Getting to Know Rocky Top
It happened at the final regular season basketball game for the University of Tennessee basketball team in 2018. I started to fall in love with the Volunteer Nation. The Vols needed to win this game to win the regular season SEC Championship. It was an intense game throughout and the crowd was completely engaged. I’m pretty sure I heard the Volunteer fight song Rocky Top at least two dozen times and somehow I never got tired of it (Go ahead and make your jokes now Vol haters and then read the rest of the post).
We had better seats than I was accustomed to as the seats were a gift from friends. I was only about fifteen rows from the court. The people around me were fully committed to cheating their team to victory. Every time something great happened the band would fire up Rocky Top. By the time we got to about halftime, I knew enough of the words to Rocky Top to at least sing the part where we go “WHOO” with a lot of intensity. It was kinda cool to slap high-fives with people all around me when Admiral Schofield had an emphatic dunk late in the game to put it out of reach for the Georgia Bulldogs. Most of these guys were clearly way more wealthy than me but they loved their Vols and their love was infectious.
Unless you’re a Vol hater, it’s undeniable that the energy and affection with which the nation supports their team becomes infectious when you’re immersed in the environment. This night also got me to thinking about how this environment might inform the corporate worship environments that I work in.
Leading Worship in Rocky Top Land
Not long after this, I actually got the opportunity to lead worship in Knoxville, Tennessee. Many of the people who I lead in worship weekly are Volunteer fans. Now, don’t @ me, but because of this, I’m quickly becoming a fan of the Volunteers. I love the energy of Vol supporters but I can’t help but notice how the most reserved of Tennessee fans can sing Rocky Top with full facial expression and maximum intensity almost on demand. It’s difficult for me but I try not to make this an apples-to-apples comparison in how my people express themselves in corporate worship. Instead, I’ve been pondering why people seem to be so much more comfortable expressing themselves with passion and intensity at a ballgame than they are in corporate worship of our King.
I have begun to realize that people don’t come to a football or a basketball game solely for the purpose of taking in a professional athletic performance or even a musical one. They come to support and love their team. They come to let the world know that their team is better than the other team and they aren’t really shy about how they express this. While a great performance by their team, band and cheerleaders may enhance this, they aren’t the driving force that keeps the people coming. Nor are they the final product that the team is hoping for at Thompson- Boling Arena when they ask the crowd to feed the floor.
The coaches and team are asking for that infectious passion, energy and intensity that pushes the team to keep going. They want those waves of energy that wash over the crowd and reproduce themselves in ever increasing sound and passion.
What Does This Have to do With Corporate Worship?
I’m sure that the University of Tennessee has one of the better marching bands and some of the better cheerleaders in the country. I’m also sure that if both of those groups weren’t very good, people would still show up to support the Vols. Perhaps not quite as many would come but the ones who truly love their team aren’t swayed by what they do or don’t do on the field. Here’s a fact, when we worship, we worship a King who only wins (Hold your Tennessee jokes)
I don’t know if the UT band or cheerleaders are demonstrably better than any of their SEC counterparts. They didn’t sweep me into the Vol nation. It was the passion displayed by so many people who I have come to love that has done this to me. They have convinced me that their team is something special and worth cheering for. I believe that the same thing can happen when we worship. People are made to believe that the King of kings is something worth getting excited about when the people they are with allow themselves to get passionately excited. How do we help people get to a place where they can be passionately excited about corporate worship?
I always tell my worship teams that they are worship leaders. This is true of choir members, band members, praise team members and orchestra members. They have a job to do every time they’re on that stand. Their job is to do the very best they can to help the congregation to worship. People often are unclear on how to do this. Does this mean that every note must be sung perfectly? Does this mean that the image on the stage is flawless? While perfect performance is desirable, it should be obvious that it simply cannot be the end goal. Many churches don’t even have the tools or talent to pull off the perfect performance so this cannot be the end game pragmatically or biblically speaking.
I would go so far as to say that an over-emphasis on perfect performance may actually hinder corporate worship. In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul is admonishing the Corinthian church on their use of speaking in tongues in church.
“Therefore the person who speaks in another tongue should pray that he can interpret. For if I pray in another tongue, my spirit prays but my understanding is unfruitful. What then? I will pray in the spirit, and I will also pray with understanding. I will sing praise with the spirit, and I will also sing praise with my understanding. Otherwise, if you praise with the spirit, how will the outsider say “Amen” at your giving of thanks, since he does not know what you are saying? For you may very well be giving thanks, but the other person is not being built up. I thank God that I speak in other tongues more than all of you; yet in the church I would rather speak five words with my understanding, in order to teach others also, than ten thousand words in another tongue.”
This passage clearly isn’t necessarily about musical worship but I think we can glean some practical insights and principles concerning public corporate worship here. Whatever Paul was getting at when he mentioned speaking in tongues, it is clear that this was something desirable yet it stood in the way of corporate worship (verses 18-19). There’s nothing wrong with polished and perfect performance but could it be that we’ve perfected the people right out of a posture of praise? It must also be made clear that worship technically isn’t for unbelievers or outsiders. The unredeemed cannot and will not worship. Our worship can however help us be missional toward unbelievers when we are unified and clear.
Are we speaking a different and impossible to understand language with our lush and complex rhythms and harmonies from our vocal ensembles? Are we keeping praise out of reach of worshipers by putting music in keys that make our voices sound awesome while showing off our vocal range and dexterity in our soulful and stylistic singing? Are we perhaps telling entire generations of worshipers that they can’t participate in worship because they don’t fit the hipster look of skinny jeans and infinity scarves that lead from the stage each week? Are we telling other generations that they’re not welcome in worship because they wear those skinny jeans and infinity scarves?
Or are we rather doing the hard work to find the voice and style of our congregations and setting them loose to worship the King? The congregation has a far more profound impact on outsiders and the believers through their work on Sunday mornings than the polished, curated and perfected look and sound of a team on stage. It is my belief and experience that people are more moved and inspired by passionate presence than they are by perfect performance. The goal is for our people to understand and join what is happening on the stage so they can sincerely say amen.
None of this is to say that you and your worship teams shouldn’t strive for musical and visual excellence as an act of worship either. You absolutely should. My point is that as worship leaders, we must ever make every effort to set our congregations up to win more than us. We don’t win by putting on flawless performances as much as we do by pointing people to our flawless God. After all, a person may not be able to play in the band or perform with the cheerleaders but just about anybody can sing Rocky Top.
Herbert is a believer in Jesus Christ who is overwhelmed by the riches of the Gospel, the husband of April and the father of Cadence, Imani and Angel. He also serves as the Lead Pastor for the Chets Creek Church North Campus in Jacksonville, Florida. He has been serving in full time ministry for more than six years and was a public school music educator for twelve years prior to that. He loves deep philosophical conversation, barbecue and golf even though he stinks at it.