My own personal worship experience

This past weekend I visited one of the larger, more well-known Vineyard churches. My first impression was that this was a Vineyard mall, complete with the requisite bookstore, coffee shop and various age-appropriate ministries (the Age of Specialization). This one, however, included statues, a very cool art gallery, and a grand piano in the lobby, which someone insisted on playing after church. It might have been okay, except that the acoustics were terrible, and it only served to make it extremely difficult to carry on a conversation.

Church was pretty standard, high-end Vineyard, obviously operating like a well-oiled machine (strains of “Welcome to the Machine” playing in my mind). That is, comfortable seats, large video screens on either side of the auditorium, and great sound system. The service was well-produced, and it was executed without a glitch. Announcements were minimal, and included a professional-quality video clip emphasizing one particular ministry in need of help.

In spite of the professionalism, or more probably, because of it, I did not like the musical-worship segment. So, because I’m a typical American and it’s all about me, the fact that I didn’t like it is important.

During the worship time, I was aware of several things:

  • The worship leader was not an exceptional vocalist, but competent and seemed sincere.
  • The backup vocalists were less than stellar and for the most part unnecessary.
  • The bass player, using a 5-string bass, was really good and had some very interesting techniques that I would like to learn.
  • The lead guitar player was standard-fare Vineyard, kicking out great solos in each song to “enhance” our worship experience.
  • The congregation applauded after every song.
  • The song selection was also standard Vineyard, but for the most part very up-tempo, and attempted to include both personal expression (as long as you agreed with the lyricist) and theological affirmation (“God you are great”).

And I didn’t like it. One thing I have become aware of, in spite of the fact that I am a rocker whose personal worship-playing style tends toward alt-folk-grunge, a great worship band does not enhance my worship experience, and tends to just get in the way.

The fact that I was aware of everything on my list shows that I was aware of these, I was not worshipping. When I am admiring the soaring guitar solo, I am not worshipping. Whenever the audience broke into applause, I couldn’t help wondering if they were clapping for God, or merely responding to the music (even though the worship leader threw in a “thank you, God!”). Would they have still clapped after a corporate reading of the song lyrics? (Chances are they all would have been aware of how repititious and trite many of the lyrics really were.)

If the expectation is that I have an individualized worship experience in the midst of the American Idol style worship performance, it failed. If the expectation is that I would blend with the community of saints in corporate adoration and worship, it failed. If the expectation is that the lyrics would inspire or catalyze some type of response to God, it failed. If the expectation was that I would groove to the music, it may have come close.

It seems that many rate worship in the style of the old American Bandstand show: “It had a good beat, and it’s easy to dance to.” What’s that about?

What started out as a worship revolution – bringing in a needed personal dimension to corporate worship (I am not against that) – has, I believe, turned into a worship distraction. Most of us really like Matt Redman’s “When the Music Fades” because it’s a great song.

Does anyone else see a problem here?

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11 Responses to My own personal worship experience

  1. Worship Leader says:

    I guess what is the difference between “performance” and “non-performance” worship? Where do you draw the line? I would say in the hearts of those on stage. Can we judge this? If I were God, sure.

    Music tastes are so personal, it can cloud one’s judgement on what is “pure” worship and what is not.

  2. me says:

    I really don’t mean to debate this issue, and I won’t- but, aren’t you aware of these things when you visit some different church? As someone who has been worship leader and musician myself, I merely notice things. My commentary was focused on how the church “presents” the worship experience.

    Most of my musical worship experience has been with less than mediocre musicians; in fact, I’m one of them. I don’t have a problem with that. I do, however, have a problem with a presentation that focuses on the music rather than the worship (read my closing again).

  3. Worship Leader says:

    If you were’nt critiquing the performace. Then I’d use some different language. You said…

    “not an exceptional vocalist”,

    “backup vocalists were less than stellar ”

    “American Idol worship style”

    “kicking out great solos in each song to “enhance” our worship experience”

    The fact that you’re critiquing everything to death shows you’re focus was more on the format than on God. That’s my point.

