Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Bull Whips & Morpheus the Worship Leader

I was sixteen years old the first time I led worship. Typical: it was at a summer camp, and I was the only teenaged staff member who could play guitar, so I became the default worship leader. Didn't matter that I had never sung in public (my elementary school teachers told my parents I was tone deaf, and my high school music teacher said I had absolutely zero musical talent), or that I had only been playing guitar for about eight months and had a special abhorrence for the aptly-named "F-chord".

It's another example to me of God's infinitely creative and ironic sense of humour, in that I would later be a worship/youth pastor in a denomination known for its worship (Vineyard Canada). And although there are in all likelihood still some who think I'm tone-deaf and have no talent, worship leading has been a significant part of my life ever since.

During the past decades of worship leading and/or being a backup musician to folks like Graham Ord, Norm Strauss, Andrew Smith, and David Ruis, I have observed a number of styles of leading worship, and I'd like to contrast two of them.

The first I call the "whips and flames" approach. This is the kind of worship leader (NOTE: none of the guys I mentioned by name ever did this!) that forces people through all kinds of performance hoops. Perhaps you've suffered under met a few of this type.

For example, there's that old song "Undignified" which includes the weighty lyric:
I will dance, I will sing
To be mad for my King
Nothing, Lord, is hindering the passion in my soul

And I'll become even more undignified that this (repeat last line until eyes glass over)
I don't want to pick on Matt Redman (and I'll admit to having played this song about ten or twelve years ago, myself), but where this gets into "whips and flames" is where the worship leader starts the song, notices that people aren't "performing" quite the way the leader had envisioned would happen when s/he was making up the worship set list, and stops the band to cry passionately:
"Don't you guys love Jesus? Look at the words!! Undignified! Dance! C'mon, let's get with it, people!"
...and then restarts the song and cracks the whip so that the congregation feels like it has no option but to jump through the hoop of performance fire.

There are many variations on this theme, including the dreaded Worship Leading With Cattle Prod, but what they all have in common is the musical equivalent of threatening/beating people with pointed sticks until they perform as the worship leader thinks they should be, usually presented as if Jesus Himself feels the same way.
The other approach, which I think more accurately reflects the true heart and job description of a worship leader, would best be exemplified by the postmodern prophet Morpheus, of The Matrix.

"I can only show you the door, Neo. You're the one that has to walk through it."
That's what worship leaders are supposed to be doing.

Worship leaders function as the maitre de, or the doorman, who invites, beckons, and shows people the door, but allows them the freedom to walk through it, each in his or her own way, and to worship in freedom, not in a prescribed, pre-programmed, lock-step agenda.

"Freedom" will rarely, if ever, look like everyone doing the same thing, at the same time. If it's orchestrated from the front, it can never be called "freedom". But if worship leaders emulate Morpheus, then we'll begin to see real worship, real freedom, and real hunger for more of Jesus.

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