We are incredibly honored to welcome Jonathan Swindal to the writing rotation here at Worship Online. He’s spent significant time in high-level leadership roles at acclaimed institutions like Southeastern University, Oral Roberts University, & now New Life Midtown in Colorado Springs and has both an MDiv from ORU & ThM from Denver Seminary (graduation Fall ’21). He’s a man dedicated to both leading people into encounter & the faithful study of scripture.
We believe right now, in an era where theology is so easy to twist, we need fathers & mothers committed to the study of discovering what scripture truly calls Kingdom people to pursue and reflect. There are many incredible voices out there committed to this task & Jonathan is one of those voices. We are excited to welcome him into the family. So without further ado, here’s Jonathan’s incredible piece on “Why Should Worship Leaders Even Care About Theology?“.
Recently a post on my Facebook feed said: “Tell us what you do without telling us what you do and be as cryptic as possible.” I was compelled to respond. I said, “I tell people what to think, say, sing, and do — and they pay me to do it EVERY WEEK.”
Most of the worship leaders I know don’t think of their job as a “theological” calling, but how could it possibly be more theological?
As a worship leader, I was first a musician. I played multiple instruments and before I knew it someone somewhere asked if I could lead a song or two for a small event. As I gained skills I had more and more opportunities. I loved God and his people and always took my job seriously as a “spiritual” task, but it wasn’t until the past few years (after leading for well over a decade!) that I came to realize that this task is deeply theological.
In evangelical and charismatic circles it’s popular to care about the Bible, but talk down about theology. But why?
Why would we ever think that we could be careful readers of the Bible without considering what “the Church” has studied and come to believe about God through the Scriptures for over two millennia?
There are likely many reasons, one of which is that we are often intimidated by things that have limited or no knowledge about.
So what is theology? Simply put it’s the study of God, which is, of course, not simply done.
One of my mentors tells a story about a healing evangelist who came to a university and in a class after preaching a chapel service said, “We worship and preach and then God performs miracles! People will get healed! As long as we’re preaching from the Bible we don’t need theology.” This evangelist stated what so many worship leaders actually think.
But have you ever wondered: what about those who don’t get healed? People show up to the same services, hear the same songs, take notes in the same sermons, pray the same prayers, and have the same – sometimes even greater – faith and some get healed while others don’t. Do you ever think about that? I guarantee you the people you’re leading in worship do. It seems to me that is precisely the place where theology is most needed.
So what does this look like in effect? Two main thoughts:
First, what do the lyrics of the individual songs say?
What is the message that the song communicates?
Are they saying something clear and particular or vague and ambiguous about God?
Are they about God at all or are they about what we are doing and will do for God?
Are we emphasizing what God is like and what he has done or are we emphasizing what we are like and what we will do?
Second, what message is being communicated by the set as a whole?
Is the collective of our songs – during a single week and over the long haul – communicating the story of the full gospel?
Are we covering the full expression of praise and worship outlined in Scripture (cf. the Psalms) or do we only sing happy-clappy victorious songs?
Are the words we’re putting in the mouths of God’s people faithful to his character and his story or are we only singing the parts we like that align with how we feel?
These are just a few of the questions we can begin asking to evaluate how theologically thoughtful and pastorally sensitive our worship services are.
It’s unrealistic to think that all worship leaders should go to seminary or pursue a Ph.D. in graduate school (though our churches might be healthier places if *some* did!). But if you’re tasked with leading people in worship – and desire to do it well – then, on some level, you are called to think about the intersection of God, humanity, and the life that we’re all living. And we call this daunting task, the work of theology.
Where can we begin?
If you have the money and the time, enroll in seminary. For those that don’t there are various tiers of learning resources ranging from online courses like NT Wright Online to 10,000 Fathers Worship School to looking for free or low-cost seminars at universities and seminaries in your area.
Human resources are always the most valuable and the most important.
Make friends with experts or those who have thought deeply about the worship of the church.
Engage in these types of conversations with your senior pastor.
And last, but not least (and the cheapest!) – read. Read the Bible and read it carefully (a new translation might help reduce familiarity).
Begin with experienced and thoughtful worship leaders and worship scholars that are writing about evangelical and charismatic worship. Names like Glenn Packiam, Zac Hicks, Lester Ruth, and the late Robert E. Webber come to mind.
It is my hope that this blog will be a place to nudge you – nudge us – into more faithful thinking about our worship leading for the sake of the flocks that God has called us to. But what can you do today to be a more thoughtful worship leader?
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