Friday, December 9, 2016

WORSHIP – PART 3: Dispelling The Myth Of Formula

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?

Thursday, December 1, 2016

WORSHIP - PART 2: What's Wrong With Worship Today?

The short answer: Nothing.  Wait.  Everything.  Wait- what?  Who’s says what’s good?  Or who says what’s bad?

Wow.  That was clear as mud, huh?  (this is probably why I’m not a professional writer…..even if I do think I write gooder than others do…..)

This is a difficult topic to make into some kind of esoteric, individualized grandstand topic.  It’s really easy for people to say, “oh, you just don’t like the music” and leave it at that.  Let me be clear on this part of the topic- it’s not that I don’t like the newer praise music.  It’s not that. 

It’s that I hate the newer praise music with a passion that burns brighter than the sun in late July when viewed from the bottom of Death Valley while standing under a giant magnifying glass. 

I hope I cleared that up.  Moving on.

Here’s why that’s so important- worship music today is a microcosm of what is wrong with the church as a whole today.  It’s pablum.  It’s grossly over-simplified.  It utterly lacks depth and impact.  It’s the same thing over and over again.  It’s hype.  It’s messy but claims to be “cleaner” and “simpler” and “more accessible” but in reality it is ill-contrived, formulaic drivel that has no real topicality.  It has been reduced to (and, yes, I’m thinking of a certain South Park cartoon episode even as I write this) nothing more than initially filthy R&B music with the nouns changed from “her”, “she” and “baby” to “Jesus”. 

Look- I said from the outset I was going to offend.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Oh- and I’ve heard all the arguments, too. 

“Hillsong United sells more records worldwide than…..”

“It appeals to the masses……”

“I really feel connected…..”

Geez.  Give me a break.  Those are probably the most myopic reasons anyone can ever give.  Bands like KISS and Abba have sold more records of single albums than Hillsong United ever will.  “It appeals to the masses” can equally be applied to Britney Spears, Justin Bieber and American Idol.  And, “I really feel connected” can be applied to all kinds of things like mass riots, genocide and a host of other things.

The really scary part of this is that almost no one can really explain why this is so important, especially within the church and especially when talking about worship.  But, folks- yes, I do know the answer to this, and I expect many people reading this know the answer to and don’t/can’t admit it.  So, here goes:

We (the church) want to belong to the world at any cost.

There.  I said it.

Oh, I know that a lot of people are going to rail against this full-on.  You can if you want to, but if you’re really honest with yourself, you’ll admit that when Hillsong United does sell all those records, you find some kind of gratification that the world has acknowledged something you like, and you feel better about having made the choice in the first place.  Still fighting me on this?  Just stop it and back up a second, and try really hard to not equate the fact that you are a Christian and therefore saved with the idea that somehow this means that those ideas are ok because you are a Christian that is saved by Grace.  I got news for you:

You’re still a sinner, and you’re still capable of the same amount of corruption as everybody else.  And, that doesn’t change because you call yourself a “Christian”.

So, yeah- I’m saying that if you think that worship music is more relevant today because of the above arguments, you are wrong.  Period.  Just wrong, and you need to get over it. 

(At this point, I feel the need to point out that I said I wasn’t going to pull any punches when I started writing this series.  It’s about to get a whole lot worse.)

The church, as a whole, has found it absolutely necessary to sublimate every single thing it does in order to “appeal to the masses”, and since corporate worship is the cornerstone for the western church (way more so than solid teaching or theology) it begins there.  It began with the “seeker sensitive” movement of the late 80’s and early 90’s, and has morphed slightly into something even more pablumized like smaller churches attempting to become larger ones like Willow Creek or Hillsong.  We’ve gotten into the mindset that unless we directly correlate absolutely everything we do with today’s pop culture, we’ll be seen as “non-relevant” or “not hip” and people will leave- but in doing that, we actually make the people who have been in the church their entire lives feel “non-relevant” and “not hip” so they leave.  And, somehow that’s ok?  Huh?

It’s now as though unless your church isn’t filled with 18 to 30 year olds you’re not “successful”.  If you don’t do things that directly appeal to millenials, you’re out of touch and non-relevant.  Yes, I totally get that the generation I’m speaking of is growing larger by the moment while my generation is steadily moving towards room temperature and the generation before that has largely already kicked that nasty oxygen habit.  The issue here isn’t one of generation, but rather the lack of finding value in the entirety of the congregation and serving it. 

