Small Church Worship Leading: Playing To Your Context
"Hey, Jason. I just thought I'd let you know we've been using your YouTube videos for our church plant meeting in my living room. Thank you for all you do!" I was in my early 20's when I received this strange encouragement from a church planter I didn't know. I was equally flattered and appalled. Doesn't this guy know how many better resources are at his disposal? I wonder why he finds these stripped-down, cheap, and simple videos from a no-name worship leader desirable?
Instead of a simple "Thank you!" or "Praise God!" response, I fished for further affirmation by enlightening the gentleman that he was fishing in a small private pond when he had an ocean of worship resources in which he could be casting his net. My flesh hoped he would respond with, "Jason, I'm just humbled you'd respond to my message. We think you're a big deal." You know, some neat flesh-feeding compliment like that. I'll never forget his actual response, though.
"Jason, there are so many great resources out there, but when 20-30 of us are huddled together in my living room for church, watching worship videos filmed in a massive auditorium with as many people on stage as we have in our church feels like we are watching a concert. When we pulled up your videos, it felt a little more like us. It was a bit like having you in our living room and is more natural for us to engage in worship."
The initial flattery left my heart when I read that, and I was flooded with conviction and correction.
This church planter didn't know how much I idolized having more resources to build a bigger platform to pull off bigger productions for bigger crowds, all in the name of "ministry," of course. Whether he knew it or not, my new church planting friend taught me a few lessons that day, and the importance of contextualization was one of the biggest of them.
Contextualization is making sure you are wrapping the Gospel in the right package, based on the context you find yourself. Big churches aren't any better for their flawless productions than smaller ones are for their raw and intimate worship services. The dynamics of a congregation's size and cultural context will inform how we do Gospel ministry, but we can't idolize or demonize the aspects that make churches unique. Instead, we can celebrate our differences, embrace our contexts, and point to Christ alone as our all-satisfying Treasure.
Even as I write this, we are smack dab in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. I look around and see churches trying their best to do so much to keep their people engaged. Maybe instead of asking "What can we pull off?" (full-band, programmed lights, and auto-tune that rivals that of T-Pain), we should be asking, "How can we best serve our people?"
For many churches used to a full-band, tracks, and a slick lighting production, this has looked like stripping things down to acoustic guitars, keys, and a couple of vocalists. It doesn't have to look like this, but Covid-19 is a microcosm for structuring our ministries when we aren't in pandemics.
How can you best serve the people God has given you with the resources God has given you? This will look different for all of us. That's the point. The gospel is far too beautiful to try and make your worshipful response look the same as everyone else.
Maybe we would see that a bigger band wouldn't solve our problems. Perhaps we would know that the budget to buy every multitrack or hire paid musicians wouldn't make our ministries more effective. So if you are in a church 50-100 and you can't find a drummer to save your life, maybe the Lord wants you to keep it stripped down because that will feel like a more authentic expression of the gospel to your community and congregation.
Being in a smaller setting isn't an excuse to not equip and empower new musicians, but if you think you need a big band, a bigger budget, and more talented people, you won't just have unrealistic expectations; you'll be in danger of missing the all-satisfying glory of God. If you have the gospel, you have everything you need to lead your people to encounter God's greatness by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Worship leaders, consider your context and love people well with the gospel as you lead out in Scripture and song. There will probably be others in your city, town, or community that have a better production than you do, but none of them can preach a better Gospel than you.