Saturday, March 29, 2008

what did we really accomplish?

In 1989 I was listening to Al Denson. Denson was part of a new worship movement targeted towards teenagers, that was very much bringing a new excitement and spirit to worship for those of us who were tired of the same old hum drum arrangements that had been targeted towards our Great, Great, Great Grandparents (or before) but that had surprisingly fallen out of fashion by the 1980’s. It was both an exciting and frustrating time. Exciting because worship was suddenly interesting to me. Frustrating because of all the flack we had to put up with from people who were convinced that, if we weren’t worshipping God their way, we were, in fact, worshipping the devil. An argument that was (and still is) mind numbingly short on scriptural support, and based on the theology of pharisaic and Roman teaching, rather than the words of David, or Paul or, for that matter, Jesus.

Following Denson were a whole host of guys, mostly playing keyboard, many local to the Bible belt, and all wearing vests with buttons (also called flair, for those of you in the know). I have to admit to being quite taken by these guys. They brought something fresh to church, even if many of them weren’t particularly great musicians (I once spoke to a popular worship leader of the day who told me that he technically only knew how to play his keyboard in the key of C, but had a button on board that would automatically transpose it to other keys). In fact, I wanted to be just like them.

Church in those days was completely out of touch with my generation. Truth is, the church had been out of touch for several generations, mine was just the first to come up with a solution that didn’t involve leaving the mainstream church or church altogether. We naively thought that there’d be no problem in getting our parents to adopt this new form of worship. After all, it was moving, and wasn’t that what we should all be looking for in worship? To say the least, we were wrong. In fact, to this day there’s a war raging across the western world about styles of music appropriate to a worship service. Church’s have split over it, fired staff members, started up new congregations and/or services for those who like “choruses”, and have truly allowed it to become a real dividing point in the church. Many have pointed to it as the seed of a new era in the church. I have to admit to being one of those voices in the past.

We gave many reasons for trying to usher in a new sound during the worship service, but they all seemed to boil down to one thing; church simply wasn’t relevant anymore. We believed that bringing in “contemporary” music would make church relevant again and would, without a doubt, bring in new people.

It’s fascinating to look back on that time in my own life. I fought that battle fiercely. In fact, I first learned to lead worship on the keyboard (minus the vest and flair, I’m sorry to say) and then eventually switched over to the guitar (anybody found playing a keyboard in the 90’s was shot and killed, his vest hung in the youth room as an example of what would happen to you if you did not stay relevant). I led worship in churches, and for retreats and camps, believing that if Christians would adopt this new style of worship in their church, people would once again begin attending. For a period of time, we were partly right in that belief. Church’s that adopted the new worship style did succeed, for a while, in keeping their own young people around. They also managed to attract young people from other churches who were looking for something fresh. No doubt, those that didn’t take on the new style were seen as completely out of touch, irrelevant, and soon found themselves struggling to pay the bills (even many of the old established mega churches across the U.S. today resemble a religious form of global warming; if you’re not paying attention, they actually look pretty healthy. But with no young people coming in, death is in sight.) The problem was that we still weren’t really attracting any lost people through the movement. True, church was more interesting to me, but lost people never go away from church talking about “how great the band was”. Fact is, even the best worship bands are cheap knock offs of U2, and we all knew it.

Today we’re beginning to see the true results of our efforts. We managed to suck the young people out of the churches that weren’t interested in change, and send them all across town to the church that was, only to see them drift away from church all together, once they realized that there really wasn’t much substance behind the music. In fact, many began to realize that it was the music they were worshipping (and once again, if you’re going to worship a band, better make it a good one). So they left.

Twenty years later and, for many, that battle still rages on. I still get asked to lead worship and from time to time, I take the opportunity to do so. But my passion and fervour have changed. Worship music no longer represents church for me. In fact, there are times when I have to turn down opportunities simply because I just can’t stomach being on stage, singing songs that failed to do what we all swore they would do. I sometimes find myself looking out into an audience and thinking, “What the heck is this? And why are we all standing around singing, with these enlightened looks on our faces, when all the lost people are outside?”

