September 23, 2020

Miguel Ruiz: Confessions of a Former “Worship Leader”


Thanks to Jonathan Aigner for letting us re-post this from his site, Ponder Anew. Jonathan writes the best blog about worship on the web, in my opinion, and I hope you’ll check out his articles regularly.

Miguel Ruiz is one of our faithful readers and participants at Internet Monk. He really hits one out of the park with this personal story about his journey.

• • •

I can’t help but think I am not alone in my story, even if my journey has some unique twists.

I grew up in the non-denominational tradition. For us, worship was the six songs we sang before the sermon, and the two after. We were encouraged to participate enthusiastically, to pour out our love for God in song. It was just assumed that, of course, we arrived every Sunday with a hopper full of it. I was a very earnest young believer, desiring to please God with my efforts, so I sang from my pew every week, sometimes with gusto, others just kind of plodding.

From time to time, if there wasn’t enough enthusiasm in the rank and file, a guilt trip might be issued. How could Christians just sit there in the pew and not praise God with every ounce of their strength? I would feel convicted, but also frustrated that my efforts were not being supported by the less enthusiastic.

Come on, people, let’s sing it like we really mean it!

You do mean it, right?

And so I labored in my vocalizing under the obligation of sincere thankfulness and genuine love that were supposed to naturally proceed from a personal relationship with Jesus. But to be honest, I didn’t come to church most Sundays feeling very in love with Jesus, and no amount of singing it over and over changed that one bit. Yet I continued to sing as best I could because I was convinced that it was what I was supposed to be doing. God really wants our singing, I guess. That’s how we glorify Him, whatever that means.

Those who led the singing seemed to have absolutely no shortage of love for Jesus. Like the Energizer bunny, these people must have hated to go home after church. Eyes were closed, hands were raised, facial expressions were strained— you’ve all seen the look; it’s about halfway between sex and constipation.

I suppressed a lingering suspicion that I was not as in love with Jesus as they were. Of course I was! I was a committed worshiper who did my best (which is all God ever asks, right?) to sing with devotion! But I never had the kind of “spiritual connection” with God that, evidently, resulted in such ecstatic grimaces. Until…

In 25 years of Evangelicalism, I can count them on one hand. That’s right, I did get the shivers. I remember it clearly, and there is no convincing me that it was not a real experience. A few times, while I was singing as passionately as I could muster, and had the guts to close my eyes, raise my hands, and tune out the world, even if none of my peers seemed interested. I don’t know how to describe what happened.  I got the chills.  I “felt the Holy Spirit pouring into me.” I had some sort of rush. I didn’t have to contrive a facade, I just began to feel this intense emotional connection to God, pulsating like an orgasm in my chest.

It went away by the end of the song, despite my best efforts to sustain it. And it didn’t come back again for a very long time. When it did, it was just as rare. So I sat in the pews week after week, surrounded by people for whom this apparently happened every time someone strummed a guitar. I began to wonder about myself.

“It must be my sins,” I thought, and certain Evangelical authors definitely agreed. “If I get rid of this in my life, or overcome this struggle, I’ll have more access to this connection with God.” Or maybe I wasn’t trying hard enough. I needed to concentrate more, be more sincere, pray more before worship, and read my Bible more during the week.

A part of me knew that wasn’t the answer. These euphoric episodes must be gifts from God, not something I conjure. When he wants to, he’ll show up an dazzle me with His presence in ways that will blow my mind, I imagined. But I continued to sit in rooms full of people high on dazzle with nothing but guilt in my heart telling me I must be doing it wrong.  I must not have been spiritual enough that week. But it couldn’t be that. How could I possibly be the only person in the room who sinned himself out of “Experiencing the Manifest Presence of God (TM)” that week, EVERY week?

No, it must be something else. To this day, I haven’t found it, though I quit looking long ago.

After studying music in a conservative Evangelical college, I went into full time work as a “worship leader,” i.e. I strummed a guitar and led the singing. I believed that God inhabited the praises of his people, and you couldn’t lead people further in worship than you’ve already been.  But these sentiments began to make me question if I was truly fit for the task. I consoled myself with the experiences that the people in the pews seemed to be having. Maybe it’s not true, God doesn’t need my worship to be authentic in order to use my music to create legitimate experiences for other people. And so I continued to strive, comforted that my efforts seemed to be doing some good, even if I wasn’t a recipient of it.

Enter my Reformed phrase. Suddenly, everything was ratcheted up to the highest extreme. Perhaps the reason I didn’t feel like I was encountering God in worship was that I wasn’t elect! Did I really even love God? Then why did I feel this way and have these concerns and doubts? How could I be sure I loved God if my emotions were all over the place?

I knew one thing for certain: I couldn’t get up there on Sunday mornings actually looking the way I felt. My growing desperation to feel the presence of God, and perceived alienation from Him, were leading to doubt, frustration, anger, despair, and depression. I’d have been one sorry sight, if you could have seen my soul. It got to the point that leading music on Sundays was painful. I dreaded it with every fiber of my being, and went home completely drained and exhausted every time. There were times I was literally choking back tears as I tried to sing, which ironically, probably just made my crooning appear that much more convincing. My song became a prayer, a desperate cry for God to touch my heart and heal the brokenness of feeling so disconnected from Him. My dark night of the soul had no light at the end of the tunnel.

