I have had the privilege of leading worship for multiple churches and Christian conferences and retreats, large and small. Worship leaders usually receive “the talk” before they sing a note or speak a word of prayer from the church or organization that invites them, and it often consists of these requirements:
- Sing familiar songs, not too many new ones, and nothing too “out there.” Don’t lose the crowd.
- Make sure you have all your slides in and that they are correct.
- Don’t sing anything too hard.
- Please do not make any divisive statements involving politics. Just focus on Jesus.
Recently, a photo was released by the White House and posted all over social media featuring a large number of prominent worship leaders at the Oval Office, surrounding a beaming President Trump in the middle. That these worship leaders chose to cozy up to the highest seat of government and make a definitive political statement is the highest degree of violation of the rules given to worship leaders.
Which Kingdom are We Serving?
Those invited were chosen for a particular reason, under the leadership of pastor Paula White-Cain; many had made supportive statements about the administration’s policies. The White House released videos taken after the gathering featuring a number of these leaders. Kari Jobe said about the experience, “I’ve just been in tears all day. I’m just so thankful to be part of this today and to see what God’s doing in our White House.” Hillsong Church pastor Brian Houston stated, “When America is strong, the world is a better place. What a great opportunity it’s been to see some of the initiatives that are happening to help freedom of religion.” Additional comments included instructions for viewers not listen to everything the media says about the president, because these leaders had personally witnessed how anointed he was with their very own eyes.
Those invited to this unique gathering were saying what a majority of us believe. Yes, my use of “us” is intentional. They represent the majority of Christians in the US who support the policies and politics of this administration. They represent the majority of Christians in the US, period. But I think we forget that the church is called to a higher standard, that “just focus on Jesus” should be the most radical political statement there is, which is to claim that “Jesus is Lord.” It is political because we are not to say “Caesar (or Trump, or any other earthly leader) is Lord.” We are to subvert earthly empires in Jesus’ name, and our political statement is supposed to be a unifying one, not a divisive one. As worship leaders, we have the immense privilege of leading and reminding people of how to center our lives as Christians. Unfortunately, as evidenced by the White House photo-op, worship leaders are not reflecting “Jesus is Lord” with our actions.We forget that the church is called to a higher standard...to the most radical political statement there is, which is to claim that 'Jesus is Lord.' Click To Tweet
We have failed to see how comfortable we are with supporting the empire, mostly through our silence and fear of losing numbers and dollars. We have failed to see how subversive and radical Christian life really is. From what you hear and see as “truth” based on some sort of enigmatic algorithm for your race, class, gender, and age, your theology will follow. And your worship will follow. The truth of the church’s political theology has been exposed and our witness has been made clear.
A Call to Surbersive Worship
Can we return to subversive living and worship, like the early church? Mary’s worship song from Luke’s gospel can be our guiding light:
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:50-55)
Just a week before this White House worship leader photo went live, I had the privilege of helping to arrange a beautiful gathering of worship leaders, ethnodoxologists, and academics exploring the future of Christian worship in an increasingly diverse world. Eric Lige, Urbana 2018 worship leader, talked about our evolving ideas about worship in a diverse nation. Jonathan Brooks, pastor in the south side of Chicago and author of Church Forsaken talked about worship in exiled and uncomfortable lands, and several others shared about worship beyond just music. Michelle Higgins, worship leader and activist, talked about deconstruction and decolonization as a way of faithfully moving forward. Arrabon’s David Bailey facilitated a group-compiled timeline of events corresponding to movements in worship and the church, noting how worship did not evolve in a vacuum. At the end, we joined together in discussing our hopes for the future of worship that is creative and fruitful, and that will help the church move forward in unity and love.
There was no public relations blitz after our gathering. There was no White House tweeting interviews with any of us about our thoughts on being in the Oval Office. But I’d like to think that our little gathering was a subversive act of worship, one that emphatically bore witness to the truth that “Jesus Is Lord” and thus was entirely political in its own way, in the way the church is called to overthrow the empires of this world.