The Worst Trend In Contemporary Worship

Starfield_bandA couple of years ago my brother and I were attending a worship conference together.  As usual at these types of conferences every night ended with a worship concert featuring well known and up-and-coming worship artists.  After the concert on the second night we were leaving the church when he turned and asked me a question.

“Have you noticed that all the worship teams we’ve seen so far are made up entirely of young, attractive musicians?”

I replied, “I was just thinking the exact same thing.  It’s actually a little unsettling.”

We went on to talk through some of the similarities we noticed about these teams.  Everyone was in their early to mid twenties.  All the women were attractive, and the vast majority were blonde.  The men were all stylishly dressed and good looking.

Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being young, attractive and stylish and leading worship.  It make sense that at least a few of the musicians would fit this description.  But the problem was it wasn’t just a few people; it was every team member, across several different worship bands.  This experience my brother and I had reflects a deeper trend I’ve noticed in certain sections of the worship world.

Michelle Van Loon recently posted an example of this trend on her blog over at the Patheos evangelical channel.  She relates how a friend at her church was recently asked to stop playing guitar on the worship team, not because he was playing poorly or because of a moral or ethical issue, but because the leadership wanted a more youthful looking worship team to attract the younger generations.

In other words he was too old to be on the team, or as I refer to this practice, he “aged out.”

I’ve known other churches and worship leaders who have a similar policy.  And I’ve spoken with people who have “aged out” themselves.  Needless to say, all those people I’ve spoken to have felt some level of hurt and betrayal, and many ended up leaving the churches they once served so faithfully.

Is this a legitimate strategy for reaching young people?  After all shouldn’t we do everything possible to reach younger generations for Christ, even if it means hurting some feelings along the way?  As the old saying goes, you can’t make omelets without breaking a few eggs, right?

Simply put, no. Placing age restrictions on who can serve on a worship team is not a legitimate strategy, specifically for two reasons.

Reason 1: It is Unbiblical

Let me start by saying that I do believe that the leaders of those teams and churches that use age as a guideline are well intentioned people.  They really believe that the best thing they can do for their church and the non-believers in their community, indeed the way they can be most faithful to the gospel, is by implementing such a policy. I do not question their motivations at all.  However, in spite of pure motives, these strategies actually do a disservice to the gospel witness of their churches, primarily because they are unbiblical.

Scripture gives many criteria for selecting leaders and those who serve in specific ministry positions.  Throughout the Old Testament artists were selected for their skills and abilities in their craft, including musicians (Ex. 35:10, 1 Chron. 15:22).   In the New Testament spiritual gifts and moral standards were required for those seeking positions of leadership and service in the church (1 Cor. 12, Titus 1).  All of these are legitimate and necessary considerations for selecting worship team members.  Notice that age is not on the list.

More importantly, not only does the Bible not use age as a ministry qualification, but doing so goes against the image of the church presented in scripture, specifically in the New Testament.  Paul’s metaphor of the church as a body requires that all congregation members be allowed to use their gifts for the edification of the community.  If some people are not allowed to use their God-given gifts, it harms the entire congregation.

For worship, the body metaphor is even more important.  Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 both refer to the worship gathering as a corporate event where people sing to each other for the purposes of edification. To facilitate this faithfully, worship teams should be made up of people representing all those who attend.  To put it another way, the worship team of a church should look like the congregation.  It should reflect the different ages, genders, cultures, and classes that are present.  When entire demographic groups are excluded arbitrarily, it sends a signal that only certain groups are central to the life of the church, which is directly at odds with the witness of the New Testament and the whole of scripture.

Let me say it again: it is unbiblical to to allow demographics categories like age to supersede talents, gifting, and maturity when it comes to leading worship.  Those churches that do so will only succeed in communicating a shallow vision of worship and community that goes against the gospel of Jesus Christ. (Can you tell I’m pretty passionate about this?)

Reason 2: It is Ineffective

Yet what surprises me most about this trend though, is that I’m confident it’s totally ineffective.  I realize that as more and more young people are either leaving the church or expressing little to no interest in institutional Christianity, churches are grasping to do whatever they can to keep the young adults they have and attract the ones they don’t.  However, both reason and research indicate that packing your stage with young people isn’t going to make a bit of difference.

First the research.  Over the past decade there has been a huge amount of research by both Christian and secular organizations on why young people have either left the church or are not interested in attending (here’s one study by Lifeway Research, a Christian organization).  On every one of these surveys exactly 0 people have responded, “The members of the worship team were too old.”  I know, I know, no one would ever answer that.  But more realistic answers including age of leadership, relatability of staff, etc. also appear in very small numbers if at all.  The simple fact is, people aren’t staying away because of the age of the worship team.  So ensuring all the people on the platform each week are young is solving a problem that doesn’t exist.

But even more than the research, reason alone should lead us to see how ineffective this practice is.  For the sake of argument, let’s assume that worship style and quality is a driving factor for getting unchurched people to come to services (an assumption that is also not supported by the research).  What would young people be more concerned with, the appearance of the people on stage, or the quality of the music?  Obviously they care most about the quality of the music.  In fact age and appearance have never been a deciding factor in how young people respond to music.

carlos_santanaWhen I was in high school, one of the most popular songs for several years was “Smooth” by Carlos Santana, who was in his mid 50s at the time.  None of the kids in my high school cared how old Santana was, they just knew he was an incredible guitar player.  I can’t tell you the number of people my age and younger who are huge fans of Bob Dylan, who is now in his 70s.  AC/DC is headlining Coachella this year.  And Weird Al Yankovic had his first ever #1 Billboard topping album last year at the sprightly age of 65 (and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a bunch of baby-boomers giving his music videos millions of hits on websites like collgehumor.com).

I think you get the point.  What young people are looking for in church services when it comes to music is the same thing they’re looking for every other day: meaningful, quality songs that provide a powerful experience.  Age has absolutely nothing to do with it.

All for Nothing

So now you see why I think this particular practice is the worst trend in contemporary worship: it hurts faithful members of the body of Christ, waters down the worship and community of God, and does all this without even achieving its goals.  We’re giving away everything to get absolutely nothing in return.

Does this mean we should never ask someone to step down from the worship team or leadership position in the church?  Of course not.  The 3 criteria of talent, gifting, and maturity are not static in a person’s life.  And yes, changing cultural styles might make someone who was previously qualified for a position on the team not a good fit in the future (I don’t need a pipe organist on my team no matter how talented he or she might be).  Asking people to step down is difficult, but it is legitimate when the reasons are biblically sound and logically justified.

Determining participation based on age is neither, so let’s end this practice here and now, for the sake of our worship and the sake of the gospel.

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About Stephen Wilburn

I am a worship director at a suburban Philadelphia church and currently a doctoral student at Biblical Seminary in Hatfield, PA
This entry was posted in Worship Controversies and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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