I had been looking for God inside myself, in my feelings, my experiences, my spiritual faithfulness, and works of obedience. I’d come up empty. I had nothing. The game was over. The God I had been seeking was turning out to be an imaginary best friend whom I was outgrowing.

I finally reached the point where I couldn’t fake it anymore. It was tearing me apart to the point that atheism seemed preferable. I felt like such a hypocrite standing before the congregation every Sunday to lead them in the kind of “worship” that felt like leveraging commercial subculture to manufacture experiences that would hopefully be misconstrued as spiritual. I threw in the towel.

Five days after giving my two weeks, I received a phone call from a Lutheran church on the other side of the country. They wound up taking this religious refugee in and teaching me to worship God in a more emotionally and spiritually healthy way. A much older way.

Rather than pushing me deeper into myself to find my connection with God in emotions and subjective experiences, I am being pulled out of myself to behold something that is objective and external: A God who speaks to us in the sure and certain words of the scriptures, and gives us His grace in the visible and tangible sacraments. My navel-gazing narcissism posing as piety is being put to death by the constant reassurance that as surely as I can hear these words of forgiveness and taste this bread and wine, I can know that God loves and accepts me, because of Jesus, no matter how separated from Him I feel.

As a Lutheran “Cantor” now, I have the freedom to pursue my vocation as a musician untethered from the faux spirituality of manufactured zeal. I no longer feel the pressure to help people connect with God, because the Holy Spirit does this just fine without my help, through the means of grace.

I no longer have to worry about “leading people in worship,” because I have a Pastor who fulfills this responsibility well.

I’m just the music guy now, my job is to help believers sing the Gospel.

The burden is gone.


  1. Beautiful! As I sat in the chairs facing the stage in the evangelical/pentecostal church I felt uncomfortable almost every sunday, because I just didn’t feel what the words of the songs said. I was not happy, thankful, impressed or had any of those emotional states most of the time. As I struggle with depression and self-doubt (exacerbated by winter, as I suffer from SAD), this became very taxing for me, and with the same results as for Miguel. The sermons focused on what I was supposed to be doing (or doing less) were not helping either. There wore long periods where I didn’t go to a service. Yet, when I talked with God, I sensed Him telling me that to get to know Him better, I was to go to Church. First I thought he meant the same evangelical church. And that led to the same results. Until almost three years ago now, I was led to visit an Anglican church. There me and my wife have stayed. I love the rest during the services, the gospel woven into the liturgy, the reading of the word and my response to in with the congregation, the sacraments: going forward to receive however I feel at the moment. And I love the blue hymnbook, songs from the past centuries describing who God is, what He has done, how great his Love is et cetera. I can sing those from my heart! But sometimes we still sing the modern evangelical songs. The lyrics are totally different. Jokingly I describe them to my wife as singing: ‘I have an emotion, I have an emotion’ (repeated ad nauseam). I always look forward to the hymns in services like that. Looking around me I see people enjoying these songs, but I cannot. Let me focus on who God is, not on what I am supposed to feel according to the songwriter, please!

    • ‘I have an emotion, I have an emotion’

      This. Yes. It’s the same thing in most churches, punk rock shows, blues shows, country shows, everything. It’s inauthentic. Someone else’s fears, rage, happiness, joys. There’s nothing true there. Aside from the desire to truly feel those things.

    • Suzanne Burton says

      I am glad for those who have found a home and a peace in a liturgical church. However, I grew up in a liturgical church and stayed there until about the age of 29. My observations were that throughout the years I saw people singing the liturgy from rote memory and was just a habitual thing they did without ever thinking about what they were saying. In other words, what you are saying about the repetitiveness of modern worship, I saw in the mindless repetitiveness of liturgical worship among many congregants. In my church of about 150 worshipers, we do not have “punk rock shows, blues shows, country shows, everything.” I think one, including myself, has to be careful about judging others forms of worship.

      • Suzanne, while that is true of some people in liturgical churches, it isn’t true of all. Frankly, *anything* can become dull and repetitious after a while, but i understand what Miguel is saying about the whole “worship team” phenomenon. (Lifelong Lutheran here, btw, though i took a very long detour into the evangelical world.)

      • Richard Hershberger says

        My experience with liturgical worship is that I interact with a text in three distinct phases. When it is new to me, I am taking in this new information. As it becomes familiar through repetition then yes, there is rote mouthing of the words. But once those words become so ingrained that I don’t have to think about what comes next, my forebrain can reexamine them even as they come out of my mouth on autopilot. I can’t speak for others. It may be that not everyone’s brain works this way. But for me, speaking the liturgy becomes an contemplative act.

