Worship is both a noun (the formal expression of reverence and adoration for God) and a verb (to feel an adoring reverence for God). The Bible tells us to worship God (Psalm 100:2) and to hold his name in highest regard (Exodus 20:7 and Matthew 6:9). It also quotes God saying he wants our worship to be love-inspired (Hosea 6:6) and Spirit-led (John 4:23). So the role of anyone responsible for leading corporate worship services can be seen as vital to the growth of the Christian body.
Bible Gateway interviewed Jeremy Armstrong, managing editor of Worship Leader magazine (@WorshipLeader) on the subject of worship and what the Bible has to say about it, and the National Worship Leader Conference.
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How did Worship Leader begin and why is it an important resource?
Jeremy Armstrong: In 1975, Dr. Charles E. Fromm, the publisher of Worship Leader magazine, was recruited from city management and actively promoting “Jesus Music Concerts” to head up the first major church-based Christian record label, Maranatha! Music.
While working at Maranatha!, Chuck produced several innovative worship record series such as The Praise Series, Kids Praise, Words of Worship, Psalms Alive, and others, and during that time he founded Worship Times journal. That publication included regular contributions from influential theologians and worship thought leaders such as Robert Webber, Jack Hayford, Chuck Swindoll, Ronald B. Allen, among others. In 1991, he partnered with longtime friend John Styll to birth Worship Leader magazine, expanding the scope and reach of his former publication.
Before that time the term “worship leader” was not one commonly used in church ministry. Chuck wanted to cover two main ministry categories: worship and leadership, which is where the magazine, and subsequently an entire role in the church, got its name.
Currently published in English and in Korean, Worship Leader has been in publication for over 20 years raising the level of thinking and broadening the role for leaders in the Church.
Explain what is meant by the tagline: Pursuing the mission of God in worship.
Jeremy Armstrong: “Mission means inviting all the peoples of the earth to hear the music of God’s future and dance to it today.” Christopher Wright, The Mission of God (Inter-Varsity Press, 2006)
Our mission is tied to God’s mission in the world: to make Jesus known in order that the world will be drawn to God (Deut. 4:5-8; 10:12-19). It is our praises, our worship, where, more so than any other human action, God is seen and declared as God in fullness and glory. In our worship, the Lord is praised and a testimony is born, summoning all other people to know God and to worship him—for his glory and for the betterment and complete redemption of humankind (Rom. 5:18). Worship Leader hopes to encourage and equip worship and church leaders to embed their music and worship ministries in the mission of God.
How central to worship should the Bible be?
Jeremy Armstrong: As worship is more than the music of a Sunday service, I’m going to assume we’re talking specifically about sung worship here. We believe that congregational music should, at its essence, be seen as sung prayer. Prayer is the basis for all renewal; it’s in prayer that we engage with God and are transformed to his image (Matt. 6:9-13). So with that in mind, what’s the best source of engagement with God? Scripture. So it’s vitally important that our worship music is birthed in and saturated with Scripture.
Along with our magazine, we have a music sampler of new worship songs that goes out with every issue (Song Discovery). So we listen to a great, great deal of music for the purposes of worship. When reviewing worship offerings, I evaluate them based on many criteria, but the most important is biblical faithfulness—my ear is pricked for songs that are scriptural. The words don’t have to be verbatim (sometimes that’s important, but other times it makes a song difficult to sing). But songs that are birthed in Scripture are immediately identifiable. Lines from the Bible, thoughts, and truths that are founded on biblical passages, songs from the Psalms—these are what I’m looking for when evaluating songs for congregational worship. I’m always surprised and saddened when these songs are hard to find on a worship album. But I’m also delighted when they’re abundant.
What are the key passages in the Bible that form the proper concept of worship?
Jeremy Armstrong: Since the name of our magazine is Worship Leader, you might imagine that we’ve put some thought into the question “Who is the worship leader at a church?”
The short answer is, “Jesus is our worship leader.”
Now the main point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by a mere human being. Hebrews 8:1
As Hebrews 8 explains, Jesus is our High Priest who stands between us and the Father offering the sacrifice required for our salvation. This is amazing news for worship leaders! Worship doesn’t start with us nor is it dependent on us. It comes from Jesus and is acceptable to God because of Jesus. Worship Leaders don’t have to make God present amongst the congregation, Jesus does that. And once worship leaders and worshipers grasp this, our whole identities are transformed.
Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. Colossians 3:16
Twice in the New Testament the apostle Paul decided to broaden the landscape of his musical language by referring to the songs used in worship as “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). There are obviously a lot of things happening in this passage and quite a few interpretations, but a couple of things are clear: we’re to sing to one another; we’re to sing to God; we’re to sing with all variety, and we’re to sing with thanksgiving in our hearts.
…True worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. John 4:23
In John 4:23, Jesus teaches us (via a Samaritan woman) what true worship is. Again there is much to learn by engaging this story yourself, but for me, here are a few truths: everyone can worship (even Samaritans); worship can happen anywhere (and in any style); worship comes from a biblical understanding of God; and worship involves our full heart which changes our behaviors.
There are many more Scriptures of course, but these are some good ones to begin with.
