The Worship Diet
I’m writing this in the depths of January when it seems that those around me have begun their annual attempts at a New Year’s diet. Keen to shake off some of the festive excess, this is the time of year when people start to really consider their diets and eating plans. However, it got me thinking: what kind of food do we feed our spirit and soul? Dieticians remind us, “we are what we eat.” Perhaps the Anglican theologian and former bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright, has a point when he says, “you become what you worship?”1 Worship has the power to shape and form us, so with this in mind, I have been wondering what The Worship Diet might look like.
The variety of worship food
The term food doesn’t do justice to the range of things that we eat. If you were to ask someone what they ate for lunch and they replied with “food,” you might feel that your question was being dodged. Similarly, a bar of luxury chocolate and a bowl of stewed cabbage could all be described as food, but if you had expected one and received the other, you might be a bit surprised! The same can be said of the songs that might acquire the label worship. It’s something that nineteenth century Old Testament scholar, Hermann Gunkel, recognized when he tried to capture the nuance of the poems and songs which make up the Book of Psalms in the Bible 2. Whilst all the verses of this volume can be rightly labelled psalms, this does not do justice to the variety of genre, form, and type that the corpus contains. Gunkel set about categorizing each one and recognized there was a great deal of variety amongst them. Some were hymns of praise which named and declared who God is and what He had done. Others were deeply personal cries for help or forgiveness, or lament and protest. Still others retold ancient stories, reminding Israel of their past and urging them to keep on being faithful and offering them wisdom along the way.
Gunkel’s work helpfully challenges us too by exhorting us to consider the variety of the songs we sing in worship. I wonder: what kind of variety exists in the songs we choose for worship and how might looking at Gunkel’s work help to put this in balance?
The Staple of Worship: Songs which have substance
(Examples: Psalm 8, 19, 96, 100 or 150)
Hymns are one of Gunkel’s primary categories within the Book of Psalms. These are some of the biggest and most vivid psalms which call people to praise God. More than just summoning praise, however, this food group of psalms tell the people why they should worship God. They name distinctly who YHWH is, listing his particular attributes and actions. They express truths about God’s nature and character.
Hymns are intended to bring the whole assembly of God’s people together, united in worship. When it comes to the songs we sing in church, however, hymns have probably been one of the things I’ve most experienced causing disquiet or division. Often, the debate centres around the perineal tension between whether we should sing the traditional songs of the faith, which one side sees as boring and outdated, or whether we should focus on praise choruses, which the other side see as shallow and saccharine. When we consider the psalms, we can’t help being confronted with the fact that hymns form a staple of the pattern of worship for God’s people. At the same time, however, this goes far beyond meter or form or tune or instrumentation. Hymns aren’t (just or even…) old songs; they’re timeless truths proclaimed afresh.
In other words, whether we’re singing, “Hosanna! You are the God who saves us, worthy of all our praises,” written in 2005 or “Let the amen sound from His people again: Gladly for aye we adore Him,” written in 1668, we’re joining in the great tradition of singing hymns which call us to worship God, and which cause us to name and remember who He is. I think that’s the real litmus test to whether something can be considered a staple of Christian worship: does this song distinctly name the God who we are worshipping? Songs which could, with only minor adjustment, equally be sung to our significant other or a Hindu deity probably don’t meet the criteria to be classified as a hymn under this category outlined by Gunkel.
Eating Up Your Vegetables: Songs which are hard to swallow
(Examples: Psalm 6, 44, 51, 83, 71 or 109)
We all know that the key to a balanced diet sometimes involves eating foods which we might not especially enjoy, but which ultimately, we need. Gunkel identifies a particularly numerous categories of psalms that include individual or corporate lament. These are the psalms we might feel less comfortable reading out during a meeting on a Sunday morning for fear of dampening the mood.
These are the psalms which express anger and frustration at the way things have (or have not) worked out. They express the disappointment and despair caused by individual and corporate sinfulness, and even cries for vengeance against those who have acted for oppression and injustice. Psalm 137:9 infamously calls for the babies of Babylonians to be “smashed against the rocks.”
