How to Fight Spectator Worship

Lights. Camera. Action.

We have all experienced the hair on the backs of our necks stand up from a good show or experience. Maybe the atmosphere was just right or the speaker or musicians were well rehearsed and the performance nearly moved us to tears. We have all also probably been in a scenario where all we could do was grimace and mumble (in our best southern voice) “bless his/her heart.”

When thinking back to either of these experiences did either take place at church?

As ministers we must think about what types of experiences, memories, moments, and performances we putting on each and every week within our houses of worship? Let me ask you: What is memorable? The atmosphere? The quality of performance? That soloist who had the voice of an angel? Or the congregational worship in response to the Spirit of God?

I hope it is the latter. If it’s called a worship service, should there not be more worship going on? This week we are going to discuss maintaining well-balanced worship, and fighting the talent show spectator sport mentality that we often unintentionally instill within or people. Sure, the spectator mentality may not be created intentionally, but it is happening, nonetheless.

Let’s start at the beginning… the diagnosis of the problem.

In “worship,” are we supposed to be participants or spectators?

We all know the answer… participants.

So if we all know the correct answer how does spectator worship still happen? We all can be guilty at times. No style of music or church setting is exempt. Often, contemporary churches create a concert atmosphere. From the style of the music and the way it is presented, to the layout of the “worship center,” there is a feel that is remarkably similar to a concert or a theater experience. For obvious reasons that can get confusing for our congregations, because in theaters and concerts, the audience is not required to participate in way, form, or fashion. Their sole responsibility is to set back, stay awake, and enjoy the show in a consumer-like fashion. But… the “trendy” contemporary churches aren’t the only ones to blame! In fact, many traditional services have beloved hymns that have been sung in the same way for years that take absolutely no thought or “worship engagement” to get through. We have created zombies that can sing melodies! Many traditional services also incorporate choirs that sing songs while the attendees listen or put on special shows that are “concert-like.” Other times, there is “special music” by a soloist or ensemble. The best part, of course, is the “offertory” where a talented musician plays his or her instrument during the passing of the plate and everyone listens to the performance.

So, what’s the problem with “spectator” worship?

Worship is not the same thing as entertainment. Groundbreaking thought I know… unfortunately, the whole approach of much of our “worship services” is nothing more than entertainment with a Christian title. Does a “better” atmosphere mean “better” worship? Does the skill of the soloist, or the intonation of a choir really constitute a better worship experience? Does it truly bring more honor and glory to God if you “jaw-drop” the audience with your guitar solo or piano finesse? But… by breeding a spectator mentality we tend to also breed an entertainment mentality.

Spectators also tend to be prone to the consumer mentality that plagues our American culture. In an age of American Idol, America’s Got Talent, and America’s Next Top Model our culture is filled with “expert” judges and consumers with little knowledge or experience in whatever area they are judging. How many times have we attended a movie or show and immediately walked out giving our thoughts on what was well done and what wasn’t. I have… but the fact is I know absolutely nothing about making a movie. I can give my opinion… but that is all it really is: an opinion. Sometimes we unintentionally drag this consumer or critiquing mindset into church. We leave right after a service and judge the worship based off the quality of the music or even better… the musical selection, and the preaching based off of whether or not we liked the message or the Pastor kept us engaged enough.

These problems undermine true worship, and what we have done by breeding these issues (spectator worship) and not teaching against them has now come to bite us in the rear! You know, recently I was shown an interesting statistic. It is well believed that the average goldfish has a 9 second attention span, and we often joke around with people and say, “You have the attention span of a goldfish.” But… actually a recent study says that an average human attention span is now 8 seconds! You heard me right… 1 second less than that of a goldfish. So the question is… if we allow spectator worship to shape and form our church’s worship can we entertain the people enough? Absolutely not.

So… how do we engage people in authentic God-honoring worship? Let’s think together.

  • Sing songs that people can sing.

It may seem obvious… but we have to start by singing songs that people are capable of singing. As a member of the congregation if I have to watch the “show” more than half the time then we as leaders have missed the point!

