Every Worship Leader Needs to Read This

Here is a word that every worship leader on the planet needs to hear. James Smith, philosophy prof at Calvin College, is concerned that the church has unwittingly encouraged worship leaders to import musical practices into Christian worship that are detrimental to congregational worship. So he expounds upon three bits of advice to counteract this trend:

1. If we, the congregation, can’t hear ourselves, it’s not worship.

2. If we, the congregation, can’t sing along, it’s not worship.

3. If you, the praise band, are the center of attention, it’s not worship.

After unpacking each of these three statements, Smith concludes:

Please consider these points carefully and recognize what I am not saying. This isn’t just some plea for “traditional” worship and a critique of “contemporary” worship. Don’t mistake this as a defense of pipe organs and a critique of guitars and drums (or banjos and mandolins). My concern isn’t with style, but with form: What are we trying to do when we “lead worship?” If we are intentional about worship as a communal, congregational practice that brings us into a dialogical encounter with the living God–that worship is not merely expressive but also formative–then we can do that with cellos or steel guitars, pipe organs or African drums.

This is a must-read. Read the rest here.



  • Andrew

    Reading this makes me wonder if I don’t have a different understanding of the concert venue having grown up with congregational singing. He points to concerts as a place where the passive crowd simply lets the music wash over them. I’ve never seen concerts that way. I’ve always seen them in a more interactive way. But these are good words.

  • Jason

    Good article. However, I doubt he has any musical or sound engineering skills or training. I would like to see something about the congregation giving some grace to the band. We don’t all have our own buildings. We don’t all have stationary equipment like speakers and soundboards. We don’t all have stages. My church rents out a small exhibition hall. We have a 2 hour window to set everything up and do a sound check. We try hard to play skillfully at a tolerable volume. We strive to make our worship music congregational as he is talking about in the article – so they can hear themselves and we can hear them singing as well. However, the reason we don’t play from behind or the side is because of purse sound engineering. It would actually more of a nuissance and distraction with fighting feedback and the shape of the room. So, maybe his next article should be: “Congregation – stop complaining about the sound level; your music team is trying to get it right and serve you.” Still, I think he’s being very gracious here.

    • Jeff Q

      Agreed, Jason. It always hurts my heart when I read these “open letters.” And I agree that the author has probably not spent much time around his church’s praise team. If it’s anything like mine, we pray, pray, and pray some more. Of course we try and make the music sound pleasing, but it’s not for our own edification. We try to make worship an everyday thing so that when the time comes for congregational worship, it’s authentic and pleases God. If he only knew how much the worship leaders sought the Spirit for direction in choosing songs and a long term vision for their ministry. He acknowledges some of these things, but then immediately dismisses them with a “but…”

      If you think about what articles like this and all of the other ones that pop up a few times a year are actually saying….they are passing some major judgement on the hearts of those who are trying to lead the music. He’s saying that they care more about themselves and their performance than anything else. I also wonder if those that write these types of posts actually talk to the music leaders? It’s easy to go post something on a blog, but why not hang around after service and talk to them?

  • Bruce H.

    I hear some lyrics that state, “you can make a change”. It is not about you! Much would change if the heart of the praise band was much like David’s heart when he used “Your servant” 10 times in his prayer found in 2 Samuel 7:18-29. The main thing is that David recognized God for who He was. That is the kind of heart that best leads in worship. The 3 points mentioned here would come into focus. Changing the results and not the heart properly indoctrinated in the character of God would have little affect on the worship. Some of these praise bands have very little mileage in the walk of faith anyway. Their lyrics tell the story. They only cater to a spiritually immature audience and offer no iron to iron challenge with their “performance” or teachings.

    • Lori

      You’ve got it exactly right Bruce. It is a heart issue. Great comments!

      John 4:23-24 – we must worship in Spirit and in truth.

      Worship is not about us or what we “like”.

      One of my favorite “worship” passages is Hebrews 12:18-24: 18 For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest 19 and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. 20 For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” 21 Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” 22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

      When the Bible speaks of worship, it is usually talking about communal worship. But, here these verses remind us first, of the character of the God we worship, and that when we worship we are transported into His very presence as well as Jesus, angels, and the saints who have gone before us in heaven! If we consider that we are actually in the Lord’s presence when we worship how would we think differently of the songs we sing or the manner in which we sing them?

      Soli Deo Gloria!

    • Chris Taylor


      Not sure I understand what you mean when you say, “It’s not about you!” Would it be okay to use passages like James 4:8 in a hymn or praise song?

      Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. (Jam 4:8)

      Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. (2Co 7:1)

      Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart, (1Pe 1:22)

      And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure. (1John 3:3)

      Therefore, if a man cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work. (2Ti 2:21)

      Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; Remove the evil of your deeds from My sight. Cease to do evil, (Isa 1:16)

      Wash your heart from evil, O Jerusalem, That you may be saved. How long will your wicked thoughts Lodge within you? (Jer 4:14)


      • Bruce H.