I think that this might be a category of song which, in Western contexts particularly, we find a tad unpalatable. The CCLI’s list of 100 most used Christian songs in the UK contains hardly any laments. We want people to feel uplifted and encouraged when they come to church, and yet, I can’t help but wonder if people might feel more encouraged by being able to open in expressing to God how they really feel. We’ve all heard worship leaders tell people to “leave their cares” (or the past week, or the fight they had in the car on the way to church, or the worries that are getting them down…) at the door in order to concentrate on worshipping God, but what if one of the ways we could authentically worship God is by bringing all of these things, including the ugly and painful bits, before Him?
At Soul Survivor Church in Watford (UK), the story goes that the pastor had become angry and frustrated at the increased professionalism and obsession with aesthetics that he and his congregation had been displaying in worship. He cancelled all singing and, instead, people stood and spoke before God. It was this experience of lament that would birth the Matt Redman song which cries out, “I’m sorry, Lord, for the thing I’ve made it, when it’s all about You.” Worship should enable us to be honest to God about our feelings, our regrets, and our longings.
Being an Influencer: Songs which are displays for others
(Examples: Psalm 18, 32, 66, 124, 129)
I saw a meme recently which showed a waiter looking anxiously at a lady in a restaurant. The caption read,
“Is everything OK with your meal? It’s only because you haven’t taken a photograph of it for Instagram.” In our culture, we love to display what we’re eating, and restaurants readily recognize that the best way to drum up business is through recruiting influencers who, having “tasted and seen” how good their food is, will exhort others to eat there too.
There’s a sense in which the same could be said for another category of psalms; those which express thanksgiving, but which do so from the perspective of drawing others to worship God. They declare the Psalmist’s experience of God and what God has done in their lives, inviting others to experience God for themselves. In The Salvation Army, there is an arguably unique heritage of songs in this genre. The songbook has a testimony section which helps us to put into words and express our own experience of God in order that others might be drawn to worship him too. Old Testament worship is never an entirely privatized affair. It is a public display of all that God is, and our worship too should also have a missional edge.
Consuming a Balanced Diet
If it’s true that “we become what we worship,” then the challenge for worship leaders is helping congregations to consume a balanced diet. If we only sing declarative hymns, we risk reducing God to an objective other; distant and removed from our personal experience. If we only ever sang songs of lament, we would end up feeling pretty depressed. If we only ever sang songs in the first person, we would begin to think worship was all about us. The issue is not that a genre or type of song is better or more biblical than the other. The real challenge lies in ensuring that we feed ourselves with a balanced variety of worship.
This year, as you think about your diet, why not try to intentionally expand the variety of genre in the worship songs you choose and listen to? It’s healthy after all.
Examples of contemporary songs showing a variety:
What a Beautiful Name (Hillsong),
The Lion and the Lamb (Bethel),
Yet Not I but Through Christ in Me (City Alight)
God of Justice (Tim Hughes),
Blessed Be Your Name (Matt Redman)
Witness to others:
This Is Amazing Grace (Phil Wickham)
Telling a story:
King of Kings (Hillsong),
Anastasis (Hillsong), Living Hope (Bethel)
Indescribable (Chris Tomlin)
1Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope, p.28
2 See Hermann Gunkel’s Introduction to Psalms
I'll tell you what I want,
what I really, REALLY, want.
Do you remember the first single that you bought on record, cassette, CD, mp3 or stream (depending on your age)? As a product of the 1990s, mine was the hit Wannabe by pop sensation The Spice Girls. As a child, I never really understood the lyrics, and I am not so sure that I do now either. The key phrase of the song that I bounced around my bedroom singing was the refrain, “I’ll tell you what I want, what I really really want.” Whilst it is very catchy (apologies if I have given you an earworm!), throughout the song we never really find out what the singer really, really wants; the answer that comes is “zig-a-zig, ah,” whatever that means. I have been wondering though, when it comes to our worship, what might it be that God really really wants?
In a nutshell, worship is about bringing God what He wants. The English word comes from the Old English weorthscipe, meaning “an acknowledgement of worth or worthiness.” In other words, worship is worth-ship – the act of giving God what He wants and is worth and deserves. In many of our churches, acts of worship have often become synonymous with times of
corporate singing and music-making. Is it that God is simply a massive music fan and the thing that He really really wants is to be whilst He reclines on His throne in highest Heaven? This isn’t to belittle our music-making, but it is to serve as a reminder that, as Matt Redman puts it, “A song in itself is not what You have required.”
