Worship or American Idol-atry? — Jon Gabriel

 

My wife and I have dragged our daughters to many churches over the past several years. We’ve enjoyed most of the sermons, congregations, programs and pastors, and my wife has liked most of the music. As for me, I’ve pretty much given up on finding any worship music that doesn’t drive me a bit batty.

For background, I’m a plain-old Christian, sans denomination, though I have enjoyed Lutheran, Baptist, Anglican, Reformed and other congregations over the years. Most of the churches I’ve attended are evangelical, with several that would fit into the “megachurch” category. Most have offered inspiring teaching with solid, if not terribly deep, theology. But the music… oh heavens, the music.

My family tires of my weekly critique of modern church music and architecture, so I figured it was time to inflict it upon a larger audience. (You’re welcome, readers.)

My experience is in the pew not the pulpit, but church music (“worship music” in evangelical parlance) should direct the congregation’s focus to God, not the performers. Too often, I can think of nothing but the guitarist’s hair, the drummer’s kit or the singer’s oversouling.

This weekend, I (shockingly) was enjoying the second song at the Easter service. Sure, it was far too loud, but I was ignoring the band, singing along with the steady meter and focusing on God. All of a sudden I was singing by myself — the leader had veered into some spontaneous arrangement that showcased her unique vocal stylings. The song’s lyrics were still on the screen, but the congregation was lost. Since I could no longer follow along, I just quietly watched her performance, which was followed by extended applause.

This seems less like worship and more like an audition for American Idol. And I hate that show. (Besides, God’s not down with the whole idolatry thing.)

I won’t mention the specific church since this is standard among evangelical megachurches. I assume that most of the musicians have the best of intentions and are probably fine Christians. But week after week, these mini rock concerts grind at my soul. Am I the only one?

This modern version of “worship” also is reflected in church architecture. Many older churches placed a choir loft and an organ way in the back. This genius design prevents the congregation from being distracted by the musicians at the same time it prevents showboating performers. Instead, everyone in attendance has their eyes fixed forward and above, right where they belong.

Consider the opposite end of a traditional church: you have an altar, pulpit, maybe a baptismal, but the eye is directed upwards via the steep ceiling to the towering cross and the heavens above. Contemporary church architecture is wide and low, directing everyone’s attention to the speakers and performers on the main stage.

What once was vertical is now horizontal. Instead of looking to God, we’re staring at his ministers along with their elaborate Power Points. That works for a TED talk, but not for worship.

“Get off my lawn!” he cried. My complaints are not mere curmudgeonry. I love strange, loud music that scares my cat and austere modernist architecture that scares my wife. But when I want to celebrate musicians I go to a concert. At church, I don’t want to applaud singers, celebrate a pastor or focus on myself; I want to worship God. Is that too much to ask?

There are 117 comments.

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  1. Contributor

    I am a fan of both old baptist hymns and modern gut-punching worship music. Like you, I also attend a non-denominational church (which is almost code these days for “our music is really loud and we like it that way”) and the congregation seems to pleased with the worship, although they did recently provide a map indicating areas of the auditorium that are less loud for those who aren’t interested in losing hearing and don’t love God as much. I don’t love all our worship music, and at times I feel a little out of place that I’m not as “into it” as others, but that’s ok. For me, worship follows the 80/20 rule, 80% of my satisfaction is the result of about 20% of my attitude. I’m not sure that made any sense, I just wanted to somehow work that 80/20 thing in.

    • #1
    • April 23, 2014 at 9:45 am
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  2. Member

    Catholic here, and the only three hymns that I really enjoy are “Shall We Gather at the River” (I’m a big John Ford film fan), “Were You There” (which still moves me every Good Friday), and a more recent appreciation for “Amazing Graze” (amazing what true meaning that song takes on when you finally realize you’re the “wretch”).

    • #2
    • April 23, 2014 at 9:56 am
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  3. Member

    I cannot start modern worship music. Its trying to be young and fun too much.

    I want a hymn and a woman who is too old to stand playing an organ or preferably a piano.

    My great grandma was the pianist at the rural church my family had been attending since before the revolution. I remember it fondly.

    South park got christian praise music right.

