It is often said that former Princeton president Jonathan Edwards, the man credited with setting fire to the tinderbox that became the First Great Awakening, was a fiery preacher.  His message was certainly incendiary, but by modern standards he was nothing of the sort.

According to minister Victor Shepherd, Edwards may have “thundered like a cataract into which there poured the streams of fathomless spirituality,” but he did so quietly and in a monotone voice.  Edwards’ most famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” was read by the New England divine “word-for-word, hunched over the lectern, rarely lifting his head to look at the congregation.”  Martyn Lloyd Jones rightly judged that “no man was further removed from the violence of a ranting traveling evangelist than Jonathan Edwards.” 

If I read him correctly, there was a theological method to Edwards’ madness.  He believed he was expounding God’s very Word, which needed no enthusiasm on his part in order to accomplish its purpose.  Such distractions might even work at cross-purposes with what the Holy Spirit was trying to accomplish.

In this post-theological era, the one issue that can turn the most harmonious American church into a chest-thumping, hair-pulling, mud-wrestling wreck is worship.  Whether or not to use an electric guitar seems, to me, a trifling matter.  But let someone bring an ax on stage in any middle-aged congregation, and then set back and watch the generational fallout.  Seniors are often pitted against (relative) youth in a nasty fight that they know they will eventually lose through attrition.  The younger group, for its part, has to choose between compromise and evolution or outright rebellion and schism.  My preferences are (slightly) more modern, but, while that older order may have been too formulaic, it at least avoided giving the “worship leader” the prominence that he (or, often, she) enjoys today.

Readers from a more liturgical setting might wish to know what a “worship leader” is.  He is not analogous to the choir director, the organist, or even the music director of yesteryear.  Rather, worship leaders today occupy a new, more expansive role in the life of the Church.  To state simply that the worship leader is responsible for picking the music, lining up musicians and singers, and leading worship is a little bit like saying that Beethoven wrote some music or that cheerleaders make a valuable contribution to team spirit.  Worship leaders don’t merely sing; they emote.  They determine when the congregation should rise and fall, and they try their very best to attune themselves to any stirrings of the Spirit.  And they talk—oh, how they talk.

In the many, many cases that I’ve observed, nearly unanimously, the worship leader talks entirely too much.  However much he may have rehearsed, his performance comes off as spontaneous and unscripted—and, therefore, rambling.  Often, what he has to say amounts to a free-form sermon: Live for God!  Make a decision!  Commit your life to Him!  You, too, can change your life!  Jesus loves you!  No, really, He does!  Exclaim! the good news of Jesus Christ!

To doubt these people’s motives would be to do them a disservice.  Still, at some point, it becomes wrong not to say that there is a person employed by the church to preach the actual sermon called a “pastor,” and he is probably better equipped than the worship leader to bring the Word of God to the congregation.

I am not calling for a return to the staid formalism that Florence King describes in stories of her High Church childhood.  The congregation was not to sing too-vigorous hymns, she says, because, “after all, someone might get carried away and fall into religious ecstasy, and you mustn’t do that sort of thing in church.”  But it seems to me that the Spirit can be drowned out as easily as He can be ignored.  Put another way, everybody remembers Edwards’ famous sermon, but nobody remembers what hymns they sang that Sunday.

To worship leaders, I say: Please, I beg you, don’t talk.  Just sing.