Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Worshipping Music

Of the four Sundays in May, I have spent two at different churches in Atlanta, one at my home church in L.A., and will spend the next one in Montana. I figure this is either a call to comment on the variety of protestant worship styles in America, or at least an excuse to do so.

There are two main parts to the protestant service – the music, and the sermon. I’ll start with the music, leaving for another day my chance to explain why it is a bad idea for the protestant service to be mainly about music and sermons.

I’m not a fan of the music at my church (no, you read that right; I’m in a full disclosure mood). The band is very, very good – it isn’t quality that I’m not a fan of, but rather performance style.

You see, they “lead” worship in what I call “concert style.” The emphasis here is on serving G-d through quality – so the band works to sound the best it can. Decisions are based primarily on what sounds good on the stage. And the audience is invited to sing along if they so wish.

Another less hip style is “congregational.” Quality is still important to these folk, but it isn’t the primary concern. Rather, their worship decisions are based on what is going on in the congregation – even if it means that the band may not be as popular or cool sounding. The lead singer isn’t doing extra licks, or adding personal vocal touches, or any such things; he (or she, or they) is just helping the congregation to focus on the unearthly.

It is Taylor Hicks’ job to make the songs he sings his own, because he is performing. On the other hand, the congregational band is trying to be invisible (not as much applause directed at the band in these services).

To be fair, I don’t think my church’s band is going for applause – the leader tends to shyly turn away from the clapping – but make no mistake, the applause is directed toward the stage not the heavens.

Concert style is here to stay; the majority of protestant churches I visit use this style. In fact, the second Atlanta church has taken this mode to its inevitable conclusion: full on concert.

When it came time for musical worship, the house lights went to black, leaving only the lights on the band and the motorized Shakespeares – zooming through the band and sweeping the audience. The fog machine pumped out enough San Franciscan juice to make the light show stand out. The multiple cameras projected live images to the video screens, jumping around to catch the back up singers’ sway, or the guitarist’s special licks, or the brass section getting funky.

The only indicator that the audience was to sing along was the lyrics posted on the side screen – which was also true when the rockers that opened the show – I mean service – played their special number. But since we clearly weren’t supposed to sing along to the special music, I’m not sure how we knew to sing along when the worship band took the stage.

But sing along we did. Not as a congregation, mind you, but as individual fans in the darkness, rocking out our personalized worship of music, of singers, and quite probably, our Creator.

All in all, a fine performance, worthy of any venue that doubles as a sanctuary. The band and stagehands worked hard, fully deserving the accolades that we gave them with our applause. After all, if musical worship doesn’t end with a focused acknowledgment of how much we love our band, it can’t be very good, can it?

And now I know why I’m dissatisfied with my church’s worship style.

Clearly we don’t have enough fog.

Just my thoughts,



Anonymous said...

That service was a little too show-off-y for me, actually, Sean. BB looked over at me when the worship leader came out and said, "Just 'cuz you have a rock and roll haircut, doesn't make you rock and roll." As a worship leader myself, there's always that tension between leading the people (risking calling attention to yourself), and just getting out of the way (which presumes that people automatically know to worship). It's a tension, and one I still haven't totally resolved myself.

Have a good time travelling -- see you when you get back.

Sarah said...

Hear! Hear!

I agree that I'm not comfortable with the degree of "performance" that has crept into worship services. Somehow, all those years I spent in church choirs... those anthems never felt like we were trying to sing for an audience. That was singing to take the congregation someplace closer to God. And I've been in services where the choir's presentation (don't want to use the word "performance" here) was so wonderful that there was a spontaneous, joyous outpouring of applause. Which felt right.

But as a usual course? No. Not right.

I've seen praise bands in services do "standard" praise songs that everyone knows -- but done them with such individualistic and unique arrangements that spontaneous harmonizing from any of the worshippers is impossible. Surely that also comes close to the "performance" type presentation.

Anyway... I think all music in the service should be directed at bringing the worshippers closer to God. Not paying attention to the performers.

Kale said...


as an interested RC friend, I'm curious about your tantalizing bit about what is wrong if the service is only about the sermon and the worship music. Let's have it...


The Hopper said...


Found your blog through Janet's Quoth the Maven.

Have you ever visited an Orthodox. I'm a Protestant turned Emergent turned searching and I've been amazed the last couple of weeks as I've experienced the worship that is so completely different from anything I've ever seen.

You might find it refreshing. Check out the Antiochian variety--it's usually less ethnically focused than say a Greek or Russian parish, though those churches are beautiful too.

Gaffney said...

Kale -- I will indeed finish my thoughts on sermo-centric services soon.

Hopper - Welcome. It has been years since I've visited an Orthodox church... Probably too long. Thanks for the suggestion.
Most of my "visiting" tends to happen on the road, or when a brother/sister invites me to visit their home parish (Like BB WILL invite me next time he is preaching at his church -- right, BB?)