The music we use and the way that we use it is intended to help us bring to God what He really really wants. What might some of those things be?
At the same time, anyone who has been around the church for a little while will be able to testify to the potential that music also has to divide people.
Anyone who has sung loudly in a crowd will testify to the incredible power that music has to form community. Music has a unique ability to bring and bind people from all kinds of backgrounds together. At the same time, anyone who has been around the church for a little while will be able to testify to the potential that music also has to divide people. Perhaps because music is so powerful, individuals can hold strong views about the best ways to utilize it in worship. For one person, a hymn that conveys timeless truths set to powerful harmonies and regal, hymnodic chord patterns fit for a king may be to another person outdated, unengaging, and irrelevant expression of the 1800s. A song may give someone the space and means to connect with God through simplicity and repletion, but for someone else may be banal, shallow, and saccharine.
Song choice can split congregations. As a worship leader and preacher, getting the balance of songs right whilst being alert to this fact has caused me more angst than any other aspect of meeting preparation. People – even people who are part of the family of God – can be complex!
Jesus tells an interesting short story on the relationship between worship and unity in Matthew 5:23-24. He describes a person arriving at the altar of the temple, ready to offer a gift to God. The process of landing in front of the altar was a lengthy, involved, and complex one, as people navigated the rituals and geography of the temple to bring their offering to God. In the story, Jesus then instructs that if, having undergone the rigmarole of arriving at the altar, the person remembers that there is someone they have fallen out with, they need to go and first be reconciled to that person before making their offering. Jesus’ first audience would have laughed at the hilarious thought of the would-be-worshipper needing to perform all of the ritual ceremony again. Jesus’ point is that the offering of worship loses its meaning, and even becomes contradictory, if you are
performing an act intended to express your reconciliation with God whilst being wilfully or knowingly unreconciled to a brother or sister.
For our worship to be what God really really wants, it needs to come from a place of unity. Colossians 1:20 tells us that Christ died in order to “reconcile all things to himself.” This is God’s great mission for the whole world, so it must surely start with the church living as witnessing proof of this possibility. Singing tunefully and melodically, whilst accepting disunity within the congregation, is not the kind of worship that God really wants.
Q: How can the songs I select in worship help to foster and create unity? What are the relationships with others that I need to address?
The Bible is full of examples of God (usually through the Prophets in the Old Testament, or Jesus in the New Testament) offering helpful (or vicious!) critique of the way in which His people worship. To my knowledge, the critique is never really directed at their dodgy tuning or because they keep speeding up when the song gets louder, or because the drummer messed up the modulation during the killer key change. The critique usually centres on the fact that whilst they are performing the outward rituals with expertise, these actions don’t correlate to their hearts and intentions, or the other stuff that is going on in their lives. If you check out Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees in Matthew 24, you will see what I’m talking about: it’s full of some of His harshest condemnation and “woes” because of the hypocrisy the Pharisees display in their worship.
Our worship needs to be characterized by integrity. Our lips and our lives need to be in agreement. This is the kind of worship that God really really wants. I remember a guest worship leader from another church being at camp when I was a teenager. We were a bunch of slightly socially awkward and reserved British teens, and despite his best efforts, it didn’t seem that we were entering into the times of sung worship in the way that the worship leader might have hoped. I can’t remember his exact words, but the intimation was that we needed to let go a little and be a bit more holy and Spirit-filled. Then, on the Thursday afternoon, came the highlight of the week: the staff versus delegates football match. I’ll always remember the aggression and choice language of the worship leader on the pitch. Like all of us, he was imperfect, and, in many ways, he was used by God during that week but his behaviour on the pitch didn’t really role model worship to us teenagers positively. The integrity of the worship was hampered by its incongruence with the leader’s actions outside of the chapel. This has served, often painfully, as a reminder for me in my own leadership.Worship leaders, like all worshippers, have to be prepared to live out on Monday what they sing about on Sunday.
Q: What did I sing about last week in church that I’ve been struggling to live out in practice?
