A Pentecostal Worship leader goes to Seminary

Today was my first time singing in Fuller’s worship chapel. It was really really fun. I’ve been promising myself I would approach this amazing experience as an academic, so I’ve written my thoughts about my experience. Hopefully I can continue to do this without people being too bored.

To make sense of this discussion (that I’m having with myself haha) the first thing you should know is that I have *some* more traditional musical training. For five or so years I sang in the Australian Girls Choir, making it to the ‘top’ of this group, performing in the Bel Canto, a group of 16 girls from all around Australia (who became quite famous among grandparents). I sang alto and sightread music two nights every week – one night rehearsing new music, the other rehearsing new music while dancing. However, the Australian Girls choir ended when I was fourteen-ish due to copyright disputes about photocopying the musical Porgy and Bess. At this point I joined Hillsong Church’s very small, oft-out-of-tune choir. I loved it. When the choir leader at Hillsong left to pursue her opera career, I approached my worship pastor Darlene Zschech and let her know I could help out. Her response was priceless – I was fifteen, so she must have looked at me and thought ‘what the heck?!’… but she waited two years and put me in charge of quite a lot of choirs, which I led orally, without the music. Often choir parts to the song were not  written down at the time we performed it on the album, we just had basic chords. And so I learnt to operate within this system, and later worship pastored in this way (with varying success, due to varied and probably fair opinions on my capability). I managed without being great on an instrument, and sometimes did well, sometimes not so well.

Now I’m at Fuller, there are lots of mainline churches represented and written music is very important – and so, I am adapting, trying to recall the sight-reading skills I once had and learning from this opportunity. It’s sad to me that these two Christian traditions are so far apart, and it’s gotten to the point we call it the “worship wars”. So, here are some thoughts about worship in a more liturgical setting, in hopes I can contribute a little-heard voice to the conversation:

1. Externally driven Music (vs internally driven music)

This is very different from what I grew up with in church. The best way to describe it is that music in this current setting is external, it is decided and arbitrated by the written music on a page. The positive side is that, for all heated discussions if any, we go back to the ‘the dots’ (as we called them, so named because notes are dots with little sticks – today I had to explain that one), and so messes are avoided. The negative side is that music is learned by the community rather than created. Creation is reserved for the transcriber, the one who has written the notes on the page – and their work stands the fiery furnace of the test of the performance.

In the Pentecostal context, the music starts within the person. It is imagined from a creative space within the songwriter, and the ultimate arbiter is a person. If there is a clash, then an authorized person will resolve the dispute – it could be the songwriter or a worship leader in the rehearsal. Or, it could be a random voice at the back of the choir, through whom the Holy Spirit speaks, and everyone discerns has found a way forward. And here, the person responsible for the written notes changes the notes appropriately. The written music serves the people. Maybe this explains my next thought…

2. Music is done ‘right’ (vs music is discerned to be right).

In the system I’m now working in, there are clear delineations between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Again, there are lots of positives, assuming the chart was written correctly. And I’m sure I’ll learn more benefits of thinking this way.

However, in the Pentecostal setting, there is ‘good’ and ‘bad’, there is ‘ugly’ and ‘beautiful’, there is ‘powerful’ and ‘weak’. But the most important ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is the communally discerned will of God. This may seem crazy, but a multiplicity of earthly opinions assess the ‘usefulness’ and ‘meaningfulness’ of the song – each congregation member ultimately decides for themselves as to whether the song speaks to them, or whether the song moves them relationally closer to God and to Biblical truth. (if it doesn’t speak to anyone, then it won’t be done again, even if the performer did it exactly to the writer’s specification).

In the Pentecostal setting the highest notion of ‘right’ is whether God would be pleased by the song. And obviously, no one person can say that definitively so, music is discerned to be right. Sure, everyone has to be playing the same chords – but I’ve seen the chords change so many times during rehearsals that it’s more about ‘best’ than ‘right’. Tempo has to be unified.. again, more ‘best’ than ‘right’. But, where  there is a holy silence created through the music, that is ‘right’. It is used in the sense of “it is right that we should dance here before God”…. and not usually in the sense of “we did that worship song right”.

3. End goal aware (vs People-moving).

Within the liturgical setting, a leader presents songs collected around a theme. They serve a purpose, and are selected with that view in mind. But, during the rehearsal, the main aim is to perform them well, so people can appreciate the beauty or thought of the worship leader.

However, a worship leader in a Pentecostal setting is constantly thinking about the people. Thought goes into the selection of the songs, but then into the interactivity – will they want to dance here and participate? will they want to clap here? Is this part boring/meaningful for them? There is also deliberate ways in which the church (whether conscious of this or not) will pray through the songs – will this line be particularly relevant for their lives today? How can we musically connect this in?  It’s like the people are the unrehearsed performers. We don’t know exactly what they will do, so we’ll keep things flexible and follow them.

One of the comments I’ve had is that the new bridge to my song Jesus What a Beautiful Name is musically boring. But for me, songs are not boringly repetitive if you are praying through them, and if the people are receiving meaning in them.

