Leading authentic worship in a church can feel like a nebulous task without a clear path to success, so its no surprise that when a ministry is successful, they are quickly emulated. It’s certainly wise to learn from the experience of others, but when we are honest with ourselves, I think we tend to do this because we are an insecure bunch. We wonder if the other place is doing it better, or if numbers would improve if we did what that guy was doing. One result that we see today is a McChurch culture, where the experience in most churches is largely emulating a small number of large churches. I’m not opposed to this type of emulation in theory (again, learn from others). The problem is in the execution. According to Thom Rainer, 90 percent of us are leading fewer than 350 people, and we likely don’t have the resources to execute like a large-scale production. Personally, I think we’re all better off embracing who we are rather than worrying about who we aren’t.
A peek into authentic worship
Several years ago, I had the opportunity to play bass with Billy Smiley a few times at a larger church (he probably doesn’t remember me, so don’t bother asking him). The first time, I didn’t even know who he was, because he didn’t act like anything other than a volunteer guitar player (a pretty good one). As we talked more, I found out more about his resumé, and asked him about his church experience. As it turned out, he was leading worship for a small church in a suburban area, and had a very small worship team. He told me that his team was configured from whomever in the congregation was called and gifted, and most weeks that was himself plus one or two others. In the years since, I’ve developed a real appreciation for a church with a sense of itself, and here are a few tips for getting there and creating a more authentic worship(stick with me, this gets positive):
Understand the harm you can do to yourself
Do you know what I personally find off-putting? It’s not the size of the church; it’s a small church that is clearly unhappy with itself and trying to be something bigger. This usually involves a few musicians trying to pull off worship that they clearly can’t, saying things that sound like they are said to a larger congregation than they really are, etc. When I see a small band that badly wants this to be a stadium gig, I see that they are chasing an idol that they need to put to death. The main problem: it’s not authentic worship.
Another thing that bugs me is attending a service and talking to a musician afterward, only to find out that part or most of the worship team isn’t actually committed to this church, but rather doing a favor to someone they know, or just got hired for the weekend. It’s a cue to me that the leaders in the church aren’t committed to a vision for the church, just committed to pulling off a particular type of program. That’s pretty uninspiring.
If I were looking over a church for potential involvement, I would be far more inspired by a small group of people who are committed to the vision of the church, pulling off a good version of what they truly are. Nothing attracts talent like talent, assuming that talent is really part of the church and not just on loan. Even a single player can inspire me to want to join them in a way that a mercenary crew never could.
If you’ve got your sights on something bigger, that’s fine. But make sure that you don’t attempt to short-cut the journey in such a way that you potentially ward off the very people that would help you get there.
Reject the fear of rejection
All of us are afraid on some level. I know that I am. If I have a bad Sunday, blow a song, or say something stupid into a mic., I could miss out on somebody. A visitor might not come back because of something that I did or did not do. Did they like how I dressed? Was it too loud? Too quiet? Why don’t they like me? Will my kids get enough scholarships to restore my self-esteem?
If any of that sounds familiar, it’s because we are all deeply invested in our ministry. We want to help people, lead authentic worship, and we want the church to grow — and it’s hard to not take things personally. In John chapter 6, Jesus states that nobody comes to him unless the Father draws them. And in Matthew chapter 16, He tells Peter “On this rock I will build My church,” not that Peter is responsible to build the church himself. Even though it hurts to think that we might be the reason people leave, it feels even better to think that we’re the reason that they stay.
We should still do the hard work, but God grows the church. If we can constantly remind ourselves of this, we can shed all kinds of insecurity.
Be what the big church can’t
When a small church tries too hard to emulate larger churches, it picks a losing fight. Our tendency to want to do the big show keeps us from seeing all the advantages that come with being a smaller congregation. When someone enters a smaller church, their expectations of the worship and musicians are completely different. They see people on the platform from within this small congregation, whom they could potentially know personally. This is in stark contrast to a large room, large stage, pro band type setup, where the average churchgoer expects no interaction with the musicians at all. This is known as relational offset: musical expectations are influenced by the knowledge that this person is more like me, and I can know them.
Additionally, small churches have a great deal of flexibility for style, because they work with a smaller group of people and don’t have to appeal to so many strangers. This gives you a chance to get out of the top ten, try different arrangements, and teach new songs with a level of influence that only comes through the more intimate setting of a small church. This is something a big church cannot accomplish, and another way to build a more authentic worship.
These higher levels of interaction can get you much needed feedback through genuine conversation and relationship, so you can know and lead your church well. Don’t give up your biggest advantage to try to emulate something that your church simply isn’t.
Set a long-term goal, and build toward it
I cannot stress this enough: there’s nothing inherently wrong with a larger program. In fact, many use that idea to avoid any semblance of excellence or development, and value mediocrity in a prideful way. That is not what we’re talking about here, so it’s perfectly fine to dream big.
Some churches are smaller, but growing, always in that in-between phase (I’m in the middle of this right now). So set an end goal for a given size of church that you aren’t yet. Maybe it’s a larger band, larger platform, a lighting setup. Maybe there are parts that you want to add that you just don’t have the people or the tech for yet. There’s no reason not to plan your endgame to have those things. Figure out when they can be added, and what the roadblocks are.
But for now, be the church that you are. As God brings more people, add drums, synth, fire-eaters, whatever. Just make sure that in the mean time, you are being the best small format worship team that you can be. Get better at your instruments, read the Bible, and participate in the worship community, both locally and regionally. Let God grow you, and trust Him for the rest. That’s your quickest path to authentic worship.