Let church bells ring
Let children sing
Even if they don't know why, let them sing.
Why drown their joy
Stifle their voice
Just because you've lost yours?
The above quote is from the song "Church Bells" by Gungor, a band that enjoys all too much turning conceptions of cultural Christianity and worship music on their heads. They introduce my thoughts here nicely, because Michael Gungor is leagues more eloquent than I could ever hope to be. Also, I know for a fact that I will step on toes (because I've always been afraid of that in the past and stuff), and some third-party sources do nicely to refute the "but that's not how it's always been" counter than one loud-mouthed, snarky 20-something could.
Christianity is in a state of disarray today not because of the King it proclaims, but because of the people proclaiming Him. It conjures images perhaps of Westboro funeral picketers, money-hungry suits shouting religious cliches, belligerent and misinformed political arguments, philosophical lightweights trying to pick heady fights with people much more versed in their fields, low quality product being acceptable in the light of the producers' "great hearts," kitschy facebook statuses, and out-of-context scripture plastered as catch phrases. As a CHRISTIAN, Christianity turns me off, so it doesn't surprise me the looks I get when people ask if my band is a Christian one and I answer, begrudgingly, "yes."
I've written about music on many an occasion (Lovedrug, Bon Iver, Slash, and others I'm sure you could dig up if you truly felt like it), but it is something that somewhat defines me, so I feel like it's fair for me to give it one more go. A super brief overview of what some of the above things talk about: I abhor the term "Christian music." I also abhor the term "worship music." I don't believe that music is a thing which can be Christian, nor do I believe that it should be deemed "worship," because inherent in the idea of music IS worship. It's what music is, in its being. It is communication of something unutterable for the purpose of exalting one thing or another above everything else in that moment - it's just that in some situations (church, "Christian music," etc), God is specifically mentioned as either the recipient or the focus of the melody. Music may express worship of sex or money or fame or a woman or the spirit of creation, yadda yadda yadda. Now that we have that established.
The Part Where I Set Up Where I'm Coming From
I have the distinct pleasure of traveling with four other boys in a van across a fairly expansive territory, from flat Kentucky farmland to the southernmost border of sweet tea availability in South Georgia, setting up loud systems and bright lights and making it so that those leaving the shows experience the delightful buzzing in their ears that accompanies the exit of an appropriately volumed concert. And let me tell you, it is a privilege. We've screamed songs out in the middle of Traditional sanctuaries "tarnished" by our trusses and rugs and boutique amps and seen our Creator come down thick - not because of anything WE do, but because He moves when He's called. And sometimes it's just that He's easiest to see when we're shaken a little bit.
Now, I said this because we're often branded a "worship band from Chattanooga" so that some of these more, shall we say, set-in-their-ways churches, will allow us passage through their doorframes to play for their kids. Because there's something safe about "worship," and I find that very backwards. Entirely too easily, we allow worship (the musical branch of it. More on this in a bit) to be something to bring us pleasure - we quibble over genre, over location, over content, over hymns vs "praise choruses," and make it our business that if there is an aspect of "worship" that exists, we are professionals at arguing about it. So we have settled on making it as unthreatening a thing as possible so that nobody gets upset. We bring the noise down, ritualize the services, repeat praisey cliches, play vi-IV-I-V until the spirit falls, then rinse and repeat.
Or perhaps we read only from the KJV and sing only from The Baptist Hymnal and have Offertory Prayers after a hymn of introduction before we sing the first, second and fourth stanzas of "How Great Thou Art."
I don't have problems with any of these things. I absolutely adore Cathedralic pipe organs and think that hymns are some of the most beautifully penned and marvelously adapted bar songs in existence. I love services of music that stretch on when it just feels as though stopping the moment would itself be a sin. But I come strongly against the notion that either of these things are worship.
A Turn Of The Screw (or of the volume knob, as the case may be)
Music is a people thing that has developed out of a need to express something we can't understand. Worship is the heart thing that needs to be expressed. So if we talk about having a problem with the worship this morning, is it that we were offended by the music or were you really just saying that we have a heart issue that we don't know how to communicate except through bitter refusal to clap when the long haired, skinny jeaned kids with guitars finally quit playing?