Now arguably, some worship leaders do this part of their role badly, but they would probably be considered by more experienced leaders to have fallen short of the goalposts. There are gifted and less gifted worship leaders – meaning, it’s not like Pentecostal worship leaders try to bore the congregation with mindless repetition. Within a ‘good’ worship service, there are powerful moments of attributing meaning within the written lyric of the song… and if the right balance as found, you can sing the simplest of phrases forever. E.g. A song many Americans know, ‘Hosanna’ by Brooke Fraser….  I once witnessed worship leader Darlene Zschech sing the bridge of this song four times in order to emphasize these words:

Heal my heart and make it clean

Open up my eyes to the things unseen

Show me how to love like You have loved me

The mood in the room was incredible – people dropped to their knees and happily sung these three lines over and over again…. it facilitated a moment of repentance. When eventually she continued with:

Break my heart for what breaks Yours

Everything I am for Your kingdom’s cause

As I walk from earth into eternity

The first line was almost unbearable to sing, but by the end of this phrase, the room was focused on the eternal significance of our lives, and  considering the weight and responsibility of a limited amount of days on earth to be a part of God’s plan. Now, arguably, I might be imagining their thoughts, as some may have been planning out their lunch – but I’m pretty sure the majority of people were in this place. Because I’ve been tuned to feel the people. Worship leading is an intuitive understanding of walking people prayerfully through the lyrics of the song. It is felt and thought not just thought. The best way I can think about it is that the song lyrics and music are like “people-mover” vehicles, they are designed to take the people in them from somewhere to somewhere else. They are maybe not as beautiful as Ferraris, but they are functional, and they serve a purpose. And when they don’t, you don’t feel bad getting rid of them, as you always thought they were a temporary solution.

Well, I’ve got to start reading and return my blocked library books to unfreeze my account, but I wanted to post this journey of a Pentecostal worship leader in Seminary…. I am enjoying loving both traditions, and I look forward to being able to pick up a piece of paper again and sing what’s written without first hyperventilating…. fun times.

5 thoughts on “A Pentecostal Worship leader goes to Seminary

  1. Beautiful reflections, Tanya. I love the idea of walking people through a song prayerfully. I adored singing in choirs as a teenager but I don’t miss it now that worship music is part of my heart’s journey. I tended to perform when there was a written standard to achieve. Great not to have to perform or achieve but to be and to worship Jesus where I am – physically, emotionally and spiritually. Keep exploring and helping us think things through!

  2. I have experienced the best of both worlds. I enjoy the so called freedom of the Spirit in Pentecostal / Charismatic worship and the more formalised liturgical forms of worship. Both serve an important function.

    When I was working through previous health issues, I seriously thought about finding a small conservative church that had more reflective type worship, as the more upbeat style of the Pentes was actually distracting. Eventually I found a small Charismatic church that combined formal liturgy with charismatic / pentecotal type worship and the effects were profound.

  3. Hey Tanya. Great Post. Thanks for sharing this. I’ve been thinking about this subject for quite sometime so I’m excited to see you write about these things. I love how well thought out your understanding of worship leading is. It seems that a lot of worship leaders I have worked with are ‘just doing it’ but don’t seem to have a well thought out theory or theology of worship leading. (You obviously come from a place where there is some thinking going on). I feel like I learn a lot from your well thought-out Pentecostal view of worship.
    After I read the heading, “Externally driven Music (vs internally driven music),” I was surprised where you went with it. In my head, I had subverted your category: I expected you to say that Hillsong music was externally driven and liturgical music internally. That is, liturgical music is influenced by the theology and musical tradition of the church (it’s own internal tradition). Whereas, much of contemporary, charismatic worship seems to be influenced by our over romanticized, superficial, and individualized culture; therefore it is “externally” driven.
    The challenge, it seems to me, is to create worship songs that are communal, trinitarian, theologically-rich—-and at the same time experiential and adapted to local musical styles.

    Anyway, this post is just another reason why I want you guys over for tacos.

    1. I’m stoked for Tacos!!!! The next two weeks are good for us 🙂 I’m loving the responses to this post, it’s amazing to have people actually interact with what has gone on in my head for the last 15 years. Your comment was great!

      Thanks for the feedback re: external/internal, you’re so right regarding denominational/community connotations to these words – I was speaking from the experience of the worship musician/leader rather than more broadly – as just one part of the picture you’re thinking of – I think both are valid. But I’m kind of over the pieces of the puzzle never adding up, (as in the needs of the movement never engaging the tasks of the worship leader) so I’m willing to use whatever terms it takes to make sure it makes sense – Pentecostalism as a large “family” of churches needs to be clear on what we are lacking, but also help the pastors that work so hard in our churches to contribute towards that greater whole.

      As I agree with you whole-heartedly, I’m interested in exploring how this relates to the postmodern/modern divide in regards to the locus of authority. It is hard to get more (or better) theology into Pentecostal worship songs for two reasons – firstly because songwriters are told to express the contemporary significance of Biblical passages in their own voice (and those of their pastors and congregations), and secondly because theology is often communicated to them as work for experts. The idea that Pentecostal songwriters are not doing theological work is a fallacy. But I’ve found a statement “you need more theology” makes them ruffle – it doesn’t work nearly as well as “hey, if you’re writing from the New Testament, seriously, you should check out N.T. Wright sometime and be inspired about he thinks about the Bible”. It’s all about sneaking the vegetables into dinner….

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