In this installment, I would like to dispel the idea of trying to apply a formulaic approach to worship, and why doing so is actually dangerous. The reason that this is important might not be immediately obvious, so let me try to explain.
What is a Formula?
Simply put, a formula is a pseudo-mathematic concept that allows the user of the formula to achieve consistent results with a dynamic set of input criteria or stimulus. Things like “2+2=4” are simplistic approaches that we all know, but things like “if I hit my head really hard against a brick wall, it’s going to hurt” are also considered formulaic- but in a more applicative sense they are really “stimulus and response”.
The Point of Reduction to Formula
Like I said, the point of formula is to be able to know a particular outcome given a set of mitigating input or stimulus. There is nothing wrong with trying to approach things in the fashion, because like it or not, human beings embrace the idea of formula approaches all the time, whether they realize it or not. If we take that to place of a group event like a concert, we know things like “when the lights go down, the show starts and we clap” or “when the band finishes, stay put for the encore” – things like that are actually formula.
While there is nothing wrong with a formulaic approach, there is a serious flaw in trying to always apply formula where the input series is too rich and varied, especially when the user of the approach assumes that it’s more important to just achieve a higher number of like responses that to really consider the formula’s appropriateness in the first place. When the higher number approach is applied in a worship setting, it’s especially inappropriate- but why is that? What is so wrong here?
Simple: our response set should always equal 1. And that 1 is God, not the congregation.
But, there is an undeniable and appropriate metric in looking at your congregation as a response set, albeit a lesser one to be concerned with. In actuality, the congregation is the only immediately tangible response that anyone is going to see or hear- it’s not like God shouts thru the PA, “Hey- that was GREAT!” – or if He does do that, I’d suggest a CAT scan might be in order…..but I’m starting to digress.
The trouble here is that when a formula is applied by someone who is only considering their thought processes as the “success” measure – or to put it another way – when most of the congregation likes a song that you like and that is “success”, and you measure that “success” at the same time saying things like “well, the rest of them just didn’t get it”, whether you like it or not, the important response set of 1 is actually getting missed. Worship is exactly like driving a car on a freeway- if you manage to miss all the other cars and only hit a part of your bumper on 1 car, you’ve driven badly and you’ve had an accident.
A Personal Example of Inappropriateness of Formula
Years ago I was part of the orchestra at The Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California for a live simulcast Christmas concert. I was the sole upright bassist in a 20-piece orchestra, and since I was alone, I was placed at the edge of the stage. At my feet was a television monitor that was showing the simulcast of the live TV broadcast that was happening. During the service, one of the songs that was on the list was “What A Mighty God We Serve”, which as some may know is kind of a country-ish 2-step song, and an orchestral arrangement was supremely lame. The conductor and most of the orchestra members had made fun of this song choice during rehearsal. So, when the tune launched, I rolled my eyes and went into the 2-step, and no, the camera did not catch me rolling my eyes.
The song is really easy, so I didn’t really have to read the music, and I started glancing around at the other orchestral members. More than a few of them met my gaze with a slightly wry, bored grin and a hunch of the shoulders, and I felt somewhat vindicated- the tune was terrible. I glanced down at my chart, because I had forgotten which repeat we were in, and that’s when the TV monitor at my feet grabbed my attention.
There, onscreen, was a woman who had to be in her early 80’s. I couldn’t place where she was in the sanctuary and I didn’t know her. But she was singing the song exuberantly and clapping her hands out of time. Joy was all over her face. She stopped clapping, and raised her hands and shut her eyes and actually kind of danced in place. And, all the while this was happening, tears were streaming down her face, making a mess out of her carefully applied makeup. She didn’t care- she was enrapt in the moment, and was singing to her God. I was met with an immediate thought, and I remember mouthing that thought silently on my lips-
I am an insufferable shithead, and I am wholly unworthy to be on this stage.
