Saturday, March 1, 2014

What's a Worship Leader to do with the Donald Millers?

Recently, Christian author Donald Miller made a rather honest and vulnerable entry (and follow up) about going to church on his Storyline blog that ended up making a big ripple in the celebrity Christian blogosphere. For all the right reasons, probably, given his stature. "I wonder," I imagine a made-up version of Donald Miller thinking as he wrote his blog, "who will forge the most indignant response about my heathen life?" A quick Google search will yield a rolling sea of criticisms; the jury is still out.

As a worship leader, it's hard for me to read a post like Donald's, and to sympathize deeply, and then to watch a bunch of writers and thinkers and ministers whom I generally respect pounce upon him without a breath of thought or compassion, as if Miller had committed some heinous treachery by saying that he didn't like going to church, singing church songs, or listening to church sermons, and that he'd thought critically about why that might be.

I understand Miller has a following, and, lo, we cannot allow those with followings to lead people astray with their authenticity and openness. Yea, verily, the one known as the author of Blue Like Jazz must keep his less respectable thoughts hidden away, lest the children begin reminiscing about that "emergent church" thing from the 00's.

Please. Who hasn't ever known, or, heaven forbid, been someone who doesn't like or want to go to church or who doesn't feel at home at church or welcome at church or comfortable at church? Isn't that the elders' lament? Aren't we all quite complicit with those pastors who pray about it every Sunday morning? "O God, please help us to reach the unchurched and the dechurched and the disenchurched and the semichurched" and on and on?

Miller's post comes as no surprise to me. I honestly don't know why it surprised anyone, especially "big dog" Christian leaders. I suppose they saw it as an opportunity to defend the institution of corporate worship gatherings that Miller brought into question. Nevertheless, I have some "experience" in organizing weekly worship service and worship teams (over 11 years now!), and I can tell you and will tell you, rather openly, what Miller's critics aren't telling you: I haven't a clue what I'm doing sometimes. I know how to do what I'm doing. I know why I do what I'm doing. But what is it, exactly? What is worship, anyways? Songs? Is that it?


Just a few days ago, a friend passed along some feedback from a couple who were visiting the congregation I serve. Like Don, I guess they were pretty open about the fact that they wouldn't be coming back. They just weren't pleased with how our contemporary service was conducted. They felt the service was too choppy. The quote, second hand, was that they had difficulty "getting into a place of worship."

To cut the celebrity blogosphere a break, my first and most reactionary thoughts to this feedback were kinda cheeky. "Oh, could they not find the right door? Was there water on the steps? Was there someone sitting in the back row already?" (Be nice, Kory.)

But, at the end of the day I really appreciate feedback like this. It helps me in my week-to-week as we're planning service orders and choosing songs, discerning how to fit the word and the music together to help people praise and learn and grow (while maintaining "maximum flow"). I discovered long ago that you can't please everyone, and you never will please everyone. So, it still amazes me sometimes how much I want to please everyone, and how disappointed I am when I don't. I obviously didn't please this couple with my song / scripture / song / scripture motif. Back to the drawing board, I guess.

"But Kory," I am sure someone will say, "the order of worship isn't ever about pleasing anyone; it's only about (loving / honoring / magnifying / glorifying / teaching / hearing / choosing / praising / witnessing / proclaiming / etc.) God!" Really? Are we being completely honest here? To quote good ole' G.W. Bush, "fool me: you can't get fooled again!" I'm sorry, but that's just not how we typically act when we're gathered. It's also not how we react when church is awesome. And it's definitely not how we react when it's sub-par!


You know, this is the sticking point that started to get Donald Miller into trouble. All of the learned critics who felt obligated to dissect his admission jumped on it, letting him know that, in addition to the fact that he must be pretty lazy, the "it's about meeting your needs with music and message" model he didn't connect with just is not a fair portrayal of most worship settings.

The problem is that it is. For those of us who aren't living on some higher plane of mega-church tours de force, Miller's is an amazingly and poignantly fair portrayal of what we refer to when we say "worship," at least in the United States. You can quote as many other authors, theologians, and preachers as you'd like, but Miller didn't say anything shocking or offensive about what we like to package up and label as worship.

As a Christian who ended up with an amazingly expedient business degree concentrated in managing events and venues and musicians, I can personally tell you that the worst Miller did was highlight the Christological bankruptcy of those who are deeply invested in the entertainment / administration model of "doing" church. It's not news. In contrast to what they're (we're) sold on, Jesus taught in and out of the temple primarily using parable and allegory, and what his listeners did in the culture of the day is tantamount to what today would be called "reading."

