How I Caught the Worship Bug: and Never Got Over it

The worship bug first bit a long time ago—back in high school when I sang in “Gospel Press,” a church youth choir directed by Sonny Salsbury. But more on that later. Ever since then, my spiritual journey has taken me through various expressions of a movement some call a “worship awakening.”

Over the years I’ve visited a number of places known for worship innovation and have gotten to know a number of leaders in worship and music. The road has taken me to pastoral ministry on the Oregon coast, to doctoral studies in Germany, to teaching at Fuller Theological Seminary, to worship ministry training for Maranatha! Music, to freelance teaching, writing, and consulting, and now back to pastoral ministry in San Antonio.

A Shifting Landscape

The term worship awakening covers a constantly changing landscape that is simply too diverse to allow for easy description. Mostly this awakening is about godly pastors and lay leaders trying to be faithful to Scripture and sensitive to the needs of real people. Its appeal lies partly in its rejection of the formalism and uniformity of much of mid-twentieth century Protestant worship, but also in its openness to innovation and diversity and its recognition that times have changed: a new day calls for a new way to worship. As Voetius put it, ecclesia reformata sed semper reformanda sicut verbum Deum (The reformed church is always reforming according to the Word of God). That goes for worship too.

A worship awakening will certainly not solve all the problems of the church. And it (probably) will not hasten the return of the Lord. Nor will it break our fascination with forms. Some of its strengths are sources of potential weakness. Except for the liturgical renewal movement, worship awakening in too many evangelical churches is theologically uncritical and historically uninformed. The lack of ministry training among worship leaders is a serious threat that church leaders have only recently begun to recognize and address.

What follows is a personal account of experiences and impressions and a little bit of what I’ve learned along the way.

A Saga from Sagebrush Country

“Gospel Press” was the choir for the 8:00 a.m. service at First Presbyterian Church in Yakima, Washington, back in the early 1970s. Our director, Sonny, used the freedom of that more informal service to experiment with new contemporary worship songs. Our introits and anthems were songs from youth musicals that were popular then, including many of Sonny’s own songs. We also sang the new “Jesus music” from southern California, along with some of the early Scripture choruses coming out of some charismatic churches. Sonny was a stickler for detail. We practiced everything, including the hymns. The organ usually accompanied them, but from time to time the Gospel Press band played instead.

The music made its mark. There was a noticeable difference between the early and later services. Not only did the youth appreciate worship led by their peers, but adults of all ages enjoyed a more informal approach. We had no term for it back then, but we had stumbled upon “blended worship.” After Sonny left in 1978 and the Gospel Press choir disbanded, the band continued to play for the 8:00 service. By the mid-80s that service had become the largest of the three.

Sonny and the Gospel Press planted in me the seeds of a growing interest in worship. First, Sonny taught and modeled worship. His godly influence focused my discipleship and attention on God alone and for no other reason than serving God. He communicated the majesty of an awesome God in a winsome, even playful way. An avid outdoorsman, Sonny’s songs used the grandeur of God’s creation as the doorway to a deeper praise and devotion of God found in Scripture.

Second, Sonny modeled a healthy balance of new and old. Youth ministry is often a breeding ground of iconoclasm and anti-traditionalism, but Sonny demonstrated a remarkable ability to hold together innovation and tradition. He loved popular music, in particular the folk-rock styles that were all over the Top Forty back then—artists like John Denver, Linda Ronstadt, and the Eagles. Sonny encouraged us to listen to early Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) artists and invited many of them to perform at First Presbyterian.

He also began to use other artistic media creatively in worship in ways that few had thought of back then. Sonny used dramatic skits to set up Scripture readings and sermons. He often accompanied his songs with a slide show of pictures taken on hikes in the Cascades or Yosemite National Park.

Sonny was a creative worship innovator, but innovation never came at the expense of tradition. His arrangements of traditional hymns and gospel songs flowed naturally from his love of traditional church music, which was nourished in his Nazarene upbringing, and he passed that love and respect for the church’s musical heritage on to the whole congregation.

I had a chance to put all that into practice while leading worship at Sunday evening meetings and in small groups sponsored by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Willamette University. I learned firsthand to respect the considerable power of music in worship by not abusing it. The group’s leadership questioned our team more than once about our choices and our aims. Sonny’s example was a valuable guide to me then.

A Walk Though the Vineyard

The next significant turn in the road came in 1985. After just over a year as pastor of the Brookings Presbyterian Church, I arranged to spend two weeks at Fuller Seminary on a study leave. One Sunday evening Dr. Eddie Gibbs took me to the Anaheim Vineyard, which was then meeting in a converted warehouse. I had never heard of the church or its pastor, John Wimber, but what I encountered there rocked my world. The worship of the Vineyard was unlike anything I had ever experienced. For me, the Vineyard was a whole new worship music ballgame.

What was different about it? Two things struck me in the first five minutes: it was good and it was directed to God. The sound was flat-out, straight-ahead, no-holds-barred, pedal-to-the-metal, honest-to-goodness rock and roll. It was passionate and it was loud. Keep in mind that while CCM was developing a musical diversity that reflected the pop music of the day, contemporary worship music in the late 1970s and early 1980s seemed to be stuck in a folk-pop music rut. And a lot of the early songs were testimony songs or message songs aimed at the listener. Songs like “Pass It On,” “Have You Seen Jesus My Lord?” and “We Are the Family of God” were not written for worship; instead they were for fellowship or witness around the campfire at a youth group meeting. The Vineyard opened up a whole new approach to worship music to me—music that addressed God directly and thus functioned more like sung prayer.

