Congregants aren’t participating, they are watching. There are many reasons for this, which I address in my book, but for now it simply needs to be recognized and faced as a reality. The leadership team of pastors at a church I recently visited never knew this was happening. Why didn’t they know? The pastors all sat in the front row and were unaware that when the band started playing, half the congregants (seated behind them out of view) were walking out to the lobby to have coffee and visit. “Know well the condition of your flocks” (Proverbs 27:23).
The musicians are mostly playing songs that congregants don’t know. When this happens, it conveys the message that if you aren’t listening to syndicated Christian radio during the week, you are left out. I know a lot of dedicated Christians who love to sing, but listen to pop, jazz, classical, or talk radio. Too bad for them. There used to be a common body of songs every Protestant church goer knew for generations. Many still do, but if five out of six songs chosen for a worship service were written and released within the last eighteen months, is it any wonder why people aren’t singing?
The “worship leader” (aka the lead singer of the band) never invites anyone to sing along. The title of worship leader has a connotation that the person possessing the title is recognized as a leader because of a body of people following him or her. In many cases, worship leaders are simply leading a band of musicians; the congregation is not following them. The slogan for a military infantry officer who leads a platoon of soldiers is “Follow me.” Leaders have followers.
Congregants are chatting or walking around. It is interesting how this never happens during a sermon but is allowed during a musical segment. It could be that these times are considered optional. Again, this is solved through proper leadership. A football team understands very clearly that their destination is a line at the end of the field called the goal line. If leaders have no idea where the goal line of worship is, it is likely that their followers will never reach it.
Communion is ambiguous. If the elements of Communion and their meaning are never explained, people are left to figure it out on their own. I’ve seen churches where people are given Communion elements with the unspoken option of taking Communion in the privacy of their seat, in the hallway, in the bathroom, or in their car when they are leaving. Another option is for folks to trot over to a section of the sanctuary where Communion is offered while something else is taking place, with no explanation of what is happening “over there.” Ambiguity experienced in something as fundamental as Communion will likely be seen in other matters within the church as well. Ambiguity in worship is a sign of wallpaper worship.
Many congregants arrive after the music. If you are a leader or pastor, try this: Hang out in the foyer of the church for a few months and watch how many congregants arrive late. Then, go a step further and ask them why they are arriving late. If they are honest with you, you may discover what many churchgoers have known for years: Some congregants skip the music portion of the service, feeling frustrated that they are being used simply as an audience for weekend performers. Christian worshippers want to be led to participation, rather than watch others participate in their stead.
Arrogance of Artistry. I have been told stories by congregants who try to convey to a leader their frustrations with worship services that are nothing more than exercises in passive observation, only to be dismissed as out of touch—or worse, misunderstood as trying to insult the leader. When a leader (especially a musician) storms off in a huff, it is simply arrogance of artistry. A well-known Christian hit songwriter friend of mine said to me, “It’s not the style of music we are using, nor is it the quality of performance that offends me. It’s the vibe coming from the platform.” If a worship platform gives out a message of, “Listen to us and look at our gadgets,” you can bet that the worshippers are simply lining the walls to provide a weekly audience for performers who otherwise would not have one. Congregants understand that. And when they are dismissed as being out of touch by those who lead them, it begs the question: Just who is the one who is out of touch? Arrogance is a fruit of wallpaper worship. Wallpaper worship is a fruit of arrogance. The two feed off each other. We may be filing seats and parking lots, but God is actually resisting us (see James 4:6).