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Friday, January 15, 2016

Too Hot to Handle: Blow Up the Worship Team

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

Nate at PracticalWorship has decided to “terminate the Worship Team”. I believe he used the words “blowing up”, in fact.

I got all excited. This is radical Christianity, folks!

But to my personal disappointment, Nate doesn’t actually mean it. By “blow up the Worship Team”, he actually means “change its name to ‘the MilePost13 Band’ ”. He lists two reasons for the change: first, that an actual name gives the band a sense of identity, pride and ownership and makes them feel like professionals.

His second reason is this, in his own words:
“The name change also helped us to reinforce the idea that we were the band that led in musical worship, not the ministry team that led all worship. It helps us not to become egotistical with what we do, and it helps our other ministry teams to keep in mind that they are worshipping as well in their unique ministries.”
The Worship Team Concept

Tom: So, Immanuel Can, the whole ‘worship team’ concept ... there have to be 10,000 Internet resources for worship teams available. Where did the notion come from, how did I miss it, and when did these teams become ubiquitous?

Immanuel Can: Well … now this is, for me, a hot topic, and from two perspectives. One is that ‘worship teams’ is an incorrect, and worse, a wholly misleading name. But secondly, and far more importantly, we in the Christian community have a completely distorted view of what worship is these days, and are in desperate need of fixing it. This, I believe, is the first duty and primary task God expects of his church today — and I say that without exaggeration.

But to answer your question, in conservative evangelical circles, the idea of the ‘worship team’ really seems to have come into vogue starting in the 1980s, along with the professionalizing of the pulpit and the rise of the seeker-sensitive community churches. These were attended with a certain loss of focus on what the Bible calls worship through an expansion of that term to cover so much that essentially today it specifies nothing at all.

Tom: To be fair, I’m seeing them referred to as ‘praise teams’ on the ’net as well, though the ‘worship team’ terminology is by far the more common. Does changing ‘worship’ to ‘praise’ sit any better with you, or is it just as misleading?

Worship vs. Praise

IC: Not as bad, perhaps, but not really much better. Worship is the highest calling we have: praise is a part of that — not the totality, perhaps, but an integral feature of it. Corrupting our understanding of either one is likely to produce the corruption of the other.

But having someone lead corporate praise is quite possible, and is a reasonable thing to practice — assuming we understand what we are doing — whereas worship, while it can be led, is somewhat more susceptible to damage in the attempt.

Led … But In Which Way?

Tom: The fact that ‘worship teams’ inevitably wind up leading (rather than following or accompanying) congregational singing is undeniable, if we are the least bit honest about it. I was reading a piece by T. David Gordon that makes that case very, very well. He says, among other good points, that a congregation cannot follow musical improvisation, and he’s right. Throw in that guitar solo that feels so good … and you’ve lost the plot.

So what you seem to be saying is that worship ought not to be led. Would that be a fair statement? To clarify, it’s not the ‘team’ aspect that’s problematic, so much as the idea that they are ‘leading’ worship, or rather what passes for worship?

IC: Well, I wouldn’t be so hard on the idea of musical bands leading music. I’ve seen some cases in which things like drums, guitars, violins, etc. can help a great deal with singing: and bad singing is rarely conducive to worship. But yes, musical improvisation, strange bridges between choruses or freestyle noodling can easily destroy congregational singing. All you have to do is look at the self-promoting strutting of a musician on stage, usually coupled with the people in the congregation glancing sideways and mouthing the wrong words in the wrong rhythm, to know when the music has gone badly wrong.

But let’s leave that for a moment. I would not go so far as to say worship *cannot* be led, if by that we understand that leading means only presenting words or thoughts which rightly and honourably represent God in the minds of the congregation and produce in them right esteem for the Lord. That would be legitimate “leading”. But the “worship” part cannot be guaranteed by that action, only encouraged or cultivated by it. A person may lead well, and yet have few or no followers. So whether or not people actually worship is, as you imply, up to their own wills and inner dispositions at the time, and cannot be directed to happen by others.
Is Singing Hymns Always Worship?

Tom: If I’m right here, you’re saying that not all singing is worship. Part of my own distaste for the term ‘worship team’ is very much related to that watering-down of the scriptural concept of worship. When you used the word “esteem” there, I think you got closer to the idea of worship that we find in the word of God, as opposed to the way in which it is casually batted around in modern churches.

In the Bible, the idea of worship is often associated with falling down and prostrating oneself in reverence. That physical act of being on your knees or face does not occur in every single instance, and it’s not commanded of us, but the mindset that accompanies that willingness to drop on a dime is what seems absent to me in most congregational singing, which can be frivolous at times.

So the leading is okay, it’s the assumption that singing = worship that is off base?

IC: Oh yes, of course. Singing is just one possibility of how worship may be expressed. But singing is not worship, nor is it any guarantee of worship. That, as I say, is about personal will and inner disposition.

Worship as a Lifestyle?

This is where the teaching that worship is a general way of life is so utterly toxic. It may be true that there are worshipful ways to conduct all sorts of things in life, but those things themselves are no guarantee of worship at all. You could live a very impressive life in all ways, but never worship once.

Worship should spill over into or motivate all aspects of life, sure: but worship IS NOT those things. Worship is not a Sunday service, not a set of songs, not a lifestyle (except metaphorically) … and anyone who speaks of it like that is misleading us.

Tom: Well, you’ve nicely led right into my next question. Nate, the guy who was going to blow up his worship team, asks this of his readers:
“Have you ever thought that you may be sending mixed signals by teaching that worship is a lifestyle but having a ‘Worship Team’ that leads the worship at your church?”
IC: Hey, now he’s got me on his side. I absolutely believe that. And that is precisely why we should never use the term “worship” in that loose, deceptive way. Call your band “The Strolling Drones”, “Gnu Religion” or even “Moron 5” … whatever you like.

Just don’t call them a “worship team”.

Extra-Scriptural and Anti-Scriptural

Tom: We’ve discussed these sorts of issues before with respect to the local church, because people are always coming up with new ideas and new ways to practice the core principles of church fellowship that we read about in the book of Acts.

We often hear the word “unscriptural” in this connection. T. David Gordon dislikes the term. He says it’s too vague and may include both things which are permissible but not explicitly taught and also things which are simply flat-out wrong. I personally prefer to use the terms “extra-scriptural” and “anti-scriptural” to distinguish the two types of things we don’t find specifically spelled out in the word of God.

So, worship teams or things that function as worship teams, whether we use the term publicly or not: are they extra-scriptural or anti-scriptural?

IC: If we call them “worship teams”, then I think we’re actively anti-scriptural at that point: we’re destroying people’s understanding of what it is they’re doing, and of what the scriptures call “worship”.

Anyway, that’s my position on that. You, Tom?

Tom: Agreed. We need to use terms the way the word of God uses them or we have no basis on which to communicate truth.

But if we call the bands that local churches use to liven up singing by their own cool monikers instead of by The Name That Shall No Longer Be Named, are they okay then? Do you think they serve any useful purpose? Are there any dangers inherent in the concept, once we have dealt with the issue of co-opting the name of a spiritual activity we consider precious and near to the heart of God?

The Bottom Line

IC: I’m not opposed to modern instruments or (theologically intelligent) new songs. The alternative is to imagine that the Church stopped writing hymns a hundred years ago, and will never write another, or that piano is a ‘godly’ instrument but somehow drums are not. I can’t see that at all. And somebody’s got to lead corporate activities for sure.

But in that process, we’d best not mangle anything precious by substituting that leadership for substance on the part of the congregation.

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