Honest Worship: On Stage and In the Pews

Recently, I was interviewed by Outreach Magazine as they were highlighting Honest Worship in their publication. They asked some quite pointed questions, so I thought it worth reprinting part of the interview here. For the full interview, please visit their website at Outreach Magazine.

Outreach Magazine: How can a pastor direct his church’s worship back to honest worship if it has strayed too far?

Wow. What a big question. In Honest Worship, I talk at length about external forces like cultural narcissism, consumerism and our celebrity-driven orientation that take us away from honest worship. There are powerful cultural forces that daily teach us to be more narcissistic, more consumeristic and more spectacle-seeking. These forces form (or more specifically, deform) our hearts, and without even realizing it, we inadvertently take these deformations into worship with us every Sunday morning.

As pastors and leaders in churches, we inadvertently play into this cultural narcissism—by providing high-tech, highly entertaining, felt-needs-driven services. Our Sunday morning gatherings become inadvertently driven more by the people we hope to attract instead of by the God we want to worship. And then we wonder why our people are not actually changing—not actually learning the heart of the gospel, which is to deeply love God and others, and die to ourselves in all aspects of our lives.

While I have nothing against high-tech, modern worship (in fact, I’m a practitioner), pastors and church leaders need to teach and model a fuller view of the gospel—a view that is focused on pleasing God and not ourselves, a view that sees our own preferences as trivial diversions on the way toward dying to self.

The subtitle of the book is “From False Self to True Praise,” and this also bears mentioning. Pastors have unique pressures upon them, and they’re on trial every week—compared and applauded, criticized and critiqued. They are scrutinized for their leadership, their preaching, their personalities, even their personal lives. In response, there’s a tendency for pastors to live in their false self, an identity that each of us forms through our lives to disguise and protect ourselves from harm. It’s false because it’s based on layers of defense mechanisms, identity issues, external pretense, and an inner dialogue of self-sustaining lies. Everyone has a false self, and it is my contention that living in this false self is what keeps us from offering up honest worship to our Holy God.

So I guess the short answer to your big question is that, if a pastor is to lead their church back to honest worship, then they must courageously begin to dismantle their own false self first. And this requires ruthless self-examination, the help of discerning truth-telling friends, and the work of the Holy Spirit.

Speed of the leader, speed of the team. Imagine a church whose pastors and leaders truly modeled God-breathed humility and transparency to their congregation. Imagine a church without image management, without self-deception or pretending. Imagine if honesty and self-awareness and mutuality permeated every relationship and conversation in the church. And now imagine how that might change the way that congregation worships.

Outreach Magazine: How does it damage a church when the team leading worship is addicted to applause?

In Honest Worship, I share a wonderful story by A. W. Tozer that goes like this: Jesus fulfilled Scripture when he rode a young donkey into Jerusalem. The great crowds came to meet him, taking palm branches and spreading them out before him, praising his name, shouting, “Hosanna! Hosanna!” And that’s when the donkey, looking around at the crowd, thought, “Wow! I must really be great!”

One of the unfortunate aspects of modern worship is that we make celebrities of our worship leaders. Since they are up front and visible, and since they assume a role very similar to the lead singer in a band, there’s a tendency to applaud and revere the worship leaders and band members at some level. The flipside of this is that, speaking as a worship leader, there’s a real danger of actually believing the hype in conscious and subconscious ways. All of this, of course, deforms our souls and takes our focus dangerously away from God in worship.

Those of us who lead worship need to remind ourselves of the immense privilege we have of lifting up the name of Jesus. We need to make humility—which is truly knowing who we are before God—the posture of our souls.

We need to remember that we’re just the donkey.

[Photos used by permission. Lead photo by Rod Long on Unsplash. Inset photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash.]

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