My most favourite PODcast is 99% Invisible, which may make me a nerd, but I’ve learned to accept it. In this particular episode, Frozen, they rebroadcast part of an episode of a radio show called Sound Opinions, which is a rock and roll talk show. In this episode from 2006, they were interviewing musician, composer, and producer John Brion.
John spoke of how the record has changed the way we interacted with music. Now, because of the recording, there is “a version” of a song. It’s not that there is anything wrong with that. It’s just now we can like a tone of a guitar, drums, bass, or keyboard, thoroughly enjoying every minute, all the while some lyrics are meaningless and have an extremely simplistic melody, only revolving around three or four notes. Maybe it is a complicated melody like a Led Zeppelin song, to use John Brion’s example, but it turns out what you like about the piece is Led Zeppelin doing it—their skill, their chemistry, their expression.
John explained that he loves Led Zeppelin, but for the most part, their pieces were performances, not songs.
For example, John pointed out, Lithium by Nirvana is one of the greatest songs ever. Play that piece on a piano, and it will move you to tears! It is a beautiful chord progression, with rich lyrics, and it will leave you humming.
All of this caused me to think about the music we sing in church.
To back this up a little, if you have been around the church worship music scene, there has been much debate about performance vs. congregational. This argument is valid and one to which I would like to touch on. However, the performance vs. congregational debate usually morphs into a contemporary vs. liturgical or hymns vs. choruses. While these are important to talk about, I believe that we need to explore the insight of John Brion and apply it to the songs we sing.
Could it be that the reason contemporary worship has become a performance is that the songs we are selecting for corporate worship are, in fact, not songs but performance pieces?
Churches all over the world try and emulate the synth effect on the latest Young and Free or copy the guitar riff on the newest Elevation Worship track. Speaking as a musician, learning these songs can be fun and playing them with a tight band can be exhilarating. The congregation appreciates the cover. Their worship is heightened with each crescendo. What we often don’t like to admit is that the congregations have become audiences, as our worship services become sets. I believe much of this is due to us moving away from the worship song to performance pieces.
Just like Brion and his love for Led Zeppelin, so I love much of the Hillsong, Elevation, Bethel, or whichever worship band you might be listening to at the moment (my favourite is Citipointe). Pastors, worship leaders, and congregations need to learn the subtle art of differentiating between the performance and the congregational piece.
If we genuinely want to teach our churches what worship is about, we must find the songs to which both music and lyrics—melodies and poetry—work together to speak to the soul and direct our hearts to worship at the throne of our Eternal Father.
It’s not wrong to have a performance piece. I can be stirred to enter the presence of God with a rousing Ode To Joy as much as Never Lost by Elevation.
Leonard Sweet points out,
You don’t attend worship; you attend a concert. You participate in worship. You contribute to worship. Yet we count attendance, not participation.
We need to count participation, but the fact that our congregations have become audience has little to do with them and more to do with how we have conditioned them with our ambience, smoke, riffs, pads, and hooks.
As Matt Redman lamented about his heart of worship,
When the music fades, and all is stripped away, and I simply come.Heart of Worship
Longing just to bring something that’s of worth that will bless your heart.
I’ll bring you more than a song, for a song in its self is not what you have required.
You search much deeper within through the way things appear.
I’m coming back to Your heart.
I don’t know your context. What I do know is that there is a shift in our worship music that has left many of those in and out of the churches wanting. There are so many amazing congregational worship songs, both old and new, Hillsong to Charles Wesley. Let’s stop, think, and pray and ask ourselves a few questions. Is the melody pleasing? Can it be stripped down to work in a house church? What do the lyrics teach us about God?
I encourage you to check out 99 PI’s episode Frozen https://99percentinvisible.org/?s=56.
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