About ten years ago, I wrote an article called “Everything I Know about Worship Leading I Learned from an Irish Rock Star,” in which I reflected on Bono as the model for modern-day worship leaders. View all notes Because of my background in large Evangelical churches (Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago, Illinois), I lauded his ability to harness the energy of a stadium upward, affirmed his understand of the nature of praise, and was inspired by his relentless call to action on behalf of the poor. These were three characteristics of the kind of community we were trying to become, and U2 offered the ultimate example of worship in this kind of church.
But after seeing U2 last summer in Chicago, I no longer agree with what I wrote. . .
As I marveled at Bono’s ability to create such an epic worship experience, it occurred to me that this anthemic, euphoric, and cathartic euphoria is the perfect model for a traveling rock show but may be a potentially unhelpful model for weekly worship. And yet so many worship leaders––myself included––have been trying to emulate this mountaintop experience every Sunday morning for years, asking, “Did people lift their hands in the air? Did they sing loudly? Did they have a deeply authentic emotional experience?” These questions, learned from traveling rock stars, have come to define much of the current Christian worship culture.
Disney World is a wonderful place to visit but would be a strange place to live. An extravagant twelve-course meal is great for an anniversary celebration, but impossible to replicate every night. In the same way, I am becoming convinced that a rock concert worship event is wonderful in small doses but dangerous when it becomes normative.
Mountaintop experiences are not the entirety of the Christian life. And if our worship experience communicates that this is what everyone should be feeling all the time, we do a huge disservice to people who are currently in the valley or will be in the valley––which is everyone. There is a reason the Psalms include celebration, lament, anger, joy, dancing, and doubt. In fact, while over 30 percent of the Psalms are lament, looking at the top 100 contemporary (or “modern”) worship songs, you see that almost none are lament. As a result, our faith can get lopsided, and we do not always know how to engage the pain and heartbreak of life if we have only chosen the top songs or failed to use a range of Psalms.
Thankfully God does not just live on the mountaintop. . . God does not always fix the issue but does something infinitely more profound: God weeps with us, inviting us to join the work of healing.
But to become aware of this, we cannot always be shouting from the triumphant peak. And a gracious, holistic church will offer its community wise practices, clear teaching, and safe spaces to learn how to embrace God in every emotional space from the summit to the valley.
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.