It is always relevant to every life, every heart, every age, every culture, and every generation.
Sharing the truth of God’s love, as demonstrated through the sacrificial life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ matters more than anything else in the world.
However, it’s not easy to find a way to communicate the life-changing and eternal message of saving grace in a world where there are is so much divisiveness. It can be difficult to overcome generational and cultual attitudes to the extent that what really matters (the gospel message of salvation and new life in Christ) is clearly shared and understood. In our homes, in our churches, and wherever we go, Christians need to demonstrate the love of God and apply His grace in responding to situations where a lack of generational or cultural understanding seems to be a barrier to communication. In doing so, we need to remember that everyone wants to feel that they matter and that their opinions and beliefs are relevant. The reality is that adults are sometimes dismissed by teenagers and children as irrelevant to contemporary culture and to the lives of the younger generation. In the same way, adults can sometimes dismiss younger people as lacking enough maturity to be relevant to serious discussions and decision making. If God’s people, the church, are going to make a difference through sharing the eternal truth of salvation in Christ, we have to be willing to take a fresh look at everything we do. In light of the pre-conceived ideas and differing backgrounds on both sides of every generational and cultural issue, is it possible to find a way to unite the generations in powerful, life-changing worship? Can the adults to whom church leadership has been entrusted become open enough to make any necessary changes on the path to reaching the hearts and minds of younger generations?
Webster defines the word relevant as: “bearing upon or connected with the matter in hand; to the purpose; pertinent.” In other words, when we are living and relating, worshiping and sharing in such a way that our ministry becomes relevant for reaching up to God and out to others, what we do matters!
People always matter! We have intrinsic value because we are created by God in His image and redeemed by God through Jesus Christ, which means that our lives have eternal and infinite value. The value of our lives or the message that we share is never the question. However, true relevance that allows God to speak to the hearts of others through us without the barriers of cultural and relational obsolescence brings eternal value to our ministry. In other words, God can use lives and ministries and talents and hearts that are surrendered to Him to bring about real spiritual fruit in our hearts and lives and in the lives of others. When we are surrendered to God’s Kingdom purposes, He makes us more aware of changes that we can make to effectively minister to all of the people who make up our congregation.
The message of the gospel is always relevant. God’s love and mercy always matters. The problem of perceived irrelevance has never been about the message itself. When it comes to our relevance in sharing spiritual truth, what we do relationally and the message that we project to those around us (through our lives, our words, our posture, our attitudes, our musical preparation and choices, and even the expressions on our faces) impacts their willingness to hear the message of the gospel. When we learn to care more deeply about how God can use our lives and our willingness to seek His purpose than we do about what is comfortable and easy for us, God can indwell our hunger to bring Him glory in such a way that His Spirit brings not only relevance but Divine power to the ministry that we have been given. This process will take some thought on our parts. We never intend to get comfortable and begin to resist change, and we often don’t even recognize those tendencies in ourselves. It will take awareness of where we are and a passion for becoming all that God made us to be to prompt the uncomfortable process of change (where change is necessary) and allow us to become more open to considering the types of changes that will make our ministry more effective with people of all ages.
As the chief worship leaders in our church, it is incumbent upon anyone who is a part of worship ministry to be as “relevant” to those we serve as we can be. If we are going to really allow the Lord to use us to have an impact upon the lives of others, we must be open to new forms of expression and to refining the overall worship experience so that people are drawn to the message of the gospel rather than bored by the absence of passion and a seeming lack of commitment to excellence in what they observe and hear. In my experiences working with teenagers through the years, I have discovered that I have to “earn” the right to be heard by them. The same is true of virtually any age group. We want to know that whoever is leading us is relevant to the lives we live and is sharing a message with eternal relevance. Most pertinent to this discussion of relevance, we want to know that these eternal truths mean so much to those who are sharing them that there is evidence of a heart of passion in the sharing process.
We need clarity because God is not the author of confusion. Everyone on the worship team should have clarity in their thoughts and attitudes about worship and should understand that the purpose of worship is to bring glory to our God. Every worshiper should be able to follow the music that you are sharing without confusion so that they can focus on the Lord and worship Him.