        • daveeckstrom says

          Well put, Richard. I spent the first 50 years of life as an evangelical and my recent shift to a liturgical church has freed me to get outside my head and inside my heart in a way that the worship song of the month never could.

        • Richard, yes. I missed that while in the charismatic/evangelical world.

          In general, i am botheted by the way many feel they have to gin up visible emotions in “worship” settings, partly because i know it’s possible to experience deep emotions while sitting quiet and still

      • Suzanne, there are two sides to this coin. On the one hand, we shouldn’t bases our evaluation of the sincerity of other’s worship participation solely on outside appearances. They can serve as indicators, but some people are just less expressive by personality. On the other hand, there is something to be said about having a worship culture which engages the attention and helps encourage attenders to participate. Lackluster and captivating renditions can be done in any style of worship service, though.

        I think we should be careful judging the sincerity of individuals in worship. The forms, on the other hand, should be subject to evaluation. I think we all want to use the best forms possible, and every congregation has things they can do to improve. This is why the musician’s work is never done! I hope you are still serving in the music ministry and enjoying it.

    • Being an Evangelical, it is sad that some people feel that their worship is suppose to be emotional and that they are going to please God by making it so. Because God is Holy and complete, he does not need my worship because HE IS GOD. I am not even worthy to come into His presence because I am a sinner and deserve death, but Christ paid for my sins on the cross and it is only by God’s grace and mercy that I am able to worship Him.

  2. There were times I was literally choking back tears as I tried to sing, which ironically, probably just made my crooning appear that much more convincing.

    I have no doubt that many pastors, who actually are charged with leading their congregations in worship, feel that way. How do you preach, how do you get through the liturgy, how do you offer a word of comfort to those grieving, when you yourself are struggling with a burden that makes you stagger and struggle under its weight?

    • Christiane says

      all shepherds need a quiet place to get away and pray . . . many monasteries offer help to Protestant pastors and it does not involve ‘proselytizing’ them, but really helping them to come ‘into the quiet’ for a while and pray . . . surely there are retreats so that pastors can get some needed ‘R and R’ to restore themselves in Christ . . . it’s just a matter of acknowledging a real need, finding a nourishing environment for renewal, and making the commitment (pastor and flock) to have the pastor go for this needed rest periodically . . . I realize this is not easy for many, but it is biblical and the need is real:

      “And He said to them, “Come with Me privately to a solitary place, and let us rest for a while.” (St. Mark 6:31)

    • The theology of the cross, Robert. It is the only thing that we have to comfort the broken, and it is the only thing that will give broken leaders the hope and peace to comfort others.

  3. Christiane says

    I have joined the local Y for the therapy pool but there is a trade-off, and it’s not the cost per month of belonging. They play ‘praise music’ only it’s not hymns, it’s a range of country-type songs and some R and B and even some heavy metal stuff (yes!). Monday, the music was full blast because of a morning class in the large pool. After the class was over, they let the music continue full blast . . . head-ache range. Either I can’t distinguish the lyrics well or there is very little hymn lyrics included, but there is a lot of repetition of phrases and much noise . . .

    if this is what is happening in some Churches now, I feel sad for the people who loved the old hymns that were so beautiful and that were sung by the whole congregation . . . I guess that means I feel sorry for the old people . . .

  4. Adam Tauno Williams says

    I so much appreciate that the music at the local parish is amateurish and feels like a secondary concern. Such a relief. And so much more honest.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Liturgy = “Work of the People”.

    • Be sure to express this appreciation to them. Because they are almost certainly being told by others who are too bored, both by implication AND directly, that they aren’t exciting enough, and the bigger and better show down the street is more worth getting up for on Sunday.

      It is just a beautiful thing for a congregation to be comfortable being themselves, rather than trying to imitate something they cannot achieve.

  5. “I had been looking for God inside myself, in my feelings, my experiences, my spiritual faithfulness, and works of obedience. I’d come up empty. I had nothing. The game was over. The God I had been seeking was turning out to be an imaginary best friend whom I was outgrowing.”
    That pretty much sums up the backstory behind my journey to ultimately coming to faith in Christ.

  6. This one really hits home for me. I was praying on my way to work this morning (aren’t I pious? 😉 ) and, as often happens lately, my prayers turned inward; Miguel’s phrase “I am being pulled out of myself to behold something that is objective and external” is a cry from my heart–I am sick to death of a church, of worship services, of a way of approaching Scripture and my relationship with Christ that turn the gaze inward on what I must do instead of focusing on what Jesus has done. I so want to be “pulled out of myself”.

    I’ve been reading Christian Wiman, lately; of art, he writes, “Art, like religious devotion, either adds life or steals it.” I can attest that my “religious devotion” has been stealing life. I know this is not right–Christ came so that we may have life and that more abundantly and yet, I feel unsure of what to do. Is the life outside of the evangelical world truly the key to pulling me out of my “navel gazing narcissism” and knowing more fully a loving, gracious God as seen through Jesus Christ?