Maybe Jesus' method is not enough for our culture, because, today, we're all pretty well-read, anyways. Quoting scripture and other Christian authors in support of church gathering is really easy for most of Miller's critics, but just proclaiming that the local church is important is not "making disciples for the transformation of the world," either. We've convinced ourselves that people will come to a weekly worship service if we yell loud enough about how we've opened the doors for them, but then, we're so distracted by rampant declining attendance and religious apathy among mainline denominations, that we don't actually tend to care why they're coming.

So, what is our context for gathering? What do we expect to have accomplished when we disperse? The questions we ask visitors frame our expectations. "How did you enjoy the service?" "Did you like the music?" Nobody asks "Why did you come here today?" Nobody asks, "What has God done for you that led you to his house?" Nobody asks, "What do you want to give God glory for?" And nobody asks, "How can we help each other discover how to give God our complete devotion?"


Let's revisit our fleeing couple. What were they doing at NUMC, anyways? Why did they walk through the doors? What did they expect to find or do in our relatively music-forward, liturgy-free 9:30 service?

I can't answer that question with certainty. I can deduce from my friend's report that they were, at least, expecting an unbroken set of songs - and after that, it's all speculation. Perhaps they expected all "popular" tunes that they knew pretty well - a set that lasted 20 or 30 minutes, maybe... something to help them feel like they really "did it" - that they really gave God maximum attention and an appropriate amount of laud... enough so that they could "feel" a heavenly back scratch when it was over... and that they would then (and only then) be in that "place of worship," where they would know that the scriptures they were hearing and the sermon they were consuming were inspired and relevant, true and good...

Sorry, I know I'm being a bit unfair and cynical. This couple is probably in the same experiential boat as Miller. The only difference is that Miller's critics would be praising this couple for walking in the door and refusing to give up on church. Surely, eventually, they'll find the right church, one that doesn't have the same sensory shortcomings as ours, and once that need is met, even if that need is misguided, they will then be able to engage with a patent biblical community and become more like Jesus.

Even if that's true, are we really OK with this as our model? And are we OK when Christian leaders aren't allowed to admit that they don't like going to church to be entertained (or to act entertained) in accordance with this model? If so, then why? I love to worship with word and song and sacred rite, and I'll defend it, but I voice my distrust of this model in our church meetings all the time, and I'm often categorically frustrated at the lack of willingness among church leadership to ever stray from this model or conduct worship in any other context but music and lecture and presumed-to-be-naturally-understood sacraments.

If this visiting couple and countless others like them were to read Miller's post, then what would happen? Are we afraid it would enable them or infect them? Give them permission to "opt out?" Cause them to realize how much they're stressing over music? Good heavens.


I'll say it again: I admit, I haven't a clue what I'm doing sometimes. "Leading worship" is this enigmatic thing, where sometimes you feel like you're performing, sometimes you feel like you're serving, and sometimes you feel like you're not even there. So let's take a step back and define the terms. We can start with "leading" + "worship."

Try going before or showing the way in homage rendered to God.
Or, conducting by holding and guiding the reverence paid to a divine being.
Or, how about influencing or inducing religious adoration.
Or, maybe, having the directing or principal part in an admiring love or devotion of God.

To distill this, when I "lead worship," i.e., execute worship songs, read scriptures, or deliver a message or a testimony for a congregation, I am using my God-given gifts to offer others an opportunity to express their love for God. As a worshiper, as someone who has "come to church," you've entered into this "loop" with me, and I with you - from God, back to God. It's what good Methodists fondly refer to as "means of grace." I believe in the deepest part of me that the Holy Spirit is doing something with it - probably something to shape and mold the body, the capital-C church.

But what you, the individual worshiper, choose to do with it is just not up to me. Maybe you'll sing. Maybe you'll listen or pray or think or question or learn. Maybe you'll remember something. Maybe you'll forget it all. Maybe you'll critique the song, or lament the worship order. Maybe you'll leave (to go engage in acts of charity, I hope).

The other implication of dictionary worship leadership is that you might also want to emulate me - to do what I'm doing, or to do it the way I'm doing it. And this is where it gets kind of unnerving. Because sometimes, all I'm doing is trying to keep it together. In my ministry, there have been countless Sunday mornings filled with blunder and error and unpreparedness, and on those mornings, I find my own capacity to express my own love for God to be at a minimum. The offering itself is all I have. I can tell you, from experience, just how much of God's mercy and grace is afforded to undeserving, underwhelmed "worship leaders."

So, why should I expect my brothers and sisters to behave any differently than I do in the setting of an American worship service? We are one body with many parts, after all. Why should I assume that either Donald Miller or the dissatisfied couple must and should necessarily be "moved" into worship by my music, any more than I should expect my toe to tap when my hand claps?