Related to integrity comes a third thing that Scripture tells us God really really wants from worship. The prophet Amos (Chapter 5) laments at the state of Israel’s worshipping life: the poor are being cheated and the vulnerable exploited. He imagines God speaking to the people and saying (5:21-23), “I hate your religious festivals, I despise your assemblies […] away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps!” !” The Message translation puts it pertinently when it says, “I can’t stand your religious meetings, I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions. I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals. I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes, your public relations and image making.”The sucker-punch is delivered in verse 24, when God, almost bellowing at His people says, “Do you know what I want? I want justice—oceans of it. I want fairness—rivers of it. That’s what I want. That’s all I want.”
It seems in the context of our worship that God really really wants justice. It’s a reminder to us all that our worship is not intended to merely be a privatized, internalized affair, concerned only with ourselves and our hearts, but rather is part of God’s plan to put the whole world right. As we encounter the living and loving God in worship, God intends to send us back out into the world to roll up our sleeves and participate in His redeeming work in the world. The songs that we sing to God are also supposed to be anthems and songs that fuel our action for “Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven.” They are the soundtrack to the Kingdom revolution. This is a costly element of worship but ultimately takes us to the heart of being the kind of worshippers that God really really wants.
Q: Which songs are we using at the moment which might fuel and inspire missional action in the world?
Come, People of the Risen King (Townend/Getty)
Come Let Us Worship the King/Great Things(Phil Wickham)
In the Name of the Father/Our God Saves(Paul Baloche)
May the Words of My Mouth (Tim Hughes)
The Heart of Worship (Matt Redman)
Build Your Kingdom Here (Rend Collective)
The World for God (Evangeline Booth/Transmission)
Build My Life (Housefires)
TELL ME WHY
There’s a story of a newly married couple who were preparing their first Sunday lunch, a traditional roast dinner, after church. The husband took the beef, chopped its ends off, and placed the now three pieces of meat in a roasting tin inside the oven. His wife was a little perplexed. She had never seen this
technique before and asked, “Why did you chop the ends of the beef?” Her husband replied that he didn’t really know but that, “It’s just what my Mum always did.” A few weeks later, they went to the husband’s parents for Sunday lunch. They watched as the man’s mother dutifully chopped the ends of the beef and placed all three pieces in the oven. When they asked her, “Why do you chop the ends off the beef?” The mother’s reply was that she wasn’t too sure but that it’s what her father had always done.
A little while later, both couples went over to the grandparent’s house for Sunday lunch. They watched Grandpa take the beef and place the whole thing in the oven without making any cuts. Perplexed, they exclaimed, “Why didn’t you cut the ends off the beef?” to which he replied, “I haven’t done that since I got my new oven, which is big enough to take the whole joint of meat in one!”
The passing of generations means that it can become easy to fall into the habit of doing things without really understanding why and, as this apocryphal tale illustrates, when we lose sight of why, our actions perhaps lose some of their meaning. In this instalment of the Worship Theology series, we’re going to reflect on the origins of why three particular practices of Salvationist worship emerged and consider ways in which our contemporary actions might re-capture something of their original intention.
Theatres, Skating Rinks and Drinking Songs - Connecting with Culture
Upon his, perhaps reluctant, arrival in London in 1865, The Salvation Army’s founder William Booth was moved by two plights he encountered. The first was abject poverty as thousands crammed into the East End’s slum dwellings in dire living conditions. The second was that for these masses, Christianity appeared to make absolutely no difference to their lives. In 1868, William published a piece of research in which he argued that in Bethnal Green (an East London suburb with a population of 180,000), only 2,000 people attended churches on a Sunday morning whilst around 20,000 attended public houses. 1 This reality incensed him, and Booth was scathing of the churches of the day for practicing their worship in ways that failed to connect with working class culture. Booth’s overwhelming theological conviction was that salvation was boundless and that as such, the church urgently needed to find ways to relate to those who were not engaging with its established means and methods.
In other words, for Booth, the priority was usually for missional effectiveness over maintaining established practices. If the “Smells and Bells” of middle-class Anglicanism didn’t float the boats of the masses who were drowning in a sea of poverty, vice, and ignorance, then Booth was all for dispensing with them. This is partly why early Salvationists held worship in skating rinks, dance halls, theatres – sites of working-class culture – instead of churches and chapels. It’s why they ditched hymns and organs and replaced them with popular instruments and songs set to the tunes of secular music (try singing, “Here’s to rum and whisky drink them down, drink them down” to the tune we associate with Storm the Forts of Darkness and you’ll know what I mean).
