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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Praise and Worship

Jamie Smith is a Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College. He recently wrote an open letter to praise bands. It's an interesting read, but, more importantly, an interesting thought exercise.

1. Do you appreciate the time and effort that people put into leading music at church? My church, for instance, has two services. We aren't a big church, so that means that those who lead the singing will be doing both services while us "normal" people will only be there for one. Add to that the time to practice, the dedication to quality, the preparation both in content and in heart, and it becomes quite an investment. They deserve our appreciation.

2. Is it worship leading or is it performance? I've been in front in the past. I've led singing, played music, that sort of thing. I stopped for a variety of reasons, but one that I don't typically mention is the fact that the entire task of leading music coupled with the popularity of entertainment lends itself to the sense of performance rather than worship leading. Drawing the line between "quality" and "performance" is difficult. Fighting off the quite natural human desire to be noticed and appreciated ("I just love our music director; he sings so well and really puts us in the mood.") tends to feed more of the ego than the attention to the divine.

This problem is typically reflected in the congregation as well. We think of the front platform as a "stage" (often because that's exactly what we call it) and the people on it as "performers" and we appreciate a "good performance" and aren't thrilled with a "bad performance". We applaud (quite literally) skill and technique, but don't really pay as much attention to lyrical content or the direction the music takes us. (How often, for instance, do worship leaders practice Col 3:16?) We often make the most skilled musician the worship leader without regard to spiritual qualification. Some churches even make the worship group a paid position because we want the best talent. As such, the congregation feeds off a sense of performance which the worship leadership has to fight in itself. Problem.

The problem is the worldly mindset. The people up front are the performers. The congregation are the audience. And we have a concert going on. Not nearly accurate, of course, but it's how we tend to think. There is indeed an audience in church on Sunday. It's God Himself. And there are indeed performers on Sunday. They are each and every member of the congregation. The worship leaders (and pastors and all), then, have the task of leading, not performing. They direct the performance of the congregation to provide God the best possible pleasure. That, of course, is not the standard thinking of the world and it is too often not the standard thinking of the congregation.

In the article, Smith writes several suggestions for "leading worship" for the band. He tries to avoid making it a performance by encouraging less volume from the band, by choosing songs that people can sing (rather than simply hear), by making the band less than the center of attention. Good things, I'm sure. And he tries to avoid making it an issue of preference or stubbornness -- not about style or form. It's not about "I don't like that kind of music" or "Should we really have drums in church?", but he asks instead two basic questions. "Is it about pleasing us or pleasing God?" "Is it worship or performance?" We need to be careful about importing worldly thinking into church and calling it "worship" because it tickles our ears. I would recommend, also, that you read his postscript to the open letter. There are certainly things in the open letter as well as the postscript worth considering. And since we consider worship our highest task, perhaps we ought to give it some careful thought.


Craig said...

As someone who has been in the contemporary music camp for a long time (about 20years), I pretty much agree with your (and his) points.

1. I would suggest that it is important for the church to recognize everyone who plays a role in making the Sunday morning/Saturday night/Sunday night/Wednesday night happen. The vast majority of these folks are serving within their giftedness and love it. Having said that it just seems appropriate to acknowledge and celebrate those folks on some sort of regular basis. Not weekly or monthly, but quarterly or yearly seems reasonable.

2. The age old question. I've personally had it be both. When it's worship, it's heavenly and even the mistakes sound inspired. When it's performance, you can be amazing and no one in the room cares because you totally lost them. It's a constant struggle. It certainly can lead to encouraging a consumer mentality.

I've served with folks who are from a performance/theater background and the use of showbiz terms has always made me somewhat uncomfortable. As for the musical v. spiritual qualifications, I've seen both, give me the more spiritually mature not quite as gifted musician any time.

I completely agree that there are a number of things that can be done to combat this. Lowering volume can (not always) be a great thing. Giving more thought to lyrics than musical styles is good. Boosting the singers over the band slightly so the congregation is helped to sing along is good also. There are a bunch of ways to minimize this.

One problem I see is that everything he says also applies to other styles of music (maybe more so with some of the high church classical only folks like my cousin). Also if you change the sentence from "I just love our music director; he sings so well and really puts us in the mood." to " I just love our teaching pastor; he preaches so well and really puts us in the mood." You see that anyone "up in front" is succeptable to this.

The solution, get folks who are as humble ant spiritually mature as possible and put them in a framework that stresses God focused worship, with accountability, and pray alot.

I could have kept going, but this is plenty.