Let me try this another way: worship today is about serving the ones that agree with leadership’s vision and no one else.  If you don’t agree, then leadership sees YOU as the problem, not themselves.  In fact, it’s rarely ever even examined any other way.  “Oh, you know- that guy’s old and he doesn’t like what we do here, so he can just go somewhere else…..” – who hasn’t heard that in their own church?  Better yet- who hasn’t been guilty of saying that?

Right here- this guy has said it.  Hell, I’ve done worse than that- I’ve engendered it many times.  I admit it, and I admit that I was wrong to do so.  If you are one of the people that I have somehow marginalized like this, I apologize and if you are someone that I work with and I do it again, I actively ask that you call me on it when I do it, and I don’t want you to be kind about it, either.

So why did I do it?  Because it was easy. 

And this, right here, is the crux of the problem- easy.  It’s really easy to only want to partner with a small group of select individuals that agree with you.  It’s a LOT harder to work with those that don’t, and in a church congregation there is disparity and diversity in it’s rawest forms and those people have just as much right to be there and have their needs attended to as the ones that do agree with you.  Worship – real, authentic worship – is hard, hard, messy work because it’s all about people, and people are messy and hard to deal with.

As worship participants, we have completely lost sight of this, and it translates everywhere if you know where to look.  The music is easier, the charts are “easier”, the technology is easier, the communication methods are “easier”- we’re so concerned with being “relevant” that we never actually stop to think if we are serving our entire congregations or just a select few.  We can plan a service that is so complicated that a year’s supply of Ritalin won’t begin to cover the attention deficits we create, but we never stop to wonder if that’s what our congregation needs.  We can create elaborate and hip videos, use the technology we have access to to make our meager bands on Sunday morning sound like the London Philharmonic by using loops, and we can obsess about “dead air” during a service, but we can’t be bothered to consider the ones who don’t agree with what WE are “trying to do” because the mission has become the mission, and Jesus is very often marginalized in the process. 

As the church, we are supposed to be set apart from the world, not trying to garner its favor by turning everything we do into something that looks like a major concert event.  But, instead we have somehow decided that it’s more “relevant” to be “relevant” by the means and measures of the world, and the whole time our congregations actually do suffer for it.

And, before you say something like, “that’s not my church” – ask yourself this: are you saying that because you are part of the agreeing crowd?  If that’s the reason, then you are actually part of the problem.  That is, unless you want to do something about it by rolling up your sleeves and getting dirty.

Hey- this whole topic is difficult.  I get it.  And I know that I sound angry in this installment, and that’s because I am.  Yes, it’s partially because I am now in the generation that is being ignored in a lot of cases.  It’s really more because I realize that the excuses being given by the people who do this are bullshit at the very core.

If you find yourself being angry at what I’ve written here, all I can say is that being angry is part of taking the easy road.  If we can’t talk about this honestly, then I am forced to wonder what the hell we all do this for in the first place.  People are messy animals and have warts and horns and things we don’t want to see – especially ourselves – but if you are a worship participant in any form, you signed on to work with these messy animals, and to think that there’s an easy way to do that makes you delusional.

If you are someone who organizes worship services, or even just participates in them, there is nothing wrong with some introspection here and you know that.  No doubt, I’ve ruffled some feathers here, and as I said when I began this series, I will not apologize for that.  A good feather ruffling is necessary sometimes, and just because the writer of this blog has been a “behind the scenes” player in a lot of this doesn’t make my viewpoint any less valid.  I understand your job is difficult, but so is mine in supporting you and I dare say that the job of supporting you is even harder for a congregant who feels like they are on the outside looking in.  All I would ask is that you consider those people – even before you consider me – because those that are on the outside don’t really like being there.

WORSHIP - What To Expect

Just in case you might be thinking that this entire series is going to be nothing but sour grapes, I actually do have a plan here.  Here’s the parts to the series, and I’m going to try to get these done one per week, as time allows:

Why Am I So Passionate About This?

What's Wrong With Worship Today?

Dispelling The Myth Of Formula

Why Do We Worship?  Who Are We Playing For?

Is Bigger Really Better?