This principle of adapting methods and means to communicate effectively in different cultural settings is a New Testament missional principle. All throughout the book of Acts, we see the first Apostles learning to speak new languages, both linguistically and culturally, in order to express the Gospel. The challenge for the contemporary Salvation Army comes, I think, as we consider the question, “In what ways does our worshipping life today connect with those in our surrounding communities?” It’s easy, with the passing of time for the “stuff” of our worship (songs, instruments, style) to become the thing that we hold onto tightly without realising it’s no longer connecting with the people we’re trying to reach. The principle of early Salvationism is that “mission matters most” and, whilst we could discuss this statement much further, it gives us a nudge to be prepared to let go of our own preferences in worship for the greater missional good.
Reflection Question: Thinking back to our church service last Sunday, what aspects might have connected well (or not so well) with people for whom Christianity currently makes no sense to?
Testifying to What God Has Done - The Power of Participation
A powerful aspect of early Salvationist worship was the inclusion of testimony, both in song and spoken word, as a means of expressing God’s transformative work in the life of one individual to inspire and challenge others. It’s said that Richard Slater, a prolific Salvationist musician and songwriter sometimes known as “The Father of Salvation Army music,” was converted at the Regent Hall Salvation Army on Oxford Street following the testimony of Harriet Craddock, a young maid. Slater, a highly educated Philosophy lecturer who had been a nominal Christian but had lost his faith during his teenage years, heard the young, uneducated teenage servant testify to the difference Christ had made in her life in a direct and profound way. The story goes that she stood up and testified, “I used to sweep the dust under the carpet until I got saved…now I even sweep under the carpet.” The power of her testimony given in worship made a significant impact on Richard Slater and our worship (sung and spoken) should give people the opportunity to express what a difference God has made in their lives.
The why which underpins this aspect of Salvationist worship is that we believe that God is at work in the lives of ordinary people and thus ordinary people have something worth saying. I’m a big fan of learning theology, biblical studies, and doctrine, and I currently spend a significant part of my life helping to teach and encourage those on the journey to full-time Salvation Army leadership. At the same time, our tradition is one of participation in worship from the whole body regardless of their education, their rank, or their position. Salvation Army worship, at its best, is inclusive and participatory, not being led by an exclusive few or professionalized pastors but gives the opportunity for all kinds of people to be involved. The testimony of a young, uneducated house-maid changed the course of Salvation Army music. What other things might we be missing out on if we don’t maximize the opportunity for the widest group possible to participate in worship.
Reflection Question: How many people had the opportunity to participate in worship last week? Which voices might be missing from our worship?
Marching as to War - The Jukebox of Justice
As we use instruments in worship on a Sunday, it might raise an eyebrow (or a smile!) when we consider why brass instruments first made an appearance in Salvationist worship. In Salisbury (UK) in 1878, an appeal was made for some bodyguards to protect the Salvationists gathering to preach and worship in the open-air marketplace who were attracting opposition. This call was answered by four members of the Fry family who pitched up with their brass instruments and offered security to the gathered group as they preached a somewhat unpopular message against the injustices of evil. Salvation Army music has always had a sense of protest about it and has provided a soundtrack for the Army’s war against all that stops people from experiencing life in all its fullness in Christ. This is quite a unique aspect of our hymnody. If you flick through a Salvation Army Song Book and compare it with the hymnbooks of other traditions, you will find a much greater proportion of songs which speak about fighting battles against evil, storming forts of darkness, and turning the world upside down. Within our tradition, music is both a motivator and a means of Kingdom action within the world.
I was completely inspired a few years ago when, in 2016, Europe was in the thick of a migration crisis as refugees fled Syria. Captain John Clifton and Major Nick Coke organised a carol service, complete with brass band, outside the UK Houses of Parliament. The service was entitled More Room at the Inn and was dedicated to refugee children stranded away from their families. The words of popular carols were altered to help people think about a great injustice and evil in the world (“In the bleak midwinter/Far away from home/Children sleep as refugees/Scared and alone”). This is Salvation Army worship music at its finest and true to its roots: the jukebox of injustice fuelling the fight against wrong.
