In Defense of Worship as a Concert

By on Jul 2, 2015

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“Worship should not be a concert.”

It’s a common sentiment in many of the circles I run in, and in many ways I couldn’t agree more. The loud music, the blinding lights, the seamless transitions, and, God help us, the smoke machines. It can be a bit ridiculous, and not just as a matter of good taste, but as a matter of good theology. It feeds the ideology of the market and the religion of the consumer. It can condition people to be observers of a show instead of participants in worship of the triune God. None of this is good. Many churches that were once on the cutting edge of modern church worship have realized this and are moving back toward more measured and intentionally liturgical expressions of worship. And to all of this I say, Amen!

However…I would like to speak a few words in defense of worship as a concert.

A few days ago I went to see U2 in Chicago. I love U2. I think they’re the greatest band in the world. I think there are two types of people in this world: people who love U2 and people who suck. Our tickets were in the pit, because while observing a U2 concert from a seat is special, experiencing a U2 concert in the pit is a riot. We had a riot. Singing “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” with 30,000 other people at the top of your lungs. It is sacramental stuff.

Not too long ago, I went to another concert and the experience was, well, different. For whatever reason, the band decided they wouldn’t play any of their best songs but would instead play a whole set full of obscure stuff no one knew. They also failed miserably to bring the audience into the concert. Some bands know how to do it and some don’t.

Which brings me back to worship as a concert.

It seems to me that worship doesn’t need to be less like a concert so much as it needs to be less like a bad concert and more like a good one. Because if you think people don’t participate in concerts, I suspect you’ve never been to a great concert. At a great concert you get immersed, you lose yourself, you feel connected to the people around you, you feel alive. It’s like you’ve stepped into a different world. And that’s what worship is too: an excursion into God’s real world of revelry, peace, and joy; an excursion that reminds us that behind the veil of things, God’s real world is always at hand.

I think there are all sorts of ways to do worship right. I can dig the high liturgy of my Catholic and Episcopal friends and I try to learn from it and incorporate it into the worship at my church. I grew up in a church with a huge, traditional choir and love hearing the swell of voices unaided by instruments. I have deep concerns with the worship of churches that barrage people with thoughtless light shows and smoke machines.

But when it is done with scrupulous intention and generous accessibility, I think worship could do much worse than being like a concert. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that many would benefit greatly if our worship was more like a great concert instead of less like one.

 

13 Comments

  1. jslack

    July 2, 2015

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    you of course know I agree with you. My only thought is whether people are able to see the nuance between a “good” concert and a “bad” one in regards to worship and the theology it props up. I too have been to a U2 concert, but in the nose bleeds with all the peasants and our time was transcendent and deeply moving… despite the distance between us and The Edge. However, I know a couple 12 year olds who went to a Beiber concert and came back forever changed (their words, not mine).

    See what I’m getting at? Just because it feels transcendent doesn’t mean it actually is. Or maybe I’m just being judgmental.

    • Austin Fischer Austin Fischer

      July 2, 2015

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      Yep I do. I’m focusing on the experience more than the content. I’m saying that the experience of worship as a concert isn’t necessarily a bad thing but can be a great thing. Of course I agree wholeheartedly about the content.

      And who can doubt the transcendence of the Biebs?

      • jslack

        July 3, 2015

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        the tension between “experience vs. content” is the entire conversation. Many meticulously hone the content, to the point of neglecting the experience and vice versa.

        In my own context… we spend so much time making sure ever single word spoken or sang is perfectly reflective of our theological perspective to the detriment of creating an experience that transcends the intellect and compels the heart/gut. It’s a 25 year old knee jerk reaction to contemporary worship.

  2. William Garrett

    July 7, 2015

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    I think there’s something important with the idea of the community created by singing “the hits”. Paul McCartney talked about this in his recently published interview in Esquire (http://www.esquire.com/entertainment/interviews/a36194/paul-mccartney-interview/). I belong to a denomination with a massive “song book” (we don’t call it a hymnal), but if you want people to engage in the congregational singing, there are only a certain number of songs and tunes that work.

    Thank you for bringing some important thoughts regarding “concerts” to the forefront!

      • Griffin McCall

        July 22, 2015

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        Started listening to U2 after reading this post! I know that was not the point of the post but shrugs, it happened!

  3. Chris

    July 8, 2015

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    Here’s a few words for this, too… Churches are constantly asking for their congregations to lend their talents to serve in ministry. What if my talent happens to be playing an instrument or managing stage lighting or I just happen to be a very good sound engineer or a choreographer? Does that mean that I should “dumb down” the talents and skills that God has given me to be “sub par” for the church? Or should I present to God, in my worship, the absolute best that I can do? God has never been satisfied with second best. Just look at a Biblical history of sacrifice acceptance. And if I have a large church full of good sound engineers, musicians, lighting managers, and choreographers, then what should I expect my worship to look like? What if I am serving God the best I can by donating my time, my equipment, and my talents to create the best worship experience I know how to do?