The purpose of everything that is done in the worship service (not just singing!) must also ultimately be to bring glory to God. If a worship service is planned carefully, one message in song or in testimony or prayer can lead right into the next almost as a progression of thought as we worship the Lord.
This involves spiritual preparation for all ministry staff and worship minisry personnel. A lot of prayer time should be invested before we ever reach pre-service rehearsals, ministerial pre-service prayer times, and, expecially, before the worship service itself begins. As the planning takes place, all of the details should be a matter of prayer as well. Worship ministry personnel should spend some time in prayer during rehearsals as well.
When it comes to the actual carrying out of the plan for worhip during the service, all of the leadership team should be well prepared so that the service can flow from one thing to the next and not interrupt the focus on our eternal God. Every worship team member should know what has been planned to happen next. What Travis calls an “expanded update” for the musicians and ministerial staff can be helpful. Our church does publish an order of service in the bulletin. However, the order given to those who are involved in ministry contains more information. For example, for the staff, it might list who will be welcoming guests and who will lead a prayer. For musicians, it might tell who is “in” on the first verse, where others come in, how many repeats of a certain song, etc. However, this planning does not prevent sensitivity to God’s spirit. Sometimes things change during a worship service; but if your original planning was clear, it is easier for everyone to go with the flow of God’s spirit.
Finally, we must have passion in order to be relevant as worship leaders. Our passion for the Lord is expressed not just through musical excellence and preparation but in a transparent desire to bring glory to God. We are all individuals, so this focus on bringing glory to God will be expressed in many different ways. However, our passion should be far more than skin deep. True passion is not for the sake of appearance. True passion for the Lord must permeate our hearts and should impact our thinking, our prayer lives, our expressions of worship, and the way that we live and relate as people. We are worshipers and seekers of God first and worship leaders second, in answer to His call on our lives. The deep desire and passion of our hearts should be to bring glory to God, fulfilling our calling to lead worshipers and seekers of God in a relevant manner that God can use to draw others to Himself and to inspire believers to seek a closer walk with Him through a more profound understanding of worship.
When we are willing to do whatever it takes in order for the Lord to indwell our worship and use it to impact the lives of others, the spiritual foundation of understanding that the goal of worship is to bring glory to God is primary. However, without consideration of some practical things that should also enter our awareness, we risk leaving our congregation behind and neglecting the simple relational things that could help to communicate with them more effectively. We essentially have a dual role as worship leaders of relating to and worshiping the Lord while also relating to and leading God’s people. This can be a difficult balance, but we can do all things through Christ. The practical elements of relating to our congregation and thereby becoming relevant to them as worship leaders are not difficult but do require some initial thought and then continued awareness.
First of all, we must realize that there has always been and always will be a “gap” between musicians and non-musicians. Regardless of whether we are formally trained or simply have learned by years of participation, we will always view our role as a worship ministry leader differently from the way it will be viewed by those who have never participated in music organizations or in worship ministry. Procedures that we take for granted as normal can seem strange, irrelevant, and even boring and archaic to non-musicians. We have our own unique language (musical terminology), as well as our own set of expectations when we evaluate what we are doing (our own musical standards). We must not get so caught up in the use of musical skills and expressions that we leave God’s people behind. Every song for congregational worship should be singable and in a practical key, for example. We just need to put some thought into relating musically to people who are not formally trained musicians.
