I was Betty’s worst nightmare. She’d been hearing about this new “contemporary music” from some of her friends around town, then I showed up as the new worship pastor at her church.
First, the rule about starting and ending every service with a great hymn of the faith was tossed. Then the hymnals were shelved in favor of a retracting movie screen with words projected on moving backgrounds that made her dizzy. Next a new sound system was installed with ugly black speakers mounted on the walls and drums were hauled in front and center where the communion table used to be. And, if all that wasn’t enough change for one church, the choir loft was removed and a huge black curtain was hung on the back wall to soak up the extra glare from all the new intelligent lighting hung from the ceiling where the brass chandelier used to be.
But the changes didn’t stop there.
While all these “unnecessary alterations” were being made to a perfectly functional sanctuary — that hallowed space Betty’d grown up in, gotten baptized and married in, had attended hundreds of Sunday services, funerals, and weddings in — the service itself suddenly changed, too, and began to look and sound foreign to her, as if everything she knew and loved about it was gone. The pastor started wearing jeans with untucked shirts instead of coat and tie and the organ sat silently by while a new crew of twenty-somethings took the stage to play music that not only annoyed her, but was so loud it literally hurt her ears. She didn’t like the repetitive songs and wondered if they were even Biblical.
Finally, after a few years of trying to make a case for all the things she’d loved about her lifelong church that was now being disregarded and set aside, Betty and many of her friends were resigned to showing up late to service after the music portion, fuming on the back row, or leaving their beloved church altogether.
And me? I had my mandate to make the church more appealing to “younger people” and to bring a contemporary look and sound to the services, despite the investment these seniors had made for decades. I wish I could hug them all now and say I’m sorry.
Don’t get me wrong.
I love contemporary worship songs. I think there’s great value in using many of them. I love excellent sound, lights, and drums. I’m especially fond of jeans and untucked shirts in lieu of slacks and ties, but I also realize now that there were times I was so bent to be “hip” that I probably left some good people in the dust. So what if a song is being played on KLOV radio? Is it going to help Betty, or anyone, worship and feel closer to Jesus?
So, here’s a list of seven fatal mistakes I made in my last church job and a few suggestions about how I’d do it over again, if given the chance. Maybe they’ll help you now if you find yourself in a similar situation.
Mistake #1: Believing musical style is an “either/or” instead of a “both/and.” Pressure from leadership to only use “modern worship” aside, I see now that I was impoverishing my church by refusing to use anything not written in the last fifteen years, except at Christmas and Easter. Christendom has 2,000 years of music to draw from, so far. Why was I blind to the shining jewels of hymnody, thinking that younger people would only be drawn to newer songs heard on the radio? Given the chance, I would embrace more of the great hymns of the church, letting go of the myopic bias towards using only the newest songs. I would advocate for a much broader experience by utilizing historic texts proven over hundreds of years, in readings, dramas, prayers, and songs. It doesn’t have to be “either/or” in most situations to be appealing to many generations.
Mistake #2: Rarely varying instrumentation. As an avowed rock ‘n roller, the rhythm section rules. What I didn’t understand was that people get bored easily and tune out after a few minutes of being accosted by a wall of sound with no dynamic volume range. I would go back gladly, if I could, and employ a plethora of instruments to change it up each Sunday. I would use the band, sure, but involve many more than the “sacred four” on all kinds of instruments to keep things interesting and keep the congregation listening and joining in. Everyone’s attention spans are short these days, adults and kids alike. Hit them with the same visuals and sounds each week and they can’t help but tune out, whether they intend to or not. Creativity and leadership require a lot of time and effort, while doing the same thing the same way each week does not. Variety is the spice of life, even in worship. I would change it up more often to keep people engaged.
Mistake #3: Thinking my talent was the centerpiece of the music. I’m a strong vocalist and few people on my team could keep up with me. Or so I thought then. I look back and see that I secretly enjoyed the position and the control of being the lead vocalist. I thought of my singing like I thought of the pastor’s preaching – I was the center of activity and had a starring role. It wasn’t that I was consciously prideful about this. My pride was subtle and I actually thought I blessed the people by being a good singer. I have a terrific range and can hit all the high notes. The band and anyone who knows music well respected my abilities and I received a lot of compliments on my voice. But is having a great voice the same thing as being a great worship leader? Actually, no, not at all. They are two completely different things, though you probably wouldn’t know that from the way we seem to run our services. All too often the stellar singers and musicians are the only ones having any fun while the congregation stands there watching. If I could do it again, I would deemphasize my performance and concentrate on using singable keys and easier songs for the people and make sure they were filling their hearts and the sanctuary with the sounds of their voices, not mine.