The Vineyard songs also covered a greater emotional range and exhibited a surprising balance between songs that focused on God’s nature and character and songs that expressed worshipers’ personal devotion to God. Vineyard songs were both louder and quieter than anything I’d encountered until then. Celebration songs were celebratory; songs of intimacy were tender and personal. At first I felt uncomfortable singing such intensely personal songs; the extensive use of anthropomorphisms to describe my relationship with God—touching, kissing and holding—made me feel awkward. Because of my experience as a worship leader in college, I recognized right away the risk of emotional manipulation present in that environment. Yet the worship leaders seemed alert to that possibility, deftly leading people in music and prayer without coercing them. Wimber’s now-famous laid-back style appeared to be directly adapted to skeptical southern Californians.

Before leaving that day, I purchased every tape and songbook available (four at the time) and started practicing the songs as a soon as I got home. A few weeks later, I tried them out on the leadership of my church. They responded to my enthusiasm and agreed to an experiment. We decided to replace the first hymn with two or three of these new songs for a while, and then see what happened. The first service, which was more informal to begin with, responded positively to the new songs. At the second service, which was more traditional, the response was mixed. After a while, other musicians joined me in leading the congregational singing at the early service, and we began accompanying the hymns as well. Without knowing any terms to name we were doing, we had created a “blended service” and implemented a strategy of offering different worship styles.

A Unique Vantage Point

Shortly after came the next stage of my journey. In late 1986 until 1991 I pursued doctoral studies in Germany at the University of Erlangen.

My interest in worship led me to focus on liturgical texts in the New Testament and the reformation of worship in Zurich and Geneva under Zwingli, Bullinger, and Calvin—academic background that helped when I later taught a course in Reformed worship at Fuller Seminary in the early 1990s.

Two important factors shaped my teaching from the beginning. The first was the presence of students in the class from the Vineyard who had registered with enthusiasm—finally, a course on worship at Fuller! The other was the explosion of interest in Willow Creek Community Church and its seeker service. We wrestled in class with Reformed worship in the context of these two very different movements. At the same time, we reflected on the theology, history, and practice of a Reformed worship heritage. Some of the students saw no problems borrowing from charismatic and seeker service approaches; others worried about losing a Reformed identity. I remember several Vineyard students who weren’t sure about having others adapt their ideas and styles; they sometimes chided the Presbyterians about abandoning their Reformed principles.

Fuller’s D.Min. program is unique in the evangelical world because of its denominational diversity. As a meeting ground for Protestantism, it offered a unique vantage point from which to view worship awakening. Working with pastors from nearly every Protestant tradition, I could see its impact among all sorts of groups in the United States and elsewhere around the world, particularly in Korea.

I learned that pastors see worship awakening as a “high-yield, high-risk” deal. Nearly all pastors long for renewal in worship for themselves and for their congregations. They know that renewal transforms ministries and congregations. At the same time, they are keenly aware that worship is the “third rail” of local church politics; touching it can be fatal for their ministry, and it can set off worship wars. We learned together that there is no “one size fits all” solution to this dilemma.

I also learned that while many see worship awakening largely in terms of music, pastors tend to view it in terms of leadership. The right songs and the right equipment aren’t nearly as important as the right people and the right attitudes. On Sundays in the middle of our two-week intensive courses, I took my classes to worship at Christian Assembly in Eagle Rock, near Pasadena, California. CA, as the church is known, is a mildly charismatic, multiracial church. The students’ reaction to the services was always the same. As impressive as the music was, the quality of leadership from music leader Tommy Walker and Pastor Mark Pickerill impressed them more, and they quickly identified it as the key to the renewal of worship at CA.

On the Road

After six years at Fuller, I moved on to help with the worship leader workshops for a brief time at Maranatha! Music, and then continued teaching and consulting on my own. During that time, I learned about the vital role of the contemporary worship music industry in worship awakening. Music is an important part of the worship awakening, and the shaping of church music happens mostly in commercial music companies rather than in denominations. Recording and publishing companies (in particular the “Big Three”—Maranatha! Music, Integrity Music, and the Vineyard Music Group) see themselves as intermediaries, gathering songs from churches and distributing them to churches through recordings, sheet music, live events, and training seminars.

Travelling around the country with one of three Maranatha! Praise bands, I met hundreds of worship leaders and team members who shared their stories with us. From them I learned that worship ministry is hard, particularly for leaders who volunteer or who work only part-time. They worry about the toll ministry takes on their families and on their spiritual growth, issues they said their pastors don’t know about or really understand. They want their teams to be well prepared and to do a good job on Sunday mornings, but they also worry about conflict among team members and opposition from members in the congregation.

I also discovered that there is a lot of creativity and imagination among churches that most of us don’t hear about or read about. The lay leaders I met are trying to help their churches find their own musical and liturgical voices; they’re not trying to clone Willow Creek or Maranatha! or Hillsongs, or anybody else. Theological integrity matters more at the grassroots than many admit, even among churches whose ministry strategies seem iconoclastic and antitraditional.

Here to Stay

So what’s the bottom line in all this looking back? Worship awakening is here to stay. The proverbial genie is out of the bottle, and we can’t put it back in. Creativity and innovation are in; uniformity is out. Some churches will be shaped by the seeker-service strategy; the charismatic movement will flavor others; still others will draw on the liturgical renewal movement. Many churches already blend these in very creative ways. Seminaries and denominations, usually ten to fifteen years behind on movements in the churches, are now acknowledging this situation, though their responses range from encouraging renewal to opposing it. One thing I know for certain—the Spirit is at work bringing renewal to God’s church!

Robb Redman is pastor of Forest Hills Presbyterian Church, San Antonio, Texas, and he directs the Worship Ministry Resource Center, Inc. He is completing a book on contemporary worship.