This song meant something to this woman, and it wasn’t her that didn’t get it- it was me that didn’t get it. Moreover, if I were to be measuring my success the right way, then this wasn’t a base-hit – this was a grand slam homerun, because we offered something to someone who clearly needed it, rather than what I mandated that they needed. This was a watershed moment for me- I had been playing music in church for years and thought I knew what was what, but I learned in that one camera shot that I was suffering a near-fatal case of rectal-cranial inversion, and that, in reality, I knew nothing at all.
Why God is Not Formulaic
This brings me to my uber-point- if the congregation is not the important part of the sought-over response set, then we need to understand how God does not respond to our meager understandings of stimulus/response.
First off, as you know (if you’re reading this far) God is the creator of the universe. We’ve all heard that before, but if you really believe that, and you can acknowledge that the universe is a somewhat complex thing, then the very nature of God would be at the very least as complex as the universe. That’s obviously an over-simplistic statement, but you get the drift here.
Second, since God knows all of us personally and better than we know ourselves, and all of us have slightly different stimuli that can bring a myriad of responses, we have to acknowledge that the input set for our formulaic approach to worship has a completely uncontrollable scope, and we cannot possibly hope to understand a response set for success from a “veritable plethora” (thank you, Carl Sagan) of possible responses.
Third, even if God, as the response-prime set were to respond to our stimuli, how arrogant are we to think that God can be controlled in this fashion?
Preparation vs. Manipulation
After spending many, MANY years doing the worship thing (in many, MANY different forms) I’ve come to see the hidden danger in the formulaic approach to worship- and let’s get one thing straight here:
When I use the term “worship” here, I am not necessarily talking about the playing of music. My use of that word here is the totality of a congregational interaction, from the music to the message, and including all the other trappings- greeting, announcements, small groups, missions- all of that is “worship” – or rather, it should be.
And this is danger- we’ve separated and compartmentalized it, and that is wrong. We are supposed to do everything in a spirit of worship. But, what we’ve done in our formulaic approach is to compartmentalize the idea of “worship” as a singular act of singing songs. With that compartmentalization, we have also compartmentalized the thrust of that action. While singing songs of worship is supposed to be an act of preparation for the congregation to enter into the presence of God, we use this formula now to manipulate the congregation to “get them ready” – and make no mistake, there is a difference.
There is a fine line between the idea of preparing a group of people for a task and manipulating them to all be in the same frame of mind for a task- let’s be honest - they can and do roughly equate to the same thing. The issue here is not with that preparation, but rather it’s the spirit with which it is done. Since most of the worship I’ve seen is pulling tunes that are “popular” in some circles, I would suggest that the preparatory ideas are actually secondary and the manipulation is more for my aforementioned topic of “perceived relevance”. When it comes to how “worship” (the act of singing songs) and how it relates to the rest of the service – specifically the message – that is almost completely ignored if the music directory can’t find a “popular” song in some radio playlist or can’t find a SongSelect “chart” to play. They’ll force feed something that has almost no real meaning with regards to the rest of the service – or worse – they don’t realize that the meager lyrical content (that will be repeated over and over like automatons) has as much to do with the message as playing “Love Stinks” at a wedding reception.
If the music isn’t relatable to anything else that is going on in the service, or if it merely chosen because it is “popular”, then simply put the preparatory nature of worship is not there, and the worship team is doing nothing more than attempting a mass congregational manipulation and trying to measure their “success” by how many of their friends say “that was AWESOME”- and by hearing that, they assume success with absolutely no thought to the people who didn’t think that. If we follow on down this trail, you can see why measuring “success” by the slickness of the new jumbotron, the slickness of the announcement video, the pastor’s penchant for nothing more than sermons that alliterative titles and no substance- all of that is completely hollow.
And in the meantime, our response-prime set – God- is basically being ignored.
What Do We Do About It?
Rather than just gripe about it, I intend to try and fix this and I do have suggestions for this- simple, tangible solutions. To get there, we need to go back and take a refresher course in the actual meaning of worship. We’ll do that in the next installment, Part 4: Why Do We Worship? Who Are We Playing For?