The Apostle Paul always tried to become relevant to those whom he was trying to reach and serve. (I Cor. 9:19-23) Paul observed the culture around him in order to reference things that the people knew and build upon their knowledge with spiritual truth in his preaching and in his conversations. Jesus was effective in ministering to people of all walks of life because they felt he was relevant. He used stories that related to daily life in order to explain spiritual truth, and he demonstrated continual compassion for the hardships and difficulties and losses of life. He also saw the hearts of the people with whom he came in contact and was able to speak to their deepest needs. When Jesus communicated with people, I believe that He gave them His full attention and was fully engaged in communicating spiritual truth. He could draw a crowd due to more than just His healing power. People wanted to hear what He had to say. The truths that Jesus spoke and taught were eternal, and He must have used all that He was to communicate them clearly and with passion. We, too, can use all that we are to communicate spiritual truth and to focus on genuine worship. We can relate to the daily lives of people so that they know we care about the joys and sorrows in their lives. We can relate to people by speaking to their needs and clearly demonstrating genuine compassion and agape love for them. When led to do so, we can use appropriate cultural references and even current events to share God’s truth in a relevant manner. We can follow the example of Jesus to become more aware of the manner in which we relate to God’s people so that no only our worship leadership but also our lives make a difference and are relevant in ministry.
When it comes to worship ministry, the need for relevance is evident even in the Psalms. The musicians who wrote them referenced events central to the history of Israel when talking about how God had protected and preserved the nation in every circumstance they faced. There was a continual focus on remembering all that God had been to them (Savior, Lord, Refuge..) and all that He had done. Throughout the centuries since the Psalms were written and since Jesus walked the Earth, there have been all kinds of situations surrounding and impacting the ministry of the local church. Churches have utilized all kinds of worship leadership and musical expression of various types; and cultural surroundings have been a key factor in influencing changes. It would be unrealistic for us to fail to recognize the fact that worship ministry has always been in the process of change. It is Biblical and valid to sing to the Lord a new song, inspired by the way that He is working in our lives. Christians in our congregations as well as those who have been called to the task of worship ministry leadership have done just that throughout the centuries of church history, singing the new songs of their own generation. In recognizing that change is a constant process, we must also recognize the resistance to change in our own lives. It is a challenge for any of us to accept change. Change can be painful. Change can take us out of our comfort zone. Change can be threatening. However, if we are to be relevant in worship ministry leadership, we must continually ask ourselves what contemporary elements of worship and new songs could be useful and meaningful in worship ministry. We must also be aware of traditional worship practices and songs which might serve as a barrier between the worship ministry and many people in the congregation, and thus might have a negative impact on our relevance in the church today.
For example, choral praise is an element of worship ministry that has always been dear to my heart. The Lord continues to give new songs for church choir ministry through those he has gifted with the ability to compose, so I don’t believe that He is finished with the use of choirs in worship ministry for His glory. In order to be relevant in contemporary worship however, choirs will have to relinquish the role of a performing group and exchange it for the dual role of personal worshipers and leaders in worship ministry. (The word “contemporary” here is not being used to describe a musical style but rather in the context of an overall worship ministry that is relevant today, no matter the style of the song that is being sung.) Though there are some excellent examples of choral praise as a part of a vital contemporary worship ministry (such as the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir), there are several reasons that many churches are no longer including traditional choral praise as part of their ongong worhsip ministry. The following facts are true of many church choirs and represent the type of disconnect that prevents some elements of worship ministry from being relevant to the hearts and lives of people of all ages in our congregations.
- Choirs hold music folders when they sing, pulling heads down and limiting eye contact with the congregation. This also creates a physical barrier between the choir and the congregation. In viewing photos of choirs, one discovers that singers who are looking down at music appear to have their eyes closed. When music must be used, choir member need to raise the music up so that their heads do not have to look down to see the music, and they can actually look over the folder as they are singing.
- Choirs often “file in” in single file into the choir loft like some formal processional.
- Choirs are usually physically placed as far away from the congregation as can be, due to the design of most church buildings.
- Traditional seated choral risers do not allow for effective miking of the choir. As a result, sound is often covered by instruments (and it’s not always their fault!), which means that the message that is supposed to be conveyed is not coming through.
- Our emphasis is on the “performance” of an “anthem” instead of on leading our congregation in singing God’s praises. (Would we be as committed if we weren’t singing an anthem every Sunday?)
- Our body language is often stiff and formal. We are concentrating on a posture that produces the maximum choral sound.
