Gary Swisher

Lead Me, Feed Me

In Christianity, church, evangelical on February 28, 2011 at 10:53 pm

I recently read an all-too-honest critique on another blogger’s site about the drawbacks of the contemporary worship experience. The chief complaint in his article was that worship leaders were often very good at achieving a personal connection with the worship, themselves, while those in the congregation are expected to reach the same level of engagement, albeit as spectators. Members are expected to accept the “call to worship” and be “ushered in to the presence of God.” As one who has led worship, I know how much easier it is to engage when I am the one in the driver’s seat and not a spectator. I’ve heard other worship leaders say the same. Yet even knowing this, they still want and expect to see an impact on the faces and gestures of those they are leading in order to validate their efforts.

Now I understand that many in a congregation are more than spectators. There are at least a few folks in most gatherings who really do participate on a spiritual level. Then there are other worshippers who live by the “act it until you feel it” philosophy. They sincerely want to become engaged in their hearts, so they do it on the outside until the inside catches up. I wonder how that’s working out? Knowing ourselves, and human nature, we also have to admit there are some folks who might only appear to be in the worship “zone” for the sake of appearances. I suspect some of them are right up on stage, trying to “help” the members enter into worship by being a good example.

Why do churches focus on appearances when Jesus said to forget the appearance and focus on the heart? The more charismatic the congregation, the more pressure one might feel to look lively. But the need for enthusiasm isn’t an issue only with charismatic churches. I recall once hearing a preacher in the Church of Christ say, “If this won’t catch you on fire, your wood is wet!” And so we all think, “Yes, if I really love God why am I not feeling this worshipful attitude?” There can be a lot of reasons for this but rarely does anyone ever suspect something is wrong with the top-down approach to our services or the methodical view of the Christian life.

How many times have you heard someone who leads a Bible class say that at least part of their motivation to teach is that it forces them to be engaged in the word? Or we often hear, “I got more from teaching this class than I ever would have as a student.” We know the ones who lead are the true beneficiaries because they have to focus and put their energies on spiritual things (unless they are entirely insincere). As a worship leader, there have been many times when I was so spiritually primed for leading a service that I thought the spark that ignited me would catch the entire congregation on fire. I was usually disappointed at the lack of energy and engagement of most of the members. Why were they not able to feed off my fullness? Nearly every worship team complains that those in the congregation just won’t get excited about the worship. Why don’t they have more fun at our party?

We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not weep. (Lk 7:32, ESV)

My experience as a worship leader is just a springboard for this discussion. Looking at any aspect of the conventional church, we see the same malady. Consider the pastor, who studies, prepares and gets to know his subject matter and is truly, spiritually excited about it. Sure there is some fakery out there, but most pastors I have known really are focused on their relationship with God. Having taught many Bible classes, I know what it’s like to have a spiritual epiphany in my study and preparation. I could only hope to somehow communicate the deep revelation that touched me. This comes from a seeking heart and a desire to learn. How disappointing it is when the delivery of this revelation or the response it receives from the members in the class don’t live up to my own personal experience.

I see this frustration in pastors who also try to encourage change and growth. Just this week I heard a pastor say that so many at the church he leads were “in a funk.” Whether we are speaking in the context of the worship program, a Bible study or a sermon, the common criticism we’ve used when people don’t react to the amazing preparation of the leaders is that they don’t prepare themselves. They don’t feed themselves or worship through the week. That’s why they show up looking like limp noodles and responding to our fiery enthusiasm like wet rags.

But think again. Why should church members (wrongly termed “laity”) come prepared? Prepared for what? Does a person need to prepare to be lectured? Do you have to get psyched up to be serenaded with songs? Should we have to study the text for hours, knowing the teacher takes charge of the whole class and puts forth all his own thoughts? If you plan to attend a secular concert, do you need to spend a week preparing yourself to get in the right frame of mind? No! Expecting people to prepare to be spectators in a church service is like expecting patrons to bring their own food to a full-service restaurant. Why should you prepare food when you’re simply going to take a seat and get fed what someone else has cooked up?

Paul said that when Christians gather together each has a song, a teaching, an interpretation and so on. Everyone participates because everyone is in fellowship with Christ in their daily lives. Each is a priest. Each feeds independently and still has some to share with others. Edification is a mutual participation, not the territory of a few ordained and qualified personnel. This is not a restaurant experience—it’s a potluck!

In all the decades of attending worship services in many churches and different movements, I have never once encountered this approach. Not even once. Yet this should be the normal “model” for our gatherings. Sure, there have been times when people other than the pastor could speak out, but it was short, rare, and always subject to his permission. Even when churches have small groups they are often assigned material based on the pastor’s teaching or otherwise told what to study. This squelches the members of Christ’s body and undermines personal initiative in individuals’ daily walk.

Here is the crux of the matter. Church leaders want engagement but don’t allow members to fully engage on their own. Pastors expect preparation but take it upon themselves to prepare every morsel. Like the teacher who is forced to study the word because his role demands it, many pastors reap the benefit of the richness of a Christ-centered life.  Many, I believe, truly focus on their relationship with God in their spiritual lives, yet they continue to see themselves as spiritual conduits for “their” flock, rather than convey that we are ALL meant to seek the same and share in this process of edification. I have seen this tendency to be a conduit in myself, and I have never even been a pastor. We conduits and wannabes should be working ourselves out of a job.

The “five-fold ministry” was not supposed to create a permanent state of dependence but rather provide a means to an end, until the whole body is fully connected to the Head—the true Head which is Christ. The goal is that each member functions under Christ’s headship, not in a perpetual state of dependence on church leaders. Church leaders should adopt the attitude of John the Baptist: “He must increase, I must decrease.”

© 2011 Gary Swisher. All Rights Reserved

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