The Lord says:
“These people come near to me with their mouth
and honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship of me
is based on merely human rules they have been taught. "
– Isaiah 29:13
For years, worship leading was what I did and how people knew me. It was a passion of mine and something to which I gave a lot of attention. At some point though, I remember it started making me feel a little sick.
The monotonousness and compartmentalized nature of it felt...very shallow. The emotionalism it centered on began to seem even more hollow. It came to the point when I remember asking the pastors I was leading with if we could not do worship for at least one church service. This request was met with a bit of panic. What would we do then? How would we bring people together? How will people be in the frame of mind to listen to a sermon? Well...are any of those things what worshiping God is supposed to be about?
I got the practical need for playing music that brought people together, but then, calling it "worship" seemed sadly incorrect and very misleading. To make things even more confusing, I started meeting a lot of worship leaders who were angry, anxious, and guarded people. What made things even worse was that I saw all of those same characteristics thriving within my own life (which is how I was able to identify it in others). What was worship doing to benefit the heart of Christ?? As far as I could see, nothing.
People loved the music. They would gather at the sound of it. But no one was more in love with their neighbor or with God. Sometimes we would get more emotional with God, but not more in love with God, and definitely not with our neighbor. We could have profoundly emotional experiences, but then instantly get deeply irritated with some disruptive person standing nearby. Was this Christianity? Was this really worshiping God? Was this who Jesus was and how Jesus behaved toward others?
When I was younger, I didn't know how to disassociate the two. And I was more afraid of God than I was in love. I "worshiped" Him because "this is what we do" and it makes God happy and if the unhappy people around me are any indication of what God is like when he's unhappy, then I want to make sure I'm making him happy!
It took walking away from "worship leading" for years in order for my heart, mind, and soul to deprogram. I started asking myself questions, like, Is God happiest when I'm singing at Him? Does the rest of my life and thoughts lineup with what I so emotionally sing about? Is there a Scriptural model for how we treat music in churches these days? Does relationship with God revolve around my emotions about God?
There is such a greater peace in my life after facing those scary questions with a trust and love in God, Who is Love. No one would ever preach that bad theology I believed, but our repetitive practice subtly instilled it within me.
Jesus' only definition of worship is simple, short, and yet, profound:
"Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
– Jesus, John 4:23&24
There is no mention of music there.
It is very important to note that Jesus never once told us to worship him. But he did say to follow him. We've become really good at worshiping at him, but that was never the point of his life, death, and resurrection. The point is for each of us to experience our own life, death, and resurrection.
Let's call our musical time at church what it is: gathering together in song. That's a good, worthwhile, fun tradition. But then, let's call our returning home or going out to lunch what it is (as Jesus sees it): worship!