Everything I loved about church — my very career – made me cynical towards my own beliefs.
Almost two years ago now, I told myself that I needed a break from church leadership. I still loved God, my wife, my church friends and everything about leading worship; but after spending 5 years leading worship in positions that never really ‘fit’ — I needed something else.
I quit. I still went to church regularly because Laura and I had been attending elsewhere for a while. This place seemed like a good fit: great worship team, a young adult small group, caring and passionate people, similar political views, etc. I talked to the worship pastor right away and told him my story — and that I would want to be involved… eventually. I sat on the sidelines. I took it all in. Something was different now.
When you spend five years of your life growing and molding a music program into something that will honor God and bring the congregation into an attitude of worship, you spend a lot of time trying to make it better. To me, bad music inhibits selfless worship. There’s nothing more gratifying than getting lost in worship: feeling the presence of God, forgetting the world around you and swimming in the Spirit. Everything melts away and you’re just there, with Him in His House.
As a worship leader, your job is to make sure that happens for others… not yourself. I can’t just deviate from the lyrics and chord progression of the song. That would create a distraction for others who may not feel so free in worship. People need structure, they need familiarity and they need something to hold onto during their journey.
So, how many times have I found myself lost in worship? Very few — never while leading worship. The most recent example was almost two years ago at this new church. The worship leader arranged one of my favorite hymns into a worship choir piece that brought me to tears. I felt God — for the first time in a long time — I was lost in worship. I could hear God saying, “This is the way it’s supposed to feel.” At that moment, I knew that I needed to take a break.
It took me another 3 months to build up the courage (or what I thought was courage) to talk to my pastor. We had worked together for five years; it wasn’t a decision I could make lightly. After a taxing Sunday full of the usual problems, I brought it up out of desperation. “I need to be done.” He thought I was talking about tearing down the set… but realized that I meant something more. He didn’t fight it. He could see that the fire had been dwindling. I always told him that I would be a worship leader until it felt like my job. That day was it for me.
So, I took a break. But…
Spiritually, these have been the worst two years of my life.
I left leadership to find a place that I could plugin, be spiritually fed and reconnect… but I feel farther away from God today than ever before. That young adult small group that I mentioned earlier died in a matter of weeks. I didn’t have a bible study to help me connect to people my age. So what did I do? I went back to music.
I talked to the worship leader and told him I was ready to worship with him if he’d have me. He was grateful since he needed a guitarist for the week. I filled in, met the band and found myself getting back to the spiritual side of worship. For the most part, it was a great experience. Then I began to see the church more clearly…
I hate saying this: most churches seem great until you get involved in their politics. It’s impossible to avoid because churches exist through the giving of their congregation. All churches make decisions based on what will bring in more people — ultimately, more people who can/will put money in the offering plate. You may be thinking, “My church doesn’t do that.” Fine, I’m not here to argue that point… I’m here to explain what happened in my case.
Most churches admit that they fail when reaching out to young adults. They’re hard to get in the door and they’re notorious for giving very little money. They either don’t have money or haven’t quite figured out the importance of budgeting yet. By the nature of my previous argument, young adults generally do not become the focus of a church.
This is not true for all churches. There are several populous young-adult-focused churches here in Denver, but most of them are running a skeleton staff, barely pay their staff or rely heavily on volunteers for church operations. Naturally, these churches come and go because they have a hard time paying the bills, leasing the space, or the pastor just can’t live on food stamps any longer. It is very unusual to see a financially thriving church with a young adult focus.
With that said, Laura and I were asked to be a part of the “young adult think tank” at this church. After the initial failing in the fall, they regrouped and asked some of us to come together in the spring to brainstorm ideas for the next attempt. I’ve seen this before. I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t. I know that, unless a church is extremely committed, reaching out to the young adult demographic isn’t something that brings much success. It’s hard and it takes resources. Not necessarily money… just people and time.
What’s the formula that works? Here’s what I’ve seen gain massive momentum. If you’re a church with a budding young adult population, give this a shot:
Assuming there’s already a junior and senior high youth group, piggyback on that program to create a massive weekly event. This should never be on a Sunday… ever. You need to give people something to look forward in the middle of the week. In this example, I used Wednesday evening because that’s when the youth met. Bring in some food, have a short worship session and form breakout groups. Youth go to their respective programs, young adults choose from a few (3 or more) bible studies and “older adults” get their own discussions. The young adults can choose any discussion they’d like, but they have specific topics that interest them: sex, money and how God fits.
It’s almost like a miniature Sunday… but it’s during the week and only takes an hour of time. Lose the talking head and gain spiritual discussion — young adults just finished or still attend college, they don’t want a lecture. When a church gets behind that format, it works. People will be excited to break bread, share music and discussion with spiritually like-minded people.
Unfortunately, the “young adult think tank” didn’t use my suggestion. We lost votes because other young adults felt that it would be more convenient to do things on Sunday morning. They were “too busy” to do something during the week. I actually heard this in the discussion: “People don’t want to come to church twice.” @!@%^$@!$
It gets worse…
About three months later, the church leadership announces a new program — exactly as I outlined above — but completely ignored the involvement of young adults. Oh, they kept the talking head too. It looked like this:
Youth and adults come together on a Wednesday night, eat some food, have a short worship session and then break into groups. The junior high go with their leaders, high school does their thing and the adults listen to a talking head. That sounds appealing… awful.
That was pretty much it for me. I tried. They listened (to some extent), decided to take the format but forgot the most important parts: community and discussion. Going church is as much about being spiritually social as it is about growing in your faith. They missed that point completely and I decided to go somewhere else.
I cannot rely on a single ministry to keep me spiritually fed. While I greatly enjoyed the music ministry, I (and Laura) needed something else… something that would actually make us think about the bible, our relationship with God and help us get closer to Him.
I relied on worship to fill my cup for too long. That’s why the flame went out. Since I’ve moved to Denver, I’ve had nothing but the music I make and the worship I play keeping me in touch with God. Now that I don’t have that… I feel empty.
I’ve tried other churches and I’ve never found anything that works for me. I can’t even worship any more because I criticize every little mistake the band makes. Remember, I said that a great worship experience is what brings people closer to God. I’m on the extreme end of that spectrum now: if the sound mix is terrible, if someone’s off-pitch, if the song choices are bad… I have absolutely no chance. I can’t relax; I just sit there, judge the music and ignore God.
All the while, Laura’s looking to me for spiritual guidance… but I’m done with it. I still yearn for that feeling of being lost in worship but it’s been so long and I’m completely jaded. I wonder if I’ll ever feel it again.