No Such Thing as Performance Worship
There is something wrong with the way we worship.
Specifically I mean there’s something wrong with the most shallow, superficial definition of “worship” in the Christian sense; worship service. I’ve heard a lot of sermons about how giving is worship, doing God’s will is worship, etc., etc., and this isn’t another one of those. I’m just talking about music and singing.
Quite frankly, I think we’re doing it wrong.
Now I have to let you know up front, this is all conjecture and theorizing on my part. I don’t have any musical training, I’m not a music minister, and I haven’t taken a music class since the sixth grade. Pretty much all of my evidence is anecdotal. But I think even anecdotal evidence has its place; in any case it might make interesting reading.
Let’s back up and get a little historical perspective (again, all anecdotal, I haven’t actually done any research). It seems to me that in the 80s and 90s there was a slow but steady movement in the churches away from hymns and toward more popular music. The general idea (and a fairly correct one, I think) was that if the church was going to be relevant to modern youth it needed to worship with music that youth would actually like to hear. In the mid to late 90s I was a little kid going to a small church in Graham, Washington. During our worship services we had some hymns, some old church songs (like The Trees of the Field, As a Deer Pants for the Water, etc.) and a smattering of more modern songs. As a church we were having struggles. If I remember correctly we didn’t always have a full worship band, and I couldn’t tell you if we had an electric guitar, a bass, or a drum set (something no modern worship service is complete without). Maybe we did, maybe we didn’t. All I remember instrument wise was that our pastor would play the acoustic guitar and someone (possibly his wife?) played the piano. Neither of them were professionally trained music ministers; just people who knew how to play an instrument. Technologically we were far behind modern worship services. For a very long time we didn’t even have a regular projector for the lyrics; just an old fashioned slide projector, and I don’t remember our sound system being very loud.
Yet despite all that, I can’t remember a period of my life where I was so in to worship. I loved those worship services. I loved hearing my voice mix with the voices of everyone else in the church. I loved it when someone would start clapping during a song (not clapping like applause, but a slow, regular, rhythmic clap to add rhythm the music. If you’ve gone to an old fashioned church you’ve probably heard this, and if you go to a modern church you’ve probably seen a music minister desperately try to get people to start clapping like this, with minimal success). The claps fascinated me; how could so many different people all sync up their claps perfectly? I became acquainted with the rhythm of the human body, the tones of the human voice, and feeling of closeness and community that comes from singing in harmony with a crowd of others.
My favorite songs were the ones that had different parts for men and women. I can think of no better introduction to concept of masculinity or femininity than taking part in one of those songs. I loved to hear the women sing with their high and melodious voices, like birds flitting through the trees. Meanwhile I joined my little voice with the strong, deep, and sonorous voices of the men, like mighty stags running along a mountainside. And then the men and women would come back together and the two sounds would blend like sweet honey to the ears. It was beautiful.
Contrast that with a modern worship service. When worship starts at my current church everyone knows it, because of our impressive sound system that fills the entire room with the sounds of electric guitar, bass, and drums. When the singing starts the entire effect is so loud that you can only with great effort hear your neighbors singing. Not that they’re singing very loud; they, like you, are probably singing softy, at a conversational level. You’re all a lot like the extra singers on stage, who are usually women who volunteered to help with worship. You can’t hear their voices either, even though they have microphones. Their voice is drowned out by the worship leader, who is usually a trained musician with a ministry degree. I’ve worked in a sound booth a few times during worship services and they actually do turn down the backup singers so they can hardly be heard. I suppose if they were as loud as worship leader they might sing out of tune and ruin the performance. And performance is an accurate word; the music is so loud, the guitar riffs so sweet, and the singer so on note that the total effect is of a very mild Christian rock concert. We’re there to listen and sing along if we feel like it.
Sometimes the worship leader will try to get a clap going on. “Come on, clap everybody!” while he hits the side of his microphone with a quiet thud. Always a few people start clapping, and then slowly stop. Why? Because the clapping seems so quiet and superfluous. We have a drummer taking care of the rhythm, we don’t need clapping. You can hardly hear it over the music anyway.
At other times the worship leader might step away from the mic for a bit, to hear the crowd sing. Usually at these points you still can’t hear anyone singing; and if you can it’s a pitiful mewling sound, barely audible over the guitar and drums.
Last summer I attended a church service at a Christian camp. It was a work camp, and nobody had brought any instruments along. They dragged out an old overhead projector and put up the lyrics to some old songs. My dad led worship, and though he’s a fine singer he’s certainly not a professional. In fact he was a little off tune for several of the songs. But the effect was incredible. We all saw that if there was any singing to be done we were going to have to do it; if we left it to my dad it would be a pretty poor performance indeed! So we all sang a cappella, and it certainly wasn’t as good a performance as your average worship team can dish out. It wasn’t perfect, but it was worship. It was about you, me, and everyone else singing about how much we love Jesus. I don’t get that at church much these days. I get a great performance; but if I wanted a performance I’d go to a concert. What I need is worship.