Stepping Off The Bandwagon
Reflections on five years in the fast lane of contemporary worship
by Daniel Whittington
Daniel Whittington is a 25 year old musician and professional slacker. He was introduced to the drug of rock n roll at a young age by his cold and heartless father, and has never been the same since. The past 5 years of his life were completely occupied by traveling the world with a CCM band called Everyone. He is now recovering from his experience with the Christian music machine in San Luis Obispo, California, while starting a new (and entirely secular) band, and serving as full time worship pastor for a local church.
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Let me begin by saying, I love to worship. And by that I mean, I love to offer up the overwhelming gratitude and love I feel when I realize what God has done in and through me with his son, Jesus. And what he continues to do on a daily basis. Primarily I do this through music. Because I am a musician and a songwriter, I feel that, when I sing, I am closer to expressing my heart than at any other time. Something about music communicates things way deeper than words could capture. I say this because I want you to know that my critique of worship music and the genre of Praise and Worship (P&W) is born out of love for it, and not out of hate.
I have been involved in or led worship teams for the past 12 years, and, for the last 5, I was part of a band that was right in the middle of the CCM (contemporary Christian music) industry of P&W. During that time I have toured with, hung out with, eaten with, talked to, or played with most of the major Christian bands that are out there today. And a lot of what I’ve seen has grieved me. So much so that I am no longer in the Christian music scene, and (by the grace of God) hope to never go back. But being in the middle of it helped me to see a lot of the problems caused by attitudes prevalent among Christian musicians today. And also helped me to see that I was in a sense endorsing it by what I was doing.
But let me start first start by saying what I do believe. Worship music is a powerful and biblical expression of our worship to a mighty God. Its place in the church is to serve as a vehicle of pointing people’s thoughts to God, and a means of voicing our thanks and praise to him in a personal or congregational setting. One of the first problems comes when we begin to view singing worship songs as THE end and not a means to an end. And at the heart of it all, is a misunderstanding of its right place in the life of a Christian.
I don’t think that anyone would disagree with me when I state that the end goal is to live a life of worship, that is, a life that points in its every action to a God that is the Lord of our life. Not only the “keeper of our eternity,” but the Lord of our life right here and now, from when I eat breakfast or grab a coffee at the local Starbucks to when I am at work. Singing worship songs is a small part of that. At the same time I do think that there is something exceptionally powerful about worship music, because it is music. And there is something exceptionally powerful about music. I make no claim as to why or how, but it definitely stands out among any other artistic or creative expression humans can come up with. Someday maybe I’ll know why. Then again, maybe not. No matter. It’s enough to know that it’s true and must be approached accordingly. So let’s start digging right into misconceptions.
In my travels with my band we went to hundreds of churches over the U.S. (I’ve been to 43 of the 50 states with this band) and it wasn’t till later that I realized one of the major problems I was helping to create was what I like to call the “worship rock star” movement. The idea is this. A band comes into town. A worship band that is playing at your church for a “night of worship.” When they show up they have the best gear money can buy, cool clothes (because they’re the “artsy” type), and they sound tighter and better than any of the worship teams at your church. The music is good, powerful, and it feels like God comes in a way that you’ve never seen at your church before. I wonder why? Is it because your worship team doesn’t listen to God like these guys do? Does your worship pastor not care enough about the music to make it sound as good as this? Maybe there’s another church in town where the worship team is this good, and listens to God more. Maybe I’ll try that out. And if that one doesn’t have it, maybe I’ll look around till I find one that does.
Now here is the problem. What you don’t realize is that this worship team does this professionally. They sound this good because it is all they do, and if they don’t sound good then they’re out of a job. And most likely the reason the worship is more powerful is because it is undeniably easier to get excited about and worship to music that you love than music you have to endure. Plus people are anticipating the moment, are expecting to meet with God, and are open to worship. You also have to remember that the people who came to that service were the people who find that type of music most appealing, which is why everyone was worshiping. In real life, church is a family, and not everyone likes the same music. Just like a real family, the taste in music is all over the map. While the kids rock out to the newest Brittney Spears, dad pulls out the best of Guess Who or a Coltrane album, and grandma still can’t figure out why no one will listen to George Beverly Shea with her. The local worship pastor has to work with this. As well he should. Compromise and setting aside your personal preferences for others is what family does. The traveling band never has to deal with that.
Now, let me remind you again that I am not against out of town bands and nights of worship. They can be hugely beneficial, not in the least by bringing back the freshness to something that has become a ritual. But it is good to be aware of the drawbacks. The best worship of all is the worship that comes from the heart of a church where people have relationship with each other, where their hearts are one in their pursuit of God, and where the local worship leader is able to help them vocalize that in songs that recognize where the people are at. But don’t get into the trap of idolizing the visiting worship musicians. They’re just people, and most likely, because of their chosen occupation, way more screwed up than you are. Which brings up the next point.
A vast majority of the Christian musicians I met were jaded and bitter about the whole industry, and a lot of them about Christianity in general. It has often been stated that Christians “shoot their wounded,” and it’s true, but it is much more complicated than that. It’s the same problem that anyone in leadership at a local church understands. Everyone expects you to be the kind of Christian they aren’t. And in a way it is true that the bible speaks of higher standards for those who are over others. Christian musicians are over others because our culture places them there, and when they fail it’s not just a failing of a person, but a failing of the very things we believe. It’s like saying, “See! Your religion doesn’t work! Look how bad this guy jacked it up, and he was one of your better ones!” Now that’s not really true, and you’d be surprised how understanding non-Christians can be for failed Christians. But we feel betrayed. Here is someone we let into our home, someone we wanted to hold up as an example, and it turns out they’re as messed up as we are. Because of that a lot of Christian musicians feel they’re living a lie. And that no one really wants to hear the truth. And the more they feel that the more they began to believe it, and the more they act it out. Before long you have people who lead worship for thousands, and then get on the bus and have nothing to do with God other than the concerts they play.
Now there are people who I think get it right, and you’ll be surprised to know that some of them are even real bands, not just local worship pastors. Bands like Delirious, Skillet, Switchfoot, and worship leaders like Matt Redman and Chris Tomlin, are examples of modern musicians that I think are spot on in their approach to music, and it’s place in the life of the church.
There is tendency to glorify the past in this area because in the beginning of a move of God there’s always less crap and more true passion to see God’s “kingdom among us” come, and so it is that we have amazing worship from people like Keith Green, John Barnett, and so many amazing hymn writers. But because we are human, every move of God is eventually turned away from truth and into formula, and God has to go about breaking our misconceptions and coming at it from a different angle. I’m not worried about it, though. I see enough and have talked to enough people to know that most Christians are aware that something is amiss. And most are ready to change if they were just shown how. I believe that our hearts really do respond to truth and if we follow a lie it won’t be for long, and the proof of this will be in what songs remain, and what songs don’t. It will be in what worship songwriters are remembered and which aren’t. I almost wonder if there wasn’t this same problem with hymns at some point, and the reason we’ve forgotten is because the songs that expressed truth and the heart of God were the ones that stood the test of time.
And maybe the same will happen with our worship now. I do know this. That God is faithful, loving, and so full of grace that we can trust him in whatever comes. And that he is faithful to lead us if we’re willing to be led. And that remains true for worship music as well as the rest of my life. I hope that true worship finds its place in the heart of my own church as an expression of our combined passion to see God’s kingdom realized in our lives. Let it come.