Your phrase “curators of worship” is interesting. Who are you including in that?
Jeremy Armstrong: In today’s music-multimedia church, the worship leader is much more than the music person. They curate many pieces of art from many disciplines in order to help facilitate the sung prayers of their congregations. Videos, pictures, songs, visual elements, smells—you name it. It’s all available, and all of it can be useful for helping people engage with God. Sometimes the curator of worship isn’t the person who leads the music in a service of worship. We’re seeing many of the Boomer generation begin to take on this role, becoming worship pastors. These curators mentor and lead teams of artists and musicians who then make use of their skills to create and present a multimedia and full sensory worship experience.
How should curators of worship incorporate the Bible into their planning of worship services?
Jeremy Armstrong: Again, the Bible is foundational and essential in any preparation for worship. For these curators, it can certainly be direct incorporation: Scripture readings after particular songs, Scriptures with visual backgrounds that help illuminate the Word, Scripture set to music. But it must also be the bedrock of everything we bring before our congregations—from the Starbucks cup set next to the amp to the visuals behind our lyrics to the songs we sing. These things must be founded and designed in the truth of Scripture. Again, as in the case of songwriting, they don’t have to be word-for-word, but without the resonance of the Word, they’re in danger of becoming merely emotional outpourings lacking the cornerstone of Christ.
What is the danger in becoming too enamored of technology in corporate worship?
Jeremy Armstrong: Technology is not the danger. Technology is neutral. The danger is when the technologies become the focus of the message as opposed to the message being the focus (Jer. 1:16). Certainly being enamored of our technology will create this mis-focus. We find it helpful to continually ask, “Is this technology an idol or an icon?” Idols point to themselves while icons point to God. Ideally everything we do in a service of worship will point to God, making the mediums (people, videos, jumbotrons, hymnals, etc.) fade to the background. Of course, it’s also easy to become enamored of not just our current technologies but also ones of the past. The hymnbook is a technology. It’s one that has largely gone out of usage, for better or for worse. But some people’s love for that particular technology kept them from making changes that spoke more in the language of the culture they were ministering to (projected lyrics). I’m not saying that projected lyrics are better than hymnals, but the point is that we have to always evaluate why we’re using the technologies we use, be willing to change so that we speak in the vernacular of our communities, and also be willing to tear down any of the technologies that may have become idols for ourselves and our congregations.
How should worship leaders—and congregations for that matter—guard against the idea that corporate worship services are concerts/performances/entertainment for the audience and remember that God is the Audience?
Jeremy Armstrong: This is a bit of a hot topic for us. One thing we try to continually reinforce is that performance is not a dirty word. One of the snags with that particular word is the inherent entertainment-ness of the term in contemporary culture. Oftentimes we hear worship leaders addressing a large group of people from onstage, lights blazing in their eyes, saying, “We’re not here to perform.” … Hmmm.
This is confusing because, in a real and concrete way, it’s inaccurate. What the song leader most likely meant to convey was, “We’re not here to entertain you.” And while that sentiment is probably closer to what a worship leader would hope to impart, it’s also just as false as the proclamation that “we’re not here to perform.”
Leading worship is a performance art. Giving a sermon is a performance art. Giving the announcements, ushering congregants, and directing traffic are all performance arts. And hopefully all, at least in some way, entertaining. Worship leaders prepare; worship leaders rehearse their teams; worship leaders play skillfully in order to guide a congregation with the knowledge that they are singing to and about the true Audience of our worship. But this performance is designed so that others are encouraged to engage with God. A well-performed worship set helps make this happen. So, yes worship leaders offer a performance, but the key is that it is more than mere performance.
Successful life-changing worship comes only from and through Jesus Christ. But God uses us to help illuminate this reality. Services of worship represent the divine partnership between God and man (2 Pet. 1:3-11) to bring about the renewal and restoration of his church—of his people.
What is the National Worship Leader Conference all about?
Jeremy Armstrong: The National Worship Leader Conference (@NWLConf) encompasses a broad range of styles and traditions in order to facilitate inspiration, understanding, and unity amongst the body of Christ. The ultimate focus of the National Worship Leader Conference is prayer. Congregational prayer, sung prayers, individual prayers, spoken prayers—the fundamental quality of worship is common prayer. As well, everything from worship skill to production to musical performance to missional outreach is built on the centrality of God’s story and offering worship that is pleasing to his ear as expressed in his holy Word. Because NWLC has a core value of biblical worship, we believe God uses this to bring about real spiritual transformation both in individuals and in worshiping communities as a whole. Because we’re not gathering to train concert performers or entertainers, attendees see a refreshing absence of pretension. Ultimately we gather to craft and engage in worship that is directed to God, is about God, and is acceptable to God, not through our ability but through the finished work of our savior and true worship leader, Jesus Christ.
We have four National Worship Leader Conferences happening all over the country in 2015. You can find out more at nwlconf.com.
Bio: Jeremy Armstrong is the managing editor of Worship Leader magazine. One of the most valued and respected resources of its kind, Worship Leader offers biblical, practical, and innovative insights and articles for church leaders around the world. Visit worshipleader.com.