    • I’ve been reading a lot of Richard Rohr which is giving me a different view. It’s hard for me to explain, but his emphasis on getting the ego out of the way as central to connecting with the divine has hit home for me. I started with his “Falling Upward”. Some may consider him too New Agey, but his writings challenge my thinking, which is something that I find many Christians are very fearful of.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      “I am being pulled out of myself to behold something that is objective and external” is a cry from my heart–I am sick to death of a church, of worship services, of a way of approaching Scripture and my relationship with Christ that turn the gaze inward on what I must do instead of focusing on what Jesus has done. I so want to be “pulled out of myself”.

      May as well be gazing at the Beatific Vision of your smartphone, completely oblivious to Meatspace.

    • “I am being pulled out of myself to behold something that is objective and external”

      This thinking is what’s been leading me to reject Christianity, to reject God, and to reject whatever form of Jesus is preached at me. I only see him in the actions of a select few others nowadays, and really, all my life, but I wasn’t honest with myself.

      It’s always fun when the very thing that brings someone else life…brings utter death to others.

      • Stuart, the “objective and external” thing I am referring to is not the good behavior of others. If you look there you will always wind up with as much despair in a search to see God’s goodness as you will if you look at your own good works, emotions, or experiences.

        The “objective and external” thing is the means of grace. It is only through the scriptures, sacraments, and the Gospel that we see who God is: He is Jesus, who gladly embodies all goodness by embracing our rejection of him to the point of suffering and death. Love has no greater than this. Jesus shows us the love of the Father. Not the church. The church is a lousy savior. If you put your trust there, be prepared to have it repeatedly and continually dashed on the hard rocks of the reality that the church is full of sinners.

  7. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Those who led the singing seemed to have absolutely no shortage of love for Jesus. Like the Energizer bunny, these people must have hated to go home after church. Eyes were closed, hands were raised, facial expressions were strained— you’ve all seen the look; it’s about halfway between sex and constipation.


    In local fandom, there’s a story of some fen who were invited to a free concert by a Calvary Chapelite. Upon arrival they found out it was a CCM concert. Everyone except the Calvary Chapelite was completely bored out of their collective skulls the whole time while the Calvary Chapelite spent the entire time “eyes closed, hands raised, facial expressions between sex and constipation”, swaying back and forth. My source is one of the survivors.

    • “…it’s about halfway between sex and constipation.” I thought that an apt description, too.

      I have such a difficult time with all this because the bottom line is that I just plan don’t like the emotionally charged and emotionally manipulative music that seems to bring something to so many people in a church/worship setting. A friend talked me into attending a Christian comedian/concert thing a number of years ago, and I didn’t think the comedian was all that funny and the music bad but what really bothered me was the people swaying with their arms high above their heads, eyes closed, and with rapturous sex/constipation looks on their faces. Nonetheless, I would feel the same if I was at a Rolling Stones concert and people were acting like that (although I would just assume they were high). I guess I’m not one to show emotional excess anywhere in public.

      Is it just my personal preference? I am a regular symphony attender, so it isn’t that music doesn’t impact me at all. I also know that some hymns in our mainline denomination hymnal are perfectly awful and difficult to sing, but that doesn’t bother me so much. So, I don’t know what the solution is in all this.

      • I hereby move that we make “sextipation” part of the post-Evangelical jargon.

        • Sextipation! I like it!

          Makes me think of that line from “When Harry Met Sally,” but with some uncertainty…

          “I’ll have what she’s having….er, I think.”

        • Suzanne Burton says

          Why are some of you being so judgmental? Have you been to every church that does praise and worship? And this term you want coined is offensive and thoughtless.

      • I’m the same way. Enjoy concerts and music but the worship music with forced emotions and pressure to display them as some experience of God makes me uncomfortable.

        I think part of the reason for this is not only that it is trying to manufacture an experience of God, but that it is doing it so very publicly. It almost feels voyeuristic. Those kinds of experiences are in fact rare for most, and often private, even intimate, when they do occur. There’s something vulgar and crass about trying to manufacture them for display.

        It’s also why I appreciate more and more the liturgy and very different emphasis and tempo of the small lutheran church I’ve now visited a few times.

        • “Folks get all excited and worked up about a football game or concert, why can’t they get all excited and worked up about JEEESUS and GOD and CHURCH??”

          “Can I get an HAYMEN?”

          meh. *spits on the ground*

        • Hi Folks,

          Coming from a Pente background but now semi+catholic, I think there is place for both styles of worship. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying all God’s good gifts. If modern songs “move” a person to experience a time of joy, elation, love for God or open them up emotionally, I think that is a good thing. It is only when experience becomes a focus, rather than a by-product, that it is wrong. Liturgy without engaging the heart can be just as detrimental to spirituality. The church becomes a museum where the main exhibits are hypocrites… A nasty disease that hypocrisy. On one side people are going for a “high”, on the other, an ego massage.

  8. What steps can evangelical pastors, like myself, take then to reform worship rather than fleeing to another tradition? For all of the negative opinions that people here at iMonk seem to have towards the evangelical “quarter” of the Kingdom, there are just as many negatives in the mainline/traditional/ancient forms. No single tradition gets it right.
    If I take anything positive away from the article it is the axiom of singing the Gospel to our people. I think this is where I want to go in my small, evangelical congregation.

