The History of Worship: Why We Do What We Do.
An Interview with Malcolm Du Plessis
Last week, Every Nation Music held an online songwriters’ event in efforts to connect with leaders in our global community and encourage them in their writing. Below is an excerpt from an interview with our event guest speaker, Malcolm Du Plessis:
Question: Malcolm, you are known for your passion to bring diversity to the worship experience. In your opinion, what should this worship experience look like?
Malcolm: If we read in Revelation chapter 7, the worship experience is described in this way—that every nation, every tribe, every language, every culture is retained. The hosts around the throne still retain their linguistic identity, their national identity, their tribal identity. All these things are retained. Yet the Bible says that husbands and wives won’t be holding hands, heaven and earth will pass away, and we won’t need to be evangelizing. So much of what we know in our relationship with Jesus on this earth will no longer be relevant, but we will still retain our identities because it forever testifies of the work of Jesus to touch every nook and cranny in every people and assemble people from every nation.
The idea I want to share with every culture is the idea of Jesus bringing many together, and the many functioning together in unison and in a spirit of togetherness.
Long before, love, joy, and peace were considered to be distinctive qualities to set us apart as a people. Back in Exodus, God spoke to Moses through his people that “you will be for me a kingdom of priests. You will be a community where everybody plays a vital role. Where everybody has a priestly function and I will be your king.” Trouble is that that was awkward. It was embarrassing to them. They didn’t know how to go to the Malachites and say “our King’s invisible.” So they negotiated with God and said, “we don’t wanna live this way, please let us be like the other societies.” And he worked with them and he gave them a king. Ironically, under the second king’s leadership, they functioned as a people who had direct access to God and were able to come directly to the ark of the covenant way before it was technically and theologically possible through the death of Jesus, and they functioned as a community of priests.
Question: You paint a good picture of the Israelites’ struggle with God’s original intent for them to worship as a collaborative “kingdom of priests.” Could you explain the ways that struggle applies to Christianity and the church in our context?
Malcolm: For the most part, we have struggled and we have always wanted to copy other cultures. We’ve always wanted to be in fashion with what’s happening and historically we’ve been at loggerheads with God trying to copy what’s happening in other places and not just own the idea that we are a unique group of people with an invisible king and who have to depend on each other where everybody brings something unique to the table—not only the different cultures and languages, but the males and the female, the old and the young. In the New Testament when Jesus comes, the genesis of the church is described with the metaphor, “a royal priesthood.” And when worship was described in the Old Testament, it was described as “when you come together, everybody has something vital to contribute.” Someone has a word of instruction, someone has a tongue, someone has interpretation—something that you bring and that’s how worship was described.
For the first few hundred years of church history, the worship experience was as such. We met more frequently in the evenings in people’s homes. Three hundred years into the journey of Christianity, we moved from a hospitable environment into a more formal cathedral and the communal aspect of our engagement with God was replaced with more formal interchange, where one person stood at the front and sang in a language that nobody could understand and sang songs that were not participatory songs. For a thousand years, that was kind of what worship was instead of us being a “kingdom of priests” where everybody had a mediatory role and a function on God’s behalf. One person stood at the front and the rest watched. The last 800 years of church history has been a gradual progression of the idea of God’s original idea being brought back to life. Where when we come together to worship him, each one of us plays a vital part.
So the subtext of the reformation in many ways was a collaborative community where everybody had a story to tell and an idea to share. The Pentecostal movement of the last hundred years has taken that even further because the Holy Spirit gifts were added to the equation. Yes, it was about power and spiritual vitality, but more opportunities to participate were added to the equation and instead of someone just being sick, the gifts of healing were encouraged. There were more opportunities for people to participate, and in the last century, the progression up to the 60s was a more spontaneous form of worship that happened in Christianity progressively where everybody participated and everybody requested songs they would sing. There was a movement towards a more spontaneous form of worship.
Question: How have you seen these developments in the early church affect the way we worship today?
Malcolm: In the last fifty years, we’ve seen the coalescing of the contemporary worship movement. And the contemporary worship movement has basically pulled out the threads of what’s happened over the last eight hundred years. We left recently with the elevation of the worship leader in such a way that the worship leader—he or she—is like the priest and they have great influence. The idea of God’s people coming together and that everyone would bring a vital contribution has been lost. The erosion has taken place over fifty years.
