Two worship blogs I regularly follow, authored by two worship leaders I highly respect--David Santistevan and Jamie Brown--have engaged in an important exchange, asking the question about what the "real problem" is with evangelical worship today.
Throughout the conference, at different sessions, with different worship leaders, from different circles, using different approaches, and leading with different bands, I picked up on a common theme. It’s been growing over the last few decades. And to be honest, it’s a troubling theme. And if this current generation of worship leaders doesn’t change this theme, then corporate worship in evangelicalism really is headed for a major crash.
It’s the theme of performancism. The worship leader as the performer. The congregation as the audience. The sanctuary as the concert hall.
It really is a problem. It really is a thing. And we really can’t allow it to become the norm. Worship leaders, we must identify and kill performancism while we can.
David's post, in response, came two days ago:
The problem with modern worship isn’t the lights. The problem with modern worship isn’t the writing and singing of original music. Matter of fact, I believe we need more songwriters writing more songs…better songs. The problem isn’t the dimly lit room. The problem isn’t the big rock band and creative music. Our hearts don’t know their need for Christ. We are not desperate. We are not broken. We don’t approach Sunday with expectant, faith-filled, repentant hearts. We aren’t hungry for Jesus.
Please read both their posts to understand what they're saying. They're both making important points. Both posts have received lots of comments and incited plenty of (helpful) social media dialogue. In commenting on David's post, Jamie wrote:
I totally agree that we need to acknowledge and express our desperation for Jesus. Many times, dead worship exists because we don’t know our need for a Savior. I’m right with you. But is the solution to sing more songs about desperation? Is the solution to people’s lack of awareness of their desperation to engage their senses, turn the lights down, turn the stage lights up, or sing newer songs? No. The answer to desperation is not more desperation. The answer to desperation is exaltation. We exalt Christ. Clearly, loudly, boldly, and sweetly. Our job is to exalt Jesus. And when he is lifted up, he does the drawing people to himself. And then people are satisfied.
There's something in what both David and Jamie said here that is zeroing in on some of the ultimate core issues, and this is where a good understanding of God's "two words" of Law and Gospel--a HUGE Reformational distinctive, championed by Luther, Calvin, Beza, and Ursinus--is deeply illuminating. The "Law-Gospel distinction" (see Michael Horton's helpful explanation here) tells us, with Paul, that God's communication to us basically comes to us in two forms: Law ("do this for me") and Gospel ("I have done this for you"). They each have job descriptions. One of the preeminent tasks of God's Law (among other tasks) is to show us our desperation. God's Law, whose bar can be summed up as "be perfect as Your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt 5:48), exists primarily to drive us to Christ by revealing our inability to keep it. We hear God's Law most clearly in Scripture, but we feel echoes and iterations of God's Law in ten thousand voices each and every day. It is the voice of "you don't measure up." We feel it when we see a person more fit than we are. We feel it when we get passed over for a job promotion or receive less than A+ on a paper. We feel it in our relational brokenness. We feel it, in the words of Jamie, when we rightly experience what it's like to truly "exalt" God: He is perfect, and we are anything but.
When we truly hear the voice of the Law, it has a crushing effect. The Law causes desperation. Then, and only then, can the Gospel sweep in with all its relieving good news: "Though you are wholly inadequate, there is One Who has come to do for you what you could never do for yourself." God's two words: Law then Gospel. The beauty of God's design here is that it is only the Gospel that can both satisfy and supply the energy for what the Law demands. If we want to become good Law-keepers, no amount of telling us to obey the Law can do that. It is simply not the Law's job description to fulfill what it demands. The Gospel does this. It transforms our heart to want to obey the Law.
If there is truly one central problem with evangelical worship today (and evangelicalism in general), it is the confusion of these two realities and the resulting havoc it wreaks on our worship. Here's how this plays out in this discussion. Jamie's point is that worship leaders misunderstand their role vis-a-vis God and the congregation, and he's right. We worship leaders who tend to inflate our own self-importance begin to slip into entertainment mode. David's point is that worshipers need to come to grips with their desperation, and he's right. The Law, which emanates from a proper "exaltation" of God ("Wow, God, You are SO marvelous...SO perfect, SO holy, SO pure"), makes us desperate ("I'm ruined, because I recognize I'm NOT that nor on my best day could live up to that"). The performance-beholden worship leader and lackluster worshipers need to be reminded of their brokenness. And then we need the worship-producing good news.
The kind of worship that begins to chip away at the problems, the idolatries, and the bad practices of all worship everywhere is worship that begins to appropriate the weight of Law and Gospel to their fullest capacity. It is worship that makes much of God's glory, then much of our inadequacy, then much of God's lavish grace in Christ. When these realities receive their proper attention and ordering in our worship, I won't go so far as to say that the "problems" solve themselves, but I will say that they're finally set within their proper context to be dealt with.
A worship leader (most likely unknowingly) addicted to the limelight doesn't have a realistic view of themselves (which the Law gives), because if they did, they'd be screaming in what they do, "Don't look at me! Look at Jesus!" (which is precisely what Jamie was encouraging). A worshiper obsessed over secondary issues to the point of not engaging in worship also lacks a clear diagnosis of their own problem (which, again, the Law provides) and needs to understand their desperation (which is what David was encouraging). And, we would all say, the only way out of this for all of us is to allow the finished work of Christ to be declared, retold, re-sung, and re-lived in our gathered times. And this is what the Gospel provides.