P.S. Had an amazing worship experience two Sundays ago, with a "worship leader" who was a horrible singer, an band that was less than in tune at all times, and power point words in a different language.

But you know what, singing "it is Well" in Kreyol with some wonderful Haitian brothers and sisters made everything alright. Even though I know the story behind the song, it gives you a new perspective to hear the poorest folks in the hemisphere sing "It is well, with my soul" with such passion and conviction. Almost makes me want to move there.

David said...

Our church ran into this dilemma early in its formation, and decided to move the worship leader to the rear of the room.

Dan said...

How odd. They should put a sign in front of the stage that says musicians and preacher only beyond this point. That would round out quite well the deformed appearance of the modern body: a horde of ears connected to several very large mouths. What is worship? I pray it is much more than "mood" or "experience". Of course if this is what has become of "worship" , it certainly would go a long way in explaiiing why the society it serves stands at the gate of Sodom

Stan said...

Craig, I thought I should clarify that the second point was a question. It is my dream that worship leaders would read it, say, "Yeah, I'm aware of that problem and work to avoid it", and move on. Loud music, performance, unsingable lyrics, these kinds of things can be problems and I'm just hoping that they're aware of it and avoiding it, not suggesting that anything outside my understanding is disqualified.

A genuine heart of worship is hard to miss, whether dressed in fine music or cloaked in off-key music. It's really the point, isn't it? (And I would think, given the background of "It is Well" and the recent history in Haiti, that the two would fit very well together.)

David, interesting. At the back? I always thought it would be really cool to put a choir in the back ... preferably in the balcony (if it exists). Just music without seeing performance.

Danny, the distorted Body rears its ugly head again, eh?

David said...

I have a similar problem whenever I go to live performances, like choral groups or symphonies. I get so distracted by those doing the piece, I miss out on the piece. Its a distraction thing for me.

Mathew said...

I'd be more inclined to put the stage at the back behind the congregation. At the front, have your pulpit/lecturn and cross. That would create a different dynamic to the standard worship service, no?

(Well, up until the critical mass of congregants begin automatically turning around when the worship band starts up!)

Stan said...

Hmm, that's two votes for "Put them behind the congregation." I suppose you could just put them "off stage" or "out of sight" anywhere, couldn't you?

On the other hand, there is another consideration on that. While a "performer" can be distracting and even the presence of someone(s) leading and playing can be distracting, it is also true that people immersed in worship in front will tend to lead worship. As I mentioned to Craig, a genuine heart of worship is hard to miss, whether dressed in fine music or cloaked in off-key music.

Anonymous said...

Off topic, but—

As a double-threat guy (live music and electronics), you are in a position to work up your own songs, or your own arrangement of other people’s songs, using music software. FlexiMusic Composer is one I have heard of, though I know nothing about it. Any advice for us composer-wannabes on what to look for in software? I remember a semipro musician telling me ten years ago that synthetic music devices were really bad at emulating brass instruments. Has it gotten better?

Stan said...

Yes, indeed, completely off topic. And not something I'd know so nothing about which I can offer suggestions. Sorry.

Craig said...


As a general rule real is always better than fake and analog almost always sounds better than digital.

Having said that, I'd say go with what sounds good to you.

Anonymous said...

True, Craig. But I wasn't blessed with hand/eye coordination or whatever it takes to play an instrument in passable fashion.


Dan Trabue said...

Would you be willing to consider a question from another land?

At our church, we work hard to make worship a group participatory kind of thing in a range of ways, and we do a pretty good job of it. Artwork on the bulletin covers from various artists and children in the congregation, poems, prayers, new songs and hymns from children and adults in the congregation, regular sermons, testimonies and homilies from folk other than the pastor, etc.

Having said that, part of the worship service being group-led means that sometimes there are inviduals and small groups adding to the worship by a special song, poem, litany, etc. and part of what makes that special, holy, meaningful is exactly the person who is adding to the worship.

For instance, one of our dear church matriarchs (who has gone on to be with the Lord) used to do special music from her seat because she was fairly disabled and getting to the stage was not easy. So she'd hoarsely whisper out her song and it was glorious largely because it WAS her. We don't feel the need to diminish or hide the person adding to worship because it is WHO the person is that is part of makes the music/song/prayer/poem special and holy.

A child performing a piano solo for the first time IS performing, to some degree, but it is also a holy offering to God and the church community and it is meaningful BECAUSE of who that child is. We'd never dream of hiding them in the back, we WANT to see the person making the offering of music/poem/words, etc.

What do you think, considering it in this light?