He was the first one to raise his hand during a Q&A at the end of a worship workshop we were leading in Yangon, Myanmar – formerly known as Burma. I acknowledged his gesture, “I’ve got a question… how can we be more like Hillsong?” That question reverberated like feedback in my IEM’s! I remember walking through the front door, stepping over a pile of flip flops covering the WELCOME mat, where we were meeting 100 students all in their early to mid-twenties, in a deteriorating, high-rise apartment building. His question didn’t fit in my worship leader box, standing in the Capital City of an impoverished, military-ruled nation.
Try this at home
When you were younger (or older), did you ever try to see what would happen if you threw something into a rotating fan? From the voice of experience, the object is broken up, simultaneously scattered, and messy! We have seen the effects of this around the world. The good, bad, and the ugly. Often, the messiest pieces stick to the wall. The lack of sensitivity to culture and our surroundings has resulted in a similar cause and effect. The lack of understanding of God and His worship has propagated a ‘scattering’ of something that is now out of our control. Paul says it best in his letter to the Romans.
Romans 1:23-25 (MSG) – “They pretended to know it all but were illiterate regarding life. They traded the glory of God who holds the whole world in his hands for cheap figurines you can buy at any roadside stand. So, God said, in effect, “If that’s what you want, that’s what you get.” It wasn’t long before they were living in a pigpen, smeared with filth, filthy inside and out. And all this because they traded the true God for a fake god, and worshiped the god they made instead of the God who made them—the God we bless, the God who blesses us. Oh, yes!
“To understand worship is to understand God. To understand God is to understand worship.”
Sounds elemental, but if we peel back a layer or two of the current state of worship in the world, we can see the results of what’s been scattered.
The worship phenomenon of the past few decades has seen a proliferation of freshness, challenges, even a falling away. Most people in your congregation haven’t a clue what goes on in service planning, worship meetings during the week, rehearsals, or inside the Green Room. All they know is that things are (typically) ready when they walk into the sanctuary on any given Sunday.
The Israelites often did stupid stuff that angered God because they were constantly breaking the laws that God issued to Moses for the Israelites. Back in Exodus 33, God gave specific instructions of how He wanted to be worshiped. A place where His glory resided. The tent of meeting was a mobile version of the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle was a precisely engineered structure which resembled a huge tent with lots of bits and pieces all relating to the glory and worship of God. There were specific external and internal features to be designed, and a pack of detailed instructions included. This model of the Tabernacle where Abraham met with God is our original template of worship. Then in Numbers 3, many from the tribe of Levi were assigned to serve the Lord in the Tabernacle. They were responsible for setting the various elements of the temple in proper order to prepare for the priest to come and offer sacrifices before the Lord. Many of the tribe of Levi were also appointed to be the worship leaders of their day.
What started as Holy act before a Holy God, has evolved over the centuries into something that has spiraled seemingly out of our control. Some have described it as a machine that we continue to feed. Over the years, I confess that I have been one of those who helped feed the ‘worship machine’ in a couple of mega churches where I was leading worship.
I hope to highlight some of the issues we’re facing in our culture, and our propensity to conform to a constantly changing world. A friend asked me in an interview not long ago, ‘if you could do it all over again, knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?’ I have to say that with my experience of leading worship domestically and internationally, I would spend most of my time pouring into 4 or 5 young leaders who have ears to hear, and who feel called into worship ministry. Sounds easy, but it’s actually a very challenging task. Young (worship) leaders desperately need role models, shepherds, mentors, all of that! And some need spiritual Fathers in their lives.
When a big worship movement or nationally recognized church put on a worship conference or gathering, we’re quite happy to go along and learn from the ‘professionals’, but when it comes down to the one-on-one, many feel they don’t need discipling. It’s quite rare for a worship leader to ask someone to mentor or disciple them in worship.
I remember our years living in Prague. We started attending the International Church in that city. They were in process of hiring a new pastor. I was cutting my teeth on how to lead worship at that time in the late 90’s listening to Redman and Delirious. I had a guitar and knew four chords! That’s enough right? Anyway, it was our second year in the Czech Republic, and when the new pastor arrived, he came with a wealth of Biblical training, particularly in worship. He was tutored by Jack Hayford (writer of “Majesty, Worship His Majesty”) back in the day. I guess it was obvious, but he asked me one day after church if I would be interested in exploring the Psalms. Every Monday from 10am till noon he would walk me through the Psalms, chapter by chapter, and verse by verse. It was a rich time. It was part of my spiritual formation as a worship leader. In my lack of understanding of the why and how of worship, the word of God brought it to life, and it began making sense to me!
