Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg wants to reshape how Christians connect with God. The story broke last week that he has teamed up with Hillsong Atlanta pastor Sam Collier to explore ways for at least some worship to permanently move online—streamed live to living rooms everywhere, via Facebook of course.
In a seemingly unrelated story, Tennessee worship leader Mackenzie Morgan created a buzz with her sharp critique of much of today's popular church worship music. Morgan raised an important question about the biblical veracity of some popular worship songs, particularly those produced by Hillsong, Bethel Music, and Elevation Church.
She actually used the words "heretical" and "false teachings," pointing to both the lyrics and the teachings of these church-based worship producers. Her comments, ironically, were first posted on her Facebook page.
As for Zuckerberg's overture, a predominantly virtual (as opposed to in-person) church is stunningly and obviously problematic on so many levels—and many people will no doubt opine about this. As for Morgan's challenge, having theologically sound lyrics and teaching is imperative. I applaud her for her boldness, but caution—as California pastor Shane Idleman has also done —that we do not throw out the proverbial baby with the bath water. As Idleman deftly chronicled, today's worship music has many layers, which is discourse for another article.
As a former senior pastor who longs to connect with God through both individual and corporate (congregational) worship, I see a bigger question. Morgan hit the nail on the head when she said, "It's time we start looking at the Scriptures to see what God truly calls for in worship."
All music that is uplifting is wonderful! However, different types of songs best serve us in specific settings. While some overlaps exist, I divide them into four groups: CD, concert, closet and congregation. I explore each of these in my upcoming book, but in brief, CD songs are designed to be recorded and listened to privately upon replay (I know, most are digitized now, but I am from the CD era); concert songs are meant to be listened to (not necessarily sung) in a live group setting; and closet songs are to be employed in our individual intimate times of worship (such as in our prayer closet).
The first two are performance-based and do not require the entire congregation to participate. The third is utterly and necessarily individual. The fourth group, congregational songs, is limited to music that can fulfill the high call of the uniqueness of the congregational worship setting. While concert songs are performed before an audience, congregational songs are sung corporately by everyone in the sanctuary.
In general, worship leaders either lack an awareness of these fundamental differences or struggle to execute them from the platform. By and large, what we see today is individualistic and performance oriented, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic forced online delivery. This certainly is one way to worship God, but does it really cause the growth of the body in love? I'm not criticizing CD, concert or closet songs. These can be anointed in their proper settings! Rather, I'm calling the church to biblical congregational singing.
Consider the example of the heavenly congregation in Revelation 5:13 (NASB 1995): "And every created thing which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all things in them, I heard saying, 'To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing, and honor, and glory, and dominion forever and ever!'"
Biblical congregational worship is unique. There is no other setting like it. It is the sole moment when the body of Christ gathers to lift our voices together in worship and praise to the only true God, He who created the universe! It is individual, yet it requires the corporate setting. It is public, yet it is also intimate. It has a singular corporate purpose: to praise and worship God, yet it has the potential of creating a unique outcome in each of the worshippers' lives.
What is a congregational worship song?
It is obvious but worth emphasizing: congregational songs must be singable by the majority of the congregation. Not "hum along with," nor "sway to," nor "gaze into the heavens," nor "sing half the chorus;" but "sing together in unity!" Most worship leaders miss this basic reality. Though well-meaning, they have bought into the idea that musicianship is more important than selecting, arranging and leading songs that almost anyone, regardless of musical ability, can sing. This simple principle eliminates many CD, concert and closet songs from the congregational repertoire.
How is congregational worship biblically led?
Many worship leaders believe that all he or she needs to do is stand up in front of the people and worship, and the people will follow. Nothing could be further from the truth.
As a worship leader myself, I have found that there are three main types of congregants; the first 10% struggle with worship no matter what. The second 20% are those who will worship exuberantly no matter what—even if you are off-key. You can't hold them back! The remaining 70% will worship only if the songs are singable and are led well. Many worship leaders design their services for the 20% and can't understand why no one beyond the third row ever sings. The key to effective congregational worship is done by selecting songs that are biblically and theologically accurate, and are singable.
To be singable, it helps if congregational songs are led in a major key and a range that average people (not just musicians) can sing. The songs should have a crystal-clear melody sung by the lead singer or the choir. The lyrics should rhyme. The music should have consistent meter, be utterly predictable, easy to memorize and simple to spontaneously harmonize. Once you add the 70% to the 20%, you've engaged at least 90% and perhaps enabled yourself to reach the other ten percent10%. This is corporate worship and is what opens up the possibility of biblical transformation.
Of course, I'm just touching the tip of the iceberg here. To answer Mackenzie Morgan's plea, what practical steps can we take to restore biblical worship to the church (especially given the post-COVID diaspora)? A strong first step is to restore truly corporate worship by engaging in-person (not online—sorry, Mark Zuckerberg) the 70% percent, arranging, and leading only congregational songs that are singable by the majority of the congregation, and yes, that includes the necessity of theological accuracy.
Then and only then can we move toward "every created thing" worshipping our living God in one heart and one mind.
Tom Burtness, bivocational for 45 years as a pastor and an electrical engineer, is the author of an upcoming book on transformational worship. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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