hiring men to do jobs and pressuring them to show results is not.

Bluntly, I would suggest that if humility and submission are not to be observed in those whom we have hired to lead, disciple and shepherd the flock and if they are unable to carry out these roles in a New Testament way, it is our understanding of these tasks that needs to change. It is the extra-biblical roles that need to be abolished; it is the hirelings that need to be un-hired.

Too radical, IC?

IC: Blunt, yes, but wrong, no. Pride is never a good thing in Christian service. And whatever happens, we can’t allow the servant-leader model to be replaced with a self-promotion model … and if salary makes self-promotion necessary, then surely something’s got to give there.

Flexibility in Service

Tom: Secondly, we need more flexibility in our service. My father always said, no matter where he was serving, that his job was to work himself out of a job (and of course on to some other avenue of service, not retirement). The idea of looking for a niche in a local church that fits me and serving there until I expire of old age is far from the best use of gift. If I’m a “theologian”, I need to be teaching others to seek and understand God. If I’m able to worship, I need to teach others to do so. The Body of Christ is built up when we “equip the saints for the work of ministry”, not when we find a role in which to exercise our gifts, skills and abilities to our own satisfaction.

IC: That shift is really an attitudinal issue, isn’t it. It requires us to move from our standard view that we are perpetuating a religious practice or supporting a hierarchy — or even justifying the salary-worthiness of a staff — and go to a more biblical and egalitarian project: building up the believers themselves. Making actual worshippers would replace leading “worship services” as our central goal.

Tom: Yes, exactly.

Lost in Plain Sight

IC: When Israel had lost the Book of the Law, they lost it in the house of the Lord. That’s very ironic. You see, it was there all the time, but buried in some corner of a place that had become cluttered with other religious things and ceremonies that didn’t require it.

Ironically, the church today has lost the meaning of the word worship the same way … and they’ve done it in the church building. It’s happened because our services are cluttered with other things that we are mistaking for worship.

And frankly, I don’t think today’s professional “worship leaders” really have any stake in helping us find it again.


  1. The church is in a very bad place when it assumes worship = music and music = worship.

    Music can be an aspect of our worship, but it is not the totality, and we cheat God of the worship due Him when we go down the path of worship leaders and all that entails.

    I'm not sure the Bible gives a succinct definition of worship, but from what I know of Scripture worship is when we are completely consumed with God. It's when we make what we know to be true of Jesus Christ and with a sense of wonder return it back to the Father as led by the Spirit.

  2. I think you're quite right, Shawn: that's the focus.

    Actually, the word specifically has to do with the *esteem* in which we hold the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit. And it's a discrete activity -- one which Biblically speaking, people did at particular times, but was too specific and too important a thing to simply characterize all of life. It always took a definite decision, a deliberate choice on the part of the worshiper, to make it happen. And it always had a specific focus and Subject.

    When we reduce it to a kind of pious sheen over those parts of life in which we are not conscious of, or when we're not really focused on the Person of the Lord -- say, when we are focused only on our blessings or benefits, or when we're attentive only to the demands of serving, or when we're merely absorbed by pretty or passionate music, or when we're just living ordinary life -- then it's simply not happening.

    And though worship can still happen in any situation, it cannot happen without deliberate choice at a particular moment.

    It can happen at any time. But it's never accidental. It's always conscious.

  3. I think the sacrifice aspect of worship is often forgotten. David said "I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God that cost me nothing” (2 Samuel 24:24). Whether the sacrifice is of our time, our egos, our money, our energy, our emotions (there are those for whom speaking publicly is very uncomfortable), it seems to me that there is always a cost attached to real worship. Even the verse from which the concept of "lifestyle worship" is derived speaks of presenting our bodies as living sacrifices.

    With that in mind, the idea of worshipping subconsciously or by proxy through a band on a stage seems to me borderline ludicrous.

  4. Absolutely.

    And to add to that thought, in fact, the labour involved in studying out the Biblical revelation of God, the conscious effort involved in de-cluttering your mind from the things this world makes seem important, and the discipline of humbling one's own roaring ego in view of the preeminence of God are not impediments to worship, but are rather parts of the sacrifice required of each of us in order actually to worship.

    Nobody else can do it for us.

    Worship is hard for every one of us. And it should be. It's not only a sacrifice, but also the single most important thing we can possibly do. So let us gladly give to God "that which costs us lots."