The fact of the matter is that too often we are singing songs not suitable for congregational singing. There are lots of great, new worship songs today, but in the vast pool of new songs, many are not suitable for congregational singing because of a multitude of reasons like key, rhythm, melody, etc. But, the truth is though, there are many hymns that aren’t great for our current singing as well because of rhythm, melody, and a language barrier between “old-time” speech and how we talk today.

What I try to keep in mind when selecting songs is that in order for people to sing the songs in any given worship service, the songs have to have a sing-able melody (that doesn’t take a master’s degree in music or 8 hours of practice) and be placed in keys that the common person can sing. You see, we as leaders might think a song is easy, but the reality is that we have been listening and practicing it all week and our congregations only have once on Sunday to sing along. Also, if songs are placed in keys that are too high, many people just stop singing because it hurts to sing high, or they are embarrassed to hear their voice at a raised level when they are trying to reach out and strain to get that note you have asked them to sing.

What we seem to have forgotten is that the average singer has a medium range, and many worship leaders, myself included, have high voices and want to pitch the songs in keys in which they sound the best for us to lead them in. But, we must remember that worship is not about impressing the congregation with our awesome vocal skills. Instead it is about enabling the people to worship, and facilitating that response through our direction (guided by the Spirit of course).

  • Sing songs that people can follow.

Nobody likes going to a concert where you don’t know a single song and have no clue what is going on. Have you ever been to a church service like that? I have… and to be honest my worship through song really suffered.

Many of us Worship Leaders and Pastors love singing new music and are completely wrapped up in that world all week. But to be honest most of our congregation isn’t. They might not be in tune with the newest song or the latest and greatest group. Often the only Christian music they hear is at church! So… sometimes when we don’t balance out our set lists that allow for easy following a congregation ceases its participatory worship in order to learn the new songs or turn totally to spectator mode and treat the song as a “special music” portion of the service.

So… first of all, should we sing new songs in worship? I believe the Bible is clear in that regard. Psalm 33:3 says,

Sing unto Him a new song; play skillfully with a loud noise.

Psalm 40:3 says,

He put a new song in my mouth.

Psalm 96:1 says,

Sing to the LORD a new song.

Psalm 144:9 says,

I will sing a new song to you, O God.

Psalm 149: 1 says,

Praise the LORD. Sing to the LORD a new song.

I could go on and on. Singing new songs is beneficial because they keep us out of a rut, bring us a new sense of freshness and enthusiasm, force us to think about what we are singing, expand our worship vocabulary, and help us capture what God is saying to the body at the time. Newer, contemporary songs generally will connect to today’s culture in a language they understand better than songs several decades or centuries old. Our songs are a vital part of our worship vocabulary. As long as we are singing songs we know, we are able to worship without the hindrance of learning new melodies and rhythms. But, when we place a new song in our times of corporate worship, we can interrupt the flow of worship. When new songs are first introduced, the people have to take their eyes off the Lord and concentrate on the task of learning the new tune. With this in mind, I believe new songs can kill our worship or they can greatly enhance our worship depending on how we balance them and utilize them in our services.

So how do we balance the problem of creating spectators with all the great reasons to include new songs in our worship? The key is how we introduce the songs and the frequency of new song introduction. We must make sure the songs are first sing-able and then gauge our church based off of their ability to pick up on newer songs. The results will vary depending on the average age of your congregation, what types of songs you are playing, and the context you are in.

One thing I would like to clarify is that we don’t need to mistake “unwilling” to learn new songs for “unable.” Sometimes we have a tendency as humans to like things they way they are, and always have been, and we are content in our comfort. We must fulfill the Biblical mandate to sing new songs… so we have to do our job to facilitate that as painlessly as possible.

  • Be ready to teach.

As worship leaders, we often get so involved in our professional production and understanding of worship that we fail to be authentic, invite the congregation into the experience and act of worship, and then do all we can to facilitate that response. Sometimes it is far too easy to lose sight of our purpose of helping the congregation to voice their worship, and letting them know that they have a reason to sing.

Sometimes the “spectator worshipper” mentality just comes from a lack of understanding or education on the subject. We need to take a step back a realize that not everyone is as deeply immersed in worship as we are (I mean it is our job). We must be willing and ready to teach words, teach songs, and most importantly teach each methods, reasons, and purposes of worship.

A functioning understanding often goes a long way.

So how are you fighting the fight against “spectator worship?”

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