I had been lost in a kind of daydream and snapped back to reality with the realization I had been singing “The Heart of Worship.” It surprised me to learn I know the song by memory, and since I was already well into it, I kept on going. You probably remember the chorus: “I’m coming back to the heart of worship, and it’s all about You, Jesus.”
It was 20 years ago that Matt Redman penned this song, which means it was 20 years ago that the modern worship movement emerged from the UK and swept across the world. The groundwork laid through the Jesus movement of the 70s and the million-and-one choruses of the 80s led to the rise of Redman and Tomlin and Delirious? and Sonicflood and so many others in the 90s. There is no objective way to define exactly when the movement began, but I say it was the day Mike Pilavachi, pastor of Soul Survivor church, in Watford, England, pulled the plug on his band.
Here’s the story: Soul Survivor church was doing well, drawing people, enjoying success. They were gathering as a church every week, singing loud songs, and having a good time. But the leaders couldn’t shake the growing conviction that for all the good they were seeing and all the fun they were having, they had completely lost track of what it is to worship. So one week Pilavachi unplugged the sound system and had the band leave the stage. For a time they sat in awkward silence until finally they began to raise their voices unaccompanied by instruments, amplification, and lights.
Redman later reflected on that experience and penned “The Heart of Worship” which immediately became a smash hit and a worldwide worship staple. It is certainly not one of the great songs of history, but it was the song for a moment. It was a song of confession, a song of commitment, and in some ways a song of hope. “When the music fades, all is stripped away, and I simply come / Longing just to bring something that’s of worth that will bless your heart / I’m coming back to the heart of worship, and it’s all about You, Jesus.” It was the beginning of a movement meant to return Jesus to the center of our worship. To sing “it’s all about you, Jesus” was to admit, “it has been all about me” and to proclaim, “it won’t be any longer.”
If you think about the state of modern worship today, it’s hard to believe it began with silence, with awkwardness, and with wavering, unaccompanied voices. Modern worship today is associated with musical excellence, slick production, and anthemic choruses. What happened along the way?
I don’t know for certain, but I have a theory. The church growth movement began to surge in the mid-90s with the publication of its primary textbook The Purpose Driven Church. This movement was premised on the conviction that if churches are attractive enough to the surrounding community, unbelievers will come pouring in. Churches are responsible to survey the community, to hear what unchurched people want, and to provide it to them. The movement took it for granted that unbelievers demand music that is new and fresh and led by bands of only the highest quality. They certainly won’t come to churches singing age-old hymns accompanied by piano or organ. After all, their popular slogan was, “Not your parents’ church” or, even better, “Not your grandparents’ church.” The modern worship movement quickly merged with the church growth movement so that before long most of the big modern worship bands were associated with the big church growth churches. Congregations became known for their bands as much as their pastors. Churches hired worship leaders like they had once hired preachers.
Thus modern worship emerged alongside church growth and provided the new and fresh music the movement needed. It was impacted by church growth’s obsession with excellence so that amateur and untrained voices needed to be drowned out by professional musicians. The volume had to be high enough that the voices of the congregation wouldn’t disrupt the perfect performance of the band. The bands took “The Heart of Worship,” but overwhelmed the voices of the congregation while singing behind smoke machines and perfectly-synchronized lights. Something got lost along the way. Somehow music changed from being a means to worship Jesus to a means to impress unbelievers (who, ironically, weren’t that impressed).
As I think about the first 20 years of modern worship and the song that got it all started, I can’t help but wonder when churches last unplugged their instruments to let their people just sing. I can’t help but wonder how many churches actually could. The organic and entirely unprofessional moment that contributed to the beginning of the movement gave way to an obsession with excellence and professionalism. What got lost along the way is that the heart of worship is not a great band, a perfect key change, or a soaring chorus, but human voices lifted together to God. Instruments and lights and smoke and slick production may be good, but only to the degree they serve God’s people while they sing. If all we can hear is the band, we’ve completely missed the point.
Perhaps we should take on a challenge. Choose a Sunday in the near future and on that Sunday lead the singing with nothing more than a single instrument and a single vocalist. Give priority to songs that are well-known and easily singable. Sing together. Raise your voices. Come back to the heart of worship, or maybe come to it for the very first time.