3 Things I’ve Learned on the Worship Conference Circuit (Brannon Hancock)

My first year as a full time faculty member at Wesley Seminary has been exciting, in no small part because we are still constantly tweaking, refining, innovating and collaborating to be the best seminary that we can be for our students. I’ve also learned that, in an innovative environment like Wesley Seminary, one must be careful what one says in committee meetings, because a random idea just might become reality (and create a bunch of additional work!).

In late 2014, our (outgoing – *sniffle*) Dean Ken Schenck, our Director of Admissions Aaron Wilkinson, and I had a “meeting after the meeting” where we discussed our current Master of Arts in Ministry specializations. At that time, we offered Leadership (Bob Whitesel’s area); Children, Youth and Family Ministry (Colleen Derr’s area), and Church Planting and Multiplication, Church Revitalization, and were in the process of rolling out one in Pastoral Care.

Worship MA
So, the newbie professor (me), says, “Okay, so what would it take to have a specialization in worship?” “Four worship classes,” says Ken. Aaron’s eyes lit up as he asked, “What would the four classes be?” So we hit the whiteboard for a few minutes, Aaron left to do some market research, and long-story-short, by March I was writing course proposals, Aaron was putting together a marketing plan, and by May, it was all getting the green light from the appropriate committees. (Click here for more info about the Worship Arts specialization.)

Part of the marketing plan involves sending “yours-truly” to five major worship conferences this summer and early fall: three National Worship Leader Conferences (in Kansas, California and Texas) and two Experience conferences (in Texas and Orlando – apparently there are a lot of Christians, and a lot of mega-churches, in Texas!). I’m teaching some workshops and hanging out at our booth to tell people about the new program, which is already gaining applicants, and (all being well) will launch in January 2016 with our first cohort! (Operators are standing by.)

I’ve been leading worship in local churches for more than 20 years (yes, unfortunately I am old enough for that to be true), and was a full-time worship pastor for almost 7 years before coming to Wesley Seminary. I am blessed to know a lot of worship leaders. Many of them went into their ministry roles thinking they were taking a “music job” (church musicians have a bad habit of referring to it as a “gig”), only to realize the job of a worship pastor is about 30% music and about 70% pastor.

So we’ve designed this program primarily with the active worship leader in mind, who is musically equipped and already doing the job, but wishes to enhance her ministry with additional theological, biblical and pastoral training. Hence, the degree is an MA in Ministry, with a specialization in Worship Arts: 36-hour degree (1/3 of that is worship-related) that can be completed online in 2 years, without stepping away from an existing ministry role.

As I’ve been out talking to people at the first two of these five conferences, this new program seems (as I imagined it would) to address a very real need, both for individual worship leaders and for the Church. Worship is changing, because the Church is changing… because the culture is changing. Here are a few things I’m noticing as I look at the Church today, and how it is encapsulated at these worship conferences I’ve been attending lately:

1. We’re ready for a break from “the big show.”

Highlights at both conferences I’ve attended have been stripped down acoustic sets, in some cases by artists who are known as big, loud rock bands. At the NWLC in Kansas City, headlining band Jesus Culture did a set with just two acoustic guitars and their voices. They returned after a plenary talk by Hillsong’s Darlene Zschech and ended by leading the 1200 or so of us in singing “Shout to the Lord” – a major “throwback” as modern worship goes!

At the Dallas Experience Conference, the most talked-about session was an “in-the-round” night of acoustic worship, led by members of the conference steering committee, most of whom are relatively unknown local church worship leaders. (Well, they did have CCM legend Al Denson playing piano!) No fancy lighting, no hazers, no projectors – in fact, we were given no lyrics at all! We just sang familiar worship songs, old and new, for a solid 90 minutes.

Say it with me, friends: “Less is more.” Don’t mistake impressive for excellent. Excellence doesn’t require virtuosic talent or expensive technology. (And for a $60 concert ticket, I can usually get way better than anything a church can pull off.) There may be a place in some contexts for the big production, but: A) that isn’t (and shouldn’t be) the standard for every church; and B) even if it is the norm in a given context, there’s value in occasionally stepping away from it, and stripping it down to the basics every once in awhile. God is glorified in our weakness, so it’s okay to allow our flawed humanity to come through in our worship services.

2. We’re ready for more substance, theology, and (gasp!) tradition.

As evidence, here are some of the workshop titles on offer at the conferences I’ve attended: “Liturgy in Modern Worship”… “Making the Past Present”… “Reimagining the Psalms for Gathered Worship”… “Worship as Spiritual Formation” (that last one is mine). Yes, there are also sessions on sound design and environmental projection and how to help your guitar players get along with your keyboard players… but, to my pleasant surprise, workshops delving into scripture, theology, liturgy and discipleship were also presented to packed rooms, some standing-room-only.

Of course, this is not unrelated to the previous point. Our culture is inundated with advertising, which forms us into consumers. I think we’re (younger people, especially) just tired of constantly being sold the next latest, greatest thing. The church can either try (and usually fail) to compete in that game… or we can provide an alternative to it, and relief from it. In a culture of disembodied, technologically-mediated experiences, Christian worship provides authentic, embodied presence. In a culture of change and impermanence, the Church provides something anchored, something that lasts: not traditional-ism, which is the dead faith of the living, but tradition, which is the living faith of those who have gone on before us. We need worship that forms us not as consumers but as Christians.

3. We’re all in the same boat.

The nice thing about attending ministry conferences is that, as you begin to talk to others, you realize you’re not alone. Everybody’s dealing with the same struggles, from how to control our stage volume to how to reach our communities. It’s even nice to be in the big plenary sessions with the big-name artists and realize that they make mistakes, and their guitarists play the occasional wrong note, and their lyric projectionist is sometimes slow with the slide changes, too!

It’s possible, of course, to see all the technology, and hear the headlining artists, and get all pumped full of big ideas, and then realize you (as I!) have to go back to your small church and lead with just a guitar (and no fancy moving lights!)… and get discouraged. But I leave excited that Kingdom work is going on everywhere, in all kinds of places, in all kinds of styles, to reach all kinds of people. There is no perfect church, and no one church is capable of reaching everyone. In our diversity, and amidst our common struggles with people, budgets, technology, apathy, egos, and faulty mic cables, God is making the Kingdom present among us in the here and now. That is good news (gospel), indeed.