Monday, June 4, 2012

Corporate Worship or Concert

I went to a special worship service yesterday honoring our graduates.  I was excited for our seniors and for the worship service.  As the service began we were asked to stand for a time of "worship".  What happened was not "corporate worship". It was really good singing, it was heartfelt and the words were wonderful.  The only thing was, it wasn't "corporate".  The people up front were singing their hearts out.  They were so "into it" and some in the "audience" were also "into it", but for the most part everyone else just stood there with their mouths closed.  The arrangements of the songs were complex (beautiful but complex) and well crafted.  It could have been a song on Christian radio!  But, as much as we wanted to sing, we really couldn't.  We didn't know their arrangements and couldn't follow where they were going.  It was more like a concert.  They were enjoying their time of worship but we were left to just stand there and watch.  Honestly it felt a little uncomfortable watching them.  Shouldn't we be focusing on the Lord? Shouldn't we be watching somewhere else?  I wasn't sure what to do.  I wanted to sit down and read something while they finished their songs.  It was awkward.  It reminded me of an article I read a few months ago.  Here is an excerpt:

"When we think about the legacy of the 16th century Reformation our minds quickly go to such sublime themes as justification by faith and the priesthood of all believers.  However, if you actually lived in the 16th century, the biggest “felt” impact of the Reformation was in the area of worship.  Prior to the Reformation, worshippers were largely passive.  They watched as the Latin mass was sung, Psalms were chanted and the priest consecrated the Eucharist.  The Reformation was a stark reminder that the word liturgy means the “work of the people.”   The Reformation spawned an explosion of congregational hymn writing which produced such remarkable hymns...A Mighty Fortress is our God, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, O For a 1000 Tongues to Sing and Blessed Assurance.  Within a few generations the church was singing again!  Worship was active, not passive.
In our own day we have seen another explosion of wonderful hymn-writing.  Great hymns such as How Deep the Father’s Love for Us(Stuart Townend), How Great is our God  (Chris Tomlin), Blessed be Your Name (Matt Redman) can be heard in churches across the nation.  Having preached in dozens of churches across the nation I have observed that contemporary worship services are almost invariably led by worship bands.... The result is hundreds, if not thousands of worshippers, all standing and listening to the worship band, but not actively singing themselves.  The worshippers are, to be fair, more engaged perhaps than at a concert, but, nevertheless, we are seeing increasingly passive worshippers.  A hard fought battle of the 16th century may need to be fought all over again.
I have a proposed solution which is not all that radical, but could make the difference.
First, worship bands should emphasize acoustical sound rather than electronically amplified sound.  In other words, we need a “worship unplugged” movement.  We can increase the number of musicians and instruments if necessary and, in the case of very large sanctuaries, a modest acoustical amplification might be desirable.  But  the goal would be to primarily hear people singing and worshipping God rather than hundreds of people watching the worship band worship God...
Also, worship bands must reflect more on the “singability” of a proposed worship song.  In the post-Reformation period when so many new hymns were being written, they were specifically written for the church to sing.  This means that, generally speaking, they were simple rhythms set to predictable meters and were musically kept within a “normal” musical range for average voices.  Today’s worship songs are normally taken from the music industry.  These songs are far more complex, rarely have a regularized meter, were written to be “performed,” recorded and put out by professional singers.  Even highly trained worship bands spend hours learning complex rhythms, various musical bridges and irregular vamps between various parts of the song.  The goal often is to try and reproduce as close as possible how it sounded when it was professionally performed.   Musicians may not realize how exceedingly difficult this is for the average congregation.  If you add to this the fact that choruses have a much shorter “shelf life” than a typical hymn, then the turnover rate merely adds to an already challenging situation from a purely musical point of view.  Thus, contemporary worship bands must either learn to write songs specifically for public worship (Stuart Townend is already doing this), or take performance level songs and adapt them into an act of worship."
I've done a lot of thinking, reading and studying worship for the past several years.  I'm more and more convinced that what happens in a lot of contemporary churches is not truly corporate worship but more like a concert.  I'm sure the people who attend those churches, are familiar with their particular "set" of songs and the way their band leads is just right for them, but for someone new and un-initiated, it would be an uncomfortable experience.  I'm still thinking, reading and studying as I attempt to help others worship God.  I don't know if there is one "right way" to "do" worship, but what I do know is that I'd rather be a participant, raising my heart, soul and voice in worship than stand and watch while a few people "perform" for us.  

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