Fifty years ago, we invented the idea of a “worship leader” which didn’t exist in the Bible and didn’t happen in church history and it was a new idea. Immediately, the new idea was added into the ecosystem of God. It became a business. And so the 70s saw the formulation of the “worship business,” unfortunately. The 80s saw the innovation of the seamless worship set—the reaction against liturgical elements or what was seen as “hyping Pentecostalism” and the building of a time of worship where we sang songs all in a row.
The new idea of a worship leader was, instead of that person encouraging us with sound doctrine and being hospitable in welcoming us into the gathering, more than likely just sang songs in a string under the guise of intimacy. In the 90s, what happened was the “worship leader” was replaced with the “worship band” and the genre changed and all of a sudden our worship went from communal and more hospitable to being a rock and roll festival with set lights, smoke, intelligent lighting, videos, and production, and the last fifty years have sort of seen all these elements squeeze together. Now we have this highly produced event that’s just expanding around the world and the idea. God’s original intent is being lost to Christianity and is being lost to the worship experience. The idea that you come together on a Sunday—every single person—the smallest child, the oldest person, the person who's shy to the person who's experienced in ministry, but each of you would have an opportunity to participate—the idea that the leadership is sensitive to that. I’m not talking only about spontaneity where it’s a free-for-all, I’m just talking about a culture where the idea of God’s people being a kingdom of priests is celebrated and welcomed and given a place to thrive. That has been lost from Christianity.
Question: How have you seen this shift take place, specifically in the area of worship songwriting?
Malcolm: I’ve spent some time—I spent quite a lot of my life—in the midst of songwriters and what I’ve been wanting to do recently. On Tuesday this week, I spent some time with six of the most influential songwriters in praise and worship music in the world and I spoke about this subject. I said, “You guys are so focused on writing these songs and creating these big experiences, you need to write from points of vulnerability, of fragility, of hunger where you don’t know everything. We need to invite a culture again in Christianity where the person up front is exceedingly aware of everybody who's in the room—of everybody who's gathered. Our role in rallying people into the worship experience is sensitive—it’s inclusive. We’re thinking about being very welcoming of everybody and we need to write songs that are simple—where the chord progression is implied in the melody when sung a capella.”
That’s my definition of a folk song; it’s so simple that if it’s sung a capella, people can harmonize along with the song. We’ve moved away from that in Christianity. We think that’s cheesy and we want to do something that’s a bit more nuanced but if we write songs where everybody can participate, people sing more.
I said to the six people that I spent time with on Tuesday that, “I realized all of you are very influential people and are playing a part to dispense your songs but for those of us who travel broadly amongst Christianity, every year Christianity sings less. There’s just less singing because the music’s so loud, the songs are more complicated to sing, the worship experience is less inviting for people to sing along with. It’s less inviting for people to feel like there’s a chance for them to pray, participate, or have some sort of meaningful opportunity to contribute into the discussion. There’s less opportunity for the older to say ‘let’s have one of the younger people to come and participate and take a risk.’ There’s less opportunity for us to actually expect that an encounter in God’s presence would mean the he would probably speak back to us.”
When God speaks back to us in worship, he usually sends us on projects. Moses encountered God at the burning bush and was given a job to do. Joshua, just a few chapters later, encountered God on one side of Jericho and God gave him a job to do. Isaiah encountered God and God asked for volunteers and he had no option but to put up his hand and go out.
Question: With this new perspective on history of worship in mind, do you have any advice for the worship leaders and songwriters in our movement?
Malcolm: Once again, the idea of actually not just being so focused on creating the worship experience but having a big heart that fits—not only do we need to invite more people, not only do we need to create an environment where everybody feels they can participate, but we need to actually come with an expectation that Almighty God would speak and scatter us and commission us and tell us things to do. Somehow, God’s original intent for his people was that we function as a “kingdom of priests.” That hasn’t changed in 2017.
I’m not saying that worship leaders are not in the Bible or church history to suggest any of you stop doing what you’re doing, but I am suggesting that we take our role very responsibly and we think about it quite carefully. We need to think about how we can maximize the privilege we have to have some influence in the gathering community to help build a culture where everybody that comes every single time could say every time on their way home, “isn’t it wonderful the way everybody felt that they were dignified and given the opportunity to bring and add to the table their contribution, their unique contribution from God.”