Early in ministry, a mentor of mine pointed out that, regardless of size, churches tend to excel in only one of the two main aspects of the typical worship service: music or preaching. (Some, according to one of my non-Christian friends, excel at neither and therefore will never be attended by him or any other unchurched person.) I didn’t know if I agreed with my mentor, so I started to pay attention. I looked around our community. I even checked things out online. In general, he was right.
I remember listening to a sermon by the pastor of one of the most popular worship teams in the world and wondering how he had a job. Then I went to an event and heard the worship team of my favorite Internet preacher and wondered how much he got paid, because they obviously didn’t have enough left over to pay a decent musician. Think about it: Most people choose their church based on one of these two factors. Some people I know want good preaching and feel like the songs are just commercials before and after the sermon. Other people have told me they could never attend a different church than they currently attend because no other church but theirs even comes close in the area of music.
So when God called me to plant a church, one of the first decisions I made was that this church would be an exception to this rule. I wanted to lead a church that worked for God’s glory to have both good preaching and good worship. I think most pastors and church planters want this as well; I’m just not sure they are putting enough emphasis on it. So, for what it’s worth, I have three suggestions for improving the level of the worship music in your church. Sure, a lot of it has to do with getting the right type of people involved and using their gifts, but I am convinced there are small steps that a lead pastor can take to help the process along.
1. Care about music
Do you care about music? In other words, do you feel like music matters? You may not. You may be one of those people that gets in the car and turns on talk radio or listens to a podcast. You may be a lot like me and like to spend your downtime in silence. I like to use my drive time for prayer and meditation on Scripture, not listening to the Top 40 Hits. But here is what you need to know: Even if music doesn’t matter to you, music matters.
Music is one of the greatest storytellers man has ever known. Music not only tells the stories of our cultures, but it shapes our cultures by spreading ideas, concepts and truth claims of people and industries. A wise missionary will be able to exegetic both the needs and the idols of his culture by listening to her music.
You don’t have to be a musician to care about music. You don’t even have to be able to sing well to care about music. One of the quickest ways to lose relevancy with an emerging culture, generation or demographic of unreached people is to disregard their music. But if you want to grow in your caring, listen to music. Listen to stuff you like (sometimes), but listen to stuff that people around you are listening to on a consistent basis. Listen to the lyrics. If you can’t understand them, look them up. Don’t have a music budget to purchase stuff? Check out sites and programs like Spotify and noisetrade.com that legally offer music for free.
2. Consider yourself a worship leader
A couple of years ago, James MacDonald of Harvest Bible Chapel spoke at a church planting event that my team and I attended. He told us one of the most transformational ideas about worship that I have ever heard: The lead pastor is the worship leader. At first I feared how this would hit our worship pastor. Was MacDonald saying that his job didn’t matter? No, he was only pointing out how much worship matters in a church. I believe he was telling us that the entire gathering should be considered worship. It should have flow and cohesiveness and everything we do should seek to adorn the Gospel (not just your sermon).
From that moment on, we began to plan the entire worship service together. We developed our own liturgy, and each week we use this loose framework to tell the Gospel story, centered on the exposition of the text we are working through, but also through the medium of music. We realized that too often what we (the church) call worship services could be better named music and preaching times. It’s almost as if the preacher has no idea what the worship team will be doing and the worship team has no idea what the preacher will be doing. They just hope they sound “OK” individually and that the Holy Spirit shows up.
Dr. John Piper has said, “Mission exists because worship doesn’t.” I think he’s on to something. The end goal of our “mission” of preaching and teaching is that people would worship Jesus with their whole lives. If that’s the goal, then that should be the framework from which we work. The best kind of preaching flows out of worship. And the best kind of preachers are worshippers (read: worshippers, not necessarily singers). Are you serving as the lead worship leader in your church or are you only focusing on one aspect?
3. Place value on musical gifts
The church of Corinth was guilty of placing certain gifts above others. Take a look at 1 Corinthians 12-14. Which gifts were they placing above all others to the detriment of the church? Speaking gifts. Every church planter and pastor dreams of being a prophet. No, I don’t mean the Capital P prophet like Moses, Elijah or Isaiah (well, maybe some of us…). I mean that whether we are willing to say it out loud or not, if we have felt the call to pastor a church, we have had dreams and visions (probably the completely non-spiritual type) of preaching to rooms full of people who are hanging on our every word and being transformed by every phoneme that proceeds from our mouths.
Don’t get me wrong, preaching is important. Preaching is extremely important. I would even say that preaching should be the largest portion of a worship gathering because it is the exposition of God’s Word that gives us a reason to gather, worship and respond. But far too often, pastors can fall into the trap of working hours and hours to make their preaching “relevant” while the music is horrible. We shrug this off by thinking, “Hey, God’s Word won’t return void,” or something like that. Meanwhile no one heard a word that we said because they couldn’t stop reliving the dreadful experience of half the worship team making a “joyful noise”…emphasis on noise.
Here’s what I would consider a good rule of thumb. If you don’t value musical gifts within your church, no one will. And if no one values musical gifts, musicians won’t come…or they will leave. And your worship music will stink. And by stinking it will lie about the Gospel. Pastors, and congregants for that matter, you should make it a regular practice to thank the worship team and musicians for using their gifts for the glory of God and your joy. (Most of these people don’t get paid a dime!) You should make a big deal about it. No, don’t worry about giving those who are already prone to sinful pride fuel for the fire. God will deal with that—that’s His job. Your job is to encourage and to appreciate all the gifts in the body.