Have you seen this video?

Yes, it’s an ad, but the fact is that it points to a very real phenomenon. Our words do matter. And I have a concern with the way that we use a couple of particular words: I don’t want to be called a ‘worship leader’ anymore.

In between working as Worship Arts Director at a church and The City Harmonic becoming a full-time job for me I ran a small marketing company. And if I learned anything at all in that time it’s that our ideas, our habits and our words really do matter. I learned that a lot effort and resources have been spent studying the mind – how we make decisions, what governs some of our instinctual actions, etc. Studies have shown that our brains live in something like a state of constant rewiring. The term they use to describe this is ‘neuroplasticity’: older, unused pathways in our mind dissolve and new ones, with repetition and focus, are formed. All the time. What we think about and say actually changes the way that our brains physically function. How we use our words has a direct effect on our response to stimuli. Like the video suggests, a small change in wording can radically alter the appeal and perception of just about anything. Suffice it to say that language effects how we view the ideas we attempt to describe and help us to form expectations of the world around us.

So what are we talking about when we use the phrase ‘worship leader’?

Now, I’m very grateful for the many resources – books, magazines and websites alike – that have emerged over the past twenty or thirty years, all of them aimed to equip churches in what’s commonly called the “worship renewal” movement or “contemporary worship”. But over time we’ve also seen a gradual shift towards the practical ‘equipping’ of musicians based on demand for tools just like this. And it seems to me that this and other factors have led to a very powerful word association — not just with music in general, but a particular style of music.

We Evangelicals have come to view the word ‘worship’ as referring to something like God-focussed music. And music is inherently emotional. So it follows that our understanding of ‘worship’ could then be reduced to the personal expression of a God-centered, emotional experience. This then shapes our expectations in a church setting.

We come to Church with closed eyes, I often describe is as “a grouping of islands in a dark sea”, seeking these individual and transcendent emotional experiences. This may, at least in part, explain why people increasingly feel as though they don’t need the corporate expression of church to worship God at all – they can pop in a CD and have emotional experiences like this at home or have personal ‘spiritual’ experiences wherever they like. But it’s kind of like skipping leg day at the gym – the end result is that we end up looking unhealthy despite all the time we seem to spend ‘working out’.

This powerful word association of ‘worship’ and ‘music’ could also cause us to disassociate other important and traditional elements of Christian worship services (reading the word aloud, engaging in teaching within community, corporate prayer, serving, the creeds, the eucharist, fellowship) as not necessarily worshipful because they aren’t always personal, emotive expressions. This doesn’t seem right to me at all.  And the reason is that the end of worship isn’t our experience at all. It is God’s glory – but how? Simply by us saying, or singing, so?

‘The glory of God is man fully alive.’

– Irenaeus

Tim Keller explains that worship is the “act of ascribing ultimate value to something in a way that energizes and engages your whole person or being.” Worshipping God takes place in the active redirection of our love away from ourselves or our ideologies and towards Christ — including emotions, but also will, intellect, action – our whole selves! This is true when we sing, but also when we sit to learn, or shake the hand of a brother, or take communion.  

Christian worship is incarnational (God-on-earth to redeem) not transcendent (we escape this troublesome old world to find God elsewhere).

It is formative (God changes us through our embodied practices) not just informative (we change ourselves as a result of God’s good ideas)

It’s embodied, not just expressed.

The fact is that as we gather together God’s presence transforms our lives, our spaces, our minds and hearts and our very selves from toe-to-top. Our meetings and liturgies in their entirety — and our shared mission when we leave — are like Kingdom trenches in a world at war with itself and badly in need of redemption. And so our ‘worship’ should reflect those same holistic values. The moment we intentionally or unintentionally prescribe a hierarchy of experiences (mind over matter, emotion over mind, actions over either) – we teeter dangerously on popular heresy. 

So let’s be sure to constantly remind ourselves, starting with something as simple as our words, that ‘worship’ occurs in actively embodying our beliefs day-to-day, moment-to-moment, and accordingly describes the entirety of our worship services. Worship includes the redemption of our emotions (music), intellect (teaching/word), soul/will (prayer/fellowship) and bodies (eucharist/communion). 

So, call me a ‘musical worship leader’, even just ‘musician’, but not ‘worship leader’.  Let’s “open up the doors and let the music play” – beautiful life-changing music! As we sing together, as we listen and be moved together, let the Holy Spirit be your sheet music. It’s worship after all.

But also sit together, make peace, pray together, sing: It’s worship after all.

Take and eat the body He gave for us, the blood spilt for us. Be reminded that God has given us bodies of our own to give. Its’ worship after all.

Hear the Word of God, learn, think, digest, respond. It’s worship after all.

Let our worship be seen, tasted, heard, and lived together and as we go out into the world. If ever I deserve the title of ‘worship leader’ I pray that its because I actually live this way.

Not because I play the acoustic guitar.