The model of “worship leader” that the current pastor in the Western world is looking for, has evolved into a certain image. Many are desperate to replicate what has been propagated in our mega churches, on YouTube, and global worship movements. A pastor in North America recently called and asked if I knew of any worship leaders who are currently unemployed. I asked what he was looking for specifically. His response went like this: “We’re looking for an early twenties…good voice…plays guitar or keys, has that “look”, and is in touch with current culture.” [Wide brimmed hat, or beanie optional] Unfortunately, we’re seeing the export of these criteria around the world. It’s what many pastors think will attract young people into our buildings.
Finally, my response to the young Burmese worship academy student was, “why do you want to be like them?” His answer was based on how many YouTube views and comments they’ve accrued.
Another worship musician who is a legend guitarist in England recently told us that he’s “done with Ted talks and being fed cotton candy.” He’s left his local church. He told us that he has put down his guitar. He said he feels a bit like the people of God felt when they were forced to sing the song of the Lord by the rivers of Babylon. They were insulted and mocked by their Assyrian captors, asked to sing the “songs of Zion” whilst under captivity. So, they hung their harps on the poplar trees beside the rivers. Their response was, “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” Read Psalm 137.
What have we created?
It’s safe to assume we have a crisis in the temple. Have we substituted the Holy of Holies for the illuminated stage? Have we exchanged the Mercy Seat for the merch table? What have we created? Is it out of control? How do we get off this train? As a worship leader, have I just become a cog in the wheel? Is the ‘machine’ so big now that we simply must feed it to maintain it? These and other questions have been shared with me over the past few years. The pandemic was a pivot for so many of you! ‘Lockdown’ was a time of reflection, lament, and an opportunity to wake up, make changes, and allow the sifting of the Lord to do His wonderful work in our hearts. It was almost like the Father was saying, ‘I’m sending you to Time-Out. Go to your rooms and I’ll meet you there.’ Many of us ‘went to our rooms’ and met Him there. Others of us were defiant and pressed the reset button as quickly as we could.
Much of what we have propagated is just bad theology! Are we scanning through the lyrics of the songs we’re selecting for a weekend service? I challenge you to read through the charts. What are they saying? Are they relevant to my church? Are they even theologically sound or just a stream of mindless babble? I’ve had people in our congregation challenge me on songs I’ve selected in the past, complaining that they are not theological. I remember when a song dropped a couple years ago, and all people remembered was the “do, do, do, do, do” in the bridge! Is this where we’ve landed in our theology? It’s time to be intentional in our songwriting, our song selection, and ‘reading’ or understanding our congregations better. It might be a good idea to ask these simple questions when constructing your set list; Does it glorify God? Is what we’re singing found in the scriptures? Will this song encourage my congregation? Do I need to repeat the bridge twelve times? And a practical question; Could we pull this song off ‘live’ without the support of tracks?
Carrie and I have been listening to worship leaders, musicians, industry people, and pastors across North and South America, Northern Europe, the Middle East, and throughout Asia. The top things we are hearing are loneliness, depression, and lack of mentors in leadership.
A mega church worship leader in the US recently told me, ‘We pour millions into our new buildings, create killer lighting, staging, then build staff around it all….and for what?’
I can honestly say after leading worship for lots of years, I’m still grasping for more of who God is. I have more questions than answers about God’s worship. During the pandemic, Carrie and I decided we would complete our Theological studies. My reason for getting a degree in Theology was simply to understand more about God, his character, his ways, and his word.
In Deuteronomy Chapter 32, The Song of Moses admonishes the people of Israel. God is angered at the way they have abandoned counsel and understanding of His glory. Verse 28 says, “For they are a nation lacking in counsel, and there is no understanding in them.” We have come a long way in our worship songwriting, presentations, recordings, and posts. But do we really understand the worship of Abba?
Matthew 22:37 says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ It does not say, “Love the Lord your God with all your merch and with all your ego and with all your production.”
Much of what we have tossed into the proverbial fan are the mechanics of worship that has scattered across the nations. Many of these countries are developing nations, or under severe persecution. Most worship leaders in the developing world look to us in the West as role models of what could be. We’ve met with Chinese, North Korean, Middle Eastern, and Southeast Asian worship leaders and they basically idolize us in the West! They want to, rightly or wrongly, mimic and copy how we lead, how we dress, and what we portray. Many of us have lost the plot altogether. We need to return to the question, are we going for appearance, or anointing, the Holy, or hits?
Psalm 106:19-22 (MSG) – “They cast in metal a bull calf at Horeb and worshiped the statue they’d made. They traded the Glory for a cheap piece of sculpture—a grass-chewing bull! They forgot God, their very own Savior, who turned things around in Egypt, who created a world of wonders in the Land of Ham, who gave that stunning performance at the Red Sea.”
