It was a blog post I’ve tried to avoid writing for years. But at some point, I knew I couldn’t not write it. The result was “The Issue of Age in Modern Worship,” which discusses the issue of how some churches are replacing their older worship teams and leaders with younger, more hip equivalents, and surprisingly it went viral. I was surprised not only by the overwhelming response, but also by the amount of pain and frustration experienced by a huge number of worship musicians, vocalists, leaders, and pastors in the modern church. Certainly, this phenomenon is much more widespread and heartfelt than I had even realized.
A COMPLICATED PROBLEM
As I stated in my previous blog, the issues are complex and nuanced. On one hand, there are a large number of older worship leaders who feel abandoned and/or marginalized in their churches, and a number of churches who are—with various degrees of premeditation—quietly retiring these worshipers from public ministry. Many of these churches are driven by marketing strategies, while at the same time many have well-intentioned “Great Commission” reasons behind their culture shifting. Regardless, the pain is felt, just the same.
On the other hand, there are older worship leaders who may not know how to “age” well—they are unwilling to learn new styles or understandably unable to (try being a horn player in a land filled with dotted eighth note delays), or they might disagree with evolving philosophies of ministry or changes of leadership. These latter issues are sometimes too enmeshed to simply say it is about “being too old for the team.” And then there are the next-generation worship leaders themselves, eager for their rightful place on the platform. They want to serve, yet can’t fully relate to the pain and frustration of the older generation they are replacing. But their time will come just the same.
Somewhere in the pews, there are a large number of people watching this happen. Some are oblivious to the superficial nature of much of modern worship—in fact, a good majority quite like the “show,” as some describe it. Some disagree with their churches, yet stick with them, desiring to honor God through their circumstances. Some are driven by their own felt needs, and simply want their choir and organ back. Many are church hopping. And some have just become bitter and mean-spirited about it (I deleted those comments). There’s a lot of emotion out there, to say the least. Without pointing blame, it’s safe to say that it’s just a mess.
ASCENT AND DESCENT: THE CASE FOR MUTUALITY
Writer and Franciscan priest Richard Rohr proposes that one can look at one’s spiritual life in two halves—a season of ascent and a season of descent. The season of ascent is the first half, marked by goal-setting, striving, discovery, and achievement. This is the season where we create the trajectory of our lives—job, career, marriage, family, ambition, and even defining who we are. It is the job of all young people to ascend. The second season is descent. This is the period where one doesn’t have to prove anything anymore. It is a season of internal spiritual deepening, of coming to peace with one’s inadequacies, and of maturity and wisdom. Hopefully, through God’s grace, we learn the very advanced art of surrender. Now, the latter season doesn’t mean you aren’t productive; it may indeed be the most productive season of your life. But life is less about striving and more about leaving a legacy, less about taking a hill and more about mentoring others up that hill.
You see where I am going here? There is a time when we are Timothy and a time when we are Paul. It is the way God designed it. And through God’s gracious wisdom, He used both Timothy and Paul together to further His Kingdom in the world. The Church, for all it’s imperfections, is intended to be a place of simultaneous ascent and descent, where generations come together to grow, serve, and further the Kingdom. And this includes those in worship ministry (1 Chronicles 23, etc.).
Here’s the problem.We live in a society that doesn’t value age. Instead, youth, virility, good looks, sex appeal and stage presence mark the successful. [Side note: Why are there so many worship leaders trying to make it on American Idol? Don't they realize that idols are bad things?] History, legacy, experience, and wisdom are seen as woefully passé. And we, as the church, have inadvertently adopted this worldly supposition in the name of evangelism. There is no room for a mutuality of generations, for ascent and descent. In an effort to appeal to the world, we have stopped looking like the Church.
DIALING IT BACK: THE CASE FOR DIVERSITY
Back in the “old days,” there was this thing called Top 40. You could switch on the radio and listen to Santana, Simon and Garfunkel, Stevie Wonder, the Doobies, Steely Dan. Imagine all these genres—latin, folk, soul, rock, jazz—all strung together on the same station on the dial. It was a wonderful explosion of musical ideas and emotions and expressions. But these days, radio is so genre-specific, that there’s a whole generation of people out there that haven’t heard these styles of music. The same has happened to worship. Consider the trend toward menu-driven services; different styled services (like traditional, contemporary, emergent) are offered like so many Pandora stations on your iPhone. Everyone wants it their way. And as a result, it is becoming increasingly difficult for different generations to worship together, and equally difficult for different generations to exist on the same worship team.
Such trends not only separate, but they feed an increasingly consumeristic Christianity. Medium and message collide: Creating a consumer-driven church designed to appeal to everyone’s felt needs is in direct opposition to teaching people that being a disciple of Jesus means that you have to die to yourself.
I’m not necessarily advocating a blended style of service. (Indeed, the term “blended” itself has really been misused, not at all what theologian Robert E. Webber intended when he first coined the term.) I’m advocating that we teach people that God is glorified in a diversity of worship styles, and insisting that we worship only in our preferences keeps us from growing in Christ and experiencing the fullness of what the Church can be.
One young person replied to my recent blog by stating, “I don’t think age has anything to do with it. What it comes down to is the person a fit spiritually, relationally, and musically.” And while I understand what he’s trying to say at some level (For example, you actually have to have chops and love Jesus to be on my worship teams), I think “fit” misses the mark. My response to him was that the Church is intended for people who don’t fit. Certainly Jesus reached out to those who didn’t fit—the leper, the prostitute, the tax collector, the Roman centurion, the woman at the well. He invited each of them to live in His Kingdom. Indeed, we grow spiritually when we learn to love those who don’t “fit.”
I believe that the Church is most beautiful and most compelling to the world when we sacrificially love—across races, genders, cultures, and generations. We are most like the Church God intended when people who don’t fit together in the world’s eyes fit together perfectly through Jesus. This is why I believe the make-up of your Worship Team should reflect your congregation—because it is simply an extension of it.
I’ve tried to provide some perspective to all this—via the case for mutuality, for diversity, and for inclusivity. It’s not all sexy and smoke machines. But ultimately, I believe these are characteristics of the healthy, grace-filled church. Thoughts?
NOTE: For those new to my blog, I encourage you to pick up my book, Imagine That: Discovering Your Role as a Christian Artist (Moody Publishers).