The True Cost of Song-driven Worship
Mark 6:3 NKJV
Is this not the carpenter…?
The image of Jesus working away in the carpenter’s shop is a rich one. It provides so many points of human contact with Him.
- He was a skilled craftsman, just as we are each called to a craft to use in service to Him and to a hurting humanity.
- After the death of Joseph, He was the head of the family and a businessman in the village of Nazareth.
- We can be sure He did good work just as He still does today as the Carpenter of Souls.
His years of craftsmanship in the carpenter’s shop provide the real-world basis of His teaching and miracle-working ministry so obviously rooted in the world of the spirit. The question, quoted above by Mark, came from the people with whom He had done business in that carpenter’s shop. When He claimed to be Messiah in their synagogue, this was their response:
Mark 6:2-4 NKJV
“Where did this Man get these things? And what wisdom is this which is given to Him, that such mighty works are performed by His hands! Is this not the carpenter, the Son of Mary, and brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? And are not His sisters here with us?” So they were offended at Him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own country, among his own relatives, and in his own house.”
The people He had served in His own town were willing to do business with Him as a carpenter but not as a healer, deliverer, and teacher. The blind people went home still in darkness, the deaf in even deeper silence as the crippled hobbled along home, and the demon-infested ones found no peace.
Just as Jesus was a craftsman dealing with tools and wood, we worship leaders are craftspeople dealing with songs, prayers, and scriptures, the tools and base materials of worship. Just as Jesus could skillfully select pieces of wood and fit them together into useful items of daily living, we select songs and fit them together into liturgies—sets of songs for people to sing to each other and to God. Just as His skill was both useful and beautiful, so must ours be. We have two jobs to do:
- Find the right songs, and
- Fit them together well.
No matter how technology develops and no matter how the songs change, these two craft points remain.
What is Song-Driven Worship?
We often hear it said, “Worship is not music.” It is true and always has been true. The first book of worship is the Book of Psalms and all we have left of it after all these centuries is the lyrical content; the music has long since passed out of existence. What, then, is the relationship between songs and worship? This is a vast subject, but it can be said without oversimplification that songs are the temporary tools we use to do the work of worship. The work of worship can be summarized as praise, worship, prayer, testimony, and the proclamation of the Word of God. This work serves to honor God, unify the People of God and perpetuate eternal truth.
The songs of worship become precious to the worshipers and, as the music of the cultures change, worshipers often resist those changes. Sometimes this affection for worship songs develops into what we call “worship wars.” These unfortunate, unwise conflicts are often the result of song-driven worship, that is, worship in which the songs are the primary element. The tools of worship have become more influential than the work of worship. Worship leaders must learn the difference between the tools and the work. The work is the mission of the Holy Spirit in the world, to exalt Jesus, to edify the church, and to move decently and in order. This work is eternal and unchanging. The tools we use to do the work are temporary. This knowledge is at the heart of the worship leaders’ craft. When we treat changing things as if they are eternal and eternal things as if they were temporary, we are headed for trouble.
Developing Your Craft
So much of the worship leaders’ preparation time is spent finding songs to use in the services. This has always been the case. Toward this end there has always been a worship music industry and a marketplace. In times past, hymnals and other songbooks were published and marketed by publishing houses. In the 1980s recordings became more portable and the worship music market produced new songs in finished sets: albums like the Praise albums from Maranatha and even more useful, the Integrity Hosanna cassette tapes with a new one every other month. The Hosanna recordings presented not only new songs but demonstrated the second part of our craft—how to fit the songs together into services. Each tape was like a textbook on how to make various pieces, like the pieces of wood in Jesus’ shop, into useful, whole services of worship singable by the People of God. The wisest among us, kept our hymnals handy and skillfully blended the known with the new each week. Historians now call these years, The Praise and Worship Renewal. I had the privilege of living and leading through these years.
We learned the specific skills needed to lead worship that was more than just songs. The skills required were musical, spiritual, and social.
- Musical Skills. To function as a Chief Musician, we had to know how to play and sing by note because the music came to us in both recorded and printed forms. The publishers printed the songs in standard musical notation, and we mixed and matched them ourselves.
- Spiritual Skills. The difference between a song-leader and a worship leader was one of musical spirituality. Like a preacher, we felt we had to get “a Word from the Lord” and build a song set around that central truth. Today I call that, “The Truth the Spirit Wants” for that service. If we wanted to be led by the Spirit of God, sets of random songs would not get the job done. There was also a spirituality of how we presented each song. We had freedom to adjust the song by key or content to make it fit into the flow from song to song. This flow of the service was a major part of our craft.
