Keeping the Stage Young
by Dan Adler
Recently a job posting was brought to my attention regarding a worship leader position in a large church in Texas. The job sounded interesting enough, and included working with volunteer musicians, AV and tech stuff and leading worship – all responsibilities that are typically part of worship leading jobs. But then there was an added something that caught my eye and really made me cringe. It said, “Incorporate a variety of soloists and worship leaders each Sunday – always focusing on staying “young” on the stage (We want to be more loyal to our future than to our past)”. Wow! They actually said it out loud! All kinds of churches are leaning this same way, but don't usually come right out and say it.
When I read that and as I ponder it, although I suppose it sounds like good marketing and packaging of a product, I have to ask some questions – the first being, “Is this in any way Biblical?” So we want to sell our brand of Christianity as being only about youth, hipness and coolness. Who doesn't want themselves or their club to be seen that way? But first of all, is any real church filled with just young, good-looking, cool people? Also, does this approach reflect the community that a congregation of the one Church of Jesus Christ is supposed to be? In being more loyal to the future than the past, aren't we presenting a trendy Christianity that will change with cultural whims – versus a timeless Christianity that continues to be relevant to all generations – no matter how the world changes around us? Aren't we denying the wisdom that, not always, but often comes with age and is much valued in the Scriptures? Aren't we presenting an exclusive and intolerant and even prejudicial form of Christianity that favors one group of people over another? I suppose the leaders of this church would think, “Hey, we're about reaching a younger demographic. If they want a church for older people, they can go to another church down the road”. That sounds reasonable in a way, but then, doesn't the church down the road end up being the church that sells its Christianity to older folks? Doesn't that make a statement that young and old followers of Jesus can't tolerate each other and don't need to be in Christian community with one another? And then doesn't that just create one more ugly divide in the Church of Jesus Christ – the same Church that Jesus so fervently prayed would be one in John 17? And aren't we, bottom line, doing false advertisement about what the Church really looks like and is about anyway?
Like it or not, we make statements by what we present on the stage in our church services. The particular church in this ad is very aware of that. We make statements about who we are as a congregation and what we care about. Our styles of music, the generational diversity or lack of it, the ethnic diversity or lack of it and the lyrical content of our songs – all speak their own messages about who this particular church is for and what it values. I personally believe, based on values I read about in the Bible, that what we present in our Church services should reflect as much diversity as we can while still having a cohesive and relatable experience together. The church in this ad – and so very many others that I know of - wants to make the statement that they are about being young and current and that that is who they want to attend there. This particularly applies to the worship and music ministry of a church, and is often very painful and disillusioning for gifted and highly skilled musicians who no longer keep the stage “looking young”, and are therefore either abruptly or gradually removed from the worship ministry.
So let me play the devil’s advocate… It’s hard to include older people on the stage. Just having them up there based on their hair styles and color (gray – maybe), the clothes they wear and their lack of youngness, makes our presentation appear less relevant – because you would never see that in mainstream culture in a music group (unless they're the Rolling Stones – who are all in their 70’s or U2 who are in their mid-50’s). And then, older people often don't sing as well or stylistic as younger people do and might not be very good at adapting to current musical styles. Also, our culture revolves around pop music and pop stars. There is an expectation of coolness in how those groups look and how current their music sounds. If we are trying to reach our culture for Jesus, shouldn't we be working within that model to reach out to them? Where do older people fit into that picture unless they look and sound and have the reputation of a Bono or Mick Jagger?
These are good questions. I remember as a young worship leader dealing with the challenges of keeping some sort of consistency and quality of our musical worship on Sundays while dealing with volunteer singers and instrumentalists of different ages and abilities. It wasn't easy. Sometimes there would be an older person who enjoyed singing but had a really wide vibrato - in the realm of a George Beverly Shea - that just didn't blend with the songs that we were singing unless they were hymns – and even then, not so much. I had to make some difficult and painful decisions about things like that sometimes. There are musical realities to consider so that what is presented has quality to it and isn't just downright painful to listen to or a parody of what it should be within a given style of music. But there are many people of many different ages that are very capable of participating in many styles of corporate worship music. In my view, it is incumbent upon those in church leadership to find ways to include them.