  4. me says:

    “Worship Leader,” I think you missed the point completely. I wasn’t critiquing the performance, I was talking about the fact that the band themselves (as well as many in the church) seemed more into the performance than God (although this is a perception, not necessarily reality).

    Read some more of my stuff, perhaps you’ll understand where I’m going.

  5. Worship Leader says:

    Sounds like you are typical American worshipper. More caught up in the performance (good or bad) rather than God. I’ve worshipped many a time to a clunky old piano with a wavery vocal to a hymn that I personally didn’t like. But, what was I there for? Hmmmm….

  6. me says:

    I’m not sure that any reconciliation is necessary. Form is not necessarily my issue; I think it would be quite possible to be a “credal” and corporate-focused church in a non-traditional setting. As to the “worship artist” concept, I’d have to give that some thought; I do know of some churches that have been expirimenting with art in various forms as a catalyst for worship- but, it’s outside of my experience and difficult for me to comment on.

    Perhaps some poetry readings … 😉

  7. MuseHead says:

    So, blog master, how do you reconcile John’s minimalistic version with your wistful Lutheranism of a previous post?

  8. me says:

    Very good points. I visited a church “expiriment” a few years ago where there was no worship leader at all… and no sermon. that was certainly refreshing…

  9. john says:

    Up until 6 months ago, I would have agreed with you and not had a solution to offer…but I think I’ve seen a service that challenged everything I believed about “worship”.

    This church spent the first 35 minutes of the service socializing and connecting. Then the pastor gave a 20 minute message that contained a “nugget”…and nothing more. (No 50 minute speech on a list of 10 things to do…) THEN they ended with 3 songs played by an artist.

    A couple of thoughts:
    1. Why do people use music to “shake the world off of you” and prepare you for “church”? Isn’t the purpose of worship what you wrote about? Shouldn’t we work our way up to it?

    2. Why does the pastor have to get in the last word? Shouldn’t God get in the last word during worship?

    3. Why are worship leaders performers instead of artists? Worship leaders sing TO the congregation. Worse yet, I’ve been to churches where part of the worship is the worship team singing 2-3 songs to the congregation without giving us the words…while we all stand facing them. An artist plays because they love to play…they don’t care if ANYONE shows up.

    These people went on stage, played 3 songs, and everyone was stuck with closing their eyes and focusing on God because there was nothing to see on stage.

  10. me says:

    Interesting point. The question is, “is there really a difference?” The mediocre worship band is trying to do the same thing as the slick worship band. One is just slightly more successful than the other. The goal appears to be the same.

    Bonhoeffer insisted that his community worship in unison, because even someone singing harmony drew attention away from God. Of course, you can go too far, like the a capella Church of Christ, who just replaces instruments with voices – like Bonhoeffer said, it can be just as distracting.

    If the worship leader is truly worshipping, and the songs are such that you don’t stumble over the bad theology or poor grammar, it is infectious and does draw people into worship, with or without a searing guitar solo. I just think it’s time for worship leaders to start figuring out that it takes more than a hot band and “words you can dance to and a melody that rhymes” (to quote a great old Steve Goodman song) to lead a church into worship.

  11. MuseHead says:

    What I often hear from church leaders in my neck of Christendom is that it’s not about whether the pastor preaches well or the worship band is good or the song selection works. What I hear is that “REAL” worshipers should be able to meet God in SPITE of any lack of executional competence, as though none of these things matter.

    I think that’s bull. If the worship band sucks my worship experience is compromised precisely because they’re suppose to be worship LEADERS. If the pastor sounds like he’s got an informational disorder or is missing a personality I am going to have major problems “receiving.” If the competence of church/worship leadership doesn’t matter, then why do I need them? They are obstacles to a God experience, not catalysts.

    It seems to me that something is weird here. You didn’t like your high-end Vineyard because they were a well-oiled machine. I struggle with my blue collar one because of distressing mediocrity. What gives?

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