To Obey Is Better Than Sacrifice

The Performance vs. Worship Conundrum

Words Or Music- Which Is More Important?

What Does Success Look Like?

WORSHIP–Overview and Part I: Why Are You So Passionate About This?

Over the years, I have run my mouth time and time again about the topic of worship in church.  Numerous times during my rants and raves, I’ve been asked to write down what I’m talking about, and a recent post on Facebook by some friends really spurred me on to finally doing it.  But, before I do, I wanted to give a brief overview of what I intend to cover in my little “series” – mainly to provide context, but also to warn folks.

The first warning is this- if you aren’t the least bit interested in worship music or playing in church, then this will be extremely boring, so just don’t bother.

The second warning, tho- I am probably going to offend some people deeply with what I’m going to say.  In fact, I absolutely guarantee it.  More than that- I’m not going to be apologetic about it.  What I’m attempting to do here is to spur some thought on this matter that is very, very close to me and I intend to pull no punches here.  It’s not that I seek to cause pain or even be controversial, but as someone who has spent 40+ years playing all kinds of music – worship and otherwise - and has done so largely behind the scenes, I think I have a rather unique viewpoint that has been pretty much disregarded of late, and might prove to be expository.  Exposition is sometimes painful- I don’t wish to cause this pain, but I’ll tell you right now that it’s gonna happen, so just be ready.  I’m also pretty sure that this will cost me some playing time and I dare say a few “friends”, but I really don’t want to remain silent on this any longer.

Everything is discussable, however, and I welcome any and all discussion on these matters.

Before I begin, I want to give some context: I am not a Biblical scholar nor am I a pedigreed theologian.  What I intend to talk about here is more “behind the scenes” stuff that a lot of folks don’t want to necessarily talk about- but I have no intention of doing this as a dissertated series.  This are things that have come from my POV and I have seen the first-hand fallout (both good and bad) of these things over many, many years.  What I am, however, is an educated and skilled musician and audio engineer who has more than earned his stripes in order to voice these opinions.  So, let’s get to Part I:

Part I: Why Are You So Passionate About This?

A few years ago, when I decided to get out of playing regular worship services, I wrote a series of articles about my journey.  The thrust was to point out that not only had I “been there, done that, bought the t-shirt” , but that I had actually helped build the actual t-shirt factory.  This was really more a passive/aggressive way of me giving myself the “out” I needed in order to move on.

What I didn’t say in that series is this: participating in worship services at a musical level actually saved my life.

Now that’s a pretty serious statement to make, but the fact of the matter was that I was a drug addict who considered himself to be a Christian (and I still maintain that I was, too) but had some self-destructive habits in his life.  Yeah- we all have those, but this was a little different: it could have literally killed me.  It never did, though - I never overdosed; I never lost a job; I wasn’t homeless; I had lots of friends- in fact, I actually had a good time being that addict, truth be told.  But, the inescapable fact is that this behavior would have eventually led to my death.  And I knew that- and more than that- I wanted that.

Let that sink in for a moment- I was an addict, and a musician, and a Christian, and I wanted to die.

Lest you think this is a trite story, no, I didn’t not start playing worship music to save me or my soul- I was actively playing it WHILE I was an addict.  I can’t tell you how many times I would show up at church to play stoned or drunk out of my mind and was barely functional.  I did it a lot.  I mean a lot.

We could go in to why I was a drug addict, but that would be a very deep tangent.  Rather than avoid the topic altogether, I will say that my mother was a prescription drug addict.  After she divorced my father when I was 7 years old, she married an incredibly angry man who physically abused (beat) me for many years.  My mother also beat me many, many times.  I ended up abusing drugs for all the reasons you’re thinking and more- but we’re not here to discuss that, and that’s all the farther I intend to go on that topic.

When I first got cleaned up, I had to stop playing in church for a bit because no one trusted me, and they shouldn’t have.  I don’t begrudge them for that (and I didn’t then, either) but what I found was that I was aching to actually play music that had a depth to it that transcended just making semi-linear noise with other people.  Music has always been something spiritual to me, regardless of it’s impetus.  When I got clean and re-dedicated my life to God, I needed to play for Him rather than myself.  I would try very, very hard to consecrate anything I played for God- and in a largely secular arena that was sometimes difficult to do.

