Magazines 2018 Sep - Oct Worship leaders, raise your eyes

Worship leaders, raise your eyes

20 September 2018 By John G. Stackhouse Jr.

Our practice of worship is narrowing dangerously

john stackhouse

John Stackhouse teaches at Crandall University in Moncton, N.B. His latest book is Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World (Oxford, 2017). Find more of these columns at

Worship leaders, we have to talk.

I’ve been reading a pile of books on Canadian Christianity recently, and the news is generally bad. Very bad.

Attendance is down in most denominations, regions and age cohorts. Evangelicals and conservative Catholics are holding our own, but barely. Many churches grow not by evangelism, but only by being more attractive than other nearby churches.

And boy, are we dumb. Christians who have been going to church for years can hardly put Moses, Jesus, David and Abraham in the correct chronological order. And how many can define the Trinity, the Incarnation and the Atonement of Christ in a way that covers the basics and avoids heresy – doctrines without which the gospel makes no sense?

I have had a few words for preachers over the years, but it’s time we talked about your part of the Sunday morning service.

If you’re like most evangelical churches nowadays, you’re locked into a particular meeting style that really needs to change.

I call it the Hillsong style, after the giant Pentecostal church in Sydney, Australia – a set of half a dozen songs in similar styles, with a sprinkling of prayer or Scripture or exhortation between songs as the congregation remains standing throughout. Then a sermon. Then another bank of songs. The End.

The style shows up in churches across the evangelical spectrum. It is the new normal. For all its popularity, however, it remains problematic.

It reduces worship to a very few body postures – standing, maybe swaying, dancing or even hopping, and raising your hands. These can all be good, of course.

But kneeling and sitting enable and express different attitudes in worship. Why dispense with them?

Praying carefully crafted prayers from a prayer book and attending to the reading of extended passages of Scripture taken from throughout the Bible together feed and provoke and comfort us in a way pop song lyrics and a Scripture verse or two in-between simply cannot.

Where is the traditional rich progression from the initial call to worship, congregational response, confession of sin, pronouncement of absolution, praise and thanksgiving, hearing the Word, responding with joy, hearing the Word preached, responding with tithes and offerings and fresh commitment to obey, celebration of God’s gifts in the eucharist, responding with thanksgiving, hearing the exhortation to mission, and leaving with a good word (benediction)?

This call and response, this dialogue of worship, has been reduced to mere waves of musical crescendo and decrescendo on either side of a sermon.

The most basic problem in light of the books I’ve been reading, however, is this. The Hillsong-ing of worship alienates lots of people. To be sure, any worship service that gets lots of Aussies or Canadians together to enjoy Jesus deserves respect. Still, it is leaving out lots of others:

  • reflective people who crave moments of silence in worship
  • shy or nonmusical people who don’t want to sing aloud, raise their hands, dance or jump, but feel awkward when everyone else does
  • visiting people who didn’t show up for a full-on rally for the Christian God they do not yet even know, let alone love
  • physically weakened people who feel self-conscious about not being able to stand comfortably for such long sets of music
  • any person whose heart language, whose encultured expression of reverence and awe, is not primarily indie pop, the single genre in which most of this music is composed.

All that amounts to quite a lot of people.

Nowadays, worship leader all too often means simply band leader. But a singalong concert plus a sermon is too restricted a genre for Christian worship.

Take some time to examine the extended dialogue of the morning prayer and holy eucharist services in the Book of Common Prayer – one of the great gifts of Anglicanism to the whole Church.