Mistake #4: Depending on special effects to enhance worship. Let’s face it. People are either prone to worship or they’re not. Smoke and lights aren’t going to “create an atmosphere of worship” for them if they aren’t already living in an atmosphere of worship every day. I did those things because I thought they were cool and I saw the big churches doing it. If I could go back in time and change things, I would go back and do all I could to encourage my people to develop a daily discipline of worship instead of thinking any special effects were going to do it for them. Not that special effects are bad in themselves, not at all. I like smoke and lights and media very much. I would just make sure to rid the room of any hint that these things could make up for what is lacking in my heart or the hearts of my people. Filling a room with smoke and lights doesn’t make anyone a worshiper any more than crawling into an oven makes them a biscuit. I’d spend a lot more time and effort teaching about a lifestyle of worship than worrying about crafty enhancements.
Mistake #5: Not listening well to my pastor or respecting his authority enough. Biblically, the lead pastor is both lead theologian and the real worship leader (under the Holy Spirit) in charge of what happens in the church, not me. I know there were plenty of times I thought I knew better than he did about “worship,” but I should have listened more and not sown seeds of insubordination in my own heart or the hearts of the people closest to me on my teams. I look back and feel ashamed about my arrogance. Sure, he couldn’t sing his way out of a paper bag, but he was still in charge. (NOTE: I have actually gone back and asked forgiveness for this very thing and have been reconciled. It was humbling, but worth it).
Mistake #6: Ignoring the warning signs of impending spiritual and relational discord. Thinking you’re right about something has a funny way of blinding you to the truth. And, being right doesn’t always mean you’re going to handle things rightly. You can “be right” and still lose good people for it. There’s a nugget of truth in every criticism if you’re smart enough to see it. I missed them far too many times. And, if you really listen to what people are saying with their words and their attendance, it is possible to hear the faint rumblings of discord long before they escalate and people get hurt. The “worship wars” have wounded far too many good people and cost good leaders their jobs. I could’ve avoided some casualties if I’d only paid more attention to the warning signs.
Mistake #7: Thinking “hipness” was a hill to die on. Maybe this is the summation of all the rest, but I see now that any passing fad is a bad thing to build a ministry on. All the current songs from Hillsong, Bethel, Jesus Culture, and all the other current worship bands are great, but they’ll shift and change, too. What’s hip and cool now won’t be hip and cool in a few years. The target is always moving. By the time you get the new lights and sound system paid for, something else will be more appealing to the “young people.” In fact, last I checked, there seems to be a shift back to simplicity and deeper authenticity that’s attractive to millennials, especially the ones more attuned to social justice issues. If I were to somehow be transported back a few years, I would tell myself to chill on the need to be cool and current and hip and all that. Nothing wrong with having a current style or using current songs unless they engender an exclusivity in worship that leaves entire generations wondering why they don’t matter anymore.
I know I did a lot of things right in my last church job. People were blessed on a lot of levels and there’s proof that there was spiritual growth despite my mistakes, blunders, and sins. God makes up for our weaknesses, right? But the truth is that we bring all we are to our leadership. There’s no separation between who we are on the inside and the ultimate impact of our lives on the people who follow us. If we’re angry inside, our anger will eventually spill out on people. If we have insecurities, they will inevitably show up in poor decision making.
And, if we think “hipness” alone is what’s going to make the church grow, we just might miss a lot of great opportunities to honor the older generations of saints who built the place and unwittingly rob younger generations of worshipers the chance to join the rich heritage that flows from a couple of thousand years of celebrating Jesus in song. Either way, hipness is as hipness does, they say, and it’s never hip to diss people for not fitting into whatever category we deem most valuable in the moment. I only hope God did a lot of making up for my flaws and I’m grateful for the grace to learn from them now.
Betty, I know you probably don’t read this blog and won’t get to see my heart laid bare as I confess my seven fatal mistakes. I ask you and all your friends to forgive my need to be recognized at your expense and my own senseless rush to hipness. I hope the new guy does more hymns. I hope to see you in heaven someday as we lock arms to sing “Amazing Grace” to the top of our lungs for the one-millionth time, acapella, and stand there thrilling to the sounds of the heavens reverberating with the endless praises of Jesus for His ineffable wonder. I don’t know what other songs may be sung there, but I finally feel that this one is enough.
John Chisum is a long-time Christian music business professional, ordained minister, songwriter, publisher, and worship leader. He is the former Director of Song Development and Copyright for Integrity Media, and the former Vice-president of Publishing for Star Song Communications. John has managed dozens of professional Christian songwriters such as Paul Baloche, Lynn DeShazo, Gary Sadler, and many others, and has had over 400 of his own songs recorded. Along with his business career, John is an internationally respected worship leader and has traveled over one-million miles in ministry worldwide, while constantly serving in local churches over the last 30 years. He holds a Masters of Arts in Worship Studies from Liberty University. John and his wife, Donna, have been married for 36 years and live in the Nashville area.
John is currently Managing Partner for Nashville Christian Songwriters. You can reach him at john@