Worship Consumption, 21st-century-style

This post comes hot off the heels of something I read on another blog. And I had to come on here and say something about the same issue. I’d love to hear some comments on this one.

We seem to have a huge number of different worship styles and concomitant services out there. Family services; seeker services; youth services; praise and worship services; miracles-and-healing services; outreach services (and maybe we also have ‘inreach’ as well…); high-church services; low church services – and all with their own music protocols, dress codes and vernaculars.

I’m not knocking variety. But today’s question goes something like this: while of course the world is made up of difference – period – at what point do we stop being positively different – culturally and linguistically etc – under the banner of Christ – and become veritable capitalist consumers of worship?

In the book Selling Worship, Pete Ward makes the point that ‘evangelicals have been engaged in ‘selling worship.’ Now he does go on to make the point that ‘selling’ in this instance is not inherently negative, but can be understood as a ‘means of communication and exchange.’

I’m still considering my theoretical response to that, but there is a level on which I do take his point. Nonetheless, we can use that concept as a jumping-off point for other journeys of thought. One of the crucial ways in which many churches seem to try and ‘attract’ new members is by investing time and money into ‘worship’ which often means into the music. Now, at least two authors that I have read have made the point – in different ways – that the only thing that matters in a worship service is the presence of God. And my own drum on this matter beats to this tune: it is theologically and spiritually corrupt to sing songs and make statements declaring the presence of God in a sanctuary when He may in fact not be there ministering to the congregation at large. If the speaker is unconsecrated and unsanctified in the sight of God, how can the Holy Spirit work through that person? If the praise team members are indulging in sexual proclivities and not confessing it before God, however well they sing, how on earth is a HOLY God supposed to minister through them? Or, flip that round – if the worship team have actually prepared to lead the congregation into an actual worship experience, but the overwhelming majority of congregants only want to have a jolly sing-song – that’s a tug’o’war right there in the sanctuary. How does the Spirit function on those occasions?

I’ve been talking about praise teams – which clearly represents the more ‘contemporary’ end of the bandwagon. Let’s switch to the traditional. Some churches regard the organist as a ‘minister of music’ – but how many organists who are in fact good enough to be paid to play at church services are fully-confessional Christians? And since when does singing hymns instead of so-called ‘worship songs’ indicate greater piety or spirituality by definition? Does God only favour the high-European cultural tradition? There are a whole heap of people who are in serious confusion on this point – but the issue of the only thing mattering being that of the presence of God in a liturgical gathering still remains paramount. God is not in any way more guaranteed to show up if you sing 300-year-old hymns and do away with drums. The praise teams frequently commit what I call ‘spiritual perjury’ – but the hymn-singers are also frequently condemned by the very theology espoused by those anointed hymn-writers of yore.

We really could not be more fragmented within our worshipping communities. Capitalism has fuelled the ideology of self-interest and naked materialism, and the result is impending economic meltdown on a global scale. And yet, so many people would rather do anything other than give up their rights as consumers. This type of thinking has spread to the ways in which Christians decide where they worship from week to week. To my mind, every service should be family-friendly – but the perceived need to put bums on seats has turned the sacred business of soul-winning into a business enterprise (yes, I’m aware of that Weberian argument about the Protestant roots of capitalism – but this isn’t the time for that). Pete Ward again: “In the present day church growth models draw quite openly from business-management theories.” So, if churches cater for a wide range of markets – sorry, I meant ‘needs’ – then in a stats-conscious society, as the numbers go up, the better the ‘church is doing.’ As such, it becomes about offering a ‘choice’ – and churchgoers are increasingly growing up on a diet of expectations of ‘experiences’ that are supposed to fill the God-shaped hole in all of us.

Worship may be a noun, but it will always also be a verb. And it requires a little more than simply turning up to a place where others claim worship will take place. One can experience ‘something’ but experiencing the presence of God is not a ‘run-of-the-mill experience.’ It is literally life-changing. The quest for a ‘worship experience’ is not always going to lead to a discovery of God. And if the believers are busy consuming worship styles based on their worship aesthetics – what kind of message is being sent out to those who do  not know God for themselves, and for whom the lives of the self-proclaimed Christians is the ‘only Bible they’ll ever read?’

