From Separate to Together: 10 Practical Guidelines for Leaders
Generally referenced as the High Priestly Prayer, Jesus included these words: “That they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.” (John 17:21-23).
It has been a great privilege to partner with and assist many of Mississippi’s music/worship ministries, each of them unique with their own worship “culture.” Because Holy God is creative in the manifestation of His glory, our worship ministries are blessed with great diversity. On any particular Sunday, you would be hard pressed to find any two churches utilizing the exact same songs or order of worship. I’ve discovered that no matter the instrumentation (piano only, organ/piano, guitar only, worship band, full orchestra, or CD accompaniment) or voicing (solo only, vocal team, choir, vocal team plus choir), ministry leaders generally have expressed a strong desire to present their best worship offering to God! This is encouraging on many levels, the most significant of which is that the haphazard “shoot from the hip” approach to planning worship seems to be trending out.
Over the past couple of years, a notable change trending in has been that a number of our individual churches have decided to merge formerly stylistically separated worship venues into one unified service. Some have had to continue with two or more worship services to alleviate crowding, but with each service mirroring the other. Many of our churches, who had started an alternative music style worship option ten or fifteen years ago, often for the right reasons (to reach the lost and the unchurched), awakened to the realization that their fellowship had become dangerously divided. At the same time, though fewer in number than in the past, some of our churches continue to employ a worship style option, which seems to be working well for their particular situations. God’s work among His people certainly is not limited by any worship model we employ or decommission. As the old song says, “all is vain unless the Spirit of the Holy One comes down.” Never, ever should we be found guilty of worshiping worship.
In searching the Scriptures, there are many verses about preferring one another in love. On the other hand, you will not find a Biblical worship model that supports divided worship liturgies. Is heavenly worship a legitimate model for today’s church? One problem with setting up style-based venues is that it would be difficult to launch enough venues to satisfy each one of your church member’s musical preference. It is interesting to note that I’ve not yet encountered stylistically divided worship on any mission trip to other countries… this phenomenon evidently took root and blossomed in the evangelical culture of the U.S.A.! Even our new stateside church plants, after carefully contextualizing the community they are trying to reach, have elected to worship together, some giving their new service the name “Family Worship.”
The church I am presently serving as interim, after 13 years with two stylistically divided services, made the decision to merge their worship about a year and a half ago. It has been a marvelous, challenging, and renewing experience for the church family, as well as for me. I learn something new every week! If you sense the Lord’s leadership to pursue a similar course, here are a few guidelines I believe you’ll find to be helpful:
1. It must be Pastor-led. No matter the dynamics in play, they are peripheral to the absolute necessity of the Pastor stepping forward to initiate and lead this type of paradigm shift. It is likely that your church’s style-based worship alternative began at the bidding and/or approval of your Senior Pastor; it will again be his turn to take the lead.
2. The Worship Pastor, other staff, deacons and key leaders must be unified in their support of the Pastor. Navigating the choppy waters of change will require a steady hand at the helm. The Senior Pastor and Worship Pastor should take advantage of multiple forums (Bible study fellowships, Senior Adult meetings, youth events, etc.) to address the congregation’s points of concern or anxiety. Have many conversations, taking care to give proper respect to everyone.
3. Pray continually, before, during, and after the worship merger. Lead your congregation in focused times of prayer, interspersed with Bible readings such as I Corinthians 1:10, “Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment.”
4. Carefully build a common worship song list. You may discover that you will need to unify the vocal/instrumental charts, MP3’s, and all supportive worship media resources. Fortunately, we are blessed with easily accessible and excellent helps. Our church began the merger with very few worship songs held in common, but slowly built a “corpus” of great songs, representing many styles, using the LifeWayWorship.com website. (Our “Traditional” service had only used the 1991 hymnal, with organ/piano accompaniment, while the “Contemporary” service had primarily used CCLI charts with supportive YouTube Links.)
5. Contextualize carefully. Your church is unique, special, and is not like any other church. Don’t superimpose another church’s worship model on your church. Worship imitation is not the best form of flattery—that actually could be termed “idolatry.” You are their God-called spiritual/music minister leader, so pray for wisdom to understand how to skillfully knit together the fabric of your new corporate worship experience.
6. Everybody “plays baseball” and nobody rides the bench. I hear all the time that you can’t use the organ as a relevant modern worship component. I respond (kindly, of course) with a Hebrew word, “baloney!” With God’s help, our church successfully integrated all instrumentalists into the newly merged worship paradigm. At present, we use organ, piano, string synth, lead guitar, two acoustic guitars, bass guitar, drums, aux percussion, lead keys, clarinet, and flute. Not everyone plays all the time. You will need to creatively “orchestrate” the new mix of instrumentalists, each one leading and serving as they are called upon. If this is done well, it will present to your congregation an amazingly beautiful snapshot of the body of Christ in action! By the way, our group ranges in age from college to upper 70’s!
7. Personal egos must be “checked at the door” and subjugated to the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s not only organists (I can talk about them because I am one) who get all lathered up about their role in worship! This problem often manifests itself when singing/playing together in ensemble, so be on guard. The flesh always is at war with the spirit. As you conceptualize the worship plan, model deference and humility by the way you share the leadership.
8. Teach the concept of “team.” Your choice of words really matters. The church I am serving calls those who lead worship the “Worship Team.” This includes the vocal leaders (I lead along with two highly skilled female lead vocalists), the instrumentalists, and the Worship Choir. I do not call the instrumentalists a “band.” We all are seeking to become one in Christ, each component supporting the other, each person playing a song style they make like or may not particularly care for, everyone desiring the greater good, for the glory of Christ Jesus in His Church, “to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:10b).
9. Each worship service should build upon and give credibility to the previous one. Our church now has expanded to about 170 worship songs we can use congregationally, covering ancient and modern texts set in a multiplicity of styles. I’ve always encouraged my church families to inform me about songs that have been a source of blessing to them; doing this has effectively shut down the “I didn’t like that song” negativity. When a potential worship song has been presented to me, I prayerfully and creatively look for a way to use at least a portion of it.
10. The Worship/Music Pastor must own up to his/her musical prejudices. Ideally, the best case scenario would be to learn to appreciate ALL music styles, looking for ways to use them strategically (this assumes a marriage of a theologically solid text to the style under consideration).
All Spirit-filled believers long for a healthy, growing church. Much has been written on this subject. Perhaps these phrases, found at the end of Acts 2, will encourage you and be used to enlighten your team: “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe…all those who had believed were together… Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple…taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
Slater Murphy has been the Director, Church Music, of the Mississippi Baptist Convention since August, 2011. In addition, he continues his love of leading worship by being the conductor of the women of the Mississippi Baptist Singing Churchwomen and the accompanist for the men of the Mississippi Singing Churchmen, conducting the Mississippi Baptist All-State Youth Choir & Orchestra, and currently serving as the Interim Worship Leader at North Oxford Baptist Church. Slater and his wife, Marsha, live in Jackson, MS. Slater can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.