Another thing that irks me: worship/church/Christian music has become synonymous with "crappy." The joke when the Black Eyed Peas took the stage a few Super Bowls ago with their famously terrible live mix: "It sounds like they hired the church sound guy with a 'great heart.'" We show up at a venue and the people in charge say, "Oh wait, you're, like, legit." Or when they expect a "worship band" and then say, "we didn't expect it to be this loud. Can it come down?" Perhaps we'll start giving away earplugs.
A Story for Illustration, and Examples to Follow
One of my favorite stories that my dad tells me of Billy Graham: dc Talk has taken the stage at a Crusade and commenced rocking face. Mark Townsend and Brent Barcus are shredding, Toby and backup dancers are doing backflips off of trusses and subwoofers, and kids are effectively losing their minds in the throbbing pit in front of the stage.
Enter the tongue-cluckers into Reverend Graham's suite, relaying the above information as if it were the worst news on the planet. It was a far cry from George Beverly Shay indeed. I mean, people were sweating down there, for crying out loud. Billy's son Franklin leads him over to a window overlooking the concert and says, "Daddy, believe it or not, all of those kids down there didn't come to hear you preach. They came here because they knew dc Talk was going to be here and they'll put up with you in the meantime. God used that band to bring them here." Much to the ladys' dismay, the Reverend then stamped his approval on the ruckus happening on the stage, saying, "if that's what gets them to where I get to share God's word with them, then they're what I want."
Worship's not music, you guys. But if it must take that form temporarily, I argue that it should be loud and filled with the voices of people bent not on checking our worship boxes but on building a fire so big that the neighbors have to ask what in the world is going on.
(Caution: the music linked to below has been known to cause side effects of blown pacemakers, headbanging neck cramps, old people complaining about "noise," and tons of people getting saved.) Tell me that this isn't worship. Listen to Mattie preaching to a crowd who may not hear any sort of Gospel presentation, if not ever at least not at festivals like this. If you can't understand him when the band comes in, just google For Today's lyrics to "Agape."
Or this? "You find yourself helpless, grown. Christ is not a fashion, fleeting away," yells Josh Scogin at around 4:34 to a crowd who seems more pumped to hear it than probably your average church service which proclaims the same King.
Or this (lyrics only)? This is Oh, Sleeper's envisioning of God's thunderous reply to Satan's hubris-drenched challenge offered in their song "Son of the Morning." "From the armories the Angels sing. You will fear them when they lift their wings. They will sing to a world reborn - they will sing as I cut off your horns," screams Micah Kinard with a voice that echoes what I imagine God's will sound like when He says the same thing. \
Or this? (lyrics only) "Cause I'm getting sick - sick from all this turning, Driver, sick from turning on You." It's cries of a heart broken by itself and turning, dependent, back to the place where it can be fixed. Come on, now.
I don't mean to single out Metal music here, because I understand that it isn't for everybody (nor is it the only thing I listen to), but it gets similar reactions from the Church nowadays that dc Talk did once upon a time. The "it's just noise" argument holds no water - for noises are what were told to make. Joyful ones. And anyone who tries to tell me Norma Jean isn't a joyful noise actually means "I just don't like it" and has never been in the middle of a pit screaming their lyrics back at them. Because scream Christ's name alongside an auditorium full of people and tell me it isn't slightly more shiver-inducing than the old ladies we met this weekend who made quips about our hair in the House of the Lord behind our backs.
Your attitude matters is what I'm trying to say. Disagree, but for the right reasons. Do not make the mistake of thinking that Worship exists in a building and is best experienced in the key of E, but rather understand that Worship is a thing between you and your Creator, where you say "I'm done making this stuff down here about me and it's time You took credit for everything, so here it is." And for the Love, it is time for those making the things they're labeling "worship" to start doing it with excellence, because I can't imagine that tarnishing the rest of it brings very much glory to the Receiver.