Last autumn, an article appeared in Christianity Today magazine which studied how the 25 most used worship songs reported to the CCLI Copyright database compared to the Psalms. 2 It reported that the word justice appeared once in passing in the top 25, whilst it appeared 65 times in the Psalms, and that there are zero references to the poor or poverty in the top 25 whilst victims of injustice are frequently mentioned in the Psalms. Whilst this might be a lamentable omission, the same isn’t historically true for Salvationist music. In my opinion, contemporary worship leaders should find ways to write and lead songs which inspire and fuel the battles against evil and injustice.
Reflection Question: How could I use music in the fight for social justice?
I’m sure that this list isn’t exhaustive but, in considering the whys of just three aspects of our worship, hopefully it has provided a starting point for reimagining and motivating innovation and creativity for the future.
Written By Capt. Callum McKenna
1 Booth, William, ‘The East London Christian Mission Under the Superintendence of William Booth’, Revival Magazine, 6 February 1868, p.1
What drives Worship?
Indecisive about what to study at university at age 19, I made the decision to take a “gap year” and as part of this, I spent four incredible months in India. It was the first time I’d really travelled away from home, and I still vividly remember the complete assault on the senses I experienced when the air-conditioned airport doors slid back, and I stepped out into the colourful carnage of New Delhi. One of the things I noticed first was the traffic – it seemed that rather than driving on the left or the right, most drivers preferred to, quite literally, take the middle of the road option. I soon learned that the most efficient means of navigating the roads was in a rickshaw or also known as a “tuk-tuk.” These are agile three-wheeled vehicles, not much bigger than a motorcycle but with a seating area added to the back for daring passengers (and their luggage!) to pile into and navigate the busy roads, often with more thrill than a rollercoaster.
The thing with rickshaws is that at their best, they are efficient, speedy, and quite exciting. At the same time, those who have ridden in one will know that they are very finely balanced and susceptible to becoming derailed depending on the circumstances of the road.
For this, my final contribution to the Worship Theology series, I’ve been pondering a question that these three-wheeled buggies can help us answer: what drives worship? I think that, just like how the three wheels of the rickshaw set it efficiently and delicately balanced in motion, our worship is driven by three important elements: direction, competence, and character. Just like with rickshaws, issues with one of these elements can derail the whole thing.
The Direction of Worship: The Front Wheel
In a rickshaw, it’s the single wheel at the front that the driver controls with the handlebars which sets the direction and points the whole vehicle in the direction it’s going. For those responsible for leading worship, what is our front wheel? What is the direction our worship is heading in?
You may have sat in more than one worship meeting and wondered about the point of it all. This is an interesting thought to consider. In previous articles, we’ve thought about different things that the Bible shows that worship does: it creates community, it helps us to connect with God and express what He means to us, it tells others what God has done for us, it inspires and empowers us for mission and justice- seeking. None of these things, however, adequately captures the sole direction and point of worship.
The Westminster Catechism, written in the 1600s on the back of Protestant Reformation, perhaps points a bit more clearly to the point of worship when, the first thing it asks is, “What is the chief end of man (sic)?” The reply comes, “To glorify God and enjoy him forever.” This is our chief end – this is the main purpose, the ultimate driver of our worship, the thing it all points at – glorifying God. Anyone who’s been around the church for even a little while will know that it can be easy for the main thing not to be the main thing and yet, if our front wheels are pointing at a direction of travel that’s anything other than glorifying God, then we’re likely heading on a collision course with disaster.
The word which the Old Testament uses most frequently for glory is kabowd. It speaks of the honour and the splendour of God (such as in Psalm 19:1, “The heavens declare the glory of God”). Yet, this isn’t just about saying how great God is (as true as that is). The word kabowd implies a certain weightiness – it comes from the Hebrew word kabed which means heavy. Bringing God glory is about acknowledging His weightiness and that He deserves all the praise that could possibly ever be offered to Him and thus, when we point towards other things we are, in some ways, distracting and detracting from what God ultimately is due. When the front wheels of our worship seek to bring glory to other things other than God (to individuals, to organisations, to denominations, to politics), we’re driving in the wrong direction.
Questions to consider: How does the way I approach worship bring glory to God? In what ways might it point in other directions?