        Thank you for your response, and well said. The phrase I used above, and I do not know the song, was about Christians impressing the world with their lives to change. When I state that “you” can make a difference I am putting the emphasis on YOU and not Christ. When that is our mind-set for our worship we have missed the mark of worship. We do not “do” anything to change the world for Jesus. It is a total dependence on Him and if there is any results it is Him again that does it. We never see the results of our actions until we get to heaven. (see Matthew 25:31-46) We do not live for Him or worship for Him to change the world. That is not our focus or our mission as worshipers.

        The kind of songs I love to hear and sing are, “Shout to the Lord”, I am His and He is Mine”, “It Is Well With My Soul”, “And Can it Be”, “The Love of God” and so on.

  • Andrew

    Agreed. There are lots of practical issues involved. Setting up sound that is listenable but not overpowering is expensive. Most of the issue is not the sound system in our church, but fighting to get monitors right and fighting with guitar amps being able to be heard above the drums, etc. The article is gracious, but this conversation could stand to be a collaborative effort between theologians and those who actually have to put this into practice in odd shaped rooms designed for anything but music with sound systems thrown together piece meal and mostly untrained sound guys.

  • John Tillman

    Unfortunately, I think I can only agree with #3. I think the others are based on a false dichotomy: You can worship by singing along OR by listening. The answer is not either or. It is both. If one and two were true, then I wasn’t worshiping when I sat in a worship service in Berlin, or China, unable to sing along because of the unfamiliar music and a language barrier. And I assure you that those were very profound worship experiences in my life.

    It is only the “… it’s not worship” declaration that I have a problem with.
    I think these are fine as a vision that a particular pastor may convey to his own worship team, but are not prescriptive for every church or situation.

  • Jason

    I saw U2 in Raleigh 2 years ago. Needless to say, not ONE person was letting the music “wash over” him/her. EVERYONE was singing at the top of his/her lungs. However, to the author’s credit, I did see James Taylor in concert. Everyone sat (except during Steamroller) the entire time. Maybe this is his frame of reference. 🙂

  • CMM

    Open letters like this, written as backhanded “encouragements” to those they’re addressed to, do nothing to serve the greater good. They are condescending in nature and are written to chastise, not encourage. In modern worship services, where worship is not dictated step by step (as opposed to worship in the Temple, for example), “true worship” is largely subjective, and will be different for each person in the audience. As one commenter above noted, I’d suggest the blogger have some humble conversations with worship bands before making anymore sweeping judgments about things he doesn’t understand.

    • Bruce H.


      Eventually, someone with the gift of encouragement will comment. I happen to have the gifts of Teacher/Prophet and my eyes see things differently, much like others who have different gifts here. I was in youth groups from the 70’s with the long hair and bell bottom pants many praise songs that no one sings anymore. Ever heard of “We Are One in the Spirit”, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus”, “He Paid a Dept He Did Not Owe” and others?. We were criticized, not for the songs, but for our resistance to dress and look right. The test of time will prove to you more than a little encouragement right now. That is all the encouragement this gift can give with what I know.

      • CMM


        Thank you for your comments, and know that I mean no offense to you by this, but I am not looking for encouragement here. Frankly, I could not care less about this one blogger’s opinion on the matter of worship. I say that because of how he approached his argument. He dressed up a rebuke as an encouragement. He showed little respect for those he was supposedly “encouraging,” and I found the post rude and condescending.

  • Ryan

    I find it easier to worship when the music is louder; it actually helps me sing along (particularly when the tune is on the borders of my range) and focus my attention on what I’m singing.

    i.e. “it’s not worship” should read “it’s not worshipful for me.” Or, “When point #2 negates point #1.”

    Agreed about the backhanded encouragements, too; in other parts of the internet, we call posts like this trolling. ; )

  • Paul

    Since I’m the village “troll”, Denny won’t let this through.

    “1. If we, the congregation, can’t hear ourselves, it’s not worship.

    2. If we, the congregation, can’t sing along, it’s not worship.

    3. If you, the praise band, are the center of attention, it’s not worship.”

    I agree with these points. I’ve also, over time, realized that you’re going to be hard pressed far too much of the time to justify much more than a piano and one person leading the worship.

    Think about it. Who does the massive choir in the matching robes and/or outfits glorify? Is it God?

    Who does the really big worship band glorify? Is it God? I’ve played with exactly one large worship band that had the focus on the right place, and those guys were all expected to be able to read sheet music and had two rehearsals prior to Sunday service. The result was guys that were so good that they could play the gig blindfolded and so comfortable with the music that the focus could be completely where it needs to be.

    When the band isn’t filled with competent musicians and folks don’t understand that everybody needs to agree where the “1” is, who does that glorify? Is it God? The real answer is that no one is glorified, because the focus ends up being completely on the band when they can’t keep it together and the music doesn’t feel comfortable.

    On the other hand, a genuinely talented piano player and a singer keep the focus exactly where it needs to be. On the words you’re singing. On God.

    As for mega-churches that “need” these huge, garish bands with french horns and drummers that need plexi-glass cages in lieu of lessons, I understand the need for a bigger band to fill the room. At that point, those folks might do quite good to remember point #3.

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