A few weeks ago, Gail and I were sitting in a restaurant on a Sunday following church. This particular restaurant must be owned by evangelical Christians, because every time I go there, I hear Christian praise and worship music being played as I eat. I don’t know if it’s a Sirius channel or some form of Christian muzak, but it’s all worship songs in the background.
As we were finishing our meal that day, I commented to Gail, “Every single one of those songs sounds exactly the same!”
- The same chord progressions.
- The same production style and instrumentation.
- The same song forms — verse/chorus/bridge, with a quiet, intense penultimate chorus followed by a musically aggressive restatement of the main theme.
- Vocals that try to come across as passionate and intense, wringing every emotion possible out of the lyric.
- Lyrics that emphasize grand adjectives in what I assume is an attempt to lift the listener up into a sense of transcendence.
These songs have become a style unto themselves. When we talk about “worship music” now, we are not only talking about music that is used for a particular purpose, we are referencing music that is all the same style and substance!
And its design is singularly programmatic as well: it is meant to stimulate a certain emotional response in individuals and crowds. As a former worship leader in evangelical congregations, it is remarkable to me how utterly formulaic this music has become.
And, if you will forgive my vulgarity, how masturbatory it has become.
It is designed to be “an experience” for me, not a thoughtful expression of obeisance to God.
It does not enable me to consider my duty to respond to God in daily life, but rather fools me into thinking this wave of emotion I’m feeling is the proper response to God.
Jonathan Aigner recently posted an example of this, as it actually took place in a worship service. In addition to the manipulative music that follows the form above, the video you’ll see in a moment includes the “spiritual” rantings of a worship leader that exacerbates the situation by adding hyper-emotional “testimony” to the mix.
What makes this particular example so egregious to Aigner (and to many others, including me) is not only the “performance,” but the fact that it took place on the same Sunday that the pastor confessed to the criminal act of sexually assaulting a girl to whom he was youth pastor twenty years earlier., Then, in essence, he swept it under the rug, to the cheers of his audience.
What I want to focus on is how this kind of “worship” enabled this congregation to completely avoid the serious issue at hand. It swept them up into a wave of emotion that left them powerless to exercise sound judgment, truly respond to God, and consider the issues raised by serious sin. What, in fact, they did, when the pastor gave his “confession” later in the service, was give him a standing ovation.
Which is what you do when you can’t help it, because, after all, this is the star of the show that just lifted you up into glory and sent tingles down your spine.
I can’t put my response to this any more prophetically than Jonathan Aigner did in his post, “When a Worship Song is Blasphemous”:
…Sanctimoniously parroting your quasi-biblical catchphrases while offering a seminar in corporate crisis management is a rejection of your calling as ministers of the gospel.
It is bad worship.
It is blasphemous.
It is gross malpractice.
It is a litany of lies, proven by our own words and actions.
It is a masturbatory, self-preserving, self-worshiping, self-referential pursuit.
It is worship that is about the self. I don’t care how many butts are in your seats. I don’t care how many campuses you have. I don’t care how many podcasts are downloaded, how many books ordered, or how many propagandists you manufacture.
Worship is ethics. And what you called “worship” today certainly was worship, but it proclaimed a false gospel. The gospel of saving face.
But even if this example had not been part of such a travesty as that service, it still represents something deficient and deadly in the church. Commercialized, formulaic, self-centered “worship” is as far from what that word is supposed to signify as possible.
Where are the pastors, artists, and wise leaders who will move us toward maturity? Who will get us to stop playing with ourselves and grow up so that we can truly love God and our neighbors?