    • #3
    • April 23, 2014 at 9:58 am
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  4. Member

    Having served for almost a decade as one of those guitarists I can empathize. I’ve played with some fine musicians who put on a great show but never led worship. My goal always has been to lead in such as way that if the main board went out that it would have no bearing on the worship. I remind myself every Sunday I play that until I personally worship I will never lead others in it, and as soon as I start to worship God all the other concerns just dissolve.

    • #4
    • April 23, 2014 at 9:58 am
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  5. Member

    Catholic here. I used to sing in the choir. Ae’re kind of old. Our music director had an eye for beautiful music and while much of it was composed in the last 50 years, she was quite astute at picking music that spoke to the heart, and kept the focus on God not us. On Easter this year the youth choir sang, and half the hymns were unknown to me, plus they were always an octave too high for me to sing along. It’s a bit of a trend to focus attention on the choir rather than on God, but a trend that may be corrected if we still remain faithful to older, Christ centered music that lifts up our gaze.

    Here’s one of the great hymns sung on Good Friday.

    • #5
    • April 23, 2014 at 10:13 am
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  6. Member

    As a very poor performing Catholic, I recall very little music at Mass while I was growing up. We attended a very Italian church in Sacramento (St. Mary’s shout out!) – so we could hear a Mass in Latin or in Italian if we wanted to. I do remember my guitar teacher would play at a few afternoon Masses when I was about 11. Seems to be about the time we started hearing more music at Mass. I’ve been SHOCKED to hear so much singing in the very few (sorry Monsignor Kavanagh – ) Masses that I attend now. It’s actually sort of off-putting from what I grew up with.

    BTW way did I ever mention the time in 1983 when our garage band at Christian Brothers High School elected to change the words to Don’t Tell Me You Love Me to ‘Jesus Told Me He Loves Me’ for a Wednesday Mass so we could work in some dual guitar solos? That did, ah, come up at my next confession…

    • #6
    • April 23, 2014 at 10:16 am
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  7. Inactive
    GKC

    Visited a modern Baptist church on Easter Sunday, whereas we are Cat’lics. Rock and roll band, lights, the works. Songs were catchy, but it was a total distraction. Thankfully the pastor was theologically sound and the sermon was compelling. In our Catholic parish, I find the music often drab, especially anything written since 1980. Psalms are done well. My opinion is that religious music should be entirely distinct from mass market music, less they become conflated and the music distracts from worship And reverence.

    • #7
    • April 23, 2014 at 10:32 am
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  8. Inactive

    Last week I sang Mendelssohn’s I Waited For the Lord for the Easter service at church. It was glorious. The choir also sang Natalie Sleeth’s Joy In the Morning. That’s about as wild as I think it should get in church.

    • #8
    • April 23, 2014 at 10:43 am
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  9. Thatcher

    I’ve long preferred non-denominational churches after moving back to Oregon from Minneapolis back at the turn of the century. I’ve mentioned issues with worship music in another post. My wife and I went to a church where the music was played so loud it actually caused physical discomfort and illness. At that point, I couldn’t hear myself sing let alone anyone near me. I’ve always had a problem with a worship service that drowns out the worship. At that point, you’re not leading you’re performing. The whole, “we like our music loud” line always makes me cringe. I want to participate, not remain passive.

    I’ve begun to worry if a church has loud music playing on some stereo or sound system somewhere before or after the service for an extended period of time.

    • #9
    • April 23, 2014 at 10:43 am
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  10. Member

    Ah, the worship wars come to Ricochet.

    • #10
    • April 23, 2014 at 10:48 am
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  11. Member

    If you would to peruse some really good and insightful thoughts regarding worship music, the act of worship and the like, check out Zack Hicks’ blog http://www.zachicks.com/

    This is an amazing guy who orchestrated the music at the Church me and my Family attend(incidentally my wife and used to babysit for his kids almost 10 years ago before we had our own).

    • #11
    • April 23, 2014 at 10:48 am
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  12. Member

    Amen, Brother Jon! Preach it!

