SINGING AS DISCIPLESHIP GLUE: THE SURPRISING BENEFIT OF GOING THROUGH THE MOTIONS
By Mike O’Brien
Many churches and parachurches create discipleship pathways for members of their organization. Plans typically start with babies and end with senior citizens. There are steps along that pathway to equip that person to become like Christ in a variety of ways. It is rare that you will find singing, reciting creeds, sacrament, or other activities related to gathered worship as a part of these discipleship systems. Worship or music are rarely thought of as a means to an end in discipleship.
A church service rooted in a Christocentric, Trinitarian and unified retelling of God’s grand story can do much of the “work” of discipleship. Since singing takes up a majority of what we literally all do together, I believe the lyric of our songs is the most crucial component of what we are saying about who our God is and what he does.
You might have seen the popular sign “now entering the mission field” as you exit a church parking lot. I have never truly grasped that notion because I was literally saved and discipled on a church campus in my early teens. The music minister of my PCA (Presbyterian Church of America) church plant made space for me to play the saxophone with the hymns, then taught me the bass guitar, then gave me a job for $25/wk stacking the chairs. I was literally mentored and saved on Sunday.
We often think of discipleship happening ‘in addition to’ the church service in Bible studies, one-on-one mentoring or small groups. As members of the body of Christ, simply showing up and singing can be transformational and we must not discount its effect and impact on the life of a believer. Additionally, in this space of the church service, as leaders, we can look at this time as a mission field as we invite others to participate.
Just Showing Up
After leading worship for twenty-five years in the contemporary/modern church, I unexpectedly found a 6-month assignment subbing in an Anglican church. I was accustomed to a “5 songs and a sermon” model of church and this new form of worship required stepping into some uncomfortable spaces for me. In my mind, the contemporary worship expression was the remedy to a tired, dead liturgy. But the Lord was gracious to teach me. I wrestled with these judgments as I was now no longer “leading” worship, but the liturgy was guiding me, ever so gently to Jesus. I was now the one being shaped; this experience taught me a valuable lesson.
As I learned the structure and order of service I realized that the creeds, assigned scripture readings, prayers, and songs, were sticking to me. I would recall and long for them throughout the week. I certainly missed the spontaneity and joy of sitting in an uninterrupted time of singing, but surprisingly, going through the motions of church was not as unwelcome by me as I had imagined.
What seemed like just a checklist of righteous “to-do’s” transformed into a list of “get-to-do’s” each week. It was nice being able to identify “success” not merely by a collective feeling of spiritual momentum, but rather a robust and faithful reenactment of the prescribed meeting. What if just showing up counts for something in our souls? What if the act of simply being present to God and others meant I was being transformed without striving?
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Hebrews 10:24-25 ESV
Singing into Shape
As I led worship in this new space, I discovered just how much I had forgotten about the power of the song can be in shaping and forming our belief. In the liturgical tradition, the song lyric closely follows the church calendar and order of service. I began to connect lyric with scripture and to my surprise creating a “setlist” became much more invigorating and challenging.
Music, on its own, is simply instrumental in nature, but lyrics are what makes a song. Lyrics tell a story. Lyrics carried by a strong melody are like a sticky glue attaching to our souls. They are powerful. They help shape our belief. A well-crafted song is perhaps the greatest discipleship tool devised for our time.
“Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord.” Ephesians 5:18b NIV
In 2016, Billboard estimates there were 250 billion audio streams played. That’s an increase of 82.6% compared with 2015. Billboard reports that in 2017 there was a 53% increase in music streaming. Of all art forms right now, songcraft is the most prevalent and readily consumed. At best, the narratives pumping through people’s earbuds and car speakers are spiritually benign. At worst, they are acting counter to the gospel. When people sing the few songs we choose to lead at church, it will more than likely be just a fraction of what they have consumed all week long. It is an honor and joy to choose and write the songs that accurately direct people’s worship to the one true God. As we create setlists of 2 or 3 or 5 songs we are literally creating the narrative that will shape the thoughts and beliefs of the congregants.
Saved on Sunday
Worship ministry, more than any other team in the church, is a breeding ground for deep discipleship and mentoring. Because of the time commitment required and amount of moving parts, there is so much good that can be done. In my previous church of only 200, we had over 35 people involved in worship ministry. Each position (drummer, media tech, green room host etc.) served once a month and there were entry points for over 15 different positions. The church technically only needs one drummer, but why can’t we have 4 with 2 more in the pipeline?
“A disciple is not greater than his teacher, but everyone when fully trained will be like his teacher.” Luke 6:40 NET Bible
My friend Leo Morales, a sound director at the Vineyard Church in Columbus, Ohio shared with me a beautiful picture of discipleship in his world. Leo runs sound each week. He decided to give a volunteer in training just 2 of the 48 soundboard faders to manage. Slowly the sound tech in training would take over the whole board. Because the volunteer needed to be at rehearsal and multiple services, a natural and organic “one on one” interaction emerged that could easily last up to 5 or 6 hours each Sunday. This allowed for lots of time for modeling, mentoring, equipping, and shepherding of a soul.
Multiply the one position mentioned above with the countless others in our worship ministries (worship leader, bass, percussion, communion set up etc.) and we literally find ourselves training up dozens of people in the work of corporate worship.
The Fruit of Our Gathering
Although not it’s prime objective, the gathering of the church is a functional place to intentionally make disciples and develop leaders. Just about any worship band with a GREAT drummer can have a not so great drummer playing along on hand percussion. In most rooms with “in-ear” monitors, you can train up just about anyone willing to learn. As the church gathers once a week to worship, there are countless opportunities for discipleship to occur if we seek it out.
My unexpected assignment leading worship in a style not familiar to me unexpectedly taught me the inescapable formation that happens by just “showing up.” Being in the room does some work. Leaning in more to the “liturgy” will invite even more transformation. In our current contemporary church expression, the songs we sing are a large piece of this transformational work. We should commit ourselves to labor carefully over the songs we choose to sing and write.
There are few other systems on earth that happen 52 times a year and then repeat, over and over again. As worship leaders, we fashion and lead a beautiful rhythm enacted by Christ which continually calls us together.Whatever the style of worship your tradition engages in, be encouraged that the habit of meeting together forms and shapes us. Our gathering forms us into the very likeness of our Lord.