    • I attend a small “emerging” Christian & Missionary Alliance church. We have removed the emotion by removing the”Jesus is my Boyfriend songs” and songs the focus on “I”. We’ve brought back beautiful hymns, rich in scripture and ancient faith that describe who and what God is. We are carefull with new music and the message it sends. We have also added liturgical elements to our services. The whole service is a time of worship from the music . . .Word. . . Prayer.. . Scripture. It’s not perfect but way better than what we’ve come out of.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      But why reform? Going to another tradition is efficient. Reform to make one thing like another… Isn’t that pointless? The other thing already exists.

      > there are just as many negatives in the mainline/traditional/ancient forms.

      Disagree. Evangelicalism’s anti-institutionalist/populist culture prevents self-review and reform. It does not bring anything unique to the table IMNSHO.

      > No single tradition gets it right.

      True. But failures do not mean equality.

      • Sometimes reform is necessary because there are theological barriers to joining a new tradition. Evangelicalism is very resistant to reform, but so are all the other traditions. Even in the Lutheran church I spend plenty of time banging my head against the wall. The difference is that our tradition serves as an anchor to our spirituality that protects us from the extremes of the circus. Reform IS possible in the Evangelical world, it’s just that my experience suggests the uphill incline is severely steeper. While I would say that the older traditions are objectively superior and more spiritually healthy, it is certainly possible, necessary, and commendable for those committed to the doctrinal tenants of Evangelicalism to work towards a more healthy expression of it. I will always applaud those who stick it out and fight, I admire their stamina. That being said, though my conversion was doxologically driven, knowing what I do now about Lutheran theology will prevent me from ever going back. I believe what our church teaches, and those who cannot are left to love the church they have as best they can.

        • Christiane says

          “The difference is that our tradition serves as an anchor to our spirituality that protects us from the extremes of the circus.”

          well said, MIGUEL

        • Suzanne Burton says

          Do you believe this is true of all evangelical churches? I was raised in the Lutheran church; went to confirmation and communion classes. And when I got older, I left the Lutheran church because I felt the people around me at church were mindlessly singing the liturgy. As you know from our mutual past, I am a member of Gateway Church. And I feel during our praise and worship time, that we are truly worshiping God and not in attendance of a performance as some here have insinuated. Before my dad passed away, I went to church with him when I went to visit him; first Lutheran and then Episcopal services. The services were just as I remembered them; some who were truly worshiping but many who appeared to be just going through the motions ( which I believe is true for all worship services).

          • The thing is, many people in a more liturgical service feel they are truly worshipping God as much as you do at your service. Maybe it boils down to personal preference but my experience at the more emotional performance type service is that it makes me feel like an outsider because all these people are singing the songs (which I usually don’t know & since it’s usually just words on a screen with no music, i can’t sing because I don’t know the tunes) and they are obviously very emotional about the service and the worship and I am not getting that same thrill, so I leave thinking that I must be missing something. Maybe it’s that my personality is more introverted and quiet and the loud, rock band type service just doesn’t sit well with me. I’m not sure why, but it doesn’t. So, I don’t know what the answer is. Maybe different kinds of churches exist because we all respond to different stimuli.

          • Hey Suzanne Burton! Thanks for chiming in on the discussion! I have many good memories of making music with you at Gateway. You were a tremendous help to us and a great friend. And I remember you telling us about visiting your dad’s church with him. I believe you said he went to both the traditional and the contemporary service.

            Of course I wouldn’t say that is true of all Evangelical churches. As diverse as the movement has become, not a lot is true of all Evangelical churches.

            It is as you say, though: Any worship style is capable of lending itself to mindless repetition or route performance. The responsibility is on the participant, regardless of “style,” and this is a good thing.

            So then the real question is not whether something is repetitive, but rather, what is being repeated? In the liturgy of the church, you have the most Christ centered rituals that are saturated with the Scriptures and constantly outlining the Gospel. These comforts are there to sustain us whether we feel connected to God or not. Indeed, it is through these means of grace that we are connected with God.

            In the traditional liturgy, even if someone isn’t putting all their effort into it, they are still being sung the Word of God and having the Gospel proclaimed to them in song by the rest of the assembly. This has the potential to work on them for their edification despite their lack of attentiveness.

            But most importantly, if your feelings of truly worship God are ultimately indicative of the reality of the situation, then my feelings of the lack thereof are evidence of some divine rejection. I simply can’t go with that kind of emotionalism, it offers no hope to those for whom Christian pop doesn’t stir their soul. It offers little comfort for those feeling estranged from God (specifically, those feeling the weight of their sin: the sick in need of the great physician).

            Rather then going with what makes us feel spiritual, we must embrace Gospel driven spirituality that offers the hope and comfort of the cross above all else. This may at times seem boring and lifeless. It may even make us very uncomfortable. But as Christians, it’s really all we have to offer a dying world.