- Our facial expressions are often lacking due to our desire to concentrate on singing the music correctly. (This very disconnect with the congregation, by the way, means we are not singing correctly even if vocal and choral technique is exemplary!) It is true that God looks upon our hearts, and genuine worship is always the most important thing. However, we must remember that the congregation is not blessed with x-ray vision to see inside our hearts. They must rely instead on their senses in order to receive a message that is being spoken, sung, dramatized, danced, or played during a worship service. As worship leaders, we should in turn use all of our senses and all of our being to communicate so that the message goes forth with the emphasis of all that we are capable of doing in order to express it.
While you may or may not agree with all of the statements above, I think we can all agree on the fact that in order for overall worship leadership to really effective in making an impact in our churches and in the Kingdom of God, all people who are involved in worship leadership must do everything possible to relate to our congregations. In other words, we must be aware of the need to be relevant.
The same kinds of visual and audible disconnect that can limit the effectiveness of choral praise also exist in other areas of worship ministry. The entire worship ministry team must have an attitude of humility and desire to continue to learn and grow in order for God give us the direction we need so desperately. Everyone who is on the platform in a worship leadership role must be aware that there is a need to be as involved in the message of the music visually as one must be in focus and mental awareness on the technical aspects of music. The message must speak to our own hearts first and then be communicated through our facial expression, eye contact, posture, and attitude. It ‘s never just the music that speaks to the heart. It is God’s spirit working through the music that makes an eternal difference in the lives of people. If a seeming lack of interest distracts from the message, people may be so bored that they are not open to the truths that are being communicated, thus inhibiting the work of God’s Spirit.
In a time when opinions about what a true worship ministry should be vary widely, we must continually seek God’s wisdom. A recognition that all music itself and all musical gifts come from God and that the highest expression of music is ultimately to give all glory to God must permeate our hearts and inform all that we do, including planning and preparation for worship. We must all be aware of the visual picture we present when elevated on a platform in front of God’s people. What kind of message is being given by our posture and our facial expressions? How obviously involved are we in the elements of the worship service that do not require our musical gifts? Are we listening? Praying? Hearing from God? Are we seeking to give Him glory? Are we doing all that we can do to prepare for worship leadership so that our eyes don’t have to be downcast onto the music when we are singing praises to God? For musicians, when we are not playing as part of the worship team on a particular song, are we still involved in worshiping God? When we sing or speak of joy or grace, does our face portray the beauty of these gifts? When we tell of the sacrifice and agony of our Lord, is the passion we feel for Him evident on our faces? In everything that we do, we must endeavor to avoid the distractions of complacency, seeming boredom, lack of passion, and poor preparation. These things focus attention on the question of whether we really believe what we are singing rather than opening hearts to the truth. Rather, we must first be genuine worshipers and then seek to convey the truth of God’s love through full awareness of our role as a part of a worship leadership team. Only then can our vulnerability before God and before our fellow worshippers allow us to connect to His life and theirs in a manner than brings relevance to worship ministry as a true reflection of relationship rather than as an artificial performance.
God is real, and our message of His love and salvation is eternally relevant. Lord God, help us to worship You as we seek to lead effectively and to encourage others to worship You as well.
This post was written by Travis L. Boyd and adapted by Cynthia Boyd
Here is a particularly well composed response by an experienced Worship Minister to a question about how a choir should function as worship leaders. This discussion took place on the forum in the “Music in Worship” Community on Choralnet.org , and you may view the discussion in it’s entirety by becoming a Choralnet user and a member of the “Music in Worship” community.
“There are some simple universal truths about the choir’s role as worship leaders that I believe apply in any situation. The first is obvious but so often overlooked and disregarded that it has spawned thousands of conference presentations, books and articles over the last forty years; the choir’s primary role is to lead the people in worship. Whether the “liturgy” (“work of the people”) is formal or informal, screens or no screens, Catholic or Reformed, Denominational on Non-Denom, hidden in a choir loft or visible front and center it is the same. Just the fact that you recognize this and want to learn more about it says a lot about your heart, integrity, and training.