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10 comments on “Worship Consumption, 21st-century-style

  1. Stephanie Quick says:

    nicely written, alex. i think this blog is a brilliant idea. i’m not sure if i’ve seen one like it…ever.

    as for this particular post, i think my only comment could be one of my own personal experience. i’ve been exposed to various types of worship music throughout my life in the Adventist church. when i was younger, it was all about the praise songs (or worship songs as you called them). some of these were great, and i still sing them to this day. others, however, were quite fluffy, if you know what i mean.

    later (including now), i mostly stick to hymns. i will admit right off that this is mostly a cultural thing. well, it started that way. but now, it’s more of a decision based on the way i know i respond to music. i know now that a good, solid, vigorously sung hymn is the best preparation for my own heart to hear the word of God spoken (in church or wherever). this could very well be a sort of conditioning that i’ve undergone through the years. but who knows really…! all i know is that music should not be a distraction, but really quite the opposite. and i’m glad that the music i’ve come to love and require in my own experience is biblical, uplifting, and dense. that’s my scattered comment. perhaps it will ignite some ideas of your own. :]

    • theomusicologist says:

      Thanks very much, Steph! Yes, whatever does actually succeed in preparing you to hear the Word is what you have to go for. In another post I have addressed the question of whether praise-and-worship choruses are always as fluffy as they are made out to be, and at some point I do intend to take the history of hymnody to pieces and clarify a number of things using book, chapter and verse, as it were…

      I’d love to know what you mean by ‘dense’, however. Is this to do with the actual musical content, or the lyrical content? And what are the criteria/parameters you use to define this? 🙂

  2. theomusicologist says:

    Reblogged this on Theomusicology Blog.

  3. abeccai says:

    You know the issues you brought up are interesting (as always) A few questions that jump out to me are this:
    1. What is the difference between musical variety and a musical marketplace within the context of worship?
    2. Is there truly anyway to appease everyone within the context of a worship service musically? Before the Industrial Revolution most people would have never wandered more than a few towns away from where they were born, thus homogeneity in worship would have been easy (maybe?). Now you have people from Lagos to London in one place and that certainly provides a challenge (doesn’t it?)
    3. Also is there anything wrong with “attracting” members through music? I have heard it argued by some that its a great tool evangelism. What are your thoughts on that?

    Just stirring the conversation!

    • theomusicologist says:

      1. What is the difference between musical variety and a musical marketplace within the context of worship?

      Raison d’etre! What is behind the drive for variety? This links to your third question, but I’ll answer each separately. Variety as part of a genuine expression of creativity. And yes, one can choose to mix things up with the specific intention of keeping as many church members onside as possible. So ‘musical variety’ is positive – everyone in a church comes to every service, and the styles vary here and there, so some bits appeal a little more at times to some rather than others, but the church stays united and everyones tastes and opinions and understandings widen. A ‘musical marketplace’ is not positive – that is the situation in which a person only goes to a service if they are going to do the kind of music that they personally favour, and at no point do they ever expose themselves to anything else. So such a person would even abandon going to their own church just to get what they want musically. Tricky that, spiritually!

      2. Is there truly anyway to appease everyone within the context of a worship service musically? Before the Industrial Revolution most people would have never wandered more than a few towns away from where they were born, thus homogeneity in worship would have been easy (maybe?). Now you have people from Lagos to London in one place and that certainly provides a challenge (doesn’t it?)

      It does! But this very reality makes the point that the gospel is supposed to have freed us from cultural limitations that would have been more prevalent in pre-mass-migration eras. My direct answer to your question is: only if each and every musical participant and each and every congregant in a given church service is fully committed to letting the Holy Spirit lead. When that happens, it really does become about nothing more than worship – which ultimately supersedes praise! Archetypal boundaries do break down where the Spirit is, and so a person would say, “this is not what I would normally choose to listen to, but I was blessed today.” And so we find something more enduring that extrinsic realities that our flesh controls. The contemporary music lover finds God in a church service that has no instruments whatsoever and only hymns – and the organ-and-hymn-lover actually experiences a different sort of release by singing praise and worship music for a change! But alas, for too many of us, God has one box for worship. Now, if that is the case, why not one language? How come Muslims are still serious about their own language and customs – including dress – whereas for many Africans (as an example), they keep the language and the customs, but then they often succumb to Western dress? I’m always ecstatic to see African and Asian dress styles on the world stage, and I wish we had more of those in our pulpits! But there IS no doubt that Western Christianity has had a massive effect on the rest of the world and we are still learning how to actually think properly as post-colonial societies.

      Also is there anything wrong with “attracting” members through music? I have heard it argued by some that its a great tool evangelism. What are your thoughts on that?

      I think that this notion is a complete disaster, conceptually and practically.

      People need to be attracted by the lives and characters of the church members. They need to see Jesus at work in the church members’ lives, regardless of the music, the building, the coherence of the organisation – and that is the only thing that endures. Music is too fickle and transient to be the basis of ‘attracting church members’ and I actively discourage anyone from using it as a hook, however wonderful the music at their church may be. All it takes is one bad day for the music team on the day you bring someone who ONLY came ’cause you said the music was great and they may never come again! We all need to bring people to church for more enduring reasons.

