The Worship Set: Today’s Sawdust Trail
It’s hot. The smell of sweat and sawdust is thick in the revival tent. Another stanza of, “Just as I Am” begins and there’s no sign of stopping. Some folks are crying, singing, and kneeling. Others are walking down that “Sawdust Trail” of a center aisle to shake the preacher’s hand. What was making them move? Was it the sermon, the song, the smell, or the Spirit?
Or was it the music?
The spirit of revivalism is alive and well in many of our church services today. One article in our Journal lists six marks of revivalism. I want to consider how four of those marks are intensified by the way we use music in our gatherings. In particular, I’m concerned we’re using the “worship set” to stir up tears and feelings instead of “love and good works” (Heb 10:24).
1: WEAK ECCLESIOLOGY
Without a right understanding of why we gather and what we should do when we gather, we can be taken by the siren song of revivalism. If God really doesn’t care what we do when we gather and it’s up to us to design a “worship experience,” then everything is on the table. We will use whatever means we can to produce our worthwhile ends.
But thankfully, God does care what we do when we gather. He hasn’t left us to our own devices.
We must be regulated by God’s Word and what he has prescribed for the church: singing (Col. 3:16), praying (Acts 2:42), Scripture reading (1 Tim. 4:13), preaching (2 Tim. 4:2), baptizing (Matt. 28:19), and partaking in the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:20).
If we say, “the Bible doesn’t prohibit x, y, or z so we can do x, y, or z,” then we will be tempted to employ all kinds of methods that aren’t useful in the “building up” (1 Cor. 14:26) of the body. If you’re a music leader or pastor who holds that position, I have a simple question for you: aren’t you exhausted? It’s so tiring to constantly reinvent the worship wheel. It’s a never-ending cycle.
Instead, we ought to trust in God’s good design to build his church through the ordinary means of grace. Thoughtfully ordered worship sets should include more than songs. We should walk through the gospel using prayers, readings, and creeds. Worship is more than music and so a worship set—or a liturgy, or an order of service—must include more than music, too.
Music is emotional. God didn’t make a mistake in the way he made us to have a visceral response to beauty. And music can be beautiful. Yes, even in corporate worship!
Music is a gift that can be used or abused. No matter your musical style or setting—piano and hymns or a band with choruses—we can misuse the gift and beauty of music to accomplish our man-centered goal. Music is used properly when it deploys truth to shepherd our emotions to our heads and hearts. Music is abused when it seeks to elicit an emotional response as an end unto itself. If my goal is to get people to feel something, then my musical choices will reflect that. I’ll stack the “set” with power ballads that pluck all the right heart strings and generate a sense of transcendence in the congregation that can only be described as God coming down.
But did he? Or did I hypnotize you with a minor fall and a major lift? If we get the right sounds in the right order, can we prod the Holy Spirit to move? Can I persuade you to move down the aisle, to pray a prayer? If we don’t invite the Holy Spirit into our presence, is he trapped outside?
We can get so caught up in the moment that we start to glory in our singing and not in our Redeemer. If you think you haven’t worshiped until you’ve felt chills or raised your hands, then you’ll do almost anything to get that same high again. From the “Sawdust Trail” to Charles Finney’s “Mourners Bench” to the more modern, synth-driven “worship set,” you can trace a line of emotional pragmatism that has deceived many into thinking they have met with God. But in reality, they likely only met with a kick drum.
Hold up. Am I saying that all emotions are evil and misleading? No, of course not. But they shouldn’t be thought of as infallible or unfallen either. And guess what? I’m not even categorically against a synth or a kick drum! If corporate worship is a bus, you don’t want emotions in the driver’s seat. You want truth driving the bus. Don’t leave emotions on the curb. Instead, put them in the passenger’s seat, with a seatbelt on.
When emotions are driven by the truth, they can be safe, good, and beautiful. Rightly ordered, our emotions—or, to use a good old Puritan word, our “affections”—are appropriate responses to the truth, goodness, and beauty of God’s grace that is greater that all our sin.
3: LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION!
As Andrew wrote in his previously mentioned article, “Revivalism is usually marked by a reliance on expertise and professionalism in the execution of the means of revival.” In other words, man can produce so-called revival through man-made means and methods.
If we believe it’s up to us to produce worship, then professionalism, production, and performance will be elevated on our list of priorities. The way we use music and other aesthetics in our gatherings can communicate that the congregation is primarily there to watch.
Am I arguing that high-quality production is all bad? Not necessarily. You don’t need lights, smoke, and screens to be “high production.” High production can show up in classical settings as well. Poor quality is not a virtue.
Of course, excellence in worship should look different in different churches. Do you lead four-part hymns from a piano? Then do it well to the glory of God. Do you lead half a band of mismatched instruments? Then do it well. Be prepared. Practice to the glory of God. Whatever your musical context, lead in a way that your flock can understand, follow, and participate.
4: A CULT OF PERSONALITY AND PREFERENCE
The title “Worship Leader” grew out of a soil that was tilled by revivalism. If we need one man to usher us into the presence of God to “worship,” then that man and his accompanying skills and style are essential to our ability to worship. If you say, “I can’t worship unless…” then whatever you say next has become your mediator, a so-called priest that serves as a musical conduit for your engagement with God.
The title also wrongly convolutes music and worship. All of life is worship; all of our gathering is worship—not just the music. Plus, the only man that can usher us into the presence of a holy God is Jesus, and he has already done that through his cross, resurrection, and ascension. He’s our mediator and priest—not the music guy.
Does this mean that we should shy away from leaders with personality and talent? Not necessarily. A godly preacher with lots of personality and talent will not completely bury those aspects of himself. Instead, he will submit those things to the word of God and the task of preaching. He will use them as a tool to effectively communicate God’s truth—not his truth or personality.
A godly and talented music leader does the same thing. How do you know if that’s happening? Well, after a sermon or a song, do you think to yourself, “What awesome music!”? Or do you think, “What an awesome God!”?
Here’s another litmus-test question: are you easily edified by worship music outside your preferred musical style or tradition? If not, why not? I believe a mature Christian can find the Spirit and truth in diverse worship settings. Let’s teach our people how to be mature worshippers.
DOWN THE SAWDUST TRAIL
“Down the Sawdust Trail,” written by Millie Lou Pace, is a love song to the event where she believes she was converted. It’s an evocative song about the “sinner’s cry” and her mother kneeling and praying and hearing “Jesus call.” It’s a lovely country ballad. It’s also bizarre. Why? Because it focuses on the wrong thing. It makes much of her memories and feelings about that one meeting and very little of the gospel.
May the same never be said of us.