James Smith, Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College, offers a thoughtful “open letter” to those who have come to be known in the church as “worship leaders.” Smith’s goal in writing is to encourage “new reflection on the practice of ‘leading worship’.” In doing so, Smith offers three axioms:
- If we, the congregation, can’t hear ourselves, it’s not worship.
- If we, the congregation, can’t sing along, it’s not worship.
- If you, the praise band, are the center of attention, it’s not worship.
You will want to read Smith’s full treatment of each point in his open letter. And to be sure he’s not misunderstood as just another disgruntled “traditionalist,” here’s how Smith closes:
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.
Much, much more could be said. But let me stop here, and please receive this as the encouragement it’s meant to be. I would love to see you continue to offer your artistic gifts in worship to the Triune God who is teaching us a new song.
I appreciate Smith’s open letter as a means of continuing what I see as an encouraging movement in evangelicalism beyond mere styles in worship to the more important question of what we are trying to do when we come together as God’s people to sing. And I am grateful to serve with a pastor at Immanuel (Mark Hinkleman) that is working hard to help us hear ourselves sing, through accessible arrangements, with God at the center.