For that matter, why should I expect anyone to be visibly responsive to the liturgy, or the worship order, or the prayer, or the sermon, or the tradition, or the lack thereof? Folks, that's not ministry, that's magic. That's not knowing, trusting and believing God's manifested presence and power in our gatherings, that's dictating it... contriving it. Is that what we really came for?


We allow, that the whole value of the means depends on their actual subservience to the end of religion; that, consequently, all these means, when separate from the end, are less than nothing and vanity; that if they do not actually conduce to the knowledge and love of God, they are not acceptable in his sight; yea, rather, they are an abomination before him, a stink in his nostrils; he is weary to bear them. Above all, if they are used as a kind of commutation for the religion they were designed to subserve, it is not easy to find words for the enormous folly and wickedness of thus turning God's arms against himself; of keeping Christianity out of the heart by those very means which were ordained for the bringing it in." - John Wesley (16, II, 2)

Imagine, for a moment, that when I said worship, what I meant was entertainment. What if I were, on a weekly basis, "leading entertainment?"

I would be going before or showing the way in an agreeable occupation for the mind.
Or, conducting by holding and guiding something affording pleasure or amusement.
Or, even, having the directing or principal part in hospitable provision for the needs and wants of guests...

It would be a "commutation" for worship, which means, I would be doing this all in place of what we actually should be doing: abandoning our way for God's better way of loosening the chains of injustice... setting the oppressed free and breaking every yoke... sharing our food with the hungry and inviting in the homeless poor... clothing the naked... dealing with our sin.

If I were doing this - getting up to entertain you or please you - or even if you assumed I was doing this, then, tell me, what would you be doing? Well, you'd be doing something for an hour every Sunday, and that's about it; the last thing I want you doing is calling it worship. That's inauthentic by its very definition.

If this is describes either Donald Miller or the dissatisfied couple, then I think they've both made the right call. If this describes you, then you probably have some things to ponder. Do you prop the worship gathering up as the hallmark of discipleship, at the expense of true religion? I know I toe this line from time to time, and, in my experience, it's an easy line to cross.


I believe it's my responsibility as a worship leader to ask you: why do you "go to church?" Do you feel you need to be there? Do you feel drawn there? Do you go to teach? Do you go to learn? Do you go to sing? Do you go to commune? Do you go for yourself? Do you go for your kids? Do you go for your parents?

Let me propose an exercise: imagine if you omitted the local church from your week; how would it change your life? Often, as an "employee" of the local church, my most honest and transparent answer to that question is that I'd be less overworked, less stressed, and more rested. And maybe that's true. I don't know, and I don't really care. But a lot of people ask this question, answer it, care, and surmise they stand to gain personally from withdrawing. So, they depart the local church scene and don't consider anything more.

However, the other half of this exercise is: imagine if you omitted the local church from your week, how would it change the lives of others? I am confident that, in my case, I would be less mindful of others, to say the least; more concerned with myself; less challenged to be vocal on behalf of my neighbors or to stand up for justice; more apt to blend in with the crowd, pay my taxes, and let that be enough support given to the poor and the hungry.

It doesn't sound like much, but when I conduct this exercise, I become convinced I need to be gathered with the local church as often as I can be. I don't always realize that God is working on me there, but when I think about it in context of my innumerable daily interactions, I start to glean an understanding of the way Jesus intertwined the commandments to love God and love neighbor. Not gathering leads me to an incompletion, puffing my ego up to the detriment of everything else.

This is not meant to be self-righteous, because I have many times in my life considered church the place I go to be "filled" with God, and I'm not sure how I got to the mindset I'm about to describe, but the older I get, the more I desire to enter the corporate worship gathering from a mode of service, where I've expended my extra time, energy, and resources on carrying out Jesus' ever-present commandment, but that God is so worthy that I'm willing to expend all that's still left on Him.

Those gathered around me help multiply my resolve to honor God for what He has done for all of us; they help me to draw out what remains and spend it all to exalt our Creator. And, because of this, I don't always leave worship filled. Many times I leave worship utterly empty and, rightly, completely reliant on God's grace and strength for what will next be required of me. When God fills me in worship, it is truly miraculous, and is an unmistakable gift of the Spirit. It does happen, and wow, is it ever something when it does!

For all the times I've gone to worship gatherings expecting to be filled, nothing even compares to the times I am filled when I go expecting to be emptied.


So, let's be clear. I'm going to defend the local church and corporate worship. Not because it's my job or my calling, but because I have grown to desire God more in the gathering. Corporate worship sets the rhythm of my life - my weeks and my years. It draws me toward itself and pushes me away from itself, altogether away from worldly things, altogether into Godly things.

