Before the Mission Worship conference, I’d heard of Chris Bowater, Dave Bilbrough and Noel Richards. Of course I had. I knew they were legends, and I knew that they had written some amazing songs. The trouble wa that I couldn’t actually have hummed any of them. Or named any of them. Or had any idea at all of the ways in which a bunch of songwriters twice my age could have so much to teach me today.
All that changed when I went along to Mission Worship, an annual conference for worship leaders and worshippers that’s been going longer than I’ve been alive.
Even before a note was played I was aware that things were going to be different. First, they talked. Chris, Dave and Noel didn’t jump straight in with a beat-perfect intro sequence linked to some beautifully shot video. There wasn’t even a countdown clock. Just three blokes talking about why they love to worship.
They were engaging, funny and self-deprecating and it was obvious that they were not burdened by any need to get the branding right. Instead, they were normal, everyday worshippers.
They talked about the songs and it was clear that they all wrote from a place of understanding scripture. Instead of writing about their own personal response, they based their lyrics far more heavily on the Bible. Later, when they got to All Heaven Declares, I was stunned. I can’t think of a more flawless set of lyrics.
When they started to play, the music wasn’t at all intense, it was intimate. Incredibly intimate. It seems to me that today we get those two, intimacy and intensity, confused. People measure how intimate a worship song is by how intense it feels or sounds. But these songs that were joyful and light on the ears did something completely unexpected. They facilitated so many great worship moments.
Among a lot of worship leaders my age I think there’s an obsession with having at least one ‘moment’ where the Spirit breaks out or God comes down during each set. Instead of building towards something huge, they just led us gently, but purposefully. They didn’t try and engineer a ‘moment’ with their music or wait around and suck all the life out of it once it arrived.
I’m not against waiting, holding a moment can allow room for God to move or speak in a unique way, but if it is done continually it can cause people to forget what worship is about. We can get so caught up in the experience of praising God that we think that the purpose of worship is to have God speak to us. Worship can become like the line to meet Santa Claus, with all the waiting eventually paying off with our chance to ask, “so, what do you have for ME Lord?”
It made me wonder about all our anthemic, repetitive and epic sounding worship music. Have we stopped judging the depth of a song not by its lyrical content, but by how they make us feel? You don’t need to stare in to your wife’s eyes and say ‘I love you’ 50 times a day to prove to her how much you love her you. You just need to show it with your actions and treatment of her.
And here’s another thing that I was thinking about. I know that there have been times when I have felt bad for not going deep or giving God my all in worship. But what if singing at the top of our voices or lifting our hands for the whole worship time is not the crux of worship?
I’m wondering if it has something to do with YouTube. Every worship band puts up visuals of their worship times and the best ones are full of the most passionate worshippers. There's nothing wrong with that, of course. Watching those videos can be encouraging, but maybe it can also have an adverse psychological effect on us. Maybe it can create unrealistic expectations of what worship should look like at our local church. Maybe it leads us to think that the passion is the thing we need to pursue and mimic, rather than the heart and lifestyle of devotion behind it. Maybe it breeds a bit of worship envy.
Millennials are accepting of diversity and we’re great at embracing things that are new. Maybe if we could learn to take ourselves less seriously, to study the bible and learn how to get out of the way when things get intense, we’d have learned some vital lessons from some of the generations above us.