When my family switched churches from the First Church of God to the First Assembly of God, the most noticeable difference was the music. Instead of singing songs out of a book with lyrics that made virtually no sense to my child mind, the Assembly sang shorter, simpler songs with the words displayed on a screen. It was still just a piano and organ, and the pastor would kinda direct the singing with his hands, like my mom had when she led the hymns at Church of God, (it seems weird to remember that my mom actually led music in church…about the only musical thing I remember her ever doing…other than playing the chord organ we had as I was growing up) but somehow, the simpler choruses seemed easier to take than the hymns. Plus, the people would clap during the fast songs and raise their hands during the slow ones; which made it seem like the congregation was feeling or ‘getting into’ the music more than I remembered at our old church.
The problem for me though, was that the church music still wasn’t rock and roll. I mean, I had pretty diverse tastes, at least for a child my age. I listened to everything from current top 40 pop/rock, a little ‘hard rock’, my mom’s oldies rock and roll, dad’s country music, even the country gospel that my parents listened to from time to time, and eventually I discovered CCM/Christian Rock. I definitely liked the idea of music that talked about God, but I just couldn’t appreciate the un-rock-and-roll music at church. And the Maranatha worship tapes my parents bought were even worse than singing the same songs at church.
Over the years, the First Assembly of God went through a lot of different worship leaders and musicians. We lost the organ player and focused more on piano. There was even a time when we had a worship leader who played acoustic guitar, which was much more interesting to me than the piano playing. At some point, somebody donated a drum set to the church, which eventually really changed the worship game, at least for me. At first, my dad was one of the biggest opponents to having the drums played during the worship at church. He insisted that they were just too loud and overpowered everything else; which was true, because the first few guys who tried playing it just didn’t have the dynamic capacity to play at the appropriate volume for our church and sound system. But, one day a college student showed up, willing to use brushes and play more appropriately for the church setting, and people finally took to the idea…and I was really excited that there was actually an element of rock and roll creeping into church music.
This was in the early-mid 1990’s, and teenagers like myself found ourselves in the midst of what was called the MTV generation. Rock and pop music had always been a part of our lives, and there were more sources for contemporary music than ever. Christian Contemporary Music had become a major industry, mixing the kind of pop and rock and even rap music we teenagers had become accustomed to, with an evangelic Christian and sometimes kinda worship-type message. To many of us, church music was just too outdated and boring for us to understand, much less actually experience true worship through. Sure, we were a bit spoiled and probably entitled when it came to our music preferences, but it’s just the world and times we found ourselves in. And this was also the time when youth group culture was being formed, because The Church was realizing that it needed to find a way to be relevant to the MTV generation and meet us where we were. So for the first time, the idea of engaging in a worship experience seemed reachable to many of us teenagers and youth.
The earliest times I remember actually feeling some sense of genuine worship were definitely related to the CCM music I was fond of: getting caught up in the excitement at concerts or singing along to the tapes I had at home. I definitely did not experience the same personal worship at church. After adding the drums to our worship services, I did enjoy the music more, and began to relate to it better than when it was just piano or guitar. I quickly realized that I wanted to see worship music and rock music even more intimately tied together.
Over time, we saw the ‘contemporary worship’ movement reach beyond pentecostal churches, to invade other types of churches. Often, the movement caused church congregations to divide into separate “traditional” and “contemporary” services, because the younger generation wanted the drums, electric guitars, and choruses while the church ‘elders’ still insisted on singing from the hymnal to piano and organ. I was fortunate to be in a church where we seemed to be able to balance the choruses and hymns, and rock musicians like myself were given the freedom to explore and express our own rock and roll tendencies in worship. With or without the potential divide between generations, it did feel good and affirming to see church worship move towards something more relevant and relatable to our generation and musical preferences. It allowed us to find our own voice and expression as well as begin to experience worship at a more personal and effective level.
As the contemporary worship movement grew, the CCM industry caught on to the new popularity of worship music. Christian artists and rock bands started making specifically worship-oriented records, often recording and performing the same songs we were singing in church. As these records sold well, the industry focused more and more on this new “modern worship” phenomenon, and by the mid-00’s the CCM industry seemed overrun by worship releases. At the same time, there were a number of worship leaders and bands that broke into the industry, making names for themselves by not only writing the songs we were singing in church, but having their recordings of those songs on the radio and CCM charts. Certain church worship teams gained exposure and popularity and started touring just like any rock band, taking with them spectacular rock concert theatrics and effects. Many of these worship bands aimed their presentation to youth, so it seemed necessary to try and compete with the pomp and bravado of rock and pop music events.
At some point, it seemed like our desire for ‘relevant’ worship music, had turned into a monster. Honestly, when I look at the live videos for some of these worship bands and concerts, I feel uneasy. Obviously, I have always been a proponent of bringing rock and roll into worship, but as I have grown in my own expression and understanding of worship, I feel like I can recognize how easy it is to get caught up in the exciting and emotional hype that a rock concert experience can induce, and totally miss a genuine spiritual exchange in true worship. (I talk more in depth about the need for spiritual exchange in worship here) There is just something about turning worship leaders into rock stars, that seems contradictory to the purpose of worship and giving God the glory in our expressions of praise and worship.
Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely believe in passionate artistic expression in worship. I’m sure I could be accused of some rock star bravado in the way I play on my church worship team, and my passionate expression as a musician certainly gets me unintended, yet significant attention and praise from people at church. Also, I understand the idea of using some concert/theatric tools like lighting to create and enhance certain moods and vibes for worship. We do turn the lights down during certain times of our worship service at church. However, I do see congregational worship as having certain needs and parameters, so that we focus on audience/congregation participation, genuine worship, and spiritual exchange. I guess I feel that when we put too much focus on the presentation and dramatic hype, we risk compromising that genuine exchange for the congregation.
I think there is a time and place when it is totally appropriate and beneficial to push the artistic and theatrical boundaries of worship expression past what is most effective for church congregational worship. In fact, I have a ‘vision‘ and desire to do just that. But, I guess what I’m uneasy about concerning these epic modern worship events, is that they seem to try and ride that line between rock show bravado/theatrics and expecting corporate/congregational style worship. Sure, they get the audience excited and singing along because the presentation is engaging and relatable, but I can’t help but wonder just how much true worship and spiritual exchange actually happens. I’m not saying that the experience is completely void of genuine worship. It’s just that I’ve found that the more a ministry focuses on hype and emotional dramatics, the easier it is to get distracted from the spiritual exchange that is necessary to genuinely and effectively draw us closer to God. Honestly, I believe that we’re seeing the ‘fruit’ of that in the way that so many of my generation have walked away from Christian faith after the hype and ‘relevant’ ministry of 90’s youth group culture. To break things down even further, I don’t entirely believe in the effectiveness and relevancy of the kind of evangelism and music ministry we attempted in through the 1990’s…but that’s a different blog for a different day.
I don’t mean to condemn these modern worship ministries and artists, or claim they are completely ineffective in worship and ministry. I genuinely appreciate a lot of the worship songs/material they have introduced, and we gladly and effectively play those songs in church. Plus, I definitely still see the need for worship, music, and ministry to continue to be relevant and relatable in order to meet people where they are, and begin to draw them closer to God. For me, it’s a question of how much do we focus on presentation and hype, versus how much we focus our attention on giving God the glory and inviting His Spirit to take over without the dramatic presentation being a distraction. As I ponder my own vision for artistic driven worship, I question how I can be sure to focus the glory on God and not on my own ego and need for public attention and affirmation. How can we effectively present a relevant and relatable worship experience, without the distractions of rock star bravado and attention?