Why I Deliberately Show Up Late for Worship

(Editor’s note: As news and online editor for the Companion, I don’t tend to respond to other writers on our site. But a recent column by worship minister Jelani Greenidge got me thinking more deeply about the important issue of worship music. Here I offer a different perspective on this conversation.)

I have a confession to make. At times in my life I have arrived late to worship services because I wanted to skip the music. In his recent column “Shake Up Your Church Life with One Weird Trick,” Jelani Greenidge diagnosed one reason for such behavior: church attendees “tend to view worship music as the optional prelude to the ‘main event’ of the sermon.”

But my tardiness, as well as that of many others, I believe, is not for the reason that he and many worship leaders often lament. In contrast to what Greenidge writes, I don’t agree that the fundamental problem is that we are “rarely fully present for music in general” because music is so often in the background of our daily lives.

Rather, I believe that music is too much in the foreground of Sunday morning.

There was a time when I had to be at services. For many years it was because I was the pastor and worship planner. I’ve played guitar on worship teams in charismatic churches where people danced in the aisles—as well as in congregations where some members viewed guitars in church as an insidious intrusion of the outside world.

Still, I have come to view the music portion as “optional prelude” in some settings because that is what the church has made it. Our leaders often inadvertently contribute to this misperception. Not infrequently, I have heard the person up front say, “Let us sing as we prepare ourselves for the sermon.”

soul worshipI arrive late because the music is often the same week after week. There’s a good chance that I’ll hear/sing most of the same songs I did last week and will again in the coming weeks. Recently over a two-year period, between denominational events and visits to different churches, I heard “Our God Is Greater” at least 20 times.

On two consecutive Sundays, I attended different churches and heard the exact same playlist, with all the songs taken from the current Top 20 CCLI songs. We wouldn’t listen to our pastors preach the same sermon every week—why do we accept such repetition in our music?

I also go late because somewhere along the way, many churches decided that all singing should be done while standing for 20 minutes at a time—or more. After ten minutes, I’m not thinking about the music; I just want to sit down. I could sit down, but then all I see are legs and the backsides of the people in front of me. Once someone looked down at me and asked if I felt OK.

But rather than simply providing an alternate diagnosis as to what has led to the “optional prelude,” I offer the following suggestions.

1. Re-integrate music with the rest of the service. It’s great to sing at the beginning—even multiple pieces of full-ahead rock, hip hop, gospel, country, or whatever, if you like—but we can also worship through music that invites reflection, that gives permission to use our whole bodies in worship, and which can include sitting and kneeling and different forms of prayer throughout the service.

I know there are logistical issues, such as what do you do with your entire worship team if you more fully integrate music into the rest of the service rather than consigning it to the beginning or the end. I recognize that it’s disruptive when the team has to move back and forth from the positions up front. But varying the styles of music or instrumentation can offer flexibility. Ultimately this can result in more creativity and possibly even more singing, not less.

2. Ditch the Top-20 playlist. Ditch it so that as we worship we are connected to the broader church through musical diversity not uniformity. Ditch it so that we are connected to the historical church that has been worshiping for some 2,000 years and has many expressions to offer us, even if we adapt them to our current settings. Ditch the play list because the gospel is surprising. We shouldn’t walk into worship wondering which Chris Tomlin song we’ll sing that day.

3. Finally, never say, “Let us sing as we prepare ourselves for the sermon.” Such exhortations devalue the music, which is every bit as important for communicating and experiencing the gospel as is “the main event.” A simple invitation to worship is all we need.

I hesitated to write this column because I have tremendous respect for the people who pour themselves week after week into the often thankless and nearly impossible task of planning services that will resonate with everyone. Every worship leader I know has a heart to serve God with excellence and to help congregations do the same. In the end, I decided to write because I hope this will further discussion about worship in a way that Jelani suggested in the magazine’s September issue on a different topic – with the heat turned down.

 

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About the Author

Stan Friedman is the news and online editor for the Covenant Companion and is grateful for the opportunity to serve in a job that combines his newspaper and pastoral ministry experience. He has been to 15 Bruce Springsteen concerts in four cities and listened to “Thunder Road” an average of at least once a day for 41 years.

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23 Comments

  1. Were you late to your Bruce Springsteen concert? I assume you went to only the ones which involved sitting down. No standing right? Why in the world would people stand for more than 20 minutes for ANYTHING? (sarcasm). Also, can you tell me where in the Bible that a worship service calls for seats?

