A few weeks back I made my first visit to the National Worship Leaders Conference in Kansas City, MO. It was a pilgrimage to pay homage to all things modern in worship.
My travel companions on this journey were Wen Reagan (Doctoral student in American Church history at Duke, fantastic musician and songwriter) and Zac Hicks (Worship Pastor, Songwriter, and consummate theologian). Along the way we also met up and fellowshipped with profesors Reggie Kidd (RTS-Orlando), Lester Ruth (Duke), and Monique Ingalls – ethnomusicology @ Cambridge.
The impetus for going this year was initiated by Zac Hicks who has been releasing records over the past couple of years with the hope of subversively supplanting worship choruses with some gussied up hymnody. Zac’s production and songwriting for these projects has been really brilliant. Listen HERE
Wen Reagan – who is working on research around the history of the contemporary worship movement decided to join us. Israel Houghton, a well known and garnered musician (2 Grammy’s last year) and lead musician at Lakewood Church (home of Joel Osteen) was going to be presenting and Wen hoped to be able to get an interview.
Their were two main themes driving the presentations from the stage. The conference theme “In Remembrance of Me” and the most recent WL magazine which looked at the idea of “Performance” in modern worship music. Both great and fascinating concepts.
Here are a few broad reflections from my time. Zac and Wen will be weighing in as well I hope.
For more truly profound reflections please check out Zac Hicks post on the Conference
A Newly Discovered 4th Member of the Trinity?
I work at a church that is fairly lo-fi in terms of how we use technology for worship services. We have a decent sound system, use mostly acoustic instruments (what’s a pedal board?), rely on natural light, and use projection pretty sparingly.
One of the most jarring realities of my week was the insane amount technology that facilitated the worship services. A huge sound system, lights, camera’s, massive projection (beyond the screens onto the whole surface of the walls), and tons of support devices. It was like worship as I’d known it had been assimilated by the christian Borg. The technology was so overwhelming that I actually lost the message at points! Where my understanding has always been that technology should be a servant of the message. Ok. ‘christian borg’ is probably a gross overstatement but I’ve been really challenge recently with how little we as Christians reflect on the pervasive nature of technology in our world and the conference was a great place to experience it and ponder. Technology has played a huge part in spreading the gospel message and making it broadly accessible. The Reformation would not have been possible without the technological advances of the printing press. We just need to be a lot more discerning in how we use technology because it’s not as neutral as we think. Read Shane Hipp’s excellent work ‘Flickering Pixels‘ for a great introduction on technology shaping of the modern world.
While the morning worship services were a bit more subdued, the evening services (not concerts according to the artists) were consistently hitting the 90-95 decibel mark. Which according to most charts means hearing loss with sustained exposure. The message I took home was that God is so powerful he will rock my ear drums to pieces in worship. Or possibly that in modern worship we are called to suffer bodily for Jesus.
The technology present in much of modern worship is part of the DNA of the sound and experience. It really exists as a lesser member of the Trinity. (Or could possibly be a replacement for one of the other members that rarely gets mentioned).
The High Priests of Modern Christian Worship
Being at the National Worship Leaders Conference got me thinking a lot about how the church in america thinks about worship leaders. In other words how do musicians fit into the ecclesiology of church leadership? While the Old Testament speaks of musicains as part of the leadership of temple worship the NT is mostly silent about musicians in leadership. Are we called to be pastors, deacons? servants? teachers? Who are we accountable too? We certainly have a lot of influence over the spiritual diet and formation of God’s people!
I was very excited to see/hear all of the artists that were present. They are all unbelievable musicians, songwriters, and performers. They are all people who have an earnest desire to see God’s people encouraged and edified. And after listening to them lead all week and reflecting on the language they used (it was incredibly consistent) I think that most of them lead function as High Priests. As they led (Aaron Keyes was especially poignant in this regard) they presented an experience of worship that most of us could never hope to attain this side of glory. It was of an intensely personal nature…like we had been invited into their own private worship time. Since I wasn’t able to quite match the pitch and intensity of their worshipping on the stage I disconnected and was content to watch them. They were worshipping for me..making exquisite offerings of word, and body, and music. But honestly I was left a bit confused and exhausted!
I’ve always thought of worship leaders like Bus Drivers. Where you’re the one driving and providing direction but everyone is going more or less the same speed! Worshipping at the conference often felt like getting hurled from 0 to Jesus in under 4 seconds (Spiritual whiplash anyone?) The services could be likened to a Formula One race where we were all chasing the worship leader driving the new Maserati. I need to get a new car for sure!
Three Pop Songs and a Hymn
Almost every group that led finished their set off with a hymn tune/text. The audio was dialed down, the musicians even backed off their mics a bit and let the congregation hear themselves sing. It was a glorious and a strange departure from the overal musical environment? But it was fantastic to see the high priests return some of the worship leadership to the people. It was like getting a glimpse into what the Reformation must have felt like for the pastors and leaders in the 16th century!
Songwriting from Suffering & The Lord’s Supper
On a far more encouraging (and less cynical?) note I got to hear Brenton Brown speak (twice this summer) about songwriting and his life as a professional worship leader. I was really encouraged and inspired both times. Brenton has worked in the trenches of the church and has covered a few various continents in the past decade or so. He, along with a few others, are beginning to explore what it looks like to write from personal struggles and suffering. Check out his “God My Rock“. Matt Redman has also working out suffering through some of his more recent songs. Check out “Blessed Be the Name.”
One of the highlights of the conference for me was celebrating the Lord’s Supper with the whole group! While it felt like a bit of an add on and fairly unfamiliar practice for many present it was still a powerful time of active, and conscious participation. It was also great to have Scotty Smith as the week’s MC and he did a wonderful job calling us to remember Christ (both in the already and not-yet sense) as we came to the table.
Conference Break Out Sessions I Attended
(you can listen to audio of the sessions here)
- Getting the Gospel Back into Worship (Besides Just the Songs and the Sermon) – Dr. Reggie Kidd
Reggie, one of my seminary profs, led us through the eucharistic prayer of Hippolytus by learning to chant!
- Is Your God Too Domesticated? – Dr. Lester Ruth
Dr. Ruth walked us through his upcoming book on worship in 6th Century constantinople “Tasting Heaven on Earth”
- ‘Saturday Night Live’ — Rediscovering the Great Vigil Easter Service – Dr. Reggie Kidd
- The Collaborative Art of Leading Worship – Mike Crawford
It was also great to meet Monique Ingalls who wrote about ‘performance’ in this months Worship Leader magazine. Read her article on “Reclaiming Performance in Worship.” She also sponsors a bi-yearly conference on Music and Congregations in the UK that we’ll be attending next year.