On the Other Side of Worship
Jay McNeill is a good friend of mine and will join us from time to time as a guest blogger. Today he is chatting about his reflections on Worship. Jay also has a blog site which you can access at http://jaymcneill.com.
Jay McNeill – who am I? I have this childlike expectation that if people write honest, vulnerable and transparent stories, the world may possibly step back from the brink of insanity – naive I know. My hope is that anything I write, whether literature or music, will give the reader or listener the sense that there is someone on the planet who has the same crazy thoughts as themselves and that somehow this might offer a sense of hope.
I am a father of twin girls and a husband of a wife who keeps my life together. We currently live in Melbourne after a 5 year season in the USA. My life has been a ‘mixed box of chocolates’, but the most recent soul searching journey has been navigating the treacherous path of severe Cerebral Palsy which my daughter lives with.
With its delivery of grief it has also brought the gift of a sobered mind and therefore the willingness to meet the challenge of reconciling the contradiction of life.
This post is a pensive reflection on my past experience as a worship leader. If you are someone whose pathway to God is through worship music, I hope you don’t read these words as criticism, it is certainly not intended that way. If anything, I am contemplating my own journey and my life has given me a diverse bag of experiences to draw from. So if you don’t mind a gentle prod, read on!
I have had many vocations; factory worker, song-writer, lab assistant for a cosmetics company, helicopter pilot, session musician, horse stable hand, recording engineer, business owner, creative team leader, essence creator, corporate manger at an aid organisation etc…. but the most thought provoking occupation has been as a worship leader.
As the phenomenon of the mega church becomes the established norm, the more possible it has become to hire accomplished musicians and technicians. I don’t think that is a bad thing but as professional musicians choose their vocation in the church, the more the church naturally gets exposed to the world of commerce in the music industry.
I now wonder if that has had a detrimental impact on the innocence and purity of the simple worship ceremony. It wasn’t that long ago that people couldn’t make a living from royalties on songs and CD sales in Christian music. Hymn writers rarely had the platform of copyright to leverage off. If musicians got involved in the early church, it wasn’t clouded with the idea of success and technology that catapulted an individuals reach.
Never in worship history has there been so much focus on individuals with the aid of media screens, CD’s, DVD’s, T-Shirts etc…Even though the heart of the worship leader might be to get people to focus on God, the reality is when the spectacle is so big and impressive, it is difficult to not get carried in the concert energy and mistake the atmosphere for something more than it is.
The alignment with the pop world in anthemic tunes and memorable hooks has produced a twinge of apprehension in my soul and I am reminded of my own contribution to the worship culture over the years. Singing anthems with thousands of people week after week can blur the lines between a worship service with a vertical focus and an inspiring collection of songs that makes you feel good, much like any concert would.
The predictability of a worship service has not escaped the congregation’s attention. Most people in evangelical churches warm to the pulse of two energetic songs followed by two or three ballads with deep emotive tones. Over the years many of us have reduced the act of worship primarily to a music focus and that has encouraged a culture of critique as though worship is something to be assessed and consumed.
It is jarring to me when some assume everyone’s pathway to God is through worship music. Everyone loves music but that doesn’t mean it is an individuals pathway to spirituality. If I were honest, I would say standing in a worship service rarely connects me to God, in fact, I can find it distracting. My pathway to spirituality is primarily in nature. When I have the chance to sit and admire our amazing earth, I feel closer to God. Others may feel closer to God through helping someone in need; others may find God when they use their intellect – there are many pathways.
I struggle a little when a worship leader suggests that engaging in worship via a music medium is vital to someones spiritual growth. I have been witness to some worship leaders inadvertently mustering a wildly diverse group of people into a spiritual corral prodded by light touches of shame during the course of a service – I have probably done that myself without even realising. Most people comply and sing along but for a whole bunch of people the experience doesn’t draw them closer to God. In fact, if the person doesn’t know that there are different pathways to God, they can be left feeling as though there is something wrong with them because they are not as emotionally engaged as the person standing alongside them.
I often wonder if the last 30 years of worship music has skewed our perspective. People tend to forget that what we experience in a modern service is only a recent chapter, it hasn’t been around that long and it certainly comes with a lot of baggage.
People who turn up to church need more than a prescriptive experience, lights and cameras. Many are broken, misunderstood, troubled, managing disease or processing messed up relationships. That requires a community to be more practical, engaged, affirming, encouraging and importantly…. a preparedness to be up close to someones life – maybe that is what worship is? Maybe it has less to do with music and technology which broadcasts from a stage and more about face to face which broadcasts through your eyes?
Jay McNeill, Growing Sideways