Before I thought I was really ready to return to playing in church, I was asked by people in my church to do so.  I told them no.  Not yet.  I had a feeling I would be “let know” when the time was right.  And, that happened, too- and I’m not gonna lie and tell you that it was some magical, epiphanal moment when it happened.  It literally happened one day when I was talking to a friend who happened to be a choir director at another church who had asked me to do some choral transcription work- and I just asked her, “So- do you need a bass player?” – and that was it.  I went back.

However, what I found when I did go back was epiphanal.  Here I was, surrounded by people who’s same purpose was mine.  Everyone wanted the same thing.  It wasn’t richter jazz-fusion, either- it was for a performance of a JS Bach piece – and for some reason I just “got it”.  Not the music, and not the performance of it- it was kind of on another plane, much, much deeper than that.  I knew that Bach had written absolutely everything for God (he famously signed the bottom of his scores “für die Herrlichkeit Gottes im Höchsten”, or “for the Glory of God in the Highest”) but I didn’t really get what that meant until I cleaned my act up and re-dedicated myself.  I’m not even sure I can explain that now, some 30 years later.

In doing this – waiting to get myself right – I realized that I would never go back to being that addict again.  Yes- I did stumble a few times, but always momentarily and always with immediate accountability – but not because I was scared of the potential outcome, but because I never, ever wanted anything to come between me and that feeling of “got it”.

So, sure.  One could make the case that I have limited objectivity due to a life changing event on a certain topic, and they would be right.  But ask yourself this question: does that make me less qualified to want to make this type of experience any less?  Does my prior experience here invalidate the subsequent experiences?  The answer here is a clear and resounding “no”, and the reason I can say that without any reservation whatsoever is because time and time again, I have first hand witnessed what that spirit of “got it” has done for me and done for others even and especially when I wasn’t looking for it.

And now, some 33 years after that, I am literally watching one of the most unique and life-altering art forms die and become non-relevant.  Yes, I said “die”, because that’s exactly what it’s doing.  The worst part of it is that it’s dying because we as musicians are killing it.  No, I don’t think that this is God’s doing (forget the idea of ‘seasons’ here) and I don’t think it’s the work of Satan, either.  It’s US that’s doing it- because we’ve somehow decided that there are rights and wrongs, do’s and don’t do’s, trappings we have to have and formula to play it all out and measure “success” as though it’s a number.  We, as a church, have completely lost touch with the idea that we have an individual community to serve within our congregations, and we do that by trying to be like other churches in order to garner that success.  We ignore the needs of that community wholesale in the form of doing things like making Sunday mornings into something that looks like a sporting event, and when anything or anyone challenges that idea we’ve started saying things like “they’re prideful” or “they’re just trying to draw attention to themselves” without any consideration at all.  As musicians and worship leaders, we try for “easy wins” for our participants in the form of non-challenging music and non-challenging messages in the hopes that a constant state of kum-by-ah will enamor people enough to decide to pick up an instrument or twiddle with knobs on a weekend without practicing or knowing what they are doing.  We’ve created a faux hierarchy of certain people in certain positions that are more important than others, but we dare not speak of that until things get challenged, and then our teeth get bared and people leave.

It’s easy to say that since the church is run by sinners (since all of us are) that we can and will have problems.  That’s a true statement, and it’s always going to be the case, but what I’ve seen recently is the delivery of that statement and a hunched set of shoulders to go with it as though we just have to accept it.  And if we don’t, we’re a “malcontent” or worse- our faith is questioned.

And worship music – whatever its form – is at the center of all of this.  The fact is that more people leave churches over the topic of the music played than they do for bad teaching or theology.  As musicians, it is incumbent upon us to provide what needs to be provided- but we are always told that our job isn’t that important; until it is. 

I just can’t stand by and watch this happen.  I just can’t do it.  Yes, my life would be infinitely easier if I just rolled with these punches, but for me it’s all about the authenticity and “realness” more than it is about just placating.

So, here we go, folks.  Buckle up- or not- you don’t have to read this.  I might be the most arrogant guy on this particular rock in space for thinking for a moment that anyone would be interested in what I have to say here.  It’s gonna be 100% me trying to help, but also 100% cathartic, too. 

All I hope for is that someone, somewhere will at least take the time to think about this, because if they do then it was all worth it.