Song worship, as opposed to mere singing, is an effortful activity. It is, alas, all too easy to sing on autopilot. Worship, by contrast, requires concentration. When we worship, we must both comprehend the content of the hymn and make that content our own as we express it to God and to one another. This expression ought to involve us both intellectually and emotionally.
As with every other effortful activity, our ability to worship is limited. Our voices and minds grow tired; our concentration and enthusiasm flag. We experience “worship fatigue”.
In the discussion a week ago about my post on the future of song worship, one of the commenters opined that because of worship fatigue, he thought that it was preferable to intersperse hymns with less content with hymns with more content. That way, the hymns that don’t say as much will give worshipers an opportunity to rest their minds between singing more substantial selections.
As a practical matter, I agree with this. I don’t lead singing all that often anymore, but I’ve led enough to know when the congregation is becoming fatigued. Sometimes, it happens because a number of the hymns sung have been unfamiliar (and really, that’s song-learning fatigue rather than worship fatigue).
At other times, it happens toward the end of a lengthy special singing. I myself find that my worship limit is somewhere between 25-30 hymns. After that, my brain is fried! Song leaders must reckon with this. If the congregation sounds brain-fried after singing three content-rich hymns, there’s not much point in leading a fourth.
BEHIND WORSHIP FATIGUE
However, if that is indeed the case, I think it points to a significant spiritual problem: an underdeveloped capacity for worship. I think it’s appropriate to think of our ability to worship as a mental muscle. Like other muscles, the more we exercise it, the stronger it becomes. If we don’t exercise it, it will become weaker.
As with our physical strength, I think there’s a hard upper limit on every Christian’s ability to worship. No matter how hard I train, I will never bench 300 pounds or run a four-minute mile, though others can do one or both of those things. So too, some Christians have a greater aptitude for worship than others. I’m not one of those people, but I think my wife is.
Most of us, though, don’t habitually push our limits, and that’s as true for worship as it is for exercise. In that case, worship fatigue is due to our own shortcomings rather than our innate limits.
In fact, I think it’s likely that a regime of content-poor hymns will produce a congregation of worshipers without much ability to worship and who succumb quickly to worship fatigue. As with the couch potato whose routine never forces him to exert himself, the worship fare of these worshipers never forces them to exert themselves spiritually.
This undemanding routine isn’t good for the couch potato, and it isn’t good for the worshiper either. It leaves both unprepared to handle more challenging situations. The couch potato probably can’t run a 5K (full disclosure: right now, neither can I). If he does, he’ll spend the whole time complaining.
Likewise, the underdeveloped worshiper will lose the ability to process more than a couple of quality hymns in succession. If asked to do so, they also will complain: “This hymn is too hard to understand!” “Why can’t we sing something fun?”
ADDRESSING WORSHIP FATIGUE
I’m not convinced that every Christian has a responsibility to become a better singer. Learning to read music and taking voice lessons are fine and useful things for brethren to do, but it’s hard to use Biblical teaching to demand a focus on the mechanics of singing.
However, all of us do have a responsibility to become better worshipers. We quite literally exist in order to glorify God. The better we glorify Him, the better He is pleased with us.
This begins with song leaders. “Song leader” is our preferred term of art, but I have friends who argue that “worship leader” is a better fit. It’s particularly appropriate in this context. Song leaders are to lead the Lord’s people in worship, and I think it’s fair to say that they should also be training the Lord’s people to worship.
Maybe a congregation hasn’t been flexing its worship muscles the way that it should. In such a situation, the song leader should play spiritual strength coach. Like a good workout, a good hymn list will push without defeating. Maybe last month the congregation sounded like it could only handle two deep hymns in a row. This month, let’s try three!
In addition to working on stamina, song leaders and hymn teachers can help Christians with form. Worship isn’t only a gift; it’s also a skill. As with other skills, there are processes we can learn that will help us worship as powerfully and efficiently as possible.
In particular, disciples need to learn how to understand hymns, even doctrinally complex hymns, for themselves. I suspect that there are Christians who have never realized that they are supposed to be concentrating on the words that they are singing. As a result, it’s extremely helpful for a song leader who is introducing a new hymn to walk his class through the content of the hymn first. It’s nearly as useful for preachers and teachers to explore the content of familiar hymns in sermons and Bible classes. In addition to the specific message of those hymns, this conveys the overall message that content in hymns is important.
Yes, many hymns demand concentration and effort from the worshiper. Provided that it isn’t due to poor writing, this is a feature, not a bug. We grow when we’re challenged, not when we’re allowed to sleepwalk.
A particular church may not be ready to handle a particular progression of hymns, but that’s no reason for that church to remain in such a state. The more content its members learn to handle, the more edifying its worship will be. While we ought to acknowledge the reality of our status quo, we also ought to aspire to push our limits, all for the greater glory of God.