Today I got the following question via text message from a friend:
“What are the implications of the parallel between the rock show/movie theater experience and the contemporary worship service experience? Positive and negative.”
First off, I love having friends who write text messages in English rather than that awful hybrid “txt” language. Makes me feel like the medium isn’t necessarily plunging the English language into oblivion (as if I had room to make such judgments – see: my punctuation in this post)
Now that I have sated my need for a tangent, on to the question at hand. I am a bit of a biased source for these sorts of questions. I moved away from mainstream Evangelicalism almost entirely for this reason. Because I did not want to attend a rock show on Sunday mornings, I wanted to worship God.
I can hear the backlash already: “Rock music can be worship!” “You are just a sour traditionalist,” “Make a joyful NOISE unto the LORD” etc. I know, I know. I was there at one point in my life. I made those arguments. And those statements are not invalid. This discussion often hinges on electric guitars and drum sets, which are part but not the root of the issue.
I dislike when worship looks more like a rock concert exactly because of how powerful I know rock concerts are. Or, I should say, because of how that emotional power happens. When I saw Five Iron Frenzy play on their farewell tour, I was swept away. This was a band that I had come to love and fanatically pledge allegiance to for years of my life. They were playing not just songs from their final album, but a wide range from their entire library including a medly off old songs that had not been played for years. It was amazing. When they finished their set with their timeless ‘Every New Day’ (still my favorite song of all time), I was a big ball of emotion. The response of everyone in the room was palpable. I will remember that concert for a long time.
“So should that not be a model for worship? A palpable experience that we remember? A time where we get swept up in how great God is?” Maybe, the experience alone can’t be the aim. I love those concerts, but they accomplish something very different than what worship should be. Worship – and therefore Sunday morning (or Wednesday night or Saturday evening) worhsip services – is all about giving glory to God. It is about coming together as a congregation and singing to Him. But often in ‘contemporary’ (a broad term which almost has no definite meaning at this point) worship service where there is this rock band feel, the congregation can’t hear themselves sing, they can’t hear each other sing, and they are all drowned out by the band on the stage.
Even that term, ‘stage,’ makes me want to cringe. By calling the front of your sanctuary a ‘stage,’ you are saying that there are performers, not leaders. You then have to call the congregation an audience – who are then not joinging in song but observing. When worship is a rock concert, it is not congregational worship, because it is about an audience watching someone else worship.
And while rock concert churches might say that they don’t actually believe this, there is a phrase I learned this year in school that sheds some light: “lex credendi lex orandi,” loosely translated “the law of worship is the law of belief.” How we worship shows what we believe. The church fathers used this to defend Christ’s divinity – He is worshipped as God, so either they were idolaters or Christ was truly divine. Similarly, someone might say that loud music overpowering the congregation does not intend to make them feel excluded from worship – but look at the rock concert for an example. When is the audience most encouraged to sing along? When they cut the music and turn the microphones away from the stage. When you use terminology and methodology that turns your congregation into an audience, no matter what you say about worship, your actions have spoken your beliefs.
Now, this goes the other way as well. A congregation that sings hymns with no feeling, that seems to hate having to sing in the first place, and that seems to dread music says a lot about worship through their actions. To give some positive spin on the ‘contemporary’ (there’s that word again!) worsihp scene, there is a reminder to ‘traditional’ folks that God cares about our hearts. God wants us to love Him, and that happens with our emotions. As my pastor said today in his sermon “doctrine does not work until it is lived.” If you are singing to God, and make it look like you are bored, something is wrong.
To sum up my rant here, the issue of the rock concert church is one of properly leading God’s people in worship. If you turn them into an audience, either through terminology or performance choices you have failed at your job of guiding them in an offering of music to the LORD.
P.S. Big thanks to my dad, Dr. Melvin Unger, who has talked with me about these things for countless hours, and is influential in my theology of worship. He is also a terrific writer