  4. This is great stuff! As a minister of music, I strive first to minister by John 12:32 – “If [HE] be lifted up, [HE] will draw all men unto [Him]. Second, by Colossians 3:16, which speaks to how we can both teach and admonish each other, as we give back to the Lord, through a variety of musical offerings. As music ministers, we are not just singing our favorite songs, favorite genres, etc. Our congregations are arguing over which is best, hymns or praise songs, because those of us who are leading out are unclear within our own hearts and minds. Music ministry should both evangelize those who do not have a relationship with Christ, and disciple – to teach and admonish on our Christian journey.

    God is not limited by genre, and he certainly speaks in the hymn, the praise chorus, the spiritual, the gospel song, the anthem, etc. We also have to accept that culture does play a part in our ministry. I think we keep looking for a “one size fits all” or “how-to” manual that we can distribute. Rather than simply evaluating the genre (hymns, CCM, gospel, Christian Rock, etc.), as we attempt to address the culture, the yardstick we should measure by is Isaiah 8:20 – “To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.” It is no different with music, just as it is no different in how we “strategize” our evangelistic efforts based on the community/ies we are targeting. As we seek the Lord’s guidance, HE will direct our paths.

    At my church, in any one service, we will sing a hymn, a praise chorus, an anthem, a spiritual, etc. This is accomplished through both congregational singing (opening songs, responses throughout the service) and our choir selections. Our music is generally thematic so that all of the music, whether congregation or choral, point to a theme. We have a congregational hymn every week. Our hymns are sung in the traditional style, however, we also employ a gospel style or a contemporary style, at times. For example, this past Sabbath, we sang “We’re Marching to Zion.” We began the hymn in traditional fashion with pipe organ, and brass accompaniment, (keyboardist added strings, and drummer provided suitable support) for the first 3 verses; however, on the 4th verse, to took it gospel style. On another Sabbath, we took the hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King” and sung it in the contemporary arrangement by David Crowder. Likewise for our praise and worship in any given service, we will also lift up hymns in addition to a praise chorus.

    Ground ourselves in the word…ask God for His will to be done in the vineyard where He has planted us…let Him speak…let us listen…and He will direct us the way in which we should lead.

    I really appreciate the opportunity to learn from those who contribute to this blog.

  5. theomusicologist says:

    Michelle, your second paragraph has me jumping about in excitement. That is EXACTLY what I’m talking about. I need to visit your church sometime!

    This sentence from the first paragraph resonates hugely: “Music ministry should both evangelize those who do not have a relationship with Christ, and disciple – to teach and admonish on our Christian journey.”

    I was just saying to someone yesterday that whereas secular music often prioritises entertainment and escape, sacred music needs to bring people back to the real world and to draw people into thinking about who they want to be, and who God wants them to be.

  6. Shade Henry says:

    This is really interesting Alex, haven’t read all the comments in length yet, but appreciated this .”Music is too fickle and transient to be the basis of ‘attracting church members’ and I actively discourage anyone from using it as a hook, however wonderful the music at their church may be. All it takes is one bad day for the music team on the day you bring someone who ONLY came ’cause you said the music was great and they may never come again! We all need to bring people to church for more enduring reasons.” I totally agree, although I do think we need to keep everything in our service to a high standard so that it is attractive to people. The problem often is that the music might be overwhelmingly great, but then people are turned off by the overwhelming inefficiency and inactivity of other church departments The bait is there so that they are hooked, but the lack of substance means that they often ‘escape’ soon enough..

    • theomusicologist says:

      Just realised that I had not yet responded to this comment, Shade! Thanks as ever for the positivity and for engaging. Here’s what I want to zero in on: you say, “I do think we need to keep everything in our service to a high standard so that it is attractive to people.”

      OK, there is a sense in which I am not unsympathetic to such a way of thinking, but if one conviction grows stronger and stronger as time passes, it is that worship has to be God-centered AND God-focussed as well as people-orientated. The need for the best standard of church music is not so that it is attractive to mere human beings – that is a ‘performance’ mindset. It needs to be at the best possible standard because God alone is worthy of that!

      That is why I am incredibly frustrated at the lack of musical integrity in church music within our church, Shade – and why, by God’s grace, I will leave no stone unturned to pursue the highest possible level of music-making that I can as praise to God. It’s the only music I want to make for the rest of my life and the only message that can drive me to a deeper level of musical thought.

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