By Carl Stagner
The Church of God has long been known as a singing church. We’re a group that sings our theology, and we worship the Lord with joy! Of course, the Church of God has a history of worshiping through instrumental music, prayer, Scripture reading, as well as other arts, including a more recent expression—dance. A look back reveals what worship looks like in the movement has evolved over the years. Methods and forms have changed, but necessary elements have remained the same. While there is much to celebrate, there are certainly also ways we can improve. In the following interview with Church of God Ministries (CGM), five Church of God worship leaders offer their reflections on worship in the church today: Doug Irving, of Pennway Church (Lansing, Michigan); Kenneth Spiller, of Parkgate Community Church (Pasadena, Texas); Mandy Bohm, of Teays Valley Church (Scott Depot, West Virginia); Chad Harlan, of First Church (St. Joseph, Michigan); and Kendyl Terry, most recently of Highland Park Community Church (Casper, Wyoming).
CGM: What major shifts have you seen in worship services over the last fifteen to twenty years?
Doug: Worship services have become less divided across style lines. This has been good for the church in general, as worship has moved toward a more multigenerational experience. The church is in a good place regarding worship, and will receive God’s continued favor as long as we seek his face, shred our agendas, and worship in spirit and truth.
Kenneth: Something that I’ve noticed (though it is not new) is a growing self-centeredness. Worship, service, and even church seems to be more and more about “me.” What I like. What I want. What pleases me. When worship becomes me-centered instead of God-centered, it’s no longer biblical worship. It seems folks are happy with following Jesus until what they want and what God wants collide. When I want this, but God wants that, who wins? Self-sacrifice, denying yourself, and serving without fanfare seem to be in short supply.
Mandy: This may be a little farther back than twenty years ago for some churches, but it is still making its way into many today: screens! I’m thrilled that we have media screens with lyrics because we don’t have to have music stands or memorize every word and form of every song to have confidence and sing new songs. The worship team and congregation can just focus on worship because they don’t have to hold books and look down at lyrics or focus too hard on what comes next during the corporate worship. I like being able to put names of people on the screen so the growing congregation can put a face and name together (we don’t have that in the bulletin anymore). The problem with the screens is that they have replaced music reading and children are not growing up reading music anymore unless they take special classes. That doesn’t sound super spiritual, but I absolutely believe it helped me musically. Sometimes if we are singing a song I know we all know, I purposefully ask the media tech not to put the words up because I want the congregation to sing without the prompting and not read the words. The majority of the time it’s been a great addition to the worship service.
Chad: One cultural shift I have witnessed in recent years would be moving from a participatory worship style to a concert environment. I believe that God can move in both environments. I personally love seeing our people participate and sing songs that they know. Introducing new songs in moderation is always wise. In an attempt to create a more seeker-friendly environment, sometimes we miss the opportunity to connect new people to the body of Christ.
Kendyl: One major shift that I’ve noticed is the shift from actual congregational singing to more of a “concert feel” when it comes to our worship services. Is this good? I don’t know. I’m from the school of thought that we as the church come together to worship as one body, which includes singing and praying together, as well as participating in the Word—together. I love the new technology that we have in our services today, but I don’t want us to lose sight of what’s really important. We worship the Lord, not the latest song we heard on the radio, not the latest trend that—fill in the blank— speaks about. We worship Jesus. He’s the center of it all.
CGM: What role, if any, does worship style play in planning of worship services these days?
Doug: Separate contemporary and traditional worship services came to be as a result of a thirty-year-old church growth model. Yet there are some churches that have recently adopted this into their programming as if it’s a new thing. Too much emphasis on style, while coming from a place of concern for a particular demographic’s preference in music, misses the point of worship. Worship is about the body of Christ—the whole body of Christ, not the segregated generations—coming into the presence of God to joyfully proclaim his works and giving him the honor he is due.
Kenneth: We take worship styles into consideration and try to meet our congregation where they are. With this in mind, we do contemporary services with a full band and play the best of today’s new music, while also holding on to the great songs of the past. Our services are a mix of contemporary music and hymns. I was asked the other day how we decide what songs to choose (there are so many and it seems like everybody has their favorites). I have a few criteria for choosing songs: biblical faithfulness, whether it is God-honoring, singability, relevance, theme of the morning, genre of the song, ability of musicians, and others). But one of the biggest questions I ask is simply, Does this song promote the mission of the church? In other words, Will it help draw people to Christ? Will it help draw the lost to Christ? The answer to this question will help shape a worship service at Parkgate.
Mandy: I do not find the worship-style debate to be a hot-button issue today. Fortunately, I am a part of a singing church! Our congregation loves music and loves to sing, and can appreciate many styles/genres of music. My first spring as the worship pastor at Teays Valley, I planned a “Night of Praise” concert featuring our sanctuary choir, Voices of Praise, and after looking at the song titles, I said, “It looks like I’m planning a wedding! We have something old, something new, something borrowed, and something bluegrass!” That phrase has stuck with us and is often repeated about the Teays Valley worship style. It is not about hymn or ballad or old or new; it is about quality, passion, truth, and true expression.
Chad: I feel like the traditional vs. contemporary debate that was once a big issue in our churches has become less prevalent in the last several years. I believe that you can incorporate a variety of styles in worship to help lead others to connect with God. Worship pastors and leaders need to be sensitive to the demographics of their churches that God has called them to lead.