But if we, in order to be somehow relevant to the culture (which translates to mean a narrow demographic of younger people in our culture), have to model our worship music strictly off of the current biggest selling Christian worship bands such as Hillsongs or Bethel Worship, there will be nothing but youth on the stage…. And really, it’s getting close to where the biggest modern worship songwriter of all time, Chris Tomlin, who is starting to gray and is 43, shouldn't really be allowed on stage anymore based on these standards. And is that a good thing?
Now some of you may be thinking I'm talking just like an old guy – which I am quickly becoming. But I've always felt this way and I feel like my view is informed by Scripture. So much of what this is about comes down to the question of what is the Church or what is a congregation? Is it a Sunday morning production with performers and audiences that we are marketing to? Is it a concert? Or is it meant to be a congregating of Christians of all generations and ethnicities to worship, pray, be instructed, share communion and build one another up? The Church isn't about buildings or brands to sell or Sunday morning shows with audiences. I love concerts and I perform concerts. But our church services aren't meant to be concerts. The Church is the community of Christians who are from all generations and ethnicities. It is a diverse group of people whose main demonstration to the non-Christian world of the genuineness of their faith is their love for one another – for their fellow Christians – not the hip-ness of their Sunday morning presentation! So shouldn't that presentation then model that type of community in every way possible? Shouldn't the message be “Receive the Gospel that transforms diverse people into a community who love and serve their God and one another together” rather than a focus on “Come to our church where we are young and cool and our music sounds like pop radio”? (Nothing wrong with sounding like pop radio, by the way, but is it the most important thing?) Isn't a big part of our call a call to die to ourselves and serve one another? That isn't easy to market or sell. The only way to market that message is to demonstrate how beautiful it is to live it out. I believe we should seek to live it out in all we do in church – including on the worship stage.
Why should we relegate our worship music to only what is in the current top twenty praise and worship songs? Let’s do those songs and do them well. They're great! But we have a treasure trove of music from generations past that we can also draw from that have strengths that current songs don’t. Can't we do different styles from week to week in ways that can include different people on the stage or does that damage the “brand” we're trying to market? Why should we only present a message on stage that we are for the young? Do we, as we grow older, want to feel the impact of the message coming as loud from the Church as it does from the culture that older people are to be cast off and are value-less and should be pushed to the margins? Is that in any way reflective of Biblical Christianity? I don't think so.
When we began Heart of the City in 1996, the big areas of division we observed were racial and denominational. Sadly, those are still very much in play. But since then, this new generational one has become very real – especially in larger white congregations in cities, and I think it’s a very sad reality. Unfortunately, this kind of marketing actually works and therefore makes it much harder to disagree with. Just like sex sells pop music and cars and just about everything else in our culture – and therefore it keeps being used because it produces sales – marketing churches to divided subgroups of people, by generation, or ethnicity also sells or grows churches quicker and easier than marketing them to broader groups. But if the end result is a Christianity that looks very little like what is presented in the Bible, we must force ourselves – in spite of the numbers - to reconsider our methods and values and model a more Christ-like presentation of what the Church should be. Humility, servant-hood, dying to ourselves, esteeming others as better than ourselves, taking up our cross and following Jesus are hard concepts to embrace and live out. But they are clearly the ways of Jesus.
Yes, there will definitely be times when some older people don't qualify or no longer have the capabilities to do a quality job of worship leading a variety of worship music – including modern worship. But until then, isn't our corporate worship so much more lovely and pleasing to the Lord when it is multi-generational and multi-ethnic? And isn't an increasingly divisive, isolated, impersonal, castaway society such as ours hungering to find a place where such love and unity is modeled in the name of Christ and with the sound of a worship song? I think so.
Romans 15:5,6 – “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”