Today I’m beginning to gain a new (and I hope, finally, a genuine) understanding of what church is supposed to be about, what it looks like to have an authentic faith, and what it looks like when there’s substance behind our worship. There’s a growing movement of people who don’t care about the music anymore. Standing in a circle and singing a few songs A cappella is just fine, because the music really isn’t the point. For them, church is about the fellowship and the mission. And it isn’t that worship isn’t important to them, they’ve just discovered that music only speaks of their worship, rather than representing it. For them, worshipping through their lifestyle is a form of worship with a whole lot more substance behind it than any music could ever bring.

I went through a period of years that I’m just now coming out of, where I began to search for new ways of leading worship. The few I found always involved the arts; draw a picture of your relationship with God. Drop a stone in this bucket of water and imagine your sins being washed away. Use this pen and stationary to write a letter to Jesus. Imagine the static on this television as your life and then ask God to bring you some clarity. But none of those ideas brought anymore authenticity to my worship leading.

I believe that music speaks to the soul, for most people. It certainly does mine. I can recognize God in all forms of music, secular or religious, worded or wordless. But as far as my relationship with God goes, music can do no more than describe what is or what is not going on. Again, music, in and of itself, is not what’s going on, it can only describe what is or what is not going on. So if all I’m doing is showing up and singing, and that’s what it means for me to “worship” or “do church”, there’s really nothing to the song. It’s an empty shell. It would be like having a bag full of walnut shells that, once opened, had no walnut inside. Nice shells, but who really cares?

It reminds me a lot of the churches in the 90’s who tried starting coffee houses in their fellowship halls (incidentally, I still see churches trying to do this!). They honestly believed that if they put in a stage and a few coffee pots, and got people from their church to sing acoustic songs, outsiders would actually want to hang out there and drink coffee. They missed the whole point and spirit of the coffee house.

And the same thing goes with today’s church start ups who seem to be justifying their existence based solely on their music. The ministry isn’t any more authentic, the fellowship isn’t any sweeter (except that there’s less fighting about the music), there aren’t any more lost people coming through the doors (though a few lost Christians are coming back for a while), and the new church really isn’t affecting change in the community anymore than the old church was. Fact is, visit on a Sunday morning and you’ll still see a pretty traditional church service; music and preaching.

When I was living in Pittsburgh my wife met a man around our age at a bookstore who was starting a church. They got to talking and, next thing we knew, we were being invited to the very first service of this new church. They were meeting in the basement of a hotel and, upon walking through the doors, I was amazed at how many people were already there. There must have been 150 people in the room! However, three minutes into the music portion of the service, and one thing became abundantly clear; everybody in that room was a Christian. They all knew the songs and were singing them like Pink Floyd had gotten back together. But that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst of it came when the guy got up to preach. Using power point, the man showed us his resume in an attempt to assure us that he was more than up for the task. His resume basically consisted of him having been a youth minister, having spent a couple of years as a youth evangelist, and having led a mission trip once. That took twelve minutes (which was seven minutes too long) at which point he got an awkward look on his face and announced that we should all worship again (he was the lead singer of the band, incidentally)! Jamie and I didn’t stay for the rest of it. After having been a part of several church plants ourselves, we knew right away that there simply wasn’t anything of substance behind this new start up.

My prayer is that we get our act together. Is it possible that we simply don’t understand the point of church these days? Have symbols, meant to represent something of great significance, become hollow shells? I know in my own denomination that we’re often guilty of actually wearing garments, meant to represent our commitment to God and those in need, but only worn to worship in. The meaning behind those garments seems to have been completely lost. We’re no more involved in social action than any of the rest of the church. So what’s the point of the garment?

I suppose it’s too much too hope for, but my prayer is that my daughter’s generation will be able to see beyond the symbols and methods. That they’ll be like nomadic congregations, happily moving from one method and symbol to another, understanding that the point is sustenance, not where you lay your head. That the mission gets priority.

I pray that young men will stop starting churches where one of the first questions asked is; where can we get a good sound system for not much money?

And I pray that my generation will see the irony in the excuses we’ve used to leave old churches and start new ones, and will also see the irony in the methods we’ve leaned so heavily on to start those new churches. Sometimes when I stand in front of a congregation of young worshippers, I find myself thinking; same act, different song.