Remember the story of God’s presence at the beginning of this writing – that place of meeting between God and man. We’ve been given a blueprint to prepare, and to consecrate ourselves to Him. We have all the tools we need! The Holy Spirit lives within each one of us as we follow Jesus. It seems we need to circle back round to the verse in that 1999 Redman song, The Heart of Worship – “When the music fades, and all is stripped away and I simply come, longing just to bring something that’s of worth that will bless your heart.”
For many, the hard part is finding your sense of purpose in the middle of all this, whether you’re paid, or a volunteer worship musician in your church. A lot of us give up too soon thinking, ‘I could never do this, or I can never achieve that’! Many of you reading this will have had a sense of God speaking to you or calling you into worship ministry. You respond to that call by applying for a position maybe as an intern in a worship department, or for the actual job as worship pastor of a church.
Perhaps Jesus is calling you back to what this thing is all about? Maybe he’s calling you back to his purpose in your life as Paul states in 2 Timothy 4:7 “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Maybe you’ve dropped out of the race, left the worship team, or maybe you left church altogether? Is God calling you to be a worship musician maybe outside the church walls, to go where most of the people are who have no clue of who He is or the life-giving hope He offers.
We have a good musician friend in the US who was deeply challenged in this area. He was frustrated with his local church, and the demands they placed on his time, and felt he needed to use his gift to serve people who live in the dark instead of serving those who live in the light. So, a few evenings each week, he goes ‘live’ on TikTok, and simply plays guitar ‘over’ those who listen, much like David did in Saul’s court. [1 Samuel 16:23] Over a quarter million people from all over the world login into his live sessions as he ministers over them without ever saying a word. The responses he receives, and personal comments are profound! He has found his purpose as a worship musician. There are no haze machines. He’s not on a floodlit stage. There’s no MD shouting cues in his ears. It’s simply broadcast from his bedroom. He plays through a pedal board, an amp, and hangs a small string of Christmas lights around his room.
I remember reading a book on worship by a famous author that said something like this, “missions exists because worship doesn’t.” As a musicianary, I get his point and understand what he is implying, regarding the current state of the church, worship, and mission. However, I believe that worship does exist in our world. It may look different than you’d expect, but it does exist. It exists in the orphan’s song to his mom in the poverty tethered Dominican Republic, to comfort her after dad walks out of their lives. It exists in small gatherings underground in the basement of a German restaurant in China where they only use human voice and no instruments because of fear of arrest. It exists in the shut-down factory outside of Pyongyang, North Korea where a university teacher leads a group of five students, where worship is forbidden by law and is punishable by death. There is also a constant flow of worship we read about around the throne of God at this very moment – it never ceases.
Read Revelation chapter 4.
It’s been an absolute honor, traveling to over 50 nations, worshiping in various cultures and ethnicities. We’ve had not only the opportunity of attending their services but have been privileged to participate in equipping, leading, and playing alongside them. We see and hear elements of God in their languages, sounds, rhythms, vibe, and melodies that release the very aroma of Christ. Like many of you, we have witnessed amazing moments where the presence of God was almost tangible, like the worship song says, “heaven touches earth”.
So, the next time you pick up your guitar, or sit at the keys, or step up to a mic, remember that others are recipients of what you’re presenting to God as your act of worship. In closing, muse on Eugene Peterson’s version of Romans 1:1-2 (MSG)
“So, here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.
Soli Deo Gloria
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My wife and I are Musicianaries. We have had the unique opportunity over the years to lead small mission teams of musicians around the world. We have held worship events in Pyongyang, North Korea. We’ve sung in the coffee bars of Lhasa, Tibet. We have taken worship bands into Beijing’s Universities, High Schools, Radio Stations, Olympic Televised Concerts, and behind the walled Forbidden City. We recorded THE DOOR, the first and only “live” worship project in China. We’ve played in Muslim Cafés in Cairo along the Nile, French cafés in Rouen, Italian Pubs in Bologna, and a Sushi Bar in Salerno. We have entered some of the darkest and suppressed places on planet earth, witnessing evil spirits depart through worship. (1 Sam. 16:23) Not because we’re in demand, but because we’re available. I was born and raised in Arkansas. I am Carrie Jo’s husband, Benjamin, and Daniel’s Dad, Grandude to London, Lera, Oliver, Samuel, Caroline, Lucy, and Eleanor, a worship pastor/shepherd, musicianary, and former coffee farmer. Check out Tedder Travel Tales Substack for more great content. https://carrietedder.substack.com/