Accents Article: “Get Out of the Way”

The following article was written for the latest edition of Accents, SoundForth’s Choral Club publication. I post it here with SoundForth’s permission.

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Get Out of the Way

“Not unto us, O LORD, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory…” (Psalm 115:1)

We recently had a missionary candidate present his work and a sound philosophy of missions to our assembly. It was a challenging and instructive time in which the Lord used His Word to awaken us again to the needs of our godless world. When it was time to conclude the service, I transitioned by making a passing compliment of the missionary’s fashion sense—a joke, since we were wearing almost identical suits, shirts, and ties. People “got it” and laughed, and then I closed in prayer. No big deal.

But my conscience smote me. Why? I hadn’t told a dirty joke, and I hadn’t belittled anyone. I had, however, been a distraction from eternally important things. I had overtly caused people to stop thinking about the Scriptures and the cause of world evangelization to instead take note of their pastor’s wit. It was presumptuous of me.

Unfortunately, such seemingly innocent distractions are common in even the most conservative churches. It might occur when a leader tries to “warm up the crowd” with the tried and true “Good morning… I said ‘Good morning!’” It might be a musician’s ostentatious special, which shouts “How Great I Am” even as he belts out “How Great Thou Art.” It might be a pianist’s showing off her musicality during the Lord’s Table. It might be a music minister’s aerobics-like arm-waving—not hands lifted in praise to God but hands that direct songs as if the very lives of the worshipers depend on their catching his downbeats. (Seriously, you could probably stop directing on occasion and just sing along, leading with your face and your voice or just allowing the worshipers to listen to the church body. Try it!) It might be someone nervously interjecting a random comment to break the tension when it’s “too quiet,” as if silence were a threat to thoughtful worship. It might be a preacher’s habit of telling childhood stories rather than unpacking the Scriptures, especially when he feels like he’s “losing” his hearers. It might be a pastor’s chit-chatting with a guest speaker during the hymns, an ensemble’s use of public prayer as a pseudo curtain for a scene change, or any number of other behaviors, however well-intended.

These examples seem harmless enough. I’ve done most of them myself without thinking twice. But they may reveal wrong thinking and even wrong motives. We easily forget that our objective is to focus the attention of believers on Christ, not ourselves. We are sometimes oblivious to the fact that we’re actually competing with God for attention, which is blasphemous. He will not share His glory with another (Isaiah 42:8), especially during a worship service. That’s not to say that our times of corporate praise must be stuffy or “high church.” Nothing is worse than a contrived solemnity. The issue isn’t so much formality (which will vary from church to church), but fervency. Can you imagine Solomon starting the dedication of the Temple in 1 Kings 8 with a rambling anecdote? I can’t.

If we are honest, we who claim “the high ground” on worship issues are often as irreverent as those we criticize. We rightly balk when a controversial preacher suggests listening to stand-up comics to learn to communicate well, yet we take every opportunity to get a laugh. We criticize CCM for being doctrinally light, yet we have our own cache of shallow choruses and choose songs because they’re “peppy” rather than meaty. We claim to value congregational singing, yet we hurry through the songs as though the phrase “Let’s sing the first and the last stanzas” were part of our creed. We claim the Bible as our authority, yet we give only cursory time to its public reading. We don’t seem to be serious about worship or even about the glorious God who is its audience.

We must do better. When we are privileged to lead in worship, we would do well to imitate the spirit of John the Baptist. We should encourage people to “Behold the Lamb of God” (John 1:29)—to look to Him, not us. We must intentionally decrease so that Christ might increase in worshipers’ esteem (John 3:30). After all, we’re just groomsmen (John 3:29), and it’s no more appropriate for us to steal attention away from our Savior than it would be for a best man to interrupt the processional or vows with one-liners. It’s not about us. At least it shouldn’t be. In short, we need to get out of the way.

Worship is a sacred thing. It’s the reason for which we were created and the reason for which we were redeemed. It demands that we be relentlessly reverent, not just through our music selections but also through our comments and demeanor. May we cultivate a joyful, fervent, and expectant spirit among those we lead. May our consciences prevent us from hijacking worshipers’ attention and pain us when we do. Whether praying or preaching, leading songs or leading in prayer, may we serve with such selflessness that all glory will go not to us but to our Maker and Savior (Psalm 115:1).

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SoundForth Choral Club membership info can be found here. The latest edition of Accents was mailed along with this video introduction to the new ChurchWorks Choral Series. The CW pieces published with SoundForth thus far are Dan Forrest‘s arrangement of His Robes for Mine and Molly Ijames‘ arrangement of I Run to Christ. I’ve appreciated very much the opportunity to team with SF to make gospel-driven resources available to the church.

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7 Responses

  1. I really liked this. Thanks!

  2. Excellent. So thankful my pastors follow this same philosophy at Hampton Park.

  3. Very true. Thank you for being honest in writing this. We need to hear it!

  4. [...] I wholeheartedly recommend this article [...]

  5. Thanks so much for this. I’ve often seen a moving musical number’s effectiveness just ruined by a joke about the choir, the director, or something else in the transition from music to message. Humor isn’t always inappropriate, but it does sometimes distract from the main purpose of glorifying Christ.

  6. Excellent, sir. Thank you.

  7. It is not about us…ever, in worship services or anywhere else. How often do we do the same thing in our everyday life? Is it not sensible what I think 24-6 will also show up on the 1st day during worship? How often when as a worshipper is my focus not on Him who is the reason for my very existence? These are hard questions you bring up Pastor Chris but questions we must deal with? Why do we think the culture does not see right through it all? But more than that how it must grieve our heavenly Father who calls us to worship Him and our Savior who died for us. Thanks for being transparent and for speaking the truth.

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