Kendyl: I feel that all leaders have their own preferred style of leading; however, there must be a time when that leader allows him or her to be stretched outside of their comfort zone in order to be most effective in their ministry. In other words, you can’t please everyone, but work hard to be versatile and “become all things to all people” (1 Cor 9:22). As far as the “worship wars” are concerned, worship leaders will always be questioned about the genre of music that is being presented just because music is so subjective.
CGM: Serving as a worship leader/pastor is so much more than jamming out on your instrument. What is involved in your role beyond tickling the ivories, plucking the strings, and singing at the top of your lungs?
Doug: Administration is a big piece. Planning, scheduling, delegating, designing. A big responsibility I have is to be a pastor to my worship team, Sunday school class, and congregation. Caring for people is huge.
Kenneth: As worship leader, I lead four groups of people. Here they are in order: the first person I lead is not a band member or a volunteer; it’s me. Am I spiritually, emotionally, and physically healthy? Am I engaging God and his Word and work? Is my family being neglected? Is leading worship a routine job or ministry? Am I being faithful to what Christ called me to do? Second, I lead my close team. This is the core group of people I work closest with. For me it consists of three groups, including staff members, worship team members, and those I’m mentoring. These groups have enormous influence on the life of our church. Am I supporting them? Are they leading well? Do I invest in them? Am I making space
for them to do ministry? Do I lead them well? Third, I lead the wider team. I lead the many volunteers that serve in and outside the church. Do they have what they need? Are we celebrating their successes? How can I help them lead/serve better? Do they feel appreciated? Do they know they are valued? Are they growing in Christ? Fourth, I lead the congregation. Leaders who put the congregation above their own spiritual health, or before the opportunity to influence their leaders/volunteers, make a terrible mistake.
Mandy: The most important component is probably my love for Scripture and the prayer time I have with the Holy Spirit for inspiration and direction each week. Each week I present the inspiration for the worship set to the worship team and we pray together after every rehearsal and before every sound check. I can’t expect my ministry to grow spiritually or musically if I don’t grow in those ways also. I also spend a lot of time communicating with personnel and members of the worship ministry. I put together the music for the band rehearsals each week because I know what keys they like to play in or what kind of score or sheet they like to read from. I listen to a lot of music and subscribe to choral clubs, and am constantly receiving packets of music to comb through. My kids are used to hearing Christmas music in the summer and Easter music at Christmas (always staying a season ahead).
Chad: The most important role of a worship pastor is leading a congregation and individuals to a connection and relationship with God. This can be accomplished through corporate worship, weekly practices, and one-on-one mentoring.
Kendyl: I’ve mentioned to people in various conversations that music is only 40 to 50 percent of my ministry. The other 50 to 60 percent is filled with ministering to the hurt and broken, as well as leadership development. When you have multiple people within your ministry, you have multiple individual personalities, as well as multiple families that require your attention.
CGM: What are your greatest challenges of a worship leader? What are your greatest blessings?
Doug: Worship leaders must teach and instruct their congregations about worship. Thus, worship leaders must always be learning about worship. More than this, worship leaders must develop as worshipers. This can be a challenge, given busy schedules and routines, but it also provides an amazing opportunity to grow deeper in relationship with the Father.
Kenneth: The greatest challenges for me are people issues. Leading though people’s criticism, doubts, volunteer flakiness, skepticism, immaturity, apathy, and even sinful attitudes/actions can be extremely challenging. Another challenge is staying creative. Sundays come around with shocking regularity! Keeping each service fresh, energetic, and relevant can be challenging. One of the greatest blessings of being a worship leader is seeing people “get it.” It’s those “aha” moments when people move closer to Christ. There’s nothing like it!
Mandy: All of the expectation is a challenge. When something is done with excellence, it constantly raises the bar. When you and your team give 110 percent every week, how do you give more than that on Easter? Yet it is expected. Keeping the morale up and not burning people out who have literally been playing or singing every week for as many years as you can remember…and having to correct adults or point out mistakes—those do not come easy for me…I keep the issue in perspective and love the person more than I dislike the mistake…Seeing the glory of God and the Holy Spirit moving in a service you prayed about and planned, and feeling his favor as you sing and inspire others to worship is awesome! Hearing the congregation singing so loudly and praising God so expressively that you can hardly hear the worship team over them, and they are now leading you in worship, is a rush!
Chad: One challenge is having vocalists or instrumentalists who want to serve on your worship team, but you don’t personally feel like they are gifted in the area of worship ministry. These conversations can be difficult. One great blessing I have witnessed is the tremendous growth in our choir. Our choir has developed into a small group who prays and cares for one another. When people truly see the vision and know what it means to be a child of God, that’s awesome!
Kendyl: One challenge is convincing people that they can become great worship leaders in whatever capacity they’re gifted in. Another challenge that I faced was building trust from the people within your ministry. Once this challenge was met, the trust factor became a true blessing. When you build trust, people will align themselves with your vision and become great supporters.
Kenneth Spiller has recently published a book to serve as a resource for worship leaders in the Church of God and beyond. Order your copy of Journey of a Worshiper: Exploring Matters of Faith and Leadership from Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/Journey-Worshiper-Kenneth-J-Spiller/dp/1512739081/.
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