By Bradley Currah
About 15 years ago I was a Worship and Arts Director at a fast growing church in Seattle. It was the very first church I’d ever led worship at, and I was the “director.” The average attender was maybe 24 years of age. The body mostly consisted of new believers, or believers who hadn’t attended a worship gathering for a number of years prior to discovering this new service. The band performed rock and pop music during the worship portion of the service, but without the typical repetitive choruses that are common to many contemporary services around the US – mostly because we weren’t familiar with many contemporary songs, and the few we did know didn’t seem to fit what we were doing. Instead, we wrote new songs and rearranged many old hymns.
The church tended to attract many artists, infrequent church attenders, unbelievers and people who were somewhat on the fence with their faith. The preaching and the song lyrics never soft-pedaled the gospel message. The heart of the message was traditional, even evangelical. What differentiated our service from most other evangelical ones was the absence of common cultural trappings. Not because we tried hard to avoid “churchy” trappings, but because we had very little experience with them. Neither the lead pastor nor I had ever been members of a church before. We were both newer believers, and brand new to creating church services.
Some of the elders in the church did have more experience, so their opinions were usually given more weight. At the same time, they often carried more culture trappings, which most of our church body didn’t understand. One evening just prior to our service, I was approached by one of the older elders in the church. He explained to me that our community worship experience was clearly suffering, because people weren’t lifting their hands. He was sure that the atmosphere in the church was not free enough, that people did not have the freedom to lift their hands, or they would naturally do so. So, he asked me to lead the body towards more freedom during our worship times.
What the elder was saying to me didn’t totally sit right with me, although I was all for more freedom. I had little time to think about the bomb he’d handed me just minutes before I would be on stage. I prayed for help to know what to say. I told people that they could, and should, express themselves any way they wanted – without intentionally distracting others. I said, “God is our audience, not the people around us.” I invited people to get caught up in thinking about God’s presence with them, rather than the actions of others in the room, and to lift their hands or even dance if they wished.
In the following weeks I lowered the lights, reminding people that they should not worry about what others around them were doing. I mentioned David dancing before the Lord one week. I talked about various followers of God lifting their hands as they prayed. I discretely spoke to the two or three people in our body who did sometimes lift their hands during our worship time, and let them know that I appreciated them and their freedom. Over the weeks, I sensed greater freedom in the body during our worship times. People seemed to sing louder. People began to clap more often. It was good, or so I thought.
The same elder sounded just as concerned as he had the first time he’d spoken to me about six weeks earlier. He pointed out that not many more people lifted their hands during the singing portion of the service. Maybe one or two more did. He saw this as a problem. I felt that if I kept pushing the congregation they would become self-conscious, and less free!
A couple of weeks later, a second band that I’d trained up would give me a break on Sunday. These breaks were times that allowed me to worship, pray, and meditate on the flow and feel of the service. At the start of the next service I was comfortably hidden among the rest of the body. The lead pastor would deliver a convicting, powerful message. This was good for the secondary worship team. Hearts were eager to sing, and full of thankfulness. During the singing, I was convinced that people were not bound up, but free to sing and express their thanks to God.
My eye naturally caught the people who were the most still and inexpressive. I noticed a guy I’d never met, sitting in front of me and a few seats down. He sat, while most people stood. His arms were folded some of the time. Once, he buried his face in his hands during the singing. I approached him after the service and introduced myself. He did not recognize me, which was good. We mostly made casual conversation, and I would occasionally ask him what he thought of the message, or the music, or the service. In many different ways, he said he loved all of it. I spoke to others who were somewhat inexpressive after the service. They looked happy. They liked the service. They were full of content.
Later, I was praying about the conflict I was feeling regarding this one elder’s concerns. I was reminded of a horrible time in our family’s life, the time when my 18 year old brother-in-law died unexpectedly. I don’t normally connect death with worship, but I couldn’t help but consider some of the parallels I was seeing between the two. There were several different friends that came to see my brother-in-law in the hospital while my wife and I were there. They’d heard he had collapsed. Most didn’t know he had died until moments after arriving. I remember some of his friends being in constant tears once they heard the news. Some quietly sobbed. Others were loud, and they would touch his hair and face. Still others would just look lost, with no tears. That was me, quietly sitting, shocked, feeling a flood of emotions that made me quiet rather than cry. I remember seeing some of his friends cry, and wondering if I loved him as much as they did, since I was not crying. It was this comparison in my head that distracted me from mourning, and from comforting my wife. I think that the same kind of comparison in my head distracts me from worship more than what anyone else is actually doing during corporate singing.
People are so different from one another. In some cultures, we may see twice the tears and more crying out loud over a death, because that’s the way they express themselves. However, Americans tend to be more reserved, and they differ among themselves greatly. People are shaped by privacy and independence within the general culture, their family cultures, their personalities, and their individual experiences.
Now, imagine a whole room full of people who come from different church backgrounds, or no church background; people who haven’t been on their faith journey with other people until recently. What is the normative worship expression of that group, during singing? Is it really even very relevant? I believe that the elder I mentioned was genuinely concerned about our body and its health. Yet, I think he was looking at the body through familiar glasses – glasses he’d picked up in his previous experiences with worship services.
We know that God looks at the heart, something man often has a hard time seeing. Maybe “What should worship look like?” is the wrong question for us. “What could worship look like?” might be a better one. Maybe even better: “How can we build up the body in unity?” Or even, “What cultural trapping of mine could be getting in the way of what God is wanting to accomplish among his people?” Paul’s exhortation in Romans 12:1-2 comes to mind: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.”
Bradley and wife, Devonna grew up around Washington, he’s played and recorded with several worship bands. They currently live and record as a family in Tacoma Washington with their kids Braedon, Aubriana, Andrea, and Baelina .