  2. Interesting. My reason for habitually being late for church has nothing to do with the music. I love the music – whether it is hymns or contemporary praise or whatever. I appreciate the prelude and the postlude and everything in between. My only complaint is that we don’t sing enough. I also appreciate the time and effort that the worship team and other musicians put into the music part of the worship service.

    My reason for habitually being late for worship is the greeting/handshaking time that generally happens very early during the service (usually after the first song). I know it is meant to welcome people and help them feel comfortable. I’ve just always felt it was hokey. In my own church as well as in churches that I have visited I just hate it. I had many long conversations about it with the pastor who planted our church. He was adament about doing it. I finally gave up trying to get my point across and decided I’d just start coming late so I wouldn’t have to do it. Maybe it’s because my husband and I are both introverts, but neither one of us finds it worth getting to the service on time so we can sing a song and then shake hands with those around us. Especially during cold and flu season. Can we have some hand sanitizer with our hand shaking? (Note: I bring my own.)

  3. The one challenge I would offer is that this kinda presupposes that you are attending worship as a consumer and are only coming for what will give you what you want. I would challenge you to try to see beyond yourself and your preferences a little more.

    Sing a top-20 song (or 4 of them) for the sake of that person who is not familiar with church music and who finds singing a little weird, except that at least it sounds like something they might have heard on the radio. I don’t like those songs much either, but I sing them with gusto because I worship alongside people who connect deeply with them.

    If your primary concern is “attending worship” or having worship be more like what you personally prefer, then I would humbly offer that it might be wise to approach corporate worship (A) expecting to participate (as opposed to attend) and (B) to remember that it is for God and for the community before it is for the individual. Choosing to sing a song for the sake of your neighbor who likes that song (despite your distaste for it) may just be more worshipful than raising your arms and closing your eyes and singing to Jesus with reckless abandon.

    1. “Participate” is the key word. I know people who come late because they feel participation is not really that meaningful the way we now always do things. I think we are at a place where people of all ages long for something more authentic, participatory, and creative. I predict concert style worship with loud volume is passe to the point that people in touch with the here and now are already finding ways to lower the stage persona and make worship about the most important instrument in the room… the people’s voices.

      Young adults do not seemingly crave a show on Sunday. they want to be part of the mix like their voices matter… they want to create along with the band what comes from the room… they want to hear the people around them… not have their voices and their friends’ voices drowned out. We began dropping stage volume and teasing out the congregations voice at youth group and it works… is beautiful, inspiring, participatory, and can soar in ways that a few mic-ed people NEVER can. I fought for years to have the concert-style worship … and we enjoyed it, but we inadvertently killed congregational singing…. The upcoming generation does not need or want loud…. they want to be in the mix… they want their place to be heard and be part of something that feels real and creates a communal experience.

      Ironically, it was the youth groups that led us into this current popular style… and it may well be the youth groups that get sick of it and revert back to singing together in a way that has an ancient precedent… It may be a priesthood of the believer thing… LET US PLAY TOO! Our voices matter! Pleasr tell me examples of where megachurches are moving back toward a style of worship where the worship leaders serve the congregation by helping their voices be heard uppermost in the room rather than being so loud the team drowns them out.

  4. As one who spends an average 3-6 hours preparing and practicing for a 10-minute organ prelude once a month for our blended service, it is frustrating (but not unusual) to have my worship offering talked over, or have someone fiddling with the praise band instruments during it. I know other churches where no one moves during the organ playing – and claps after it. Two extremes – much like in my professional field of education – we are always swinging to the extremes. Let’s find a middle – as a worship leader I always felt it was my job to give everyone something musical they could connect to in the service. Appreciate both the article and the comments.

  5. Music should always be a meaningful part of the worship service. At our church everything is coordinated for what ever Sunday it is in the church year. Hymns, the choir, the handbell choir, prelude, offertory, postlude, as it should be. We know not all churches are this way, so please don’t try to put all of us in the category.

  6. I don’t actually mind repetitive music, in fact, I could make a case for why it might be a good thing in some instances.

    But I’m all with you on the cringe factor of hearing, “let’s sing to prepare ourselves for the sermon.” What kind of theology is that, anyway? It’s not found in the New Testament, that’s for sure. In the NT, singing is conceived as having value *in and of itself* for the sake of mutual edification and building one another up in the faith. I fear it is some sort of hangover from the reformation that Protestants elevate the pastor’s message to the place of primacy in the meeting of the saints, and miss the essential role that the saints play FOR EACH OTHER in coming together, as the word dwells IN US richly before a sermon has even been preached. (In fact, you won’t find the word “sermon” even in the Bible, but you will find mutual edification in song discussed.)
    All I can say is – major squirm factor. The church and all it does doesn’t exist just to hear one person’s sermon, however good or useful that might be to us. The body has a function and building up one another by speaking to one another in song is a function more ancient than the three point sermon ever was.

