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A call to return to biblical worship

A 3D plastic representation of the Facebook logo is seen in this illustration photo May 13, 2015.
A 3D plastic representation of the Facebook logo is seen in this illustration photo May 13, 2015. | REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

Mark Zuckerberg wants to reshape how Christians connect with God.

The story broke last week that he has teamed up with Hillsong Atlanta Pastor Sam Collier to explore ways for at least some worship to permanently move online — streamed live to living rooms everywhere, via Facebook of course. Regardless of Zuckerberg’s overtures, a predominantly virtual (as opposed to in-person) church is stunningly and obviously problematic on so many levels.

In a seemingly unrelated story, Tennessee worship leader Mackenzie Morgan created a buzz with her sharp critique of much of today’s popular church worship music. Morgan raised an important question about the biblical veracity of some popular worship songs, particularly those produced by Hillsong, Bethel Music and Elevation Church. She actually used the words “heretical” and “false teachings,” pointing to both the lyrics and the teachings of these church — based worship producers. Having theologically sound lyrics and teaching is imperative.

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As a former senior pastor who longs to connect with God through both individual and corporate (i.e. congregational) worship, I see a bigger question. Morgan hit the nail on the head when she said, “it’s time we start looking at the scriptures to see what God truly calls for in worship.”

All music that is uplifting is wonderful! However, different types of songs best serve us in specific settings. While some overlaps exist, I divide them into four groups: CD, concert, closet and congregation. I explore each of these in my upcoming book, but briefly, CD songs are designed to be recorded and listened to privately upon replay (I know, most are digitized now, but I am from the CD era); concert songs are meant to be listened to (not necessarily sung) in a live group setting; and closet songs are to be employed in our individual intimate times of worship (i.e. in our prayer closet). 

The first two are performance-based and do not require the entire congregation to participate. The third is utterly individual. The fourth group, congregational songs, is limited to music that can fulfill the high call of the uniqueness of the congregational worship setting. While concert songs are performed before an audience, congregational songs are sung corporately by everyone in the sanctuary.

In general, worship leaders either lack an awareness of these fundamental differences or struggle to execute them from the platform. By and large, what we see today is an individualistic and performance-oriented worship, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic forced online delivery. This certainly is one way to worship God, but does it really cause the growth of the Body in love? I’m not criticizing CD, concert, or closet songs. These can be anointed in their proper settings. Rather, I’m calling the church to biblical congregational singing.

Consider the example of the heavenly congregation in Revelation 5:13: “And every created thing which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all things in them, I heard saying, ‘To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing, and honor, and glory, and dominion forever and ever!’”

Biblical congregational worship is utterly unique. There is literally no other thing like it. It is the sole moment when the saints gather to lift their voices together in worship and praise to the only true God; He who created the universe! It is individual, yet it requires the corporate setting. It is public, yet it is also intimate. It has a singular corporate purpose: to praise and worship God. However, it has the potential of creating a unique outcome in each of the worshiper’s lives.

What is a congregational worship song?

It is obvious but worth emphasizing: Congregational songs must be singable by most of the congregation. Not “hum along with,” or “sway to,” or “sing half the chorus,” but sing together in unity. Most worship leaders miss this basic reality. Though well-meaning, they have bought into the idea that musicianship is more important than selecting, arranging, and leading songs that almost anyone, regardless of musical ability, can sing. This simple principle eliminates many CD, concert, and closet songs from the congregational repertoire.   

How should a congregation be led in worship?

Many worship leaders believe that all they need to do is stand up in front of the people and worship, and the people will follow. Nothing could be further from the truth.       

As a worship leader myself, I have found that there are three main types of congregants:

  • 10% struggle with worship no matter what;
  • 20% are those who will worship exuberantly no matter what — even if you are off-key, you can’t hold them back;
  • 70% will worship only if the songs are singable and are led well.

Many worship leaders design their services for the 20% and can’t understand why no one beyond the third row ever sings. The key to effective congregational worship is done by selecting songs that are both biblical and singable. 

To be singable, it helps if congregational songs are led in a major key, and in a range that average people (not just musicians) can sing. The songs should have a crystal-clear melody sung by the lead singer or the choir. The lyrics should rhyme. The music should have consistent meter, be utterly predictable, easy to memorize, and simple to spontaneously harmonize. This is corporate worship and is what opens up the possibility of biblical transformation.

Of course, I’m just touching the tip of the iceberg here. To answer Mackenzie Morgan’s plea, what practical steps can we take to restore biblical worship to the church (especially given the post-COVID diaspora)? A strong first step is to restore truly corporate worship by engaging in-person (not online — sorry Mark Zuckerberg) the 70%, arranging, and leading only congregational songs that are singable by the majority of the congregation, and yes, that includes the necessity of theological accuracy.

Then, and only then, can we move toward “every created thing” worshiping our living God in one heart and one mind.

Tom Burtness, bi-vocational for 45 years as a pastor and an electrical engineer, is the author of an upcoming book on transformational worship.

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