    The church I attend is not so bad. Others in the denomination are. Still, I am not in the choir because of song selections. A few years ago I tried, but one of the songs was Amy Grant’s, “I need a Silent Night.” It isn’t about Christmas. It is a woman whining that her life is too busy around the holidays. That year, it was all meta-songs. Were we singing Christmas hymns? No, we were singing songs about singing or hearing Christmas hymns. I removed myself from the choir before my head exploded.

    This Easter, the songs were great. I could have sung any of those. They were actually about Jesus and the resurrection. (Except for the solo, which was a Good Friday song.) I need to check before the late Holidays this year. If the music director has good songs, I would love to be in the choir.

    I also love the idea of the organ and choir in back. Our church is small and not set up that way, but the church where I grew up had that set-up. Definitely better in my eyes.

    • #12
    • April 23, 2014 at 10:56 am
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  13. Member

    C. U. Douglas: At that point, I couldn’t hear myself sing let alone anyone near me. I’ve always had a problem with a worship service that drowns out the worship

     This is ever the biggest sin of such styles. I get that being “seeker sensitive” and making participation wholly voluntary is a big thing, but come on!

    My church has reformatted by need to more of a coffee shop style, and I LOVE that I can hear the congregation singing over the band. It makes the band better, even if it’s just 2 acoustic guitars and a djembe.

    • #13
    • April 23, 2014 at 10:57 am
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  14. Inactive

    I have many of the same issues with modern church music and architecture. This past Easter Sunday, I endured a performance by the “children’s praise team” of a little ditty that described our Savior as “A-M-A-Z-I-N-G!” It was painful.

    Some contemporary church music is too pop, too repetitious, and too trite. And I say these things though I am a member of the church band that plays at our once-montly contemporary service. We try to maintain the music somewhere between the traditional and the contemporary, and it usually dovetails perfectly with the message of the day.

    It is worth noting that some of the standards in the hymnal are also atrocious, for example, “He Lives“, which was written in 1933 and mimics the pop music conventions of that time. The sentiment is worthy, but the words are no better than what one might find in a greeting card:

    I serve a risen Savior
    He’s in the world today.
    I know that He is living,
    Whatever men may say.
    I see His hand of mercy;
    I hear His voice of cheer;
    And just the time I need Him
    He’s always near.

    • #14
    • April 23, 2014 at 10:58 am
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  15. Member

    Our congregation seem to feel obligated to applaud after certain performances, especially of the young. It always — is “rankled” the right word? — disturbs me. I grew up in an anti-Dionysian tradition, I guess.

    • #15
    • April 23, 2014 at 10:58 am
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  16. Thatcher

    The King Prawn:

    C. U. Douglas: At that point, I couldn’t hear myself sing let alone anyone near me. I’ve always had a problem with a worship service that drowns out the worship

    This is ever the biggest sin of such styles. I get that being “seeker sensitive” and making participation wholly voluntary is a big thing, but come on!

    My church has reformatted by need to more of a coffee shop style, and I LOVE that I can hear the congregation singing over the band. It makes the band better, even if it’s just 2 acoustic guitars and a djembe.

    I enjoy conventional worship music, catch myself humming or singing the songs occasionally during the day. I just want to be a participant in my church’s formal worship service.

    • #16
    • April 23, 2014 at 11:05 am
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  17. Member

    Johnny Dubya: The sentiment is worthy, but the words are no better than what one might find in a greeting card: I serve a risen Savior He’s in the world today. I know that He is living, Whatever men may say. I see His hand of mercy; I hear His voice of cheer; And just the time I need Him He’s always near.

     That’s pretty close to hymnal measure. Have you ever tried singing it to the tune of The Theme from Gilligan’s Island? It might make you smile.

    • #17
    • April 23, 2014 at 11:09 am
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  18. Inactive

    I have been singing on my church’s worship team for 17 years. We’ve gone from the cheesy midi choruses to all the hip, trendy songs on Christian radio (with modern versions of hymns thrown in now and then). The battle I fight is not about the style but the purpose. A worship pastor we had once told us something I have never forgotten, “We are not to be the worship leaders but the lead worshipers.” It’s all in where you are trying to get people to focus. We are told to smile, be animated. I’d rather be real. They aren’t supposed to be looking at me anyway. The leaders mean well, I think it’s just in the quest for excellence they lose sight of WHAT is supposed to be excellent.