  7. Great insight and wisdom expressed both in the original article and in the replies.

    Just to add to the complexity of this 🙂 I’d like to offer another perspective on #2. In our church, we sing very few of the “top 20” songs and very few of the “top 20 hymns” or even very few of the “top” music of recent decades.

    And so for me, someone who enjoys music, but is musically challenged, I very deeply appreciate songs that are familiar enough for me to sing comfortably because I’m hearing and learning them throughout the week listening to Christian radio (or have sung them down through the years when they were in the top 25 or have endured as familiar hymns over the years). I realize I’m probably odd this way (most Christians can jump right into most music), but I struggle to worship when the songs are unfamiliar.

  8. The EC has connections to my denomination, the Moravian Church. Ours has been a four-part harmony singing faith for almost six hundred years. You’ll not sing the same songs at our services, the music is not an afterthought but an integral part of the message – together with the liturgy. The hymns, whether classic or contemporary, are chosen for their message and feel that is consistent with the Scriptures and the message. They are never picked randomly or just because somebody (even me) likes them. Our wonderful music director and organist put a lot of work in with me to weave a consistent message and feel to each service. We have new hymns being written by folks in our congregation and denomination which we set to familiar singable tunes, and this also gives an organic connection — over just having a worship band sing a pop tune from Christian radio.

    1. I worked for a Moravian Church in Dublin, OH in the late 90’s while my husband and I were planting a new Covenant Church in the area. I personally experienced what you shared. Great pastor and congregation. It was a joy to serve with them.

  9. Great article. You may enjoy the book I am currently reading by Doug Erlander, “Spiritual Anorexia” which addresses the use of repetitive music as well.

  10. I endorse the sentiments of Steve Bilynskyj and Royce Eckhardt. Fortunately, Stan, the problem you have observed is absent from worship with my local congregation. (An aside: Until reading your article it had not dawned on me that although I am habitually late — even to church events — I am never late for worship.)

  11. Thank you, Stan. I am so grateful to see your lens in print. I too have great appreciation for those who work so hard to create worship for us. But where is it written to be a Christian means you love to sing? I became particularly aware of this as over the years I have brought non-churched friends to church. Singing often was the odd moment, as rarely do we go any where and walk into a room and start singing. There are so many forms of worship art, poetry, drama, focusing on a painting, that aren’t explored because our time is directed to singing. Thank you again for re-directing our thinking.

  12. Well said Stan.

    I must say that I am blessed by the worship team at Thornapple Covenant Church in Grand Rapids, MI. These gifted artists thoughtfully and intentionally weave musical worship, incorporating contemporary praise, classic hymns, and even surprising World Music rhythms into and throughout the service. Each week their contribution enhances worship and extends a sense of connection to the Spirit. I’ve often heard that a (musically) blended service is too difficult to pull off. I’m happy to say that my experience suggests otherwise.

  13. A good word, Stan! Music in itself is an act of worship, or should be. It is not just a warmup for the main event. Music is proclamation, prayer, witness, thanksgiving, and much more. On your point #2 (“Ditch the Top-20 Playlist comment, there is this thing called a hymnal which displays our historic rootedness and also the music just written—that’s what I think you may have had in mind here. Unfortunately, many of our Covenant churches have “Ditched the Hymnal”–an encyclopedia of the Christian faith and the witness from the great cloud of witnesses. What a travesty to set the hymnals aside in the storage room! Yes indeed, use music from non-hymnal sources but use it liturgically–that is, use it where it fits the movement of the worship experience, not just because it is contemporary. Such diversity is desirable as it serves the central theme of the day in a cohesive way.

    Again, thanks for a thought-provocative statement about the role of music!

  14. This is the elephant in the sanctuary. Nationwide, faithful parishioners are ‘accidentally’, showing up late for the above reasons and others not listed. I think it’s time for a wider conversation on the breadth and depth of church worship/music.

  15. Thank you, Stan. Things are a bit different here in our own church, but you have stated exactly the reasons why I often show up late for worship services at denominational events (Midwinter, Gather), with the added reason that the volume of the music at these events, especially if one chooses a seat anywhere near the typically gigantic speakers being employed, is often overwhelming and painful.

    1. Have said this for years, long before I retired. But those who plan the extravaganza entertainment have not been listening.

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