We had emo-worship in our church yesterday; at least the singing part of worship (think Dashboard Confessional). Song after breathy, angst-ridden, emotion-filled song delivered by the 20-something worship leader invited us to share in a series of existential experiences that were not necessarily our worship experiences. They were, perhaps, the worship experiences and emotions of a handful of song-writers unknown to any of us in our church. Or, perhaps they were written in the first person to show how someone might feel at a certain point. These emotions and thoughts may have been shared to some extent by the 20-something worship leader, or perhaps he thought people in the congregation ought to feel the way a certain song described. In any event, rather than being invited or led into a corporate, unifying worship experience by singing songs of universal truth telling about a Great God who does Great Things, we were invited to individually try to emulate some unknown persons’ existential worship experiences.
It seems that attending a worship service is like trying to pick out an anniversary card for your spouse. I pick out card after card reading tripe like “I don’t say ‘I love you’ as often as I should” before I find one that I can actually relate to. These “issues” the cards refer to may be the card-writer’s problems, but they are not mine. Likewise, in church I often wait 3 or 4 songs before they play a song where I can authentically sing along.
This is not the case all of the time in our church, as we have a variety of worship leaders, each with their own style and favorite (but often limited) arsenal of songs. At times it does seem kind of like an old top-40 AM radio station, where you could expect to hear the same songs over, and over, and over… And, like top-40 radio, there are perhaps 5 actually good songs in the bunch, and not necessarily those in the top 10 playlist. But, like the DJs on the cool FM stations, each worship leader has their own playlist, which helps to create some diversity. The problem is, it seems that more and more of the newer worship songs are falling into that existential emo category.
But then, I was raised Lutheran, where we sang meaty songs like A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, not to mention a pretty decent liturgy. Not that I’m stuck on hymns, mind you. Maranatha!’s The Praise Album (that dates me, I know) was a breath of fresh air. And, having been in and around the Vineyard since the mid-80’s, I am no stranger or despiser of worship choruses, even those sung from a 1st person perspective. I believe there’s a place for talking and singing about God, and also a place for singing to God. And, there’s certainly nothing wrong with someone writing about their current thoughts and emotions; certainly the psalms of David reflect much of this. What I have a problem with is when worship songs chosen for corporate worship focus on the experience or the emotion in place of any real thoughts about God. As far as I know, we’re not supposed to worship the worship experience, or someone else’s worship experience.
One of the points of liturgical or confessional worship, whether it be Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican or Lutheran, is unity. The Church joins together in a common confession of truth and worship experience that joins us not only with the others in the room, but with believers the world over. Dietrich Bonhoeffer even warned in Life Together that singing harmonies during worship detracts from unity, and only serves to emphasize individualism. I think he makes a very good point, although I think an argument could be made that harmonies can also demonstrate the coming together of diverse individuals – the Church becoming one.
However, as I have written before, what I see happening is that our contemporary freedom in worship – to raise hands or not, to sit, stand, jump or twirl – plus the existential nature of the lyrics in our worship songs is undermining the goal of our churches, which is to create a corporate worship experience. I don’t have any sense of community with the people around me, who could be (and often are) engaged in any number of activities. Nothing we sing joins us in a common confession of faith; they could be Buddhists for all I know (especially since very few of the songs have any theological content whatsoever).
In our attempts to be culturally relevant, relaxed and “natural” (I am reminded of the old A&W commercials: “come as you are, stay in your car“), are we in fact undermining our own goals of creating community? Is this why the church organization (read “club”) has become so important to us? I am suggesting that yes, this is what is happening. Our contemporary church liturgies are encouraging individualism rather than community, and as a result, organizational structure is replacing community.
I also suspect that this internal conflict that we’ve created is at the root of a lot of the Evangelical angst that is feeding the “Emerging” movements, as well as simply driving people out of our churches. Existential worship, leading to Evangelical angst, and the death of community. Thankfully, we know that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church. I don’t think our failures will prevail against it, either.