    As far as “special music” I will say that I have had a few experiences in my life just listening to a vocalist or instrumentalists in church where I was truly moved and thankful that I could just “soak it in.” But those should be the exception I think.

    • #18
    • April 23, 2014 at 11:22 am
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  19. Inactive

    I am going to wade into this with fear and trembling…

    I sing on our church worship team, which is evangelical and conservative in nature. We sing a mix of music but lean toward the modern (on Easter we sang both “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” and “God’s Not Dead”). We sang an Easter cantata on Sunday evening which was decidedly classical in nature with an orchestra from our local symphony and the Ninth Army Band.

    I am not sure how to reconcile some of the opinions about church music expressed in this conversation with Psalm 98:4-8, “Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music; make music to the LORD with the harp, with the harp and the sound of singing, with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn – shout for joy before the LORD, the King. Let the sea resound, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it. Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy;…”

    If you aren’t shouting, clapping, being jubilant, etc., your body may need to catch up with your heart.

    • #19
    • April 23, 2014 at 11:28 am
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  20. Chief
    Jon Gabriel, Ed. Post author

    Janet Chase: The battle I fight is not about the style but the purpose. A worship pastor we had once told us something I have never forgotten, “We are not to be the worship leaders but the lead worshipers.” It’s all in where you are trying to get people to focus. We are told to smile, be animated. I’d rather be real. They aren’t supposed to be looking at me anyway.

    We once had an interim pastor chide us for not being “into” the music like the more charismatic evening service. I have little problem with others raising their hands and moving with the music, but that’s just not me. I was taught from a young age never to draw attention to myself or distract others with my behavior. It’s probably my Midwestern/Scandinavian roots showing, but stillness is my personal way of showing reverence for God and respect for others.

    I don’t think a contemporary songbook is bad, but too often it seems to include pop culture’s celebration of self. I view worship as self-denial.

    • #20
    • April 23, 2014 at 11:36 am
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  21. Listener

    Athena:

    I am going to wade into this with fear and trembling…

    I sing on our church worship team, which is evangelical and conservative in nature. We sing a mix of music but lean toward the modern (on Easter we sang both “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” and “God’s Not Dead”). We sang an Easter cantata on Sunday evening which was decidedly classical in nature with an orchestra from our local symphony and the Ninth Army Band.

    I am not sure how to reconcile some of the opinions about church music expressed in this conversation with Psalm 98:4-8, “Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music; make music to the LORD with the harp, with the harp and the sound of singing, with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn – shout for joy before the LORD, the King. Let the sea resound, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it. Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy;…”

    If you aren’t shouting, clapping, being jubilant, etc., your body may need to catch up with your heart.

    Makes sense for Psalm 98, perhaps not so much for Psalm 140. 

    For everything there is a season, and all that…

    • #21
    • April 23, 2014 at 11:43 am
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  22. Chief
    Jon Gabriel, Ed. Post author

    Athena: If you aren’t shouting, clapping, being jubilant, etc., your body may need to catch up with your heart.

    I posted my last comment as you were posting this. Again, I have no problem with others in the congregation raising hands, dancing a bit, etc. But for me, I’m trying to worship with the group, not over them. I am easily distracted, so I keep my movements to a minimum so as not to distract others. I want to focus on God and want to help them to focus on him as well.

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with a more physical form of worship, but also don’t think there’s anything wrong with my subdued, reverent version either.

    • #22
    • April 23, 2014 at 11:44 am
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  23. Member

    Mormons have developed many of their own hymns, many of which are very good. But we sing many of the golden oldies: “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” “All Creatures of Our God and King,” ten hymns with lyrics by Isaac Watts, and all the standard religious carols.

    My favorite Mormon hymn is “Where Can I Turn For Peace?” (lyrics by Emma Lou Thayne). The first two verses state the questions mortals ask a lot. The last line of the second verse and the third verse the provide the answer:

    Where can I turn for peace?
    Where is my solace
    When other sources cease to make me whole?
    When with a wounded heart, anger, or malice,
    I draw myself apart,
    Searching my soul?