- Social Skills. We had to do all this demanding craftwork in an atmosphere of love for God, for His people, and for the precious move of the Holy Spirit. We had to learn servanthood, not stardom. Our goal was to disappear into the blinding revelation of Jesus in the service. We also had to build and equip our shop! That meant we were on constant lookout for the talented, anointed ones in our churches. We had to be a pastor our teams, walking with them through the turns and straightaways of their lives, heading off squabbles, and bringing along the new ones.
This was the emerging, multifaceted craft of the worship leader. Like Jesus in Nazareth, each of us ran a local worship shop producing a valuable product every week.
The Role of the Marketplace
As previously stated, there has always been a worship music marketplace. Ideally, this marketplace exists as a service to the local worship leader and the local church. The marketplace itself is served by technology and the items for sale are created by producers using their advancing technologies. The products cost money for the church and they make money for the producers. This is nothing new, but it is something of which the worship leader must be aware. Instead of being served by the marketplace, the worship leader can become the servant of the marketplace. He/she can even be a victim of “planned obsolescence” like the sales technique of the US automakers in the 1950s. In general, the more skillful the worship leader is in the three areas outlined—musically, spiritually, and socially—the more independent of the marketplace he or she can be, using the marketplace rather than being used by it.
Counting the Cost
The cost of becoming too dependent upon the marketplace goes far beyond the money involved. The less skillful the worship leader is, the more the items for sale can further reduce that skill level. This can cost the worship leader his or her creativity. His/her craft can be surrendered to the craft of those who made the recordings. How does this happen?
With the use of recordings during otherwise live worship the leader surrenders the craft of putting the songs together to the anonymous person who planned and recorded the tracks. Of course, a pure motive for this practice is to provide more music than your team can personally make. However, without care, vital parts of our craft could be lost on all three levels: musically, spiritually, and socially.
- Musically, the church is locked into the full length of the recording whether all 5-7 minutes are really needed. The leader loses the ability to only use parts of the song or to eliminate interludes or repeats that do not really serve the flow of the service. Key flow from song to song suffers if the song set is not well crafted and there can be unintended dead spots that serve only to interrupt the flow of worship. The recordings are more than songs, they are arrangements of songs. Flow comes when we use the songs only as we need them.
- Spiritually, the “Word from the Lord” the worship leader has received is not always well served by the newest and best from the marketplace. Worship leaders should be free to choose from the complete repertoire of the church not just from what the local radio station plays. If our worship sets are to be anointed by the Holy Spirit, they must reflect the nature of God’s creation—a smooth, functional, beautiful flow from song to song and event to event. This is the highest level of craft the leader can bring to the process. All this craftsmanship must flow from the worship leader’s heart, not some other worship leader in some other place.
- Socially, we must constantly bear in mind the last prayer of Jesus before He went to Gethsemane; He prayed that we would be ONE. (John 17) A vital spiritual goal of the worship leader must be to answer this prayer by leading the whole church in worship. Why should worship leaders be completely dependent upon the recorded craft of worship leaders when they can be led by the Spirit to do what He wants them to do in that service? We are called to create, not replicate the work of others.
The cost of this replication goes far beyond these brief descriptions. I bring these to you in prayerful hopes that the Lord will confirm these observations so you can continue to become the craftsperson God has called you to be.
Two Guiding Scriptural Images
When I was first learning these principles, two biblical images were sources of inspiration for me:
- The first was the building of Solomon’s Temple. By the time King Solomon was building the Temple his father David had planned, he found the craftsmanship of David to be so precise the stones fit together perfectly without the need of a hammer or an iron tool. I wanted to plan my worship so well that I never needed to interrupt the flow from song to song with an awkward, unmusical transition. When one of those breakdowns happened, I would think to myself, “Wow! I had to use an iron tool to put those two songs together. Forgive me, Lord!”
- The second was the seamless robe of Jesus. At the crucifixion, the Roman soldiers discovered the robe Jesus wore was woven in a single piece. I knew that the worship I led in a service would be like a garment Jesus would wear to walk among us. I wanted that robe to be seamless.
So, I call for a rededication to all the crafts of worship leading. Why? Can you imagine Jesus in His carpenter’s shop leaning on the creativity of the carpenter across the street?
© 2021 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved
For a greater understanding of how songs can flow together in public worship, try these articles:
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