May 9, 2008

What In The World Is Worship? (seriously, tell me)

I've been leading worship for various groups and churches for about eight years. I enjoy the interaction I have with the people who are there worshiping with us, I enjoy the making of music especially with a good band behind me, and I've at times enjoyed the emotional response that seems to come from some intense encounters with God.

In fact, it was worship that brought my wife and I back to the church after a year-long sabbatical. Now leading for a small church plant in Baltimore, we're being faced with some decisions that require a lot of thought. And when I think a lot, I write.

The Background

Matt Redman banned music worship from his church for a month because his pastor was worried about it. Redman led his church out of that time with a new song he'd written called "The Heart of Worship", where he sings, "I'll bring you more than a song for a song in itself is not what you have required." And on they sang.

I've heard people express concern that consumerist society drives us to come to worship services looking for what they can bring us, rather than what we can bring to God. I've often reacted to these concerns by wondering what, in fact, we really can bring to God that he doesn't already have. But it's evident in almost any successful church you see that worship is driven entirely by what people want. There's often little difference between a rock concert and a worship service, besides maybe a lack of quality in the worship service that comes from an attempt to emulate the popular Nashville sound.

A friend named Ben in Minnesota leads worship at Solomon's Porch, a church trying to rethink church. To get away from the spell of Nashville emulation, Ben and his friends there decided they'd write all their own worship music, and let it come out of the community where they live. And rather than keeping the worship to a 20-minute set at the beginning of the service, they try to let each service use music wherever it's needed and natural, "recognizing that that's how we really function in life, listening to music in a variety of different ways and reasons" Ben explained.

Darren Hufford argues on The Ooze today that worship has become an emotional addiction for churchgoers. At one point he says, "New Testament worship is actually a "consummation" of a marriage relationship between the individual and God. In other words, it is not a corporate event, and for Heaven sakes we don't need a leader!" It got me thinking -- we really do think of worship as an individual me-and-God event that we sort of do in the midst of other people, strangely. But is it really an individual event, or should it be?

All of this is especially relevant to the situation we, as in my church, find ourselves in. Having just found a permanent location right in the heart of Baltimore city, we started having service last Sunday. And as you might expect in an urban set up, we have neighbors above and below our space. So even though our drummer bought extra special quiet sticks and we kept the electric guitar amp down as low as we could, we were still way too loud and received a complaint or two the next day.

And all of a sudden, all of these issues are presented to us on a platter -- what does worship look like, how necessary is music, what can we do to rethink worship in the context we're in, how can we coexist in tight quarters with our neighbors and respect their right to coexist there without being taken advantage of?

The feeling I get from the people I worship with is that they would like to keep the music and just make it softer, maybe lose the drums and electric instruments altogether but continue with the music worship we've all grown to love. I would be more interested in deconstructing worship and trying to see if there are other ways at getting at it that don't involve music at all, perhaps, or involve it in new or different ways. Talking to a new friend about it yesterday made me think, "Why don't I just go ahead and try that then?"

Which leads me to the next question that seems to have stumped a lot of people. Matt Redman sings "I'll bring you more than a song" but their worship is predominantly music. Solomon's Porch writes their own songs, but they're still doing music. And Hufford spends a lot of time talking about what worship shouldn't be, but doesn't recommend much in the way of what it should be. What does worship without music look like? (And don't say feeding orphans.)

When I think about what I'd like to do, I have trouble coming up with very much. My entire church life has consisted of music worship, as has most anyone's who grew up in the church in this generation. Leaving it behind for the sake of being different is a waste of energy and full of its own prides and nastiness, none of which I want. But when the situation presents itself so clearly, as it has in our circumstances, I want to step out but have trouble knowing where to step.

If you have ideas, I'd love to hear them.

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