No doubt, churches that were unwilling to bend on the worship topic signed their own death certificates. And rightly so. They proved themselves to be irrelevant even to the culture around them. They were focused on the methods rather than the mission. But I truly believe that, as relevant as we might have been to the surrounding culture, we were just as irrelevant as our parent churches to the needs of our communities. And I think that we were focussed much more on the methods than any of us would like to admit.

We truly were the same act with a different song. And these days, neither our act nor our song is as good as U2’s.

Comments on "what did we really accomplish?"


Blogger Larry said ... (6:06 PM) : 


Thank you! The fact is that as important as worship is, it is not the only thing in the church. Unfortunately, we have found that corporate worship that has become more about entertainment than a way to join together in our pursuit of God. Although, I don't always experience what you do with the dissatisfaction of worship, I do often find myself disconnected.

You are right it is not about music, it is about intentionally coming to see the face of God.

The symbols are important. The problem is we just don't teach well enough.

Finally, the mission is always the most important. Otherwise, we just play church.


Blogger tarisayl said ... (3:25 AM) : 

Tim, I don't disagree with anything you said. I am someone, though, for whom the music is a very important part of worship. Don't get me wrong, I believe the sermon is important too but it is more the music that speaks to my heart. I am closer to God through music than any other portion of the worship service. Everyone gets something different from the worship experience be it the music, the sermon or even the people sitting around them. I am more of a hymn girl myself but I'm weird like that.


Blogger jsi said ... (9:22 PM) : 

What an incredible and vulnerable post you have today.

Music speaks to the most fundemental parts of me - but, you are very right, "worship is not simply about the music, it is intentionally coming to see the face of God."

Theology and doctrine are more neatly and memorably placed within my remembering when they have a melody and a harmony (thank you to so many various composers!) The hymn Amazing Love is inspirational and moving to me. Contemporary music has the same effect. But worship is not exclusively those well-turned lines of stanzas of expressive poetry.

I don't want my pursuit of worship to end up with a bag of empty walnut shells, or even worse, a bag of rotten, neglected walnuts.

You would have looked good with a vest filled with flair.


Blogger Tim said ... (12:15 PM) : 

I have a friend who can never remember his login name and/or password. Mind you, he has two degrees, one in theology, and the latter having required him to learn both Greek and Latin. Yet somehow the ability to keep track of a few internet passwords totally eludes him. He therefore will often respond to my posts through email. The following is his most recent response.

First of all, I agree that a more missional approach is absolutely required if we are to return to a more biblical (and less "american") worldview.

Second, it is interesting to me that we so quickly divorce all things not musical from our use of the term "worship". If we did our homework we might find that historically "worship" has been way more than just the particular songs being sung by a community of faith at any given point in their history. I think that a more thorough-going view of worship should be asking how does God (as revealed in the Scriptures) define worship and what does he require that it manifest in form and structure.

Third, and this is really what I wanted to put forward for your perusing, is that I think that our discussions about "worship" in the "church" is woefully confined to a near-sighted, western/European bias. The Church has been worshipping in all parts of the world for much longer than the US has been around. Further, that worship has had a rich and varied tradition long before the European manifestation of reformation. I in no way want to discount the Reformation and what it has added to the theology of the Church. Nor is my point to undermine the validity of western culture out of my frustration for its abuses (an equally arrogant reaction to arrogant abuses I'd say). My point is simply to say that a good discussion of worship has to take into account that westerners are not the only people worshipping and we don't corner the market on what is right.

All that said, I have to go to a staff meeting so I'll end by saying I hope you guys are doing well. I pray for you often and I am looking for a good scripture verse to justify my opinion that keyboard vests are the mark of the beast.


Blogger Trent said ... (2:20 AM) : 


You know how much I wish I could sing. You know how much I love it when You or Jeff lead music at our church. The problem is that I like it when you or Jeff sing anywhere, not just at church, and it does not matter what you are singing. What does that say about my worship of God through song?

A while after you left I found myself as youth minister, a youth minister that could not play guitar and could not sing. Occasionally I could find someone that could lead us in song, but it was never dependable.

Finally, I started playing games during worship time, team building games. We ended up playing the same games that I use to build cooperation, commitment and communication when working with groups on ropes courses. I found that when I used the gift He gave me for His glorification it felt like "worship." Does that make any sense?


post a comment