The reason I don't want to stick it to Donald Miller with the above is that, though I find music and message to be consummate vessels for my praising God in private worship and in corporate worship, I'm just not sure that authentic worship requires it. I think authentic worship should always require the local church to encourage, befriend, guide, and uphold us, to hold us accountable and give us reasons to praise God, even when we're turning a blind eye to God or neighbor. And I'm not sure Miller would argue that point. From what I know about his ministry as a Christian thinker, author, and speaker, I imagine he has no choice but to engage with the local church all the time to carry out his calling. Isn't that his market?

I simply agree with Miller when he proposes that God isn't asking some of us to be ritualistically bored, uncomfortable, or false so that others of us may tap our abandon. That's not a heretical proposition, it's reasonable proposition, and we've generally deemed it OK to uphold scripture and tradition with reason and experience. With the diversity of all humankind - sand on the shore, stars in the sky - there are bound to be a number of people God created that aren't wired to worship God the same way you and I have become accustomed to. Instead of fighting against that, what if we were all trying to help each other figure out how each of us is wired - even those of us who just assume we're wired for the current model. Imagine how different the local church might look if part of its mission was helping every disciple worship more wonderfully!

I would argue that Miller's decision to leave behind weekly worship services was precisely about his deep desire to honor God with himself. Most of us, if we're going to expend all of our energy reserves to declare God's worth, just want to do it as sincerely and as passionately as possible. So what if Miller's passion is not music or oration? Do we really need him to up the attendance count so badly that we'd prescribe it for him anyways? I don't. But as a worship leader in a church where worship leader means music leader, reader, or preacher, the only way I see myself affording someone like Miller the liberty to give his whole self to God is by not deriding his exit from the worship gathering.

As for the dissatisfied couple? Well, I don't want to stick it to them either, because they're steeped in and locked in our model that, despite its pitfalls, still yields disciples, sometimes, somehow. But I might be inclined to argue that their dissatisfaction at my local church had to do with their entry into worship, rather than their exit from worship. Suffice it to say, I'm not persuaded to believe they came to worship. Instead, I'm thinking they came to evaluate the worship experience. With little more than perfunctory contempt, Christians like to call this "church shopping." Subsequently, as a businessman, the NUMC Director of Worship Experiences, I failed them. But as a worship leader, I extended the offer, and my calling is still, ultimately, fulfilled. Carry on, carry on.

Worship Is?

Here's what little I know about Jesus and "local church gatherings." The model was different back then, but not altogether different, we should admit. Based on what scripture tells us, Jesus spent a lot of time in the temple, especially toward the end of his ministry. He loved the temple, he loved the people in the temple, he loved to listen and to teach in the temple courts, and nobody should have been shocked to find him there. But, Jesus also wasn't always the "model customer" at the temple (phew). And sometimes, Jesus didn't want to be in the temple (phew). In fact, we know that Jesus spent quite a bit of time alone, too, often in prayer, and that a great majority of his ministry was spent in motion.

And we also know that Jesus' tightest community gathered more often outside of the temple than inside the temple. In fact, the disciples seemed to be, at times, quite dissatisfied with Jesus' public teachings - they dispersed from the temple courts with the crowds as perplexed and confused as everyone else, and they followed Jesus around like good disciples do until he would finally explain to them whatever it was he had earlier tried to impart to the masses.

In the end, I don't think anyone can read the bible and even begin to make a case for "not gathering." But I'm also not convinced that the way we conduct our gatherings today a) is inherently biblical or somehow (post-biblically) more righteous, or b) makes a compelling case for gathering. We tend to revere a select few predictable and recognizable emotional outcomes of the gathering, when what scripture demonstrates to be sacred is the community itself. That's why we pray together. That's why we share the table together. That's why we get baptized! These are the things that remind us that we're not just going to church, we are the church.

That being said, it takes a great deal of humility and faith to conduct a worship service in our present model without "seeing" people "moved," and instead trusting, praying, and hoping that the Spirit is at work. And I submit that it's neither lazy nor self-righteous to move oneself away from a local church with a model that's only or overly concerned with the visible manifestations of our human sensibilities.

You, the churchgoer, a worshiper of the most high God, need to be very concerned with reading about, praying about, asking about, and biblically answering the question: "what is worship?" Not "what is worship to me," just "what is worship?" As a worship leader, I invite you and encourage you to compare and contrast your honest conclusions about what worship is to what you see and how you behave in the time before, during, and after the local church is gathered. It may change the questions you ask when you or others exit the gathering. It may change the experience you expect when you enter the gathering.

It may change the way you look at "going to church" altogether, and, I promise you, that's OK! :-)

--korywilcox //