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.