UPDATE: I’m sorry that so many of you have missed the point of this piece. I have been driving from Chicago all day and didn’t have opportunity to say this earlier, so please hear this now: this post is not primarily about the content of certain contemporary worship songs. I used the Lark News piece at the beginning to show that this connection between worship and sensuality has been an issue for a while in contemporary worship.
Furthermore, the main point of the piece is more about contemporary liturgy than it is about certain songs (though the music and songs often fit the liturgy well). It is about how worship leaders have developed strategies of leading people through certain patterns of emotional response using today’s music (and we could add, technologies). This has led to people in the congregation thinking that what worship is all about is having an emotionally-charged encounter with God. I disagree with both the definition of worship and the means being used to try to make it happen.
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UPDATE TWO: In which Chaplain Mike thought, “If I have to explain it, I must not have written it very well in the first place.”
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The latest Vineyard Music worship CD, “Intimacy, vol. 2,” has raced to the top of the Christian sales charts, but Wal-Mart is refusing to stock the album without slapping on a parental warning sticker. The ground-breaking — some say risqué — album includes edgy worship songs such as “My Lover, My God,” “Touch Me All Over,” “Naked Before You,” “I’ll Do Anything You Want,” “Deeper” and “You Make Me Hot with Desire.”
“We’ve had concerns about previous Vineyard CD’s, but this time they went overboard in their suggestive imagery depicting the church’s love affair with Christ,” said a Wal-Mart spokesman. “It would be irresponsible to sell this to 13-year-old kids.”
A Vineyard Music Group (VMG) spokesman defended the album. “We felt this was the next logical step in furthering people’s intimacy with the Lord, as the title implies,” said Sam Haverley, director of VMG public relations. “People aren’t content with yesterday’s level of closeness. They want something more. We feel this album gives them that.”
Wal-Mart represents a third of all CD sales, which has forced VMG to try to negotiate a deal. VMG proposed adding a heart-shaped warning sticker rather than the black-and-white label more often seen on raunchy rap albums, but Wal-Mart refused. VMG is considering issuing a censored version of the album.
“If Christians want to make R- or X-rated music, that’s up to them,” said a Wal-Mart spokesman, “but we don’t have to carry it.”
– Lark News, April 2003
The foregoing piece of satire is a classic commentary on contemporary worship.
Michael Spencer made reference to this piece and wrote about it back in May of 2004, speaking of the “romanticization” of worship. He rightly noted that these are not the only kind of songs featured in contemporary Christian worship music and that the trend to romanticize worship didn’t begin when we started plugging in guitars but back in the 1800’s, when revivalism became the default mindset of many churches. Nevertheless, he saw a significant strain of romanticized music increasingly infiltrating worship and transforming it into an experience in which the chaste may find themselves blushing.
I would agree with iMonk, and I would also affirm many who have commented during our first week of Church Music Month — since Michael wrote that piece, things have improved. Many songwriters are focusing more on God’s reign and objective truths of the Gospel. However, there are still enough “sloppy wet kiss” songs out there to satisfy the spiritual-erotic fantasies of those who love the hormone-driven “worship” we’ve come to expect in many churches and conferences.
Critiquing songs is one thing, and it is necessary. Church leaders are responsible to maintain the highest possible standards when it comes to the proclamation of the Word in Christian worship, and that is the primary function of church music.
However, in this post, I am more concerned to have us think about the expectations of today’s worshipers. One look at the videos we posted last week makes it clear that worshipers have come to think their duty in worship is to “get into it” as best they can: to feel passion, to be overwhelmed by God and the things of God, to get “connected” to God through the music in such a way that they are transported into a state of spiritual ecstasy. It is about experiencing God — his presence, his “embrace.”
Today’s music is a perfect vehicle for that. It’s a plain fact that “rock-n-roll” wasn’t called that for nothing. The very structure of good rock songs and concerts is that of tension and release, building to a climax and leading the audience to a spectacular high. It’s about sex. It’s sensual, emotional, and, when done right, overwhelmingly satisfying for those who let themselves go in order to experience it.
In worship settings, this might be achieved through an individual song, but more often it happens through that modern addition to liturgy — the “worship set.” Contemporary worship leaders and those who’ve studied today’s worship have developed specific patterns for leading the congregation through this experience, seeking to move them from the “outer courts” to the “Holy of holies” where we bask in the glorious presence of God. John Wimber and Eddie Espinosa developed one of the most famous sequences in their Five-Phase Worship Pattern:
Frankly, the pattern is nothing if not sexual: foreplay, arousal, union, climax, afterglow.
This is exactly why there have been so many critics of using contemporary music in church settings. It is why some have said this kind of music of the devil. They are not wrong when they say this music appeals to the flesh. I don’t agree with them, by the way, that this music should be avoided at all costs. There is a place for every kind of music in our congregations. However, leading people through an intentional pattern of “experience” based on emotional manipulation (and I really can’t think of another word for it) is not appropriate, in my view.
Just to be clear, I think worship should engage the whole person: body, mind, and emotions. But I also think that means something different than saying we come together as a congregation to “have a worship experience.” Yet this is the phrase I hear all the time from worshipers and those who lead them. It makes me wonder what is actually different from this experience and the concert experience, the drug experience, the “bucket-list” experience, the bedroom experience. Each has its own variation of ecstasy, I suppose, but in the final analysis the “high” is what it’s all about. A recent study, “God Is Like a Drug,” examines some evidence for this and suggests the same conclusion.
Funny to think we might be needing abstinence education for those who attend worship.