    • Austin Fischer Austin Fischer

      July 8, 2015

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      This is a good point. I think worship is profoundly contextual and so I have a hard thinking the sort of churches you’ve sketched (my church would fall under that category) should dumb things down. I think it’s important to be tasteful and in sync with the Holy Spirit, but you can do that while maintaining excellence.

    • Findo

      August 29, 2015

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      Good artistry doesn’t mean giving it all, or always going at 100% of what ability. Simplicity can be profound (indeed, shows which are all flashy or just showing skill tend to have less artistic credibility imo). Just because I can sing over a symphony orchestra unmic’d (and I can, btw) doesn’t mean I’m bringing less worthy artistic input if I choose to sing on sunday mornings with far less power in a simpler, more accessable, and particitory genre. Context is important, and this is not dumbing down. Good performing artists serve the work, and in the context of corporate worship, the work is the gathered community of believers joining together in worship.
      And thankfully, my sacrifice is made acceptable not through my wandering heart, but through the finished work of Jesus on the cross…

  4. Tophertag

    July 25, 2016

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    Sorry for being a year late to this post, but I had to chime in……if you don’t mind.

    You wrote, “At a great concert you get immersed, you lose yourself, you feel connected to the people around you, you feel alive. It’s like you’ve stepped into a different world.”

    Without realizing it, I think you just made the case why worship should never be like a concert. The reason, is because at a concert, it’s all about, “YOU”. In fact, you used the word, “You” 6 times in just that one sentence.

    Worship isn’t about you. It isn’t about me. It isn’t about any of us. Worship is always, always, ALWAYS, about God and nothing but God. The moment it becomes about anything other than God, is the moment it’s no longer worship.

    • Austin Fischer Austin Fischer

      July 26, 2016

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      I understand where you’re coming from here, and I agree and disagree. Agree worship isn’t meant to be primarily emotivists; it’s not primarily about us expressing our emotions to God. Worship is about paying attention to God and curating our imaginations and affections by doing so. But some draw an unnecessary binary from here and insist worship is either about God or us…especially some Reformed folks who never tire of reminding us God doesn’t care about us as much as he cares about his glory.

      But this is somewhat beside the point of the post. The point is that worship should be an immersive experience into the reality of God; a baptism into the kingdom of God. A concert can be a very immersive experience into the reality of the music. Worship can learn something here about how to immerse people into an experience of the reality of God.

      • Tophertag

        July 26, 2016

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        Immersion is good. I fully support being immersed. What we are being immersed IN is what’s the concern.

        I’ve been on and around worship bands that were so good, we could immerse people into an amazing event and experience, without God being involved in any of it. Oh, we were singing worship songs at the time about and even to God, but what was immersive was what we were able to produce in the room out of our own skills and abilities as musicians. And we could do it with or without smoke machines and laser beams.

        This draws to the very point you’re making: worship can be good or bad, dependent on whether the band has the ability to produce a good or bad concert type experience. People tend to be attracted to concerts based off the genere of their choice and how good the band is. They’ll participate and immerse with band A, but not so much with band B.

        The assumption of this premise is very “Content” oriented. I call it, “Programmed Worship”. If the content you program is really good, they will come and immerse. If the content you program isn’t very good, they won’t come and immerse. It’s all dependent on the talent, skills and abilities of the band and how the product is marketed. In song writing, it’s called a “Hook”. When we employ these tactics, by it’s very nature, we’ve become very secularized in our attempt to be relevant to the culture around us. Our desire to attract people and engage them into the Christian life of worship is good, but the way and means we’re doing it is very commercialized and worldly.

        The only ingredient we should be immersing ourselves in is the Numinous of God. His desire is that we swim in it and we can have as much of Him as we want. But, the problem isn’t with God. The problem is down here with us and how we appropriate His presence. He’s never going to share the glory with anyone.

        John 5:44, “How can you believe since you accept glory from one another but do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?”

        • Austin Fischer Austin Fischer

          July 26, 2016

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          We have lots of agreement here, but I think you’re overstating your case. Maybe we could get at it this way…

          So what exactly is commercialized and worldly about wanting your beautiful, immersive content (the gospel) to be shared and communicated in beautiful, immersive forms? And if beautiful, immersive forms are (allegedly) distracting from the beautiful content, how far should we strip it down? Instruments ok, or not? Seats with cushions? Beautiful, ancient, poetic prayers?

          I’ve long since stopped caring whether worship is entertaining. But I do think worship should be beautiful, to whatever degrees our context allows. And if people leave my church and our phenomenal band and end up worshipping at a hut in Nepal with no instruments, they’ll be OK and will learn to worship there just as well, with the Himalayas looming in the background.

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