The Competence of the Worship Team
If the front wheel of the rickshaw sets the direction, the back wheels are what power the whole vehicle towards that end. I’m suggesting that the back wheels or the driving forces of worship are made up of two complementary wheels: competence and character.
The competence of the worship team can be an interesting and sometimes contentious discussion. I remember the first time I ever led congregational worship in public. The officer was desperate to include this lone 16-year-old who had recently learned to play guitar and was enthusiastically encouraging me to lead worship. I’d seen loads of YouTube videos of Chris Tomlin and Matt Redman and I had high expectations for the experience that Sunday morning. The problem was, in essence, I knew four chords and nothing about keys for congregational singing. I stood up, sweaty palmed, expecting a move of the Spirit, but was met by needing to restart the song four times to pitch it for the singing. I was nearly moved to tears myself! It was an experience intended to encourage and include me (highly important…) but I simply didn’t have the skills needed for the task and it became quite embarrassing for all involved that Sunday morning.
It’s a tension we often find ourselves in. If worship is ultimately about bringing glory to the God who welcomes and accepts and includes, how competent do the musicians need to be? I have a colleague who describes it as needing to find a solution somewhere between “anything for Jesus” and “my utmost for His highest.” We want the musical elements we use to enhance, rather than distract, from corporate worship whilst, at the same time, recognizing that worship is an inclusive activity which allows everyone to bring their gifts, skills, and passions to the glory of God.
There’s a theological case to be made for bringing the best to God in worship. There are loads of biblical examples of “the best available” being brought to God: sometimes that’s valuable and extravagant jewels and skilled artistry for building the temple (1 Chronicles 29). Other times, that’s five simple pieces of bread and a couple of fish for feeding five thousand. The point is that if our worship is about bringing God glory, then we need to bring the best we can offer of our time, talent, and treasure. There’s nothing wrong with trying to improve our skills musically and doing so will help others to worship God. At the same time, having this wheel on the “back row” reminds us that the end goal of worship isn’t to produce a highly talented and musically professional group, but is, as we have seen, nothing less than bringing glory to God.
Questions to consider: What are we doing to improve the competence of the worship team?
The Character of the Worship Team
In my experience, however, the back wheel of competence is inextricably bound to the other back wheel of the rickshaw: character. These two things need to sit side-by-side to give worship its drive as we pay attention to not only ensuring that our competence is strong, but our character is too.
You don’t have to look too far or hard for examples of this principle in practice. One of my favourite TV Shows was Top Gear presented by Jeremy Clarkson. Clarkson was a super talented host: funny, witty, engaging. However, there was always a cloud of controversy that would surround his character and, eventually, a fight with a member of the production team meant that Jeremy was sacked from the show. Even the most talented of personalities can eventually be snared by flaws in their behaviour. It serves as an important lesson for us all: if your competence outweighs your character, there’s trouble ahead.
If the wheel of competence is bigger than the wheel of character, then your worship is going to spin around in circles and certainly won’t drive forward in bringing glory to God. In 1 Timothy 3, Paul lists some of the character attributes of those who seek to lead others: temperate, self-controlled, gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. It’s quite sobering that the attributes of leaders he lists doesn’t include things on their competence (great organisers, powerful public speakers, epic at vocal riffs) but rather focuses on the type of people they are. Worship leaders are, first and foremost, worshippers and disciples: those who are seeking to have their character transformed by and moulded into the character of Christ himself.
Next time you set off on a worship journey, think about the vehicle you’re jumping into. Where is its front wheel pointing to and what’s driving the rest of it?
Question to consider: Is my character and competency in step? What areas might I need to address?
 The Westminster Shorter Catechism Q1
Meet our 2022 Worship theology series writer
Callum McKenna is married to Berri and has two small boys. He is a Salvation Army officer, currently appointed to the William Booth College in London (UK) where he is a tutor in the School for Officer Training. He also teaches theology in one of the territory’s degree course programmes. His theological interests include Biblical studies, missiology and spirituality, and especially, the relationship between the three. He’s a (very) amateur musician and is part of the worship team at the Bromley Temple corps in South London. His interests include visiting parks and soft-play centres, high quality coffee, and falling asleep whilst watching Netflix (the consequence of parenting two small children!).