    • Jake, you fight the good fight. Were more Evangelical pastors like you, I may not have wound up asking the questions that led to my departure. As a leader, you are uniquely positioned to have a positive effect in this regard, but be prepared for much resistance.

      In addition to the helpful sentiments by JDM, Judy, and Adam, I would add that some of my personal “guiding lights” are to always strive for your worship practices to be: 1. Historically rooted, 2. Christ centered, 3. Scripture saturated, and 4. intentionally structured.

      Whatever kind of roots your particular Evangelical congregation has, get in touch with them and dig deep. There are treasures there to be discovered, reapplied, or reinvented that your people just might find quite refreshing. As Robbert Webber often said, the way back is the way forward. Books by Webber, Marva Dawn, could be helpful, but especially Donald Hustad, since I believe he was an Evangelical who served much in a low-church context.

    • I would say better involve the congregation. “Please be seated” after singing has the rhetorical of saying “please be quiet”. Bring back call and response. No stupid “please rise for the reading of God’s word”, but non-manipulative corporate readings could be very beneficial. Perhaps remember simple things like the Lord’s Prayer or Apostle’s Creed, and incorporate those and preach those.

      Discourage passivity, and know your place in the congregation as shepherd, not Man of God.

  9. @Jake:
    From a refugee, a few “practical” suggestions.
    1) turn the volume down, allow the congregation to hear themselves
    2) rotate song variety, old hymns with new instruments can be pleasant; new songs sung a capella can be pleasant
    3) ixnay the emotional manipulation; it’s okay to have a “slow” morning, let it be what it is
    3) celebrate communion more often; it is a “concrete” reminder of why we sing

    For what it’s worth…

  10. I love this, Miguel. I too am happy to be a cantor and not a performer, to assist rather than lead, and NOT to be responsible for gauging the emotional tenor of a congregation and deciding whether to sing it one more time with feeling. When we get to the end, I stop.

    • Since my soul seems to always be seeking some inner turmoil, I can still managed to get worked up over not achieving the impossible musical standards of my inner perfectionist. However, it cannot be understated how much easier this is now that the struggle is not spiritualized. It really gives me a much stronger sense of ownership over my vocation.

  11. The key is that people are different. We need to be very careful when we criticize people for being too emotional in worship, I am a bit disappointed to hear your comparisons Miguel, I have always thought of you as one of the most level headed around here. Surely you recognize that life has periods where we have emotion and times that we do not. You also know that people are different.

    One person can go to the baseball game and cheer loudly, the other sits quietly.

    I have some friends that are too unemotional. Their faith is all in the head and they serve out of a sense of obedience. Theirs is like a loveless marriage if they never have a sense of God.

    I also have friends that are way too emotional, and that’s the grid through which they view things and they could use some good thinking.

    • If somebody is faithfully serving God, I don’t think we should criticize them for not feeling it enough. I relate to the loveless marriage without a sense of God more often then not, despite my best efforts (really, intense striving) to overcome it. I need a God who will lavish my loveless corpse with his life-giving love no matter how poorly I reciprocate, ’cause I pretty much got nothing to offer Him.

      I have not meant to, and I do not believe I have, criticize anybody for being emotional. My concern is with emotionalism, when our feelings for God get over spiritualized, or declared normative for others.

      For those who feel all kinds of emotional connection to God, good for them! It must be nice. What we need on Sunday morning is a ball game that welcomes the enthusiastic cheerleaders AND the quiet, reserved observers. To co-opt your analogy there, worship that caters more directly to the one runs the risk of ostracizing the other.

      I’ll admit (as if it isn’t obvious) that my experiences of emotionalism has made me very cynical, even of my own natural emotions. This simultaneously illustrates the potential harm emotionalism has done to many such as myself, yet shows that the pendulum swing to the opposite extreme is not the answer, even if it is helpful for a time of healing.

  12. Randy Thompson says

    All pop music is ephemeral. That means, most contemporary worship music is ephemeral. What you sing, or rather, what is sung at you, isn’t what you’ll be singing or heard sung at you ten years from now, or even two. A steady diet of ephemeral music makes for Christian minds that have nothing in the memory banks. I’m struck by the fact that people in nursing homes remember a lot of hymns they’ve heard over and over again for decades. Start the hymn (or gospel song) and they’ll chime right in. Sometimes on the second verse, too. I fear that those “nourished” by contemporary ephemera will end up in nursing homes with nothing in their memory and wondering why they don’t feel anything. Rather like many of them are doing now, I fear.

    The good news on this front is, I think, the many articles I’ve come across the last year or two, like Miquel’s, that are addressing this issue, and specifically, how participative worship/singing has given way to performance and passive, earnest gawking.

    A suggestion: A great experiment in worship would be to completely “unplug.” Piano and organs, too. What would worship in your church be like if we, like the Eastern Orthodox and the Church of Christ folks, sang a capella? You’d very quickly find out what is performance and what isn’t, and you’d even more quickly rediscover why melody matters.
    Just a thought.

