A Flat Moment in Worship?

For me one of the most difficult moments in worship leadership occurs when I am proclaiming some profound Gospel truth either through speaking, singing, or buildup to singing as a response to a great truth, and the disposition evident on faces and body language of the congregation is just flat.  Whether my exuberance over the truth first occurred in the praying-study-planning aspect of my own worship (the usual “hallelujah!” time for me), or whether it has overwhelmed me in the actual moment of corporate worship leadership, it is hard to understand how certain themes float by without outbursts of shared excitement and celebration.  I will share why this is difficult for me in hopes that many of you can relate at least from periodic if not regular occurrences in your own experience.  The bottom line of my sharing I hope would be a shared prayer among us for one another and for the congregations that we lead – that the Holy Spirit would be free to renew His people in worship in a manner that frees them to edify one another through their response to the Gospel.  As stated repeatedly in my Worship Renewal through Congregational Singing conferences, “worship renewal is not something we can achieve, or even something for which we strive, but rather a gift for which we pray, as any renewal comes from the Spirit to the glory of God.”

The difficulty of this scenario where there is a seeming lack of appropriate congregational response runs the gamut in my head.  On one hand is a temptation to scold the people, and point to their spiritual slackness in missing the joy of the Gospel truth proclaimed.  “Don’t they get it?  How could they just sit or stand there with a deadpan look on their face and ignore the grandness of the truth?  C’mon, people!”  Those  kinds of thoughts make up one set in the kind of thinking that takes place in that difficult moment.  Of course, those thoughts are tempered immediately by the realization that something about a scolding attitude on my part seems to run diametrically opposed to the very sense of joy and celebration I long to encourage.  It is kinda like when people scream at their crying toddler, “calm down!”  Just doesn’t fit, and sure does not likely have the desired effect.  In fact, removed from the moment of platform leadership, in a time of prayerful reflection and even fasting I confess to the Lord a deep desire to reflect the Truth of Gospel in my spirit and demeanor at all times of leading, and never to be in the way of anyone seeing Jesus.  A harsh or elitist attitude would surely be in the way.  I pray to be hidden in Christ.

In that moment of apparent non-response, or flat response another thought sometimes shows its face.  It  is a temptation to defer to total superficiality.  I have seen this done, especially in days of yesteryear.  This is the “you all look like your family pet died this morning.  Don’t be so gloomy!  C’mon turn to someone and give them a big smile” approach to lightening up the atmosphere.  Blasphemous is a heavy indictment, but I think it may apply here.  How dare us ever revert to drawing attention away from Christ as if he was not enough to elicit our response, and asking people to engage in a sophomoric self-awareness activity that creates a laughable short burst of crowd energy that fades as quickly as it arose.

After the self-induced “don’t just stand there, do something” phase of thinking escapes this torturous moment of non-response, often follows the wave of self-doubting conclusions; “I have lost my appeal to these people as a leader.  Why would anyone want to follow me anyway?  I must have misunderstood the Lord’s direction in my planning for this service.”  This is usually the phase of the said moment when I second guess the connection of a given music style, proper instrumentation, etc.  In a follow up personal evaluation time it is far too easy to get stuck in this mode, which is just another reason why style and ambiance so often become the sum total of conversations about worship renewal.

To further convolute the thinking process in the moment when response seems less than what I would hope for, Will Willimon writes about all response in worship, including evident lack of response, being response.  Did you stay with me on that?  In other words, when someone in a worship service evidences apathy, that is a response.  When someone evidences anger, frustration, or blatant non-participation, that is a response.  Willimon’s reflections are contained in his book, Worship As Pastoral Care.  It provides important reflection on the personal interaction between the worshiper and the Lord in the pew during corporate worship, and challenges our conventional thinking of wysiwyg (what you see is what you get).  How often might a worshiper appear to us to be resistant when they are in fact struggling with the Lord, dealing with deep conviction, or finding a lack of freedom to deal with life issues?

When leading in worship, the moment of what may feel like non-response, or at best less than appropriate response in worship, can be uncomfortable or even foreboding.  Musically it may feel a bit like what Joseph Martin describes as “pushing string uphill,” frustrating the musician in us and others who are trying to encourage participation among the congregants.  Emotionally it may leave us feeling as flat as the response that fell so short of the emotive mark we had anticipated.  Spiritually it may serve as a sad indicator of the apathy it seems to reflect, or a deep need for renewal that we might suspect.  Physically it may have the effect of a three hundred pound weight strung around your neck as you try to find the energy to move on in the worship service to admonish with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs while sensing such resistance.  Ecclesiologically it may seem to thwart the New Testament exhortation to spur one another on to good works.

Worship leader, In a moment during worship like that described above, what will you do?  From biblical mandate and personal experience I encourage you to stay the course; hold the sail, lift up Christ and Him crucified; be neither dismayed nor drawn to offer lesser gifts.  Where there is a battle, the battle is the Lord’s.  The truth of the Gospel remains true and magnificent beyond words!  This does not mean we have no concern for one another’s burdens, or the condition of their spirit – to the contrary, we should seek the edification of our brothers and sisters.  In fact, I think that some of our lack of response stems from our over-emphasis on personal relationship to the exclusion of understanding the disciple’s responsibility to the faith community.  Each member is a part of the whole, and is to participate in the edification process, which may well include (and I believe does include) the manner of our singing.  Leaders need to spend less time perfecting our own performance skills and spend more time discovering how we might foster the making of music in the pews, from which according to biblical instruction, psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs are to emanate anyway.

I encourage you who lead in worship to pray for one another that we may all be strong in the Lord remaining faithful to lift Him up in worship.

“Let the cross be our glory and the Lord be our song;

By mercy made holy, by the Spirit made strong.” (Steve Fry, Let It Be Said of Us,  Maranatha! 1996) 

Explore posts in the same categories: Leading Worship, Worship Reminders, Worship theology, Worship thoughts

2 Comments on “A Flat Moment in Worship?”

  1. Jim Murray Says:

    Paul, thank you so much for addressing a big concern of mine regarding no or little response from the congregation during worship. This has always worried me and you have voiced some of my hidden feelings in your writings. The way we do worship so often directs the attention of the congregants to us or to the platform, when our attention should be on Him-the audience of one!
    How we get out of the way and allow that to happen and still lead seems to be the most difficult undertaking.
    At times I would like to be able to disappear or sit down with the congregation and worship without being up in front. I realize that there must be some semblance of order to what we do, but maybe we often run right past or miss a real worship experience in order to get all the music done by a certain time.
    I feel better knowing that I’m not the only one dealing with this. Thank you for your encouragement.
    You brightened my day!
    O What A Savior!

    • pclarkjr Says:

      Jim,

      I appreciate your candid remarks. it hits me that those “hidden feelings,” are never hidden from the One whose affection we desire most, and He is the One who loves us best. Faith is as tough for those of us leading as it is for those before whom we stand – those whose apparent lack of response may disappoint us, and whose response we may actually never know. Our faith is truly in the Spirit to do His work, isn’t it.

      Jim, your spirit of wanting to “get out of the way” says much about who you want lifted up in worship. God bless you for your authenticity in servanthood!

      Your brother in Christ.


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