the shape of leadership

Sacred Cows in Worship

Challenging today’s unwritten rules

Kristi Northup on May 21, 2018

I grew up in a fairly traditional Assemblies of God church. Over the years, I watched as some of the customs of worship changed: from an organ to a full band, from using hymnals to projecting song lyrics onto the wall, and from participating in singing Christmas trees to emphasizing live recordings.

These traditions weren’t wrong, nor were they necessarily superior to new ways of doing things. But changing the way we worship is seldom without controversy.

Growing up, I was familiar only with the type of worship style I experienced in my local church and occasional youth event. Then I went to college.

For five years, I had the privilege of seeing another world through the choir with which I traveled. As we sang in a wide variety of churches in Israel and Western Europe, I began to realize that my style of worship, as much as I loved it, was not the only way to connect with God.

In many of our churches today, there are new “rules” for worship — and they are just as religious and rigid as the old ones. Of course, some of the things we consider nonnegotiable are simply preference.

Let’s examine a few of the unwritten rules of worship, and consider how changing up our routine might breathe new life into our weekly gatherings.

1. We must stand the whole time. It’s funny, but it’s often younger people who enforce this. If someone sits in worship, people may perceive them as uninterested, or even rude.

Personally, my feet just get tired, and they always have. When visitors come from other church backgrounds, they may find it exhausting and strange to stand for 20 to 30 minutes.

I encourage worship leaders to create a moment in the worship time where it’s OK for people to sit for a minute. This is especially helpful to older congregants and parents of small children.

Worship also looks different from a sitting position. There’s a different kind of rest we can experience in the presence of God when we sit, kneel or even lie down.

We must make an effort to recognize the difference between battles that truly matter and differences in style that are simply preference.

2. It must be dark for God to be there. When I started in youth group as a seventh grader, I thought it was peculiar that worship couldn’t start until the lights came down. I’m a little surprised that this is still so popular among Spirit-filled churches, considering we’ve been worshipping in dark, cavernous sanctuaries for about 30 years now.

Even in architecture and home décor, light has made a comeback.

I understand all the reasons for turning down the lights, and we do it at our church. A darkened room is less distracting, particularly if there is movement. Low lighting can make it easier for people to engage, especially if they’re conditioned to worship in such an environment.

But there is something beautiful about light. Just for the sake of switching it up, try to think of ways to let the outdoors in. Nature can be so inspiring for worship. Light and color can invite a different kind of spiritual and creative experience.

3. Never, and I repeat never, let there be a quiet moment. In traditional Spirit-filled churches, there is a reason for this: Quiet means someone can give a prophetic word that could be really off-base. But in newer churches, it seems the leaders have never even tried quiet. Our style is generally loud, and in some places, long.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from our brothers and sisters who practice a more liturgical style of worship, there is a solemnity and peace that comes from quiet. It highlights a different aspect of God’s nature. Elijah looked for the Lord in the mighty windstorm and the earthquake, but he heard His voice in the gentle whisper.

I truly believe we are robbing our people of the opportunity to hear the powerful, gentle whisper of the Holy Spirit when we never have a quiet moment in worship. Those are the moments that are transformational in our lives, that cause people to leave different than when they came.

I love loud, celebratory worship, and I even love to dance before the Lord. But nothing replaces the intimacy we can find in a quiet moment in His presence.

For quiet times to happen, worship leaders must be strong, because the band is always champing at the bit to play, and every singer wants to add harmony. Simple is powerful. A single instrument, or one or two voices for a full verse and chorus, can provide breathing room for the congregation.

We must make an effort to recognize the difference between battles that truly matter and differences in style that are simply preference. Let’s open our hearts and minds to old and new ways of connecting people to God.


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