    • I’ve often contemplated what you’re suggesting. Ultimately, it wouldn’t really work much in a practical sense. EO and CoC traditions are learned slowly and developed over time, similar effects cannot be quickly mastered by unsuspecting congregations. But we can be intentional to include more moments of a cappella singing in our assembly, which along with learning to chant, can help the assembly find their voice.

      • Randy Thompson says

        Well, that’s why I referred to it as an experiment!

        Yet, I have been at services, once or twice, where the organist didn’t show up, where we had to sing acapella, and it was wonderful. You’re right, though, about EO and CofC traditions taking a long time to acclimate to, liturgically. Still, though, I think it would still be a good thing to try and do two or three times a year, as an experiment. People would be pleasantly surprised to her how good it sounded, I think.

        Along the same general lines, I’ve been thinking that churches could offer “singing schools.” I came across a reference to such schools in going over the history (250 years worth) of the first church I pastored, where there were a number of references to “singing schools” in the early part of the 19th century. I have never been able to learn more about these, however (due to time constraints and laziness, truth be told). It seems to me, given the almost complete absence of music in school curriculums, that it would be a very good thing for churches to offer “singing schools” where people can learn to read music (at a basic level, at least) and actually sing on pitch. I don’t know where I’m going with this, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot, lately. My wife, who is musically trained, tells me that this would take longer than I think it would. She’s right, but still, why not give it a try? I wonder how many people are out there, believers and unbelievers, church members and non-church members, who would like some basic exposure to music and singing.

        • Randy Thompson says

          By the way, thank you for writing this. It’s a topic my wife and I discuss often.

        • Great thoughts, Randy. John Finley Williamson, the founder of the Westminster Choir College, said that the church has the power that music educators dare not ignore. He believed that providing a program of worship was only one focus of an effective church music program. The other two goals were the music education of the laity/volunteers, and the enrichment of the community outside the church. A high bar he sets for us to strive after!

          There is a lot of beautiful history to the early american singing schools. A lot of popular hymn tunes come from this tradition (including the tunes commonly used for “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” “Praise the One who Breaks the Darkness,” and “What Wondrous Love is This”). Doing a youtube search on “Sacred Harp” can get you some fascinating back story on this with relative ease. Also listen to the music of American composer William Billings, who was very involved with these schools. His works are staples of church choral programs everywhere. Like this one:

        • Dear Randy thomas, Thanks you for your comment. I’m quite excited to hear that your congregation had singing schools, as the only context I’ve heard of these in is Sacred Harp, a four part a capella singing tradition, that still exists in some parts of the US and has been reimported to the UK and is now expanding in Europe. It’s a good way of introducing some older styles of singing and older texts (although in their own way as um… peculiar as CCM today).

    • I find it interesting that we Christians complain (well, I do, as do many here at iMonk) about worship songs that repeat lines ad naseum, yet in pop/rock music people LOVE to sing along to songs that repeat lines (one weak example is “Hey Jude”). Repeated lines and choruses in pop/rock music tend to be no problem, but seem to be an issue to many of us here at iMonk in worship songs sung on Sunday .

      • Well there is such a thing as bad taste. Each genre of music has it’s successes and its utter failures. Bad music is bad music lyrics notwithstanding.

      • Randy Thompson says

        Good point, RIck.. But, people singing (for example) “Hey Jude” over and over again, and not knowing the rest of the song, usually reflects a group of people who are feeling rather giddy and maybe half-baked!

      • It is a terrible thing to complain about the mother of all learning (…repetition).

        However, what you repeat had better be worthy of the extra mentions. Cliches and catch phrases? Save it for the dance floor. Life giving words of grace and forgiveness? Sing ’em till you’re blue in the face, let them be engraved deeply in your mind so that they sink into your soul. Then they will be there to comfort you in the time of trial.

        “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”

        We repeat this prayer after communion every week. We sing it, actually. I can think of no better words to comfort me on my death bed.

  13. Thank you so much for this Miguel.

  14. oh this was brilliant.

    amen and thank you, miguel.

  15. I liked reading this the first time I read it, and I liked it again! Nicely said, Miguel. You and I don’t agree on all things, but I appreciate your honesty and sincerity, and I appreciate you sharing your experience and journey.

    Great line: “I’m just the music guy now, my job is to help believers sing the Gospel.”


  16. Thanks for sharing your story Miguel.

    I play lead guitar in my church’s band. Being “behind the scenes”, I can testify to basically everything you’ve said here and then some. I can relate to the angst and the struggle.

    BTW “Eyes were closed, hands were raised, facial expressions were strained – you’ve all seen the look; it’s about halfway between sex and constipation” is absolute money. I’ve gotten the impression more than once that THAT LOOK IS the mark of a “successful” worship service. I’m actually going to suggest it as our new band name – “Sex and Constipation” – just for the constant reminder of what we’re going for.

    • Goes well with my new indie thrashcore band name: Snowstorms and Stoplights.

