Aaron Niequist, a worship leader at Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois, writes about his movement from focusing on offering emotional highs each Sunday to the throngs that come to the large churches he has served. Writing in the most recent issue of Liturgy, he explains what, instead, seems to him now most crucial for people of faith.
Pressure to be spectacular can crush worship leaders, pastors, and anyone involved. Every Sunday cannot be the Super Bowl. Trying to create epic experiences every week—where everything needs to be bigger and better than last time—often leads to burnout and disappointment. No church has the resources of U2, and Sundays keep showing up with surprising regularity.
My friend, the writer and Episcopal priest Ian Morgan Cron, observes that many worship leaders feel weekly pressure to “go grab God and bring Him down … so that everyone can have a seismic experience, because that’s what they came for.” And if the experience was an 8.5 this week, the pressure is on to “up the production value” so that next week is an 8.75! (Can I get an “amen” from any of my worship leader friends? Or maybe a “Lord, have mercy”?)
Church communities are not consumers to be entertained or donors to be appeased. They are instead God’s deeply loved daughters and sons who need to be lovingly pastored. How can we make sure we are pastoring them well? Get clear about the question you ask that drives your worship choices. The question we ask will direct the outcome. If the driving (functional) question is, “How do we get the room pumped up in the first thirty minutes of the church service?” the answer will never be, “Corporate confession.” Or prayer for the world. Or silence. Or blessing our enemies. Or an extended reading from scripture. . . .
But if the question is, “How do we form each person into Christlikeness for the sake of the world?” then all of the above will be deeply necessary and healing. And such a gift to all who are on the treadmill of figuring out how to top last Sunday.
I recommend that each ministry team try to name the question driving what you do. (Not the question you know you should be asking and answering, but the actual question framing your church and ministry.) Very little can change until this question changes. . . .
Even though I have grown up in Evangelical churches, I have been deeply moved while learning about and experiencing the historic liturgy. While I do not yet connect with every part (or understand it fully), I cannot shake the conviction that we need to find a way to integrate the ancient with the modern. . . .
While trying to explain my interest in the liturgy to my wife, she offered a fascinating reflection: “It sounds like you basically want to offer the church a well-balanced meal every Sunday.” . . . For twenty years as a worship leader, I have offered one kind of meal every Sunday to my community. . . Although strong on celebration, energy, gratitude, and earnest passion, it has been quite weak on introspection, lament, and concern for the world. . . I have learned to desire deeply offering my faith community a well-balanced worship meal over the course of a month.
Aaron Niequist is a worship leader, songwriter, and pastor. Currently, he curates a discipleship-focused, formational, ecumenical, practice-based community called “The Practice” at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois.