Age in Modern Worship: Further Reflections

Worship HandsIt 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.

Light Through Stained GlassFITTING IN: THE CASE FOR INCLUSIVITY

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.

IN SUMMARY

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).

8 thoughts on “Age in Modern Worship: Further Reflections

  1. I first heard you on a podcast a while back and I subscribed to your blog, because I was impressed with your insight and maturity. I wanted to write you sooner, but did not quite understand the issue as I do now.
    The issue of worship, as you outline, seems to be missing a major consideration: Although worship with music and other forms of art are valid forms of worship, I think they have been taking the front seat and putting a more important form of worship on the back burner.
    We call what goes on Sunday mornings “worship/service,” but I think we are not asking the crucial question: what form of worship and what form of service does He really want from His children?
    The command to Love God and love others, along with being Ro 12 living sacrifices should shed bright light on the issues we really need to focus on concerning Biblical worship in its highest form. It seems we have been led astray and in this evil world, a true Christian need not wonder for very long by whom. The worship of God and the service to others seems to have been systematically replaced by entertainment that is being erroneously promoted as Christian worship.

    As a side note: I have studied sound levels for many years and have taken a decibel meter to many churches, only to find that the levels of the music are almost always above what is commonly deemed healthy. I like loud rock music still, but not to the point of hurting my ears and damaging my hearing—maybe even permanently.

  2. I appreciate your addressing this topic. It’s one that is near to my heart, as I have been involved in worship in varying capacities for over 20 years. Now, at almost 46 years old, I pretty much decided to retire myself, feeling that I have come into a different season, and I am not up for leading a full rehearsal and worship set every week. My husband and I recently spent a year serving in a mentorship role, recognizing there is so much young talent, and making room for their growth. It is important to recognize/respect what each group brings to the worship table. There is no doubt that the younger ones can often musically “out perform” those of us who are more mature, but leading worship is so much more than pulling off a polished performance. It often takes a seasoned worship leader to effectively guide a congregation through the spiritual experience of worship. Younger ones can learn this too, but it will likely happen by watching those who have been doing it for many years. That’s when it’s wise to keep mature worship leaders in the mix.

    I agree that the worship team should be a fairly good reflection of those in the audience. Members appreciate the talent of young musicians, but they also respect those who demonstrate mature spiritual leadership. I believe there is a need for a seasoned worship leader to oversee the worship ministry and “pastor” those serving in worship, whether or not that person actually appears on stage every week. Young people have a tendency to get bored with certain songs after they’ve done them a few times and will want to remove them from the song selection and learn something new every week; mature worshipers understand that it is usually a familiar lyric that is most conducive to the worship experience and keeping songs in the rotation longer than musicians may be comfortable with may, in fact, lead to the most blessed worship experiences. Keeping a youthful/mature mix of worship talent helps ensure that worship stays fresh, but also stays real, something that multiple generations can relate to.

    Utilizing a balance of young and mature talent is a challenge, but it is probably the healthiest thing a church can do, both for those on stage and in the audience. Our pastor, Ross Parsley, wrote a book called “Messy Church” that articulates this well. Incidentally, he was a worship pastor for about 20 years and is now pastoring ONEChapel.

  3. Thank you for these posts. I sang on a worship team for many years. My husband lead worship until recently, we have moved overseas. My husband was always on the proactive with raising up young worship leaders, mentoring them along and then having them form a team. Often putting very young guys in front leading a few songs…along with him…eventually leading solo. We must realize that we need, always to be thinking of training up younger folks. We will not live forever, and if we neglect the mentoring and training of the youth, things may fall apart when we are gone.

    Also, we have to be very careful that we don’t gain our identity and self-worth from what we do. Worship lead, or any other ministry. Our identity and self-worth is in Jesus and what He has done on the cross, not in our “ministry”.

    Being flexible and open, always asking God, “Is this what you want me doing, still.” What new adventures do you have for me, God!

  4. Manuel,
    As a 48-year-old worship pastor who in many ways feel I am just hitting my stride :-), I want to thank you for taking time to write these two gracious, wise articles on the issues of age, church worship and the definition and function of the Body of Christ – I have been very encouraged and blessed by your thoughts! I have participated in many conversations about needing to reach the younger generation (which is very important) and the age and “look” of worship team members; however, I am thankful to serve in a church where the other pastors are thoughtful and humble, allowing us to engage in discussions about these matters without jumping on the latest “bandwagon” (without prayerfully laying matters before the Lord and waiting for His leading). In fact, when I was hired at my current church I was 45, and the senior pastor shared during the candidating process that one or two staff members felt I was a bit old for the demographic they were trying to reach. Thankfully, both sides prayed and concluded that the Lord was calling my family to this church. The staff member who felt the strongest about my age being a problem shared several months later that the Lord had shown him my fit at the church was what really mattered, not my age, and as he got to know me his concerns disappeared. I praised God for this little victory! Thanks again for your articles.
    Blessings in Jesus,
    Steve M.

  5. Manuel,
    2 excellent posts. I have been watching this develop the last 8 or 9 years. I’m a boomer pastor, now serving in a retirement community in AZ among a very diverse, active group of Builders/Boomers. We are very Great Commission focused, therefore launching contemporary worship to reach boomers who have hit this stage of life without encountering Jesus, or who feel marginalized by the church and trends you describe.

    Please, bundle all musicians and worship leaders mentioned in scenario 1 & 2 and send them to me. They will be actively engaged in ministry.

  6. I have come to realize that, for our church, Sunday morning is about evangelizing, not corporate worship. I agree with the comment above that we have moved from worship to entertainment in our churches. I am happy that many have come to know Jesus in our church services. Unfortunately, we do not have worship time, even on our Wednesday night services. It is all about performance. The millennial generation does not understand what worship is, the emotional bonding with the body of Christ that encompasses corporate Christ focused worship. Most of the congregation just stands and listens. I’m okay with it, but I miss the corporate worship of the past. Now my worship time is personal or in our small group.

  7. I am so incredibly challenged! This is a very real issue that I am dealing with right now. I am a younger worship pastor trying to bring together older and younger, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Personal preferences become more marked the bigger the age difference and music is such a personal thing so it gets messy very quickly! Oh for more of God’s grace as I navigate this tension.

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