    Where, when my aching grows,
    Where, when I languish,
    Where, in my need to know, where can I run?
    Where is the quiet hand to calm my anguish?
    Who, who can understand?
    He, only One.

    He answers privately,
    Reaches my reaching
    In my Gethsemane, Savior and Friend.
    Gentle the peace he finds for my beseeching.
    Constant he is and kind,
    Love without end.

    The last verse, especially the line “reaches my reaching,” moves me every time.

    • #23
    • April 23, 2014 at 11:44 am
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  24. Coolidge

    “We are not to be the worship leaders but the lead worshipers.” That is exactly what our worship leader says.

    I enjoy the old hymns. I confess to being a curmudgeon (always have been). We do what is called a blended service, so we equally offend everyone. Some Sundays we sing more oldies, but goodies and sometimes it is more contemporary. The Gettys are usually good for worshipful, modern songs. Fortunately I survived through the endless repeat era. If singing the same phrase once is good, then singing it 20 times is GREAT! There are still some holdovers to that style in our Sunday School.

    • #24
    • April 23, 2014 at 11:46 am
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  25. Member

    Athena: If you aren’t shouting, clapping, being jubilant, etc., your body may need to catch up with your heart.

    I don’t mind that idea so much as the idea of being in an enclosed space with highly amplified instruments. I do not go to rock concerts. I sit way in the back for bagpipe performances. I protect my hearing as I can. I don’t need to lose it in church.

    • #25
    • April 23, 2014 at 11:48 am
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  26. Inactive

    I also think that churches can lean toward idolatry with “rock star” performances and sound systems that are run too loudly. But old hymns with a piano and organ can also be an excuse to disconnect from worship, making it an intellectual exercise that is focused on pleasing your ear and mind and not on praise.

    We can run the risk of worshipping in a manner that has nothing to do with the actual spiritual experience of the people that participate in it. So while there are hymns/songs that still communicate well, like “Amazing Grace” for my church, the hymn “Beneath the Cross” does not (not because there is anything wrong with it; the lyric just isn’t as relevant). So we can end up singing songs, not because they express our true mind and heart, but because, well…tradition.

    How can churches worship with the sounding of the trumpet, tambourine and dancing, strings and flute, clash of resounding cymbals, shouting and clapping, and yet not descend into a rock concert that drowns out God in favor of showboating and overwhelming sound systems?

    • #26
    • April 23, 2014 at 11:56 am
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  27. Thatcher

    I grew up with hymns, and I often mentioned to one of my pastors that I miss the old music and wish we had more of it. He replied that he often gets told that, and the problem isn’t that the worship pastors/leaders didn’t want to do hymns, it was that almost all of them had no church experience and heard very few hymns before. It wasn’t that they didn’t like hymns, it was that they went with the music they knew.

    Personally, I got no problems with anyone who wants to raise hands, stand-up, what have you. I like to dance (poorly) myself. On the other hand, I don’t expect everyone to do the same. Some of that is a little bit of the extraverted ideal creeping in.

    • #27
    • April 23, 2014 at 11:57 am
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  28. Member

    Has anyone ever participated in a traditional Latin High Mass with organ and full choir? One where it takes 10 minutes just to sing “Kyrie, eleison.” Magnificent!
    (And yes, I know. Kyrie, eleison is Greek.)

    • #28
    • April 23, 2014 at 11:58 am
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  29. Member

    Athena:

     So we can end up singing songs, not because they express our true mind and heart, but because, well…tradition.

    When I was growing up, we ALWAYS sang Holy God, We Praise Thy Name as the closing hymn. I used to scandalize my Mom by saying that we were singing the Catholic National Anthem. At least we all knew the words and were able to sing on the way out the door.

    • #29
    • April 23, 2014 at 12:05 pm
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  30. Member

    Athena: How can churches worship with the sounding of the trumpet, tambourine and dancing, strings and flute, clash of resounding cymbals, shouting and clapping, and yet not descend into a rock concert that drowns out God in favor of showboating and overwhelming sound systems?

    Rock concerts were invented about sixty years ago. Sound systems are a bit older. What did churches and synagogues do for the thousands of years before that?

    • #30
    • April 23, 2014 at 12:05 pm
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