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As I neared the completion of planning a recent service, I was feeling pretty good about things when I once again realized I had not lined up a prelude (this happens to me a lot, but never mind about that). Thinking of the theme of the message, I thought of the perfect song to go along with it. It was so apt, I even considered replacing one of the songs I'd picked for elsewhere in the service. I was actually a little perturbed that I hadn't thought of this song earlier. Anyway, I wondered at the best way to use the song in the prelude.

Since we'd never sung it before, I thought maybe it would be good to have just the praise team do it. Still, we'd be missing a lot of the great instruments heard in the fantastic commercial recording, and that would be disappointing. So maybe I could just play the recording. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized there was only one meaningful way to use the song: have the congregation sing it. The reason is the same reason it is so crucial that all worship music be singable and accessible for the congregation. If I had played the recording or had the praise team perform the song, the congregation would not have been a part of it. The very thing that made the song so perfect for the service (the impactful lyrics) would have been greatly diminished.

Here's what happens when the congregation listens to a song: they think about other things, they critique the performance, they miss some of the words, they talk to each other. They don't get the full impact of the lyrics. In fact, if you play a commercial recording a good portion of the congregation doesn't even listen. Your only hope would be to make an announcement right before the song, "Now I want you all to listen to this song... the words are excellent, so pay really close attention." And after that, a lot of them would probably have difficulty getting over how silly that announcement was. Sure, a few people would listen carefully and take to heart the power and truth of the lyrics, but only a few. That means the majority of the worshipers would not be worshiping.

If you do a quick internet search, you'll see that there are endless commentaries on the subtle, but important difference between leading worship and performing. The difference is whether the congregation is just as much a part of the songs as the leaders. When you go on a Saturday night to watch David Crowder, you are a very unimportant part of the songs. David Crowder, in contrast, is essential. After all, if he were sick and they told you another guy would be singing the songs instead, it wouldn't be the same at all. Even if you sang along at the top of your lungs to every song, the absence of David Crowder would probably be the main thing you remembered about the concert. If someone asked how it was, you would immediately mention the substitute singer. You'd want your money back. Now think about Sunday morning worship. It really shouldn't matter one bit who's in front leading. We don't (generally) go to church to hear a particular singer or musician. The parishioners are every bit as important as the leaders, if not more important. So it's best if they participate.

I'm not giving any advice in this post on how to get the congregation to participate. I'm simply driving home the point that if you want them to experience the power of a song, they should sing it. Most worship planners have been tempted to exclude the congregation on occasion. Sometimes we think the professional recording is just too incredible, nothing we do live could ever be as effective. Playing a recording doesn't take any preparation either, and when pressed for time, a ready-made solution can be appealing. Or maybe, as I related above, we think the praise team would do the song better (whatever that means) than the congregation. Nonetheless, without singing the song, it's harder to worship fully. Certainly there are special situations that call for a performance. Weddings and baptisms are good examples. Aside from that, though, I think we should try to let everyone present join in singing so that everyone can experience the fullness of praising God.


This is a very well-written blogpost.  Yet, I am struggling with the veracity of the "Without participating, they can not worship" and "...without singing the song, they can't worship" statements.  I think I can understand the motivations behind the "...parishioners are every bit as important as the leaders, if not more important.  So they need to participate" statement.  Still, worship comes from the heart and not necessarily, always and only, from our actions.  We can still worship, whether we are singing or whether we are in utter silence.  Just because someone is standing up and participating, does not mean that it is the only form of worship.  And, just because someone’s lips are moving does not mean that they are truly worshipping.  A person can still be disengaged, not paying attention, critiquing the worship team, talking to someone, etc. 

In both Isaiah 29:13 and Matthew 15:8 we read, “These people come near to Me with their mouth and honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me.  Their worship of Me is based on merely human rules they have been taught.”

There are times when we need to receive ministry.  I believe that is the part that feeds our souls and strengthens us for our Christian walk.  As we are all created for worship, it is equally important for us to also know when to receive someone serving us.  Just as Jesus demonstrated humility and servanthood to the disciples by washing their feet, Jesus also was able to receive someone anointing and washing His feet.  

So, I do not see it as a performance, I see it as ministry.  That worship leader and/or the musicians and singers on that recorded track are using their gifts to glorify God, to serve others, and to lead us in worship.  There is still an anointing on that gift and sometimes those songs need to ruminate on the hearts and minds of the people, so that they can carry it with them.  To imply that it is null/void and somehow less edifying to God unless we are all standing up, like cardboard cutouts, participating, is lost on me.

Admittedly, I come from a different denominational background, so maybe that is why I do not see worship as something that always needs to be participatory, but that sometimes we need to enter into His presence in stillness, while He speaks.  I am not saying either way is right or wrong, just that both ways, to me, are valid.

Robin, I agree with you that participation and performance are not exclusive. So one can play or sing a song for the congregation without it being a performance, in the entertainment sense. The point in those cases is that the peope in the pews are still very important. The person on stage greatly desires them to listen and engage their hearts in worship, along with the singer. I didn't mean to discredit all non-participatory music in worship.

God calls us to use our voices to worship him aloud. And while I agree it is possible to be worshipful while listening, it's not the same thing as actively worshiping. So I still think we need to give people lots of opportunities to sing in corporate worship. I think leaders need to keep that in the forefront of their minds while planning worship.

Thank you for your thoughtful comment!

Thanks Christy for your article on meaningful worship.  I have to agree, though, with Robin on his comments in regard to worship. I think you may have jumped the gun on writing your article before giving full thought to your comments.  Personally, I think worship is a very subjective matter, one that varies with individuals. What makes worship meaningful to one is not the same as for another.  That’s why there are worship wars in so many churches.  What meets the needs of an eighty year old is not likely the same for a twenty year old.  What moves the heart strings is different for all of us. We have to do better at accommodating each other in worship.  So good luck on finding the one authentic form of worship.  Nice try, Christy, but I’d say, you need to go back to the drawing board.

Hello Christy, I think you have found the heart of worship!  If we all sing together, we are participating in worship.  If we listen to worship music, we rest in the worship.  We can rest in the worship where ever we are because we have it all around us.  I can rest in the words and beautiful music as I drive in my car, or as I rest in my living room.  It is at church or small groups that I have the opportunity to present to God my gift of worship.  I am not letting a professional worship for me, I am actively offering  and singing out my praise of the God I serve.  

I also think we have made our worship leaders into performers.  They no longer encourage our voices to be raised in song together because we are forcing them to be better than the worship leaders at other churches.  The sound systems and the instruments drown out the congregation.  That is why we do not participate.  We do not have a voice.  Does God want to hear perfect music in his churches, or does he want to hear the imperfect voices of his people raised in song to him?  I struggle with this so much, and am told so often how wrong I am.  I am told to be an obedient pew-sitter and let the professionals do my praising for me.  Keep preaching this, Christy!

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