    • I always enjoyed playing lead guitar more than being the lead vocalist/ensemble director. I felt the lack of vocal responsibilities and focus on more technical aspects gave me a safe barrier from some of the things I described here. I was more than happy to let my buddy take the lead and do the spiritual thing. I absolutely remember looking out across the assembly we were leading to find “that face.” Oh, the petty standards by which we measure our success.

      • Yeah, I agree. Lead guitar does provide a buffer.

        It’s the problem of needing that buffer to begin with that wears on me. for many of the reasons that you included in your piece.

  17. Thanks for opening your heart to us, Miguel. You’re a very thoughtful and logical guy, as your previous posts and comments have always shown; but you also have a sensitive and feeling heart, which you’ve also shared with us. This is more proof of both. Rigorous thinking and open heart should always go together, though they rarely do; you’re an inspiration with regard to both.

    • Thanks, Robert, I appreciate that! I enjoy our exchanges and debates very much, you always contribute to elevating the level of discourse.

  18. Oh Miguel, I could have written part of your story as my own. I led worship (including the worship team and band) for several years in a non-denom church. Every Sunday, there was an unspoken pressure to make sure the people had an encounter with God through music. After the service, the pastor as well as the people would say, “Worship was good today.” Or sometimes, they said nothing. What did that really mean? It meant I played or didn’t play their favorite songs, or the band sounded close to what they hear on worship CD’s (we never did). Some of the encounters were genuine and authentic, I’m sure. But after this subjective evaluation week after week for years, I lost the joy of worship. I recovered it in an Orthodox Church.

    • I read something once about how that’s a bleeding over of a particular Charismatic theology, where they are “entering into God’s presence/tabernacle/temple” during worship, and everything should be geared towards going through the sections before you are directly in the Throne Room of God himself, spiritually at least, while you are still on earth…since of course you *really* are in two different places at once.

      It’s fun to unpack that bit by bit. But it sounds fairly accurate and would definitely be a bleed over into evangelicalism from the pentecostal world.

      I used to have a huge joy of worship in my fundamentalist church growing up. I loved the hymns, the singing, but youth was lost and eventually I wanted guitar and drums. Which I found in rock music and U2, and briefly wanted in church…but realized I was wrong, since it was just a pale shadow of what could be found.

    • Glad you’ve managed to recover the joy of worship! I certainly haven’t been able to (maybe it’s all those Lenten dirges I’ve become so fond of 😛 ), but I definitely have much more peace about it.

      • It’s very different than what I experienced in the non-denominational church. Not a happy/clappy emotional ride. The joy is in the simplicity, the grounding factor that comes from a tried and true understanding of the Trinity, One in Essence and Undivided.

  19. It rained all day long.
    Now fog hangs over the snow,
    and the night is thick.

  20. Here we are now…edify us!

  21. Being an Evangelical, it is sad that some people feel that their worship is suppose to be emotional and that they are going to please God by making it so. Because God is Holy and complete, he does not need my worship because HE IS GOD. I am not even worthy to come into His presence because I am a sinner and deserve death, but Christ paid for my sins on the cross and it is only by God’s grace and mercy that I am able to worship Him.

  22. A friend of mine attended a very well-known evangelical university, where their chapel sessions would include the dramatically lit rock worship band. As with many sophisticated theatrical presentations, they had a technical director back in a control booth pulling the levers like the Wizard of Oz. One time, the director’s mic accidentally got put into the house mix as he said:
    “Cue Holy Spirit”.
    The fog machine pumped in the stage haze and the stage lights turned to blue.

  23. Kerry Buttram says

    As a former pastoral staff member of a large non-denom church I found it troubling that despite our strong emphasis on Biblical worship and teaching we did not usually follow a pattern of confession of sin, penitence and lament to add to the exaltation and praise of the triune God. It was if the ‘mood’ had to always be upbeat. There was often a humorous opening ‘routine’ to get people laughing too. I am thankful to have found a church where ancient patterns of worship exist and we don’t have to ‘create’ a new thing every week. Neither does it have to be dead and monotonous, for the words of Scripture and the focus on God’s glory are life-giving.

  24. I played for several years in a rather loud, rocking praise and worship band at a nondemon church, and I have to admitt that I loved it. But, to be honest, I probably loved it more in the way a rock star loves being a rock star than something super-spirutual or religious. I love playing music — to big crowds or small, with others or even by myself. And in that style of worship, I would much rather be on the stage than the audience.
    But having been on that stage (and behind the curtain in the Oz sense), I can see how emotions can be manipulated, and how some people can get obsessed with conjuring up a “Spirit-filled” worship service. Apparently, if it does not get wild and loud, then God hasn’t shown up yet. And sometimes I do enjoy getting wild and loud. It can be liberating. But it can also become a prison of false expectations, trying to coerce both God and the congregation into performing up to par and on cue.
    Looking back, my most memorable worship moments have broken out unplanned among relatively small groups and often in an outdoor setting. There’s nothing quite like worshipping with brothers and sisters around a campfire miles away from civilization. But such moments are few and far between. I’ve about come to the opinion that any worship (regardless of the style or tradition) is better than no worship.