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Honoring the Founder of Contemporary Worship

Honoring the Founder of Contemporary Worship

Gerard Kelly
  • If you’re ever accused of ‘bringing secular instruments and ideas into worship’, say thank you - you are being paid a compliment.
Women in Worship

When a virus erupts across a community, one of the urgent needs is to identify ‘Patient Zero’ – the first person to carry the virus in a given population group. Knowing where a movement started helps us to track and understand it. Can this be done for the contemporary worship movement? Is there a single, identifiable point of departure? I’m going to suggest that there is. The birth of contemporary worship can be traced to a specific event and a specific individual. Her name will surprise you, and she is rarely honored in our churches.

Let’s put that right, here and now. Let’s honor one of the most courageous women in the history of God’s people, who interrupted a respected leader to make possible one of the most significant Holy-Sprit interventions ever. Let’s give Miriam her rightful place in our understanding of worship.

Miriam The Sister Of Moses

We know little about Miriam, other than that she was the sister of Moses and that she is honored in Exodus as a prophet (Exodus 15:20), and in Micah as a leader alongside Moses and Aaron (Micah 6:4). Most of what we do know about her comes from one astounding event, recorded in Exodus 15.

The people of God have been chased across a rocky terrain by the most powerful army of their day. They have nothing but baseball bats and pitchforks for defense: but God delivers them. He opens a way, ushers them to safety and, for good measure, destroys their enemies before their very eyes. They are free at last, free at last. Moses, their leader, sings a song in response. He catalogs and declares what God has done. He is eloquent and erudite, but his response isn’t enough. It doesn’t adequately capture the people’s praise, and his sister knows why. It is not enough for you, the great leader, to declare God’s praise while the rest of us mutter a semi-passive ‘Amen’. We, God’s people need to respond. We, God’s people need to express our praise; our joy; our gratitude. This is too big for mere proclamation. We need worship. So Miriam takes up what she has in her hand – a tambourine – and leads the people in a wild, repetitive song and dance. This is the point of origin of corporate worship amongst the Hebrew people. Everything that follows – the Tabernacle; the temple; our worship today – becomes possible at this moment. Miriam is Patient Zero for worship as we know it today.

There are several aspects to Miriam’s courageous action that should encourage us not only to honor her memory but to emulate her in our own leadership. Here are four.

Miriam’s Leadership Qualities

Firstly, Miriam is an innovator. Music is not new – many of the women were already carrying tambourines. Dancing is not new – even slaves have parties and Jewish parties always end in dancing. Music and dancing in praise of Yahweh, though, are entirely new. We know little of the lives of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt but it’s a reasonable assumption that they had no substantial life of corporate worship. They had the stories of Abraham and his sons, but until Moses, they didn’t even have a name for their God. The worship they did know, in all likelihood, was the worship of pagan idols. It is Miriam who sees, now that they are free, that something new is needed. Our worship is not a nostalgia fest longing for what used to be – it is a celebration of Gods actions: in the past, yes, but also in the present and future. Worship leaders are called to live in the now of God’s actions, and to be fresh and innovative in their response.

Secondly, Miriam is unafraid to appropriate. Why do the women have tambourines? Because of the parties. Where did they learn to dance? At family feasts. Around the fire. At weddings. Miriam takes what exists in the culture already and baptizes it for use in worship. If you’re ever accused of ‘bringing secular instruments and ideas into worship’, say thank you – you are being paid a compliment. The craftsmen who later create the Tabernacle – a cathedral-come-art-gallery-come-prayer-room at the heart of the people’s worship – have learned their skills as slaves, serving foreign gods. God takes all they have learned and beautifully redeems it to make of them a tribe of worship leaders. Don’t worry about where you picked up your skills, ask God, instead, what he wants to do with them now.

Thirdly, Miriam is prophetic. By boldly taking over from Moses, she foresees and enacts the place worship will have in the life of the nation. Not long after, as Moses begins to pass on to the people the instructions Yahweh is giving him, the issue at their heart – God’s highest priority for the freed slaves- will be the forging of a life of worship. There are laws in Exodus, to be sure, and some good advice on property and social responsibility, but the overwhelming emphasis for Moses is on curating a culture of worship. God gives directives for the creation of the tabernacle; for the establishment of the Sabbath; for the major annual festivals. In God’s desire to shape the hearts of his people; to form them as a nation, worship is his first priority. This is why the primary source of tension between God and his people is idolatry. He wants their worship above all else. Miriam pre-figures this, as she understands that on their onward journey, as they grow in the knowledge of Yahweh, God’s rule will be worship first. Is it yours?

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Lastly, Miriam models freedom and creativity in her worship. Moses uses quite a lot of words in his song – around 350, depending on your translation. Miriam takes just 19 of these and creates a beautiful dance. That’s 95% fewer words for 100% more joy. How do you do that? How do you make a merry dance out of just 19 words? The answer is you repeat them; you find a groove; you riff and harmonize and flow. As Calvin Seerfeld writes:

Simply to issue a bare-faced communiqué to the wire services – “Egyptian army drowned” – would have been inadequate. The Lord wanted God’s people to move their bodies rhythmically with an exuberant happiness.” [Seerveld, C. (2008). The Gift of Artistry – God’s Clothing for Human Life.]

There is a freedom in Miriam’s worship; an effervescence that tells us a lot about true worship. David the undignified king knew this – we all too often forget it. Miriam’s job is not to impress God’s people, it is to release them into their own place of euphoric praise; to empower them to fully express their own joy.

The discovery of Miriam’s breakthrough role has been a big part of my own journey in church leadership these past years. By gifting and preference I am a teacher. I enjoy instructing God’s people, and I love words. Left to my own devices, I would probably try to build a church on beliefs and ideas alone – get the theory right and we’ll all do fine. God has deeply challenged me in recent years to understand the place of worship in discipleship. We cannot hope, by words alone, to build God’s people. We need a culture of worship. It must be a culture that releases and empowers the people of God to find expression for their own praise and devotion. I need the Miriams of my church to bring their courage and their tambourines to the party. They have what it takes to move God’s people forward. If you are a Miriam, may you have the courage to use whatever you have in your hand to lead God’s people in their praise. If you are a Moses, may you